The word ‘diet’ conjures a thousand images of women counting calories; of slimming clubs and weight loss shakes, and the need to get ‘swimsuit ready.’ Yet for men, so long left out of the weight loss conversation, a reckoning may be close. Following Boris Johnson’s Damascene moment on the matter of obesity – reportedly caused by how badly he suffered from coronavirus, the critical risk of which is 40 per cent higher among the obese – a strategy is to be launched next week, seeking to reform Britain’s waistline crisis.
The 56-year-old Prime Minister might just be the posterboy larger men – notoriously the hardest demographic to reach – need. It’s a battle the creators of Man v Fat, a six-a-side football league where players lose points both for winning games and weight loss, have been fighting since their inception in 2016: participants must have a BMI above 27.5 to join (the healthy range is 18.5-24.9) and pay £25-30 per month to play matches and receive support from a health coach, as well as peer support via forums and WhatsApp groups. Now hosting 90 leagues nationwide, it has helped around 4,000 chaps torch over 113,000kg of fat – no mean feat, given that around 80 per cent of weight loss programmes are currently attended by women.
“A lot of my issues were male issues,” recalls Andrew Shanahan, who developed the Man v Fat concept after finding the slimming groups he had tried “were female-focused and didn’t address the things that were pertinent to me.” Some 67 per cent of British men are obese; the 42-year-old’s own weight had topped 18 stone – a combination of work stress and a diet of beer and curries – by the time he set up Man v Fat in 2014. Then an online magazine, it shared health advice tailored for bigger men, from why fatherhood triggers weight gain to how to make a healthier pizza. “I knew it wasn’t just me feeling this way,” Shanahan was sure, and he was right: his own four-stone weight loss proved to readers that the system worked, and he went on to launch a website, a forum and a book.
The league followed two years after the concept’s inception, and is now the core of the business: “the football is what gets guys off the sofa,” says Tim Roberts, Man v Fat’s managing director. With many sign-ups having played the game in their youth, it provides a chance “to come back in a safe environment where all the other guys are unfit too. But guys also need a group they relate to. The reasons why men are obese are quite personal, like depression or having kids. With us you know the other guys feel the same things.”
Dan Church weighed 25 stone when he saw a Facebook advert for Man v Fat in January 2018. A struggle to squeeze himself through the turnstile to see his beloved Norwich City play – at which point “people were looking at me and judging me” – had by that point pushed him close to the edge, as had the fast food-laden diet making it impossible for him to play with his three children in the park. After seeing photos from his wedding – in which the triangular patches sewn in to his waistcoat by Moss Bros, who had nothing in his size, “stood out badly” – there was no longer any getting away from it. “I realised I needed to do something,” he recalls.
His first game lasted only three minutes. But the camaraderie soon drew him back and he lost over ten stone over 18 months. “It is like I lost a whole person off my body. I used to get chest pains. Now I can play 11-a-side matches,” the former engineer, who now works as a Man v Fat regional manager, says.
Assistant head teacher James Stanford, 34, has experienced similar success. “Over three years I have lost 40kg,” enthuses the father-of-two from Newport, who joined Man v Fat in 2017. “It is absolutely awesome. I went from Obese Class 2 (a BMI of 35-39.9) to healthy.” Players like Stanford don’t crave six packs, just a more slimmed-down physique. “Initially the goal was to be able to run for a bus. I now play football regularly and I have signed up for a half marathon.”
Surveys confirm men are less likely to seek help about their weight, and that those interested in reducing their size prefer doing so through physical activity, explains Professor Alison Avenell, Clinical Chair in Health Services Research at the University of Aberdeen. “Our research suggests men have different concerns [to women],” she adds. “They didn’t want to be too slim and would like to retain muscle and strength. They may be worried about diets which are seen as ‘feminine’.”
She knows that “if you ask a man to go to Weight Watchers, that’s not terribly appealing. But if it’s all guys together they have the privacy to talk about things.” With its blend of competition, accountability and camaraderie, then, Man v Fat seems to work.
During lockdown the company has, like most, gone digital. Players can still rack up points for losing weight (there are also bonus ones for those who drop five per cent of their weight or shed pounds three weeks in a row) but instead of matches, accrue them for completing challenges like cooking a vegan meal, or doing yoga. Phil Stonell, a 59-year-old construction project manager from Bexhill-On-Sea, got on board: “I was a yo-yo dieter but the difference with Man v Fat is the competition and team spirit,” he explains of signing up in February. He has now lost more than 6 and a half stone, and cycles 20-25 miles each day. “We work together to win points and if you don’t perform you let the team down,” he says.
Man v Fat proudly embraces the competitiveness and banter of traditional masculinity. Teams have playful names like Olympique Mayonnaise, and men who shed the most are crowned “the biggest losers.” But masculinity is not incompatible with empathy. “Our guys bond quickly and are very open about mental health and relationship problems,” says Shanahan. “This stereotype that men are monosyllabic, emotionless drones just doesn’t fit.” Dan Church waits in the car park before meetings to ensure any nervous newcomers make it inside; James Stanford says his teammates are like brothers: “We can say, listen, you have gone up 5kg, you need to get back on it, and we will support you all the way.”
The football is due to restart in a matter of weeks but the lockdown challenge shows the scheme’s principles are adaptable. “Man v Fat is not a diet, it is a community,” says Roberts. “The guys are saying: just give me the motivation, the routine and the peer group and I’ll do the rest. We’d love to try Man v Fat golf one day.” Rugby teams in New Zealand and ice hockey clubs in Canada now run similar schemes.
Professor Avenell says health worries are usually the trigger for lifestyle changes among men, so the Covid-19 pandemic could inspire progress. And Stanford hopes more men commit to life-saving changes: “My wife’s family are over the moon with my weight loss and they are right to say that because I’m not going to be dying earlier.”
The potential health gains from Man v Fat are extraordinary. But for many men the small changes often mean the most. “I went to buy a shirt the other day and the guy said, ‘I guess you’re a medium’?” recalls Stonell, who weighed 20 stone just months ago. “No takeaway could ever taste as good as that.”