At what point does a boy become a man? It’s a question that has preoccupied civilization, art and grumpy pub landlords since time began.
Most people would say ‘18’ in accordance with the law (and the landlord), or else cite landmarks like mortgages, marriage or kids as the point where we’re finally forced to grow up.
But I say different. I say it’s the moment you first stand in front of the mirror and – in a moment of dreadful clarity – notice something unusual hanging over the top of your pants.
Something that seems to have appeared out of nowhere. Something you pinch between your thumb and forefinger and watch tremble like a scolded toddler’s lip. Something you’ve been warned about, but never quite believed in until now: the onset of your beer belly.
When this moment arrives – and unlike mortgages, marriage or kids, it certainly will – you shed the skin of your snake-hipped youth and emerge at a fork in the road, from which point there are two kinds of man you can become.
Do you react to this newly discovered mortality – this ominous premonition of heart disease, liver failure and reduced sexual appeal – proactively, or indifferently? Do you change your lifestyle for the better, determined to fend it off, or do you simply give up and accept your fate?
“I’d always thought of myself as skinny,” recalls Jamie, 37, a Business Manager from Northumberland.
“When you are 17, those eight cans of Stones Bitter in a field on a Friday evening don’t matter. I even had a six pack – how cool is that?!
“Then you hit thirty, and it’s almost certainly the mirror’s fault that you don’t look like you used to. Then you reach 35, and you get tired of blaming mirrors, and holding your stomach in, and do what every other unhappy yet well-intentioned chap does – join the gym.
“By which, of course, I mean I acquired a week’s free pass to the leisure centre, which proved to be an interesting talking point around the dinner table, even as it expired.”
In 2015, plenty of men still succumb to the beer belly, but rarely, it seems, with the nonchalance – or even triumph – of generations past.
“There is a lot less of that ‘all bought and paid for’ mentality now,” agrees Dr. John Briffa, author of Waist Disposal, a guide aimed at men hoping to shift their beer gut.
“If you went back 20 or 30 years, I don’t think men cared, to be honest. But having a paunch is much more troublesome to the average man now.”
Male body anxiety, as we’re frequently told, is on the increase – for better and for worse. We want to look better and feel fitter, and other people – society, colleagues, sexual partners – expect it of us too. Long gone are the days when acquiring a spare tire was something to be laughed off, or a mark of wealth and a ‘life well spent’.
Instead it suggests you’re too lazy and weak to change the bad habits that were harmless in your youth, but now accelerate your physical decline – specifically, in most cases, guzzling booze by the frothy pint full.
“The term ‘beer belly’ is quite literal,” says Dr. Briffa. “It’s carbohydrate-rich. Same goes for cider, which contains a lot of sugar.”
Dr. Briffa – whose own ‘beer belly moment’ came aged 25 when, in his own words, he was ‘living on Kentucky Fried Chicken, kebabs and Kronenberg 1664’ – says wine is slightly better, but the best way to avoid putting on weight without giving up alcohol altogether is to stick to one tipple in particular.
“Vodka, lime and soda,” he says. “There’s nothing in it.
“I met a professional rugby player once who said it was their team drink. They’d go out for a big piss up, drink nothing else and turn up for training at 10am the next day. Which, if you’re going to drink, is actually a well thought out approach.”
Whatever you’re imbibing, however, it is a biological fact that at a certain age – usually around 35 – the average man’s metabolism slows down and they start to put on weight.
Women, as Dr. Briffa points out, have their own version of this problem – usually around the hips, waist and bum – but while that is actually a mark of good health as women age, even if they dislike how it looks, for men, it’s the complete opposite.
“With men weight tends to appear almost exclusively around the abdomen,” he says.
“This is called ‘visceral fat’ and is strongly linked with things like heart disease, diabetes and overall risk of death.”
But why then, as you’ve probably wondered ruefully stood in your gym changing room, do some men get away with it more than others? To an extent, as you’ve always suspected, it is a genetic lottery.
“Fat, at least to some degree, is under hormonal control,” explains Dr. Briffa.
“One of the main fat storage hormones is something called insulin, which among other things, turns carbohydrates into fat cells. One theory is that people have different tolerance levels to carbohydrates and produce different amounts of insulin.”
Not that this gets anyone off the hook completely.
“There is an expression: ‘genes load the gun, the environment pulls the trigger,’” Dr. Briffa says, meaning that no matter what metabolism you’ve been handed by the Fat Gods, how big your belly gets is still down to what you do – or don’t do.
Which should be what, exactly?
“Cut the carbs,” is the single biggest piece of advice the good doctor has for men looking to shift belly fat.
“Everyone knows about avoiding sugar, but I’m talking specifically about starchy carbs – grains, porridge, pasta, sandwiches and baguettes at lunch.
“There is this idea that each meal should contain starch, that porridge is a good breakfast, that wholemeal bread is best… I think it’s all nonsense, really.
“Most men see the best results when they go for a low carb, vaguely ‘paleo’ – or ‘primal’, as I call it – diet, made up of meat, fish, eggs, nuts, vegetables and a bit of fruit.”
Cutting out carbs, when you really get down to it, is no mean feat. Like taking up running it sounds simple in theory, but in practice, life can easily get in the way.
In 2015 we have all the medical knowledge – and external motivation – we need to avoid getting a gut. But it isn’t easy.
It takes self-discipline, sacrifice and hard work. No one can help you do it. You do it for no one but yourself.
That’s why, in many ways, getting a beer belly is the first and truest test of being a grown up, the moment in your life when you need to make a serious decision about how you treat yourself, how much you care about what others think, and how much you can resist an easy life in exchange for a longer one.
It’s a choice you make as a man, and a choice that won’t be around forever.