Paranoia about weight has always been seen as the preserve of women, but the slimming industry is turning its attention to the other half of the population. Fat, gentlemen, is a fraternal issue: 25 per cent of British men are obese, and another 41 per cent are overweight (compared with 20 and 33 per cent of women).
More men are dieting than ever before. They don’t yet outnumber women (two-fifths of whom are on a diet at any one time, compared to a quarter of men), but they’re getting there. In the past, men were less likely to consider themselves overweight: they tend to overestimate their level of fitness, whereas women usually think they’re much fatter than they really are. The person most likely to be on a diet in the UK is still a married woman, but she is increasingly likely to have a calorie-counting male counterpart.
Atkins bears a lot of the responsibility. According to a Mintel report last year, the low-carb revolution has sucked men in faster than women: “The rate of growth in the number of men claiming to be trying to slim has been stronger in the past five years than the number of women, perhaps reflecting that there are substantially more overweight men than women.”
Ten million Britons are on a diet at any one time, and last year it was estimated that up to a third of these were following high-protein regimes such as Atkins, which are “clinically proven” to be more effective for men. The latest sensation, outstripping Atkins – the carb-free life is so 2004 – is the GI (glycaemic index) diet, marketed in equal measure at men and women. Bill Clinton follows its principles, which consist of eating less (doh!) and pinpointing foods that slowly release sugar into the bloodstream (avoid white starchy carbs in favour of oats and pulses).
Then there is the sensational, all-vegan, organic and custom-designed for the male of the species Great American Detox. The nutritionist Alex Jamieson created it for her boyfriend Morgan Spurlock, star of the Oscar-nominated documentary Super Size Me, who gained a stone in 30 days through his McDonald’s-only eating experiment (and lost it all again by taking up his girlfriend’s lentil burgers).
Male dieters are all over the place. Everyone from Brad Pitt to Jeremy Clarkson has tried the tips set out by Atkins (also a man). And the champions of GI are male: the Canadian authors Hamish Renton and Rick Gallop are credited as the inventors of the diet, and fans include Steven Redgrave and Antony Worrall Thompson (who has written his own GI book and also done Weight Watchers). Ed Victor (Nigella Lawson’s agent) devised his own Obvious Diet, which allows you to personalise your eating by taking account of your food foibles (and dining out regularly at the Ivy). Simon Callow follows the Montignac diet and has not eaten a potato for 15 years. Ben Affleck trains with a guru who encourages the Brain Diet, which is “20 per cent about physical changes and 80 per cent about psychological changes” (you, too, can think yourself thin).
Television has embraced the phenomenon of the male dieter. The most successful contestants on Celebrity Fit Club have been men (the DJ Jono Coleman and journalist James Whitaker regularly outdieted Vanessa Feltz, much to her distress at the weekly weigh-ins). And ITV’s Bafta-nominated Fat Friends, a drama about the fortunes of a slimming class, features almost as many male dieters as female.
This is a reflection of real life. At a meeting of the Commons health select committee in 2003, Jacquie Lavin of Slimming World reported an increase both in men attending classes and in men-only slimming groups. One of the bestselling books from the diet guru Rosemary Conley is The Red Wine Diet. Aimed at men, this was semi-Atkins before anyone knew Atkins – the “man must have copious opportunities to eat steak” diet.
The terms of reference of low-carb diets such as Atkins and GI are telling. They do not mention “slimming” – that most girly of concepts; instead, they talk about “lifestyle eating” or “diet control”. They are marketed as a system for life, the antithesis of the seven-day grapefruit regime that promises to get you into your bikini. The scientific side of low carbs and the GI is perhaps equally responsible for pulling men into the dieting craze: both can be explained at great length using complicated terminology. What’s more, there is nothing namby-pamby about the meat-and-cheese Atkins lifestyle or GI’s gourmet “green light” foods (oysters, fresh crab, veal, venison).
Then there are the products (the low-carb marketing industry is worth £280m). They are packaged to look like their full-fat versions. So picking up a snack with its carbohydrate content removed has none of the stigma attached to arriving at the checkout with a basketful of Slim-Fast. No trucker need be ashamed of grabbing a low-carb KitKat instead of a Yorkie bar.
While it is easy to be cynical about the diet industry, men may be catching on just in time. The UK has the world’s fastest-growing rate of obesity, and British men are twice as likely to die from heart disease as their Italian counterparts. It remains to be seen whether inheriting women’s hang-ups will improve the situation. But at least it proves one point: real men don’t eat quiche. It has too many carbohydrates and way too much saturated fat.