Sarah Parish was filming the first series of BBC comedy W1A when she realised she had to do something about her body. ‘I had a particularly tight skirt to wear and had already asked for Spanx but it just wouldn’t do up,’ she remembers. ‘When they finally got it on I was bulging out of it and the bra they’d got me didn’t fit because I’d put on so much weight since the last fitting. The costume person said, ‘It’s okay, don’t worry’ and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, don’t pity me!’
That was February 2014 and a turning point for Parish, now 47, who has starred in a string of top TV dramas including Peak Practice, Cutting it and Mistresses. ‘We’d been renovating a house during 2013, I was working a lot and then I lost my dad,’ she remembers. ‘Slightly depressed, I was drinking five cups of coffee a day and, always tired, I’d turn to sugar – chocolate, sweets and fizzy drinks and packets of crisps – and had gone from a size 10 to 12-14 in six months. I was exhausted,’ says Parish. ‘I knew if I kept going I’d have a middle-aged figure – tummy spread, loose skin between the legs, cellulite. I needed another way.’
When we meet at her Hampshire home, an old converted pub she shares with husband, actor James Murray, and their six-year-old daughter, Nell, Parish’s five foot nine frame is now a small size 10. She’s as stunning in real life as she looks on television, all cheekbones, long, slim legs and polished, dewy skin. The whole picture is anything but middle-aged. So how did she do it?
Middle age spread happens because, on average, adults lose between five and seven pounds of muscles each decade after 30. As the human body uses 35 calories to maintain a pound of muscle each day and only two calories to sustain a pound of fat, this slows metabolism. Add to that hormonal changes such as reduced oestrogen (in women) and increasing stress levels, associated with the hormone cortisol, and you have a recipe for fat to gather around the tummy.
Dieting became the obvious answer for Parish who, as a young actor working in London in her 20’s had tried a string of diets to quickly drop pounds. ‘The cabbage soup diet was a classic – or completely cutting out carbs which gave you horrible breath and grey skin. At that age I wanted instant results, but since then I’ve learned. I didn’t want to count calories or miss out on things I enjoyed.’
A few days after skirt-gate, Parish hired a personal trainer and started working out six days a week. ‘We were doing High Intensity Interval Training [HIIT] with heavy weight training, lots of squats and dead lifts and also short four-minute bursts of cardio.’ Though it didn’t take long to get ‘things into place again’ there were still areas of fat that wouldn’t shift. The problem being that even though Parish was working out, her diet had stayed the same. ‘Some mornings I’d have avocado and poached eggs, but on others I’d have five piece of white toast then snack on crisps and chocolate.’ One study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutritionfound that middle-aged people who ate the most processed foods saw their waistlines expand three times more than those who consumed the same number of calories from less processed foods.
‘I was complaining to a health-conscious friend about not being able to shift fat at the sides of my thighs, stomach and around my back and she said, ‘There’s someone I want you to meet.’ It was Rick Hay, an Australian nutritional therapist who now lectures in sustainable weight management at London’s College of Naturopathic Medicine. Hay’s programme, explained in his new book The Anti-Ageing Food and Fitness Plan, is specifically designed to counter age-related weight gain by increasing metabolism. The plan cuts out all refined sugar, processed carbohydrates and emphasizes protein from plant sources such as pulses and beans as well as eggs and fish to help build muscle lost in the middle years. It also introduces ‘thermogenic’ (fat burning) spices to recipes such as chilli, turmeric and cayenne pepper which studies have shown help increase metabolism after eating them. Within eight weeks on the diet, Parish had dropped a dress size.
Hay’s plan allows Parish, who enjoyed her wine before the diet, to have a glass of red a night. To keep her sweet tooth satisfied, it features snacks such as smoothies made with naturally sweetened plant protein powders, berries, spinach and greens as well as healthy fats such as nuts and seeds to stop the energy dips that could lead to cravings for crisps or chocolate.
One of the reason’s Hay’s plan also appealed was its anti-ageing element – so Parish didn’t have to fall into the middle-age trap of choosing between a growing behind or a gaunt and ageing face. ‘Rick taught me about the importance of building muscle with HIIT training and eating a diet with enough protein and nutrient rich foods to keep skin firm,’ says Parish. By emphasizing foods such as berries and greens, like raw kale and spinach which contain phytonutrients associated with better skin health because of their antioxidant content, the results were instantly noticeable. ‘At first my face went dull and a little flaky, but then I started to get more hydrated, drinking more water instead of coffee and my eyes were much brighter and my skin more plump. Now things spring back more easily than they used to.’
It has given her a new confidence in a world which can judge looks harshly. In March, Parish starts filming a new TV drama called The Collection, produced by Amazon Studios. ‘It’s all about the Dior New Look in fashion in Paris in the 1940s and the clothes are all cinched in waists and huge skirts, which I adore.’ This time at the costume fitting, after 12 months on Hay’s plan, she was delighted. ‘Everything fitted. I had these French people going ‘Oh, oui, belle,’ about how nice everything looked and saying they had to pinch some of it in. That felt great. My advice to anyone who can’t shift stubborn fat despite exercising, is change your diet if you want real results.’
The Anti-Ageing Food and Fitness Plan check list
- Eat often – three meals and two snacks each day emphasising plant proteins.
- Add ‘thermogenic’ (fat burning) spices to recipes such as chilli, turmeric and cayenne papper which have shown help increase metabolism after eating them.
- Have a juice a day made from vegetables such as beetroot, celery and cucumber sweetened with apple or pear and snack on prunes and dates which can reduce sugar cravings.
- High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) – you can get live online HIIT classes from Rick’s book at yoogaia.com from January 25th)
- Cut down on red meat and chicken. Choose eggs, yoghurt and fish as animal-based proteins instead.
- Stick to one cup of coffee a day or one glass of good red wine a night.
Anti-Ageing Food and Fitness Plan by Rick Hay is published by Clink St priced £11.99. To order your copy call 0844 871 1514 or visit http://books.telegraph.co.uk/ Product/The-Anti-Ageing-Food– Fitness-Plan/18716582