Activate your skinny genes to get into your skinny jeans, says diet guru

Nutritionist and author Patrick Holford. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Nutritionist and author Patrick Holford. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien


When it comes to squeezing into your skinny jeans, it’s all about activating your skinny genes, says Patrick Holford. The author and nutritionist says that with some changes to our diet and specific exercises, our genes can be triggered to burn fat.

“The two key genes involved are called Sirtuin, nicknamed the ‘skinny’ gene, and Foxo called ‘sweet 16’. They interact with each other and together are called ‘skinny sweet 16’,” says Holford. “We all have them but like a program on your computer that you don’t use, some people have turned them off.”

Holford says by jump-starting these genes with the right diet and exercise, not only do we burn fat faster and increase our metabolism but we can slow down the ageing process, we make our DNA repair better and inflammation is reduced, which in turn can reduce pain.

The skinny gene was discovered with research exploring exactly why animals on low-calorie diets lived up to 50 per cent longer. He says at first it was thought by researchers at the University of California that the low calories were responsible for switching on these longer life genes, but it wasn’t the low calories, it was the knock-on effect of less insulin circulating in the blood.

Storing fat
“If you eat carbohydrates or sugar, your insulin goes up and that switches off your skinny genes. Sugar basically programmes you to store fat,” he says. “The thing that switches on the skinny genes is having low insulin, so this diet is based on how to eat and exercise to minimise your insulin levels.”

So how do we enlist these skinny genes in our battle with the bulge? Holford says while two-day fasting diets might be all the rage – the 5:2 diet recommends eating what you like for five days and consuming next to nothing for the other two – there is an easier way. “If you eat in a way that reduces your insulin, it isn’t necessary to cut the calories so low,” he says. “A lot of the two-day diets are based on 500-600 calories on two days a week, which is quite difficult. My book is based on 800 calories and low GL foods three days a week. At that point, you are actually eating breakfast, lunch and dinner and one snack. It’s just a matter of choosing the right foods. Then you shouldn’t really be hungry.”

So what is a low GL, or a low glycemic load diet? Essentially, it’s where food provides a slow-release energy that doesn’t cause insulin to spike. “When you eat a carbohydrate, your blood sugar goes up. When you eat protein with a carbohydrate, it massively slows down the release of sugars in the food,” says Holford. “So, for example, if you eat half an apple on its own, you get twice the blood sugar rise and insulin release than if you ate that apple with six almonds, which provides protein.”

He says one of the ways to lower your insulin is to always eat protein with carbohydrates. “If you have a piece of toast, have it with an egg which is protein – you will more than halve the blood sugar increase and the release of insulin.”

He says avoiding carbs altogether however and eating mostly protein as prescribed by the Atkins diet is a false dawn. “Meat and dairy products [protein] actually cause the release of an insulin-like product called insulin-like growth factor. This is bad news in that it switches off your skinny genes.”

Eight-minute exercises
Coupled with the three days of low GL foods are specific exercises that Holford says are also known to lower insulin levels. Devised by his co-author, the former Gladiator Kate Staples, the exercises take as little as eight minutes a day to do.

“There are three days where you do an eight-minute strength or resistance routine and three days where you do 30mins of cardio or aerobic exercise. The combination of exercise that builds strength and muscle and aerobic exercise which gets your heart beating, lowers insulin,” he says.

Holford says the big problem for women over 40 is that is they don’t do exercise that maintains their muscle mass, with the average woman losing half a pound of muscle mass a year from the age of 40. As muscle burns fat, a lack of muscle can cause weight gain.

Holford thinks most of us are definitely eating too much. “It’s fair to say that we are eating too much but the question is, why are we eating too much?” He says the answer is a sea-saw of insulin spikes that leaves us permanently hungry.

“What’s really going on is whenever your blood sugar goes up and you release insulin, the insulin takes the sugar out of the blood quickly and stores it as fat. Then your blood sugar goes down very quickly and low blood sugar makes you hungry.”

Holford cites devotees of his diet who have lost big – a woman who lost nine stone on the diet in 10 months and a man who lost seven stone in seven months.

Burn Fat Fast by Patrick Holford and Kate Staples is published by Piatkus.