'The biggest weight off my shoulders was learning it’s not my fault' – footballer opens up

“But they didn’t know how hard I was working – or how hungry I was all the time.” Neil was 18 when he first tried to lose weight. “I really struggled with it,” he says. 

“Before weigh-ins I’d be in the sauna just to shed a few pounds, or the coaches would send me to train with a black sack on. But as soon as I had a drink, I’d put it all back on. I was only losing water. There was no education.”

It was a battle that would continue throughout Neil’s football career. “My teammates could eat twice as much as me and not put on an ounce. People thought I was eating at home or not training hard enough.”

Unhelpful criticism only made things harder. “The advice to ‘get off your backside and do some exercise’ just didn’t work for me,” says Neil. “When I was playing, I was only ever a few pounds heavier than I should have been, and when you’re always running, it’s a lot not to be able to lose.

“Then, when I stopped playing professionally in 2003, I spent two years eating and drinking whatever I wanted. I thought I deserved it after decades of working so hard, but I put on about 5st.”

Before long, Neil was on a roller coaster of crash diets. “I’ve tried them all,” he says. “Low carb, low fat, milkshakes, juicing… I even made my own up – the cold food diet! It was miserable.

“I shed 40lb on one regime, but put twice as much back on as soon as I started eating normally again. It was unsustainable, but I didn’t want to ask for advice.”

Neil is far from alone. Obesity rates in the UK have almost doubled since 1993, with one in four adults living with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or over. But men have typically been reluctant to talk about weight and body-image issues.

“My weight was a no-go subject,” says Neil. “I wouldn’t talk to a doctor or friends – it would be a sign of weakness. I’d buy women’s magazines for the diets because I couldn’t ask for help.”

It was a heart-related health scare that gave Neil the wake-up call he needed in order to do something about his weight. And the Break Free campaign has helped him free himself from any stigma: “The biggest weight off my shoulders was learning it’s not my fault, I wasn’t lazy and I didn’t need to be embarrassed.

“I used to think that I was mentally weak and had no willpower. But there are over 100 factors that can lead people to gain weight and not be able to lose it. The problem isn’t willpower, it’s how the human body has evolved. That’s why it’s so wrong to stigmatise people.

“I learned that because of what was going on in my head, I was programmed to go for the most fattening thing in the fridge. Now my fridge is like a field; it’s full of green!”

“There’s help out there – you just have to start talking: to your friends, family, doctor, nurse or pharmacist.

“I’m still learning, but I’m getting there – it’s important that people realise it’s not their fault and they’re not alone.”

Could the Break Checklist help you?

Sports scientist and personal trainer Luke Worthington explains: “The Break Checklist comprises five points that help you assess whether your weight is, or might become, a health concern. If several seem to apply to you, we want you to know that there is help available.

“The final point is probably the most important. Being made to feel uncomfortable or judged applies to a lot of people. It affects their wellbeing, and will make them less likely to go into a gym or want to use a changing room, yet they’re the ones who might really need to work exercise into their lives.

“But there’s no need to get embarrassed or feel self-conscious about asking for help. You can simply head to the Break Free website, which has tips, advice and information that can help you take control of your health today.”

To find out more, visit Breakfreecampaign.com

This article was initiated, funded and reviewed by Novo Nordisk. The Break Free campaign has been created and funded by Novo Nordisk to increase the awareness of obesity among the UK public. All campaign ambassadors, including Neil Ruddock and Luke Worthington, were paid by Novo Nordisk for their involvement in the campaign. Opinions expressed in this article are all Neil Ruddock’s and Luke Worthington’s own, based on their personal experiences. UK22OB00044, date of preparation: February 2022.

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