Like all good diets, it started at Christmas time. The Hairy Bikers, Dave Myers and Si King, were on holiday. With identical blood-pressure tablets. “I went into Si’s room to try and score some of his because I’d run out,” says Dave. But his sister-in-law caught me. She said, “You middle-aged men – you p*** me off. You take tablets to sustain the lifestyle that got you into that state in the first place.” Then a TV company came up and said, “How about doing the Hairy Dieters?”, and we thought, “Good idea. Let’s do it now – before it’s too late”.
Over the years, Dave and Si had – let’s be honest – put on a few pounds. It’s understandable, when your job is to eat – whether it’s trays of patisseries in Bakeation, or salvers of roast beef in Best of British. And they always arrived by motorcycle. “We’d been round the world two-and-a-half times,” says Si, “eating some of the finest things the world has to offer.” Dave nods. “And we partied as well,” he says. No wonder they piled the weight on.
As well as blood-pressure tablets, the pair were on medication for their high cholesterol. They were heart attacks waiting to happen. But the decision to diet was about more than health – there was an element of vanity about it. “I remember sitting on a beautiful Italian sports bike,” says Dave. “A Ducati. Very fabulous it was. And I felt brill. But a journalist wrote, ‘It was like watching an antelope being mounted by a potbellied pig’. That was one of the funnier ones.”
Paul Smith, the designer, didn’t help. On one occasion he was staying in the same place as Dave and Si, and they all started drinking together. “He was a lovely fella,” says Dave. “He was ordering some nice snacks. Anyway, I said, ‘I love your clothes, Paul. Why don’t you do them in bigger sizes?’ He said, ‘I don’t do clothes for fat blokes.’ Except he didn’t say ‘blokes’. I said, ‘I’ve got your cologne and your cufflinks.’ He said, ‘Well, you’ll be fine with my socks and ties then, mate.’ So when Si and I decided to diet, that was my target – get into a Paul Smith suit.”
The pair’s dietary challenge began in the laboratories of Newcastle University – in front of a full body scanner. Then came the weigh-in. “Of course,” says Dave, “neither of us possessed any scales. We judged our weight by how many notches we had in our belts – I’m a so-and-so waist’. But that method isn’t very accurate. And where men wear their trousers isn’t really where their waist is.”
So the weigh-in came as a shock to both. Dave was 17 stone 12lb – and 40 per cent fat. Si was 19 stone 6lb – and 44 per cent fat. “I’m a couple of inches taller than Dave, mind,” says Si.
The challenge was to see how much weight they could lose without resorting to faddy eating. No “Cabbage Soup Diet” or raw fruit and veg regime for them. “They’re no good for cooks like us who love their food,” says Dave. “Nor are the high-protein diets. There’s nothing wrong with having a bit of carbohydrate, just as long as it’s the smallest portion on your plate.”
Dave and Si came up with a revolutionary eating plan – well, revolutionary to a couple of Hairy Bikers. “We like to call it a balanced diet,” says Dave. And they were to keep it up for a total of three months. “With really strict portion control,” says Si. “We had to change our relationship with food.”
In the first week alone, Dave lost 10lb. “When you rereally overweight,” he says, “you lose it quite quickly. Even if it’s mostly fluid. When you combine that with exercise, you’re laughing.”
Not literally. The pair worked with trainers, doing everything from kettle bells to Thai boxing and the Swiss Ball. After the first session, they thought they would never walk again. “But you need a fair old mixture of stuff to keep the enthusiasm going,” says Dave. “And it gets easier. I ended up cycling hard for 35 minutes in the Lakes, and I did a piece to camera without gasping.” Si went sea kayaking with his son. “He couldn’t even get in the kayak to begin with,” says Dave.
But how did it get to this? “Well, I wasn’t a fat kid,” says Dave. “I asked my cousin Les and his wife Muriel. They said, ‘Well, you were quite round, Dave. But not fat.’ I just got into bad food habits. Like drinking every night. At home it would be a gin and tonic. Or, if we were filming, Si and I would have half a bottle of wine or a couple of pints. That was about average. Then I’d get to my room at 9pm and go, ‘I’ll have a green curry and club sandwich’. I didn’t really want it. But that’s all changed. And now I don’t have it.”
Si isn’t looking for anyone to blame for his weight gain, either – even though he only really started putting on weight after the death of his father. “My father was very, very ill for three years. So the way that Mam and I interacted with each other – Dad was upstairs on strict dialysis, with bottles of stuff everywhere – was cooking for the family. But it’s still me that makes the decision to put food in my mouth. You need to take responsibility for yourself.”
They learnt to cook differently – more dextrously, with herbs and spices. “Flavour has no calories,” says Si. “You don’t need to rely on fat to make food luxuriant.” They also learnt to feel hungry. Scientific advisers told them that hunger is good because it means the diet is working. “They said if you’re hungry, have a glass of water,” says Dave. “If you want to party, make it a glass of sparkling.” The scientific advisers and the Bikers clearly have a different definition of “party”.
The idea wasn’t that Dave and Si would end up on the front cover of Men s Health, talking about their abs and looking ripped. Although, as Dave says, “I’ve lost ten inches off my waist – I can see my balls for the first time.” The Hairy Diet was a sabbatical – a break from the food that was endangering their lives. “But we are not going to stop drinking beer and eating pies,” says Si. “That’s not where this is at. The reality is that we were overweight to the point where it was starting to affect our health. We thought, ‘OK, we’ve got to do something about it.’ Then, when we get to a point that’s healthy, we’ll start to eat pies again. Just not all the time.”
Hairy Dieters: How to Love Food and Lose Weight is on tonight at 8:00pm on BBC2