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Why are men getting so tubby?

Why are men getting so tubby?

The average British man has piled on A STONE in a decade. Yes greed and laziness are to blame but there are other, more worrying forces at play….

John Naish

British men are getting fatter than ever, faster than ever. Last week, Oxford University ­scientists reported that the average man is more than a stone heavier — 17lb — than 20 years ago.

It would be easy to blame this dramatic increase on over-eating and lack of exercise, and leave it that. But the Oxford study showed that the explanation isn’t this simple.

Indeed, scientific research is revealing that a cocktail of unexpected factors is helping to drive the male obesity epidemic. These include genetics, pollution, stress, vanity, insomnia —and flabby friends.

A bigger Bond: Pierce Brosnan has piled on the pounds since playing the famous spy, right, in Die Another Day

There’s no doubt that British men are eating more. Over their 14-year study period, the Oxford researchers found that around 10.4lb of the extra weight men are carrying was due to extra calories.

But that did not explain the full 17 lb rise. And lack of exercise could only partly account for the difference, says the study leader, Dr Peter Scarborough.

By contrast, the extra 12lb the average woman gained over the same time is entirely explained by them eating more, according to the study, which was published in the British Journal of Nutrition.

This tallies with official statistics that show that nearly half of British men are overweight, compared with just a third of women, while a quarter of men are officially obese (compared with only 7 per cent in 1987).

The result is an epidemic of obesity-related diseases in men: cases of ­diabetes have risen by almost a third since 2003, while in women they rose by less than a quarter. Overweight men also have much higher rates of cancer, stroke and heart disease.

But if overeating and under-exercising are not solely to blame for men’s obesity and disease, what else might be making them fatter?

Research in this field is in its infancy compared with studies of women, but it indicates men have a unique ­propensity to put on weight. In November, for example, U.S. ­scientists reported they’d found a gene that causes weight gain in men, but not women.

The gene — Arrdc3 — is found in human fat and muscle, but seems to cause only men to become fat as they get older, says lead researcher Dr Parth Patwari of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Massachusetts.

When he removed the gene from male mice, they no longer suffered from age-related weight gain; in fact, they showed a ‘striking ­resistance’ to it. But when the gene was removed from female mice, it made no significant difference.

Other scientific discoveries suggest men may be particularly vulnerable to environmental factors linked to ­obesity.

One threat may come from chemicals called phthalates, which are used as plastic softeners in ­numerous household products.

These can cause men to put on weight and lower their sensitivity to insulin (a precondition for diabetes), according to a U.S. study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Not-so-svelte: Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, left, and Prince Andrew

Phthalates seem to impair the way men’s testicles work. Low ­testosterone in adult men is associated with increased obesity, says lead researcher Richard Stahlhut, a ­professor of preventive medicine at Rochester University.

Another environmental fattener may come from air pollution. Danish ­investigators who studied more than 3,000 people have found that men who have blood group O (the most ­common group) are at particular risk of becoming obese when exposed to long-term industrial air pollution at work, compared with other men and women.

How could pollution have this effect? It seems pollution sets off chronic inflammation in the body, according to the report in the International Journal of Obesity. In turn, this reduces the effectiveness of a vital appetite-controlling hormone called leptin.

Mice without leptin go on ­eating until they are twice the size of ordinary mice.

But one of the biggest causes of ­spiralling male obesity may be the modern work environment, where so many men spend long hours at desks.

It’s not simply lack of exercise that is to blame. Sitting itself has special risks, according to Professor Peter Katzmarzyk, a public health expert at the Pennington Biomedical Research Centre in Louisiana.

When we sit down, we are not ­tensing our muscles, and this affects men’s fat-burning rates. Animal studies have shown that muscles produce a fat-processing protein only when flexed.

Professor Katzmarzyk says while there are huge health benefits from
exercise, the benefits of not sitting down are different and unique.

‘We are finding that the effects of sitting are an additional risk factor for ­obesity,’ he says.

He adds that his work also shows that men who cut down on the amount
they walk for two weeks become worse at ­metabolising sugars and fats.

Takes one to know one: Fat men tend to have bigger friends so their size seems normal like the Gavin and Stacey characters played by James Corden and Ruth Jones

Takes one to know one: Fat men tend to have bigger friends so their size seems normal like the Gavin and Stacey characters played by James Corden and Ruth Jones

Climbing the office ladder can make things worse still for men. Researchers in the U.S. have ­found that male bosses are 20 per cent more likely than average men to be overweight. In women, the risk rises only by 7 per cent, according to the Michigan State University research.

One theory is that it’s down to the effect that lack of sleep — a common result of high-pressure jobs — has on men’s metabolisms.

Japanese researchers have found that when men have less than five hours’ sleep a night, it triggers a ­hormone in the blood that stimulates appetite. Again, this effect has not been seen as strongly in women.

‘Lack of sleep increases a sense of hunger, as well as an appetite for high-calorie food,’ report scientists at Nihon University. The result is cravings for sugars and fat.

Tam Fry, a spokesman for ­Britain’s National Obesity Forum, agrees that high stress, time-starved lifestyles are pushing men to pile on the pounds.

‘There is a general move away from the healthy lifestyles of ­yesteryear into lifestyles that are much higher pressure,’ he says.

‘At work, we have seen the ­disappearance of the lunch hour and the increasing habit of buying ­sandwiches high in fat and sugar, and eating them at the desk. 

‘This eating habit is part of the rise of grazing, which is a major ­contributor to obesity.

‘When you eat while not actually being conscious of what you’re
eating, you take on lots of calories without even noticing. If you
spend a full day of increasing work hours and stress, you want to go
home, sit down in front of the TV, have a drink and eat snacks.’

The problem  is that even without stress, men instinctively head for higher-calorie foods.

