Health: How to get fab abs

Most men only want one thing from a diet: a midriff to be proud of. No wonder a guide to beating the beer gut has become a bestseller in the States. What's more, it works, says Clint Witchalls
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The Independent Culture
When I put on weight, it goes straight to my stomach; the rest of me remains skinny. After Christmas, I resembled a python that had eaten a Swiss Ball. In diet-speak, I'm an apple rather than a pear. This is a dangerous shape to be (apple folk tend to die young from heart disease, whereas pear-shaped people live to a ripe old age, dragging their saggy arses behind them). I turn 40 this year, so I thought it might be a good idea to find my abs, as I haven't seen them since 1973.

Around the time that I was bemoaning my spreading middle, I came across a book called The Abs Diet. It is the first diet book written from a male perspective (although the diet is for both sexes), and it's proving to be hugely popular in the US. It made the New York Times bestseller list, and is expected to sell a million copies before the end of the year.

The book focuses on 12 "power foods" and an exercise plan. There is no silver bullet. No simple message like: cut all carbohydrates from your diet, or only eat foods with a low glycaemic index. Instead, the authors, David Zinczenko and Ted Spiker, have collated the latest research on diet and exercise, and put it together in a book that is readable, blokeish and funny.

Some of the recipes, however, were truly awful. Chilli con Turkey was particularly dry and flavourless. I thought my children might enjoy it because they're not big fans of flavour, but even they turned their noses up at it. Although the Abs Diet is not calorie-restrictive, I probably ate a lot less because I was only eating half of each meal before giving up in disgust. After a couple of weeks of Ragin' Cajun, Mas Macho Meatballs, and Tortilla de Godzilla, I was dying to return to something by Nigel Slater.

The exercise plan looked a lot more inviting than the recipes. I kicked off with the regime on 1 January. In the first two weeks, I lost 4kg and I can now feel, although not see, my abdominal muscles. My stomach is flatter than it has been in years, and I'm happy.

David Zinczenko is the perfect spokesperson for the book. He's tall, annoyingly good-looking, and has an excellent physique - not a trace of fat on him. But then, Zinczenko should walk the walk - he's the editor of Men's Health, the most successful men's lifestyle magazine in the world. You couldn't be a butterball and hold down that job. But he wasn't always a svelte urbanite. He started life as a tubby kid from small-town Pennsylvania. "Most of my meals were ordered through a clown's head," he recalls. "I always wanted to look like a basketball player, instead I looked like the basketball."

Zinczenko says that his father led by negative example. He was about 100lb overweight for most of his adult life. "I watched him get really fat, then get high blood pressure, then diabetes, then have a minor heart attack, and then finally die at 52 of a massive stroke. It made me think: `I don't want to do this to my kids'." Today, Zinczenko is a model of good health, and he wants to share his formula with the world.

The frustrating thing about the Abs Diet is that it isn't easy to sum up. When people ask me, "So, what is this diet you're on?", I tell them it's like the South Beach Diet, but with exercises. But that isn't accurate or fair. So I asked Zinczenko to summarise the diet in a sentence. "It's a simple, no-nonsense plan for an overall healthy lifestyle," he says, in a rehearsed sales pitch. This answer would still leave most people in the dark. The problem is that there is no central idea to the diet, rather, it's a summary of all the nutrition and fitness advice that has been published over the past few years. You could say that the central idea is "power foods", summarised by the acronym "AbsDietPower," which stands for: Almonds and other nuts; Beans and pulses; Spinach and other green vegetables; Dairy; Instant hot oat cereal; Eggs; Turkey and other lean meats; Peanut butter; Olive oil; Wholegrain breads and cereals; Extra- protein whey powder; and Raspberries. No, it doesn't trip off the tongue.

I ask Zinczenko if it isn't a frivolous and narcissistic goal to try to achieve a six-pack. "People say that if you want abs, you must be vain, but it couldn't be further from the truth," he says. "There are lots of health benefits to having a flat stomach. You're going to live longer; you're going to have a better sex life; you're going to have more energy; you're going to beat back pain; you're going to be better at sports - because you're core is the power centre for all of the body's movement.

"Plus, you're going to keep a bunch of diseases and illnesses at bay, such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and some forms of cancer. Abdominal fat is the deadliest fat in the whole body."

Zinczenko and Spiker are cautious not to suggest that you can spot-reduce - an idea that has been rubbished by most dieticians. Nowhere do they suggest that you can target specific body fat by eating certain foods. What they do say is that if you lower your body fat, you'll be likely to notice much of that loss around your middle, where most of the fat accumulates. In order to lose fat, not only does Zinczenko advocate eating the right fats (monosaturates and polyunsaturates) and carbohydrates (complex), he also advocates eating calcium-rich foods, such as Parmesan cheese. Zinczenko calls calcium the "miracle mineral". "For some reason, it seems to have the effect of preventing or making it harder for new fat to form in the body, and at the same time helping to strip away existing fat," he says.

The Abs Diet gives the lowdown on all the nutrient-rich foods that we should be eating more of, as well as foods that should be assiduously avoided. "The two hoodlums that are contributing to the obesity epidemic are trans fats and high-fructose corn syrup," says Zinczenko. "The problem with high-fructose corn syrup is that it shuts off your appetite control- switch and makes you hungrier. It's an insidious substance that encourages you to eat more.

"In the early 1970s, if you gave someone a two-litre bottle of Coke and said, `drink all of this', they'd be gagging after a few minutes. Now, with high-fructose corn syrup, you can sit down with a big bottle of soda and plough through it and still feel thirsty."

Most diet books shy away from the E-word, exercise, but The Abs Diet contains a photo-illustrated section on exercise, not only to build powerful abdominal muscles but also the large muscle groups around your back, shoulders and legs. The idea is that, for each pound of muscle that you develop, your body needs to burn up 50 extra calories to maintain that muscle.

The Abs Diet combines exercise with foods that promote muscle growth; foods that are nutrient-rich and raise your metabolism naturally so that you can strip away fat. On the Abs Diet, you're encouraged to eat six times a day: three meals and three snacks. By doing this, you're sending the signal to your body that there's no famine looming. Zinczenko believes that one of the reasons that restrictive diets don't work is that your body is always bracing itself for a famine.

"If you're ever hungry on the Abs Diet," says Zinczenko, "you're doing it wrong. Conventional wisdom says that you have to eat less to weigh less. This book is completely different. Research shows that you have to eat more to weigh less." With that kind of message, it's little wonder that The Abs Diet is selling like hot cakes.

`The Abs Diet', by David Zinczenco and Ted Spiker, is published by Rodale, pounds 12.99