The riddle of mum's middle
'What does it look like afterwards?' a twenty-something asked me the other day, referring to a mother's stomach after birth.
The answer: if you're a Victoria's Secret Angel and under 30, it looks pretty normal fairly quickly. But if you're like me - the average Jane, 42, and just had a third child - it resembles a fleshy, droopy pouch, spilling over the waist band. The 'mummy middle', as people call it, is fat, loose and distorted compared with the rest of your body.
Those photos in ads for stomach fat suckers suddenly seem terrifyingly familiar. And while your legs (below the knees) and upper torso might have slimmed down several months after birth, the middle is comparatively exhausted.
Well-meaning friends tell you to give yourself some time. But life is short, and with not a pair of jeans in sight, it was time to reclaim denim, bikinis and an aligned profile that hasn't been airbrushed with remedial underwear.
The Cambridge Weight Plan - from Britain but now in Hong Kong - appealed to me on many fronts. First, it's nutritious. Secondly, it was created by a team from Cambridge University for obese patients to lose weight quickly for safer surgery and a more successful outcome, so it's not a fly-by-night operation.
It's a range of shakes, snack bars, soups and porridges that can be taken solely for a limited period instead of food, or as meal replacements combined with a healthy diet. Once you've lost the weight, the products can help maintain the scale.
I like the concept because it's not meant to be used solely in the long term. It's designed to help you shed excess kilos and set you up with good habits to keep it off. The food is also reasonably priced, from HK$27 for a shake, soup or porridge, or HK$38 for a bar or packet drink.
Low in fat and carbohydrates, each shake sachet (flavours such as chocolate and choc mint are palatable) contains 138 calories plus one-third of all your daily nutritional requirements, including iron, calcium, vitamin C and zinc.
'You could actually live on it if you had to,' says Sarah Armstrong, founder and director of Cambridge Weight Plan Hong Kong.
However, not all experts agree these diets are the way to go. 'I don't recommend using this kind of diet for weight loss in the long term,' says Patricia Chiu, a registered dietitian with the World Cancer Research Fund Hong Kong.
'The diet is too restrictive for some people, especially men and those who engage in regular exercise. Compliance is usually low, and people usually crave normal foods. Moreover, the diet is very low in caloric content. This type of ... diet is usually for obese patients who need rapid weight loss before surgery, and under a doctor's supervision.'
Cambridge offers an initial consultation with every client (you can't buy their products in a shop) to check your medical history and physical situation, and follow-up consultations in person or through e-mail, every week if you wish.
'I think the reason why it works is because of [this] support,' says Jean Hudson, who last year lost 27kg in four months through the Cambridge diet, and has kept the weight off.
After my consultation, it was agreed that losing up to 6kg was the goal, at the rate of one to 2kg per week to get back to my usual, pre-baby weight.
I also began doing more exercise - Pilates once a week, yoga as often as possible and an hour of brisk walking daily, building up to a 45-minute jog five days a week and walks on other days.
'The first week, you can be a bit tired, so take it easy with exercise,' suggests consultant Katia Geiger. (Consultants, who are often former clients, are trained by Cambridge.)
The plan I chose was: breakfast of a boiled egg and fat-free yogurt; a Cambridge snack bar mid-morning (the toffee one is best); a shake for lunch; a handful of almonds and a couple of cherry tomatoes mid-afternoon; and a shake and small salad for dinner. Grains are not great for bulging bellies, so even wholegrain bread has to be avoided.
However, I varied the plan a little: a shake for breakfast; a shake and salad for lunch; dinner of a fist-sized piece of protein with vegetables. Snacks were a handful of almonds and/or a piece of fruit, such as melon. I also had a skimmed milk tea or latte somewhere in there, and occasionally a mug of warm skimmed milk at bedtime.
Two and a half weeks into the plan, I have gone from 63.5kg to 61.5kg, and back up to roughly 62kg. For the most part, I haven't been hungry, but miss real food - the tastes and textures - to the point that walking past street-side restaurants makes my mouth water.
One weekend was difficult. I broke, scoffing a delicious hamburger while watching a surf competition in Tai Long Wan, rationalising that hiking all that way made up for it. Plus, packing my shake maker in a small backpack did seem silly. I cut myself some slack.
Then, a week later, I crumbled altogether, with wine, fatty lamb and spuds while on a Friday night out with friends. I also had to feed a hangover. So I took two steps back and soldiered on.
One more week and I expect another 1.5kg to drop. In three weeks, I should be down to about 58kg or 59kg. So far, the muffin top has receded, no doubt thanks to exercise, as well.
The festive season is a challenge, but that's the good thing about it: unless you're on doctor's orders, you can give the plan a rest for special occasions and go back to it.