Unhealthy habits: Modern lifestyles mean men are eating more convenience foods

Unhealthy habits: Modern lifestyles mean men are eating more convenience foods

Unhealthy habits: Modern life means men are eating more convenience foods

A study of more than 14,000 adults by the American Society for Microbiology shows that men are more likely to eat meat and ­poultry, while women are more likely to eat fruit and vegetables.

Perhaps one of the most unusual findings about men and weight gain is that their vanity makes them prefer being ­overweight — out of fear of ­appearing puny.

Many men simply don’t see themselves as fat when they look in the mirror. They believe they look ‘well-built’, when they are dangerously flabby, says Dr Kerri McPherson, a chartered health psychologist at Glasgow ­Caledonian University, who bases her ­findings on an in-depth survey of 150 men.

‘We know how upset women are if they feel fat, but the men who took part in this study would rather be overweight than too thin. What these men considered to be their ideal waist ­measurement is actually ­medically overweight.

‘The ideal for a man is a body that is very muscly. Ideally, they wanted to achieve that bulked-up body image through muscle, but very few achieved that, so they would rather be bulked up by fat and cover it with clothes.’

Men are also prone to another psychological effect: weight ­contagion. Fat men make their male friends fat, according to a study of more than 15,000 people over three generations.

If a man has a male friend who becomes fat, his risk of becoming overweight is doubled. Having an overweight wife does not have anywhere near as strong an effect.

‘One of the reasons for this is that when it comes to body image, we compare ourselves primarily to people of the same sex,’ says ­Nicholas Christakis, one of the researchers and co-author of the book Connected: The Amazing Power Of Social ­Networks And How They Shape Our Lives.

‘Men who have large friends get a distorted idea of what constitutes “healthy”,’ says Christakis. ‘It is not that obese or non-obese ­people simply find other similar people to hang out with. Rather, there is a direct causal relationship.’

There is also peer pressure, as any man learns if he tries to eat muesli while male friends are tucking into a full English ­breakfast. His friends will only refrain from teasing him if he is fresh from ­coronary bypass surgery.

The result of all these factors is our unprecedented rise in male obesity — and a growing national epidemic of related illnesses among men.

The National Obesity Forum’s Tam Fry says the ­problem is ­proving ‘incredibly difficult to tackle’. It is a particularly sad fact that we have a ‘lost generation’ of young men who were not educated in food and health.

‘We failed to give nutrition and cookery lessons to boys who went to school in the Nineties. As a result, they rely on buying junk food instead,’ he says.

‘We need to start working on the future generations — the ones now at school.

‘And for the sake of all men, the Government should be ensuring that food sold to us meets the Food Standards Agency’s recommended levels for fat and sugar.’

Meanwhile, Dr McPherson says healthy eating messages must be altered so they suit men’s psyches. ‘Many men are still woefully ­ignorant about the link between diet and disease,’ she says.

Her surveys reveal — amazingly — that men often still do not make the link between their eating ­habits and their health.

‘That is often because the stuff men hear about healthy eating is dressed up in terms of dieting for thinness and prettiness. That is a turn-off for men.

‘If you pushed the links between healthy eating and ­exercise, and improved muscularity, that could prove far more persuasive.’


Many men are impervious to health advice — and it’s killing them. If your man won’t listen to health advice, then you can still improve his health, by stealth …


Processed food is generally high in fat, sugar, salt — and calories. Cooking meals from scratch gives you the chance to make them healthier.

Try cooking white meat instead of red; grill, don’t fry; use olive oil, not ­butter; and make a tomato-based pasta sauce, not cream.

If he dislikes wholemeal, look for products that are half white flour, half wholemeal.
Swap to spreadable butter: ­Lurpak Lighter spreadable has 26.6g of saturated fat per 100g, compared to 52g in actual butter.

If he balks at eating more oily fish (rich in Omega 3 fatty acids, good for heart health), try specially ­formulated products with added omega-3, such as bread, yoghurt, milk, margarine and eggs.

Alternatively, cut open an omega-3 capsule and mix with butter to spread on toast.


Exercise is clearly a good thing, but you can’t lead a horse to water — it requires subtle means.

‘Men are competitive by nature, and he’ll not take part in a sport if his kit isn’t as good as — or better — than everyone else’s,’ says ­consultant psychologist Dr Michael Sinclair of City Psychology Group.


Pre-empt that evening beer or glass of wine by offering him a gin and slimline tonic. One shot of spirit is 82 calories — half that of a small glass of wine or bottle of beer.


Exercising together really does make a difference — a study of 1,500 British couples exercising to improve heart health found that men who did best were the ones whose partners also benefited most. It seems they spurred each other on.

Meanwhile, a U.S. study showed that married couples who embarked on any exercise ­regimen together were less likely to drop out.


If you regularly eat meals from plates that are 12in (30cm) across and tip your breakfast cereal into a bowl that is 8in (20cm) wide, consider quietly ­sizing down.

Research shows that people tend to eat whatever is on their plate, and adults will — without realising it — eat 30 per cent more calories when larger portions are put in front of them.

Using smaller crockery means a standard 40g serving of breakfast cereal (as recommended on the packet) won’t look so meagre in the bowl. Furthermore, he’ll be less likely to keep on pouring until there’s 8oz (240g) of cereal, which, with milk and sugar, can add up to 800 calories.

Do the same with glasses. Slide your huge goldfish-bowl wine glasses to the back of the ­cupboard, for entertaining only, and start using the 5fl oz (148ml) sizes for everyday wine.


Throw out his old ones, buy a set one size smaller and cut the labels out. Wait for the discomfort to lead him to suggest he cuts down on carbs.

Boost the effect by ­positioning a mirror in the place where he gets undressed. A man can suck in his belly for only so long before he has to breathe!


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