Jenni Murray is pictured above after her weight loss. She lost eight stone in less than a year
In the final part of her frank and powerful memoir, broadcaster JENNI MURRAY, best known for presenting Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, reveals how surgery finally helped end her unhealthy relationship with food…
Two things finally shocked me into doing something so drastic that I ended up losing eight stone in less than a year.
The first is that my GP, who was significantly overweight, retired.
I guess I’d always used her as an excuse. If my doctor was fat, what did I have to worry about? She never made me step on to the scales and I don’t recall her ever mentioning that weight loss might be a good idea.
My new GP, in 2014, suggested I step on the scales at our first appointment: 24 stone! How on earth had I allowed that to happen?
The second shock came when my son Charlie accompanied me and my three little dogs on a walk in the local park. My walks, I must admit, tended to be slow, painful and rather lumbering, with frequent pauses.
Anyway, Charlie and I were having a ‘little sit-down’ on a park bench when an enormous woman passed us driving a mobility scooter. Her two dogs trotted along beside her, their leads attached to the handlebar.
‘Blimey, Mum,’ said Charlie, his voice full of concern, ‘if you aren’t careful, that’ll be you before long.’
He was right. I knew I could look forward to severe disability — or worse.
I knew type 2 diabetes frequently develops as a result of obesity, and that it can lead to blindness and amputation of toes, or even a leg. I was also risking heart failure or a stroke.
After all, my beloved, obese maternal grandmother had suffered a stroke in her mid-70s and died within 24 hours.
I was 64 years old, with a BMI between 45 and 50 — well into the obese range. I was also depressed and almost at the end of my tether, having tried so many diets and failed, failed and failed again to lose weight.
Well, no, actually, I’d frequently succeeded, but had found it impossible to sustain once I’d reached my goal. Time and again, just as I began to think I could enjoy food again, I’d find I weighed even more than I had before.
Jenni Murray is pictured above before her weight loss. She says: ‘I knew type 2 diabetes frequently develops as a result of obesity, and that it can lead to blindness and amputation of toes, or even a leg. I was also risking heart failure or a stroke’
It was sheer desperation that drove me to take the final fat chance, which I accept will not be the weight-loss solution for everyone.
A number of friends and colleagues had gone down the gastric band route. The TV and radio presenters Vanessa Feltz and Fern Britton, as well as TV executive Jay Hunt, had all lost significant amounts of weight by having a band surgically placed around their stomachs to make it impossible to eat to excess.
But I was cautious. I’d heard stories about patients so desperate to consume ‘treats’ that they had melted chocolate and other sweet things in order to get them past the band.
Equally, the gastric band experience didn’t seem all that pleasant. I remember bumping into Vanessa once, and she told me she could no longer eat one of her favourite foods — a bagel with smoked salmon and cream cheese — even in the tiniest quantities.
She longed for it; dreamed about it. Her appetite was undiminished and she felt almost permanently hungry.
The band, it turned out, had no impact on hunger hormones, which continued to rage. It was just like being permanently on the faddiest of diets. Not a foolproof method for weight loss, then.
My GP suggested I have a gastric balloon inserted into my stomach instead. Once there, it’s inflated and filled with saline.
Afterwards, you have cognitive behavioural therapy sessions to help you change your attitude towards food, and the balloon is removed after six to 12 months.
But this made no real sense to me as, like the gastric band, it would have no impact on the hunger hormones.
After it was removed, wouldn’t I find myself in exactly the same position as when I’d lost weight on a strict diet? I’d be desperately hungry again and I’d simply put the weight back on — and more.
Two more options emerged after I interviewed a young surgeon on Woman’s Hour about obesity in children.
Chatting after the programme, I asked him, with one of those silly, slightly embarrassed grins on my face, what help he’d recommend for a middle-aged, verging on old, obese woman.
We met the next day for a coffee. There were two types of bariatric surgery that might be suitable for me, he said. Both are performed under general anaesthetic, using keyhole methods.
What’s in it?
We reveal the ingredients in everyday products.
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SODIUM ALGINATE: A gum extracted from brown algae which forms a gel when it mixes with stomach acid.
SODIUM HYDROGEN CARBONATE: Also known as baking soda, this reacts with stomach acid to form carbon dioxide bubbles, which push the gel above the contents of the stomach.
The gel then floats, stopping acid escaping up to the mouth (acid reflux).
METHYL PARAHYDROXY- BENZOATE: A preservative with anti-fungal properties.
CARBOMER: An emulsifier to help the ingredients blend.
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The more radical option is a gastric bypass. Surgical staples are used to create a small pouch at the top of the stomach, and the pouch is then connected to the small intestine, bypassing the rest of the stomach. It therefore takes less food to make you feel full, and fewer calories are absorbed from the food you eat.
The alternative is a sleeve gastrectomy, where a large part of the stomach — 75-80 per cent — is removed so that it’s much smaller than before. As with the bypass, you can’t eat as much as you used to and you feel full sooner.
The advantage with the sleeve, it seemed to me, is that there’s no interference in the normal journey of food and drink through the digestive system. Plus, there’s a lower risk of complications.
The surgeon recommended I see Professor Francesco Rubino, a bariatric surgeon at King’s College Hospital in South London. But I dillied and dallied about calling, wondering if I could really face having more than half my stomach removed.
A week or so later, I had dinner with a friend who was a producer on one of Radio 4’s investigative documentary strands. She knew about Professor Rubino’s work.
‘There’s clear evidence that the operations can reverse type 2 diabetes, help the grossly obese lose weight and improve their health in so many ways,’ she said. ‘And it saves the NHS a fortune. It’s a no-brainer. Go for it!’
I made the call. And I knew from the moment I sat down in Professor Rubino’s office that I’d met the man who would change my life. For the first time ever, I was talking to a true expert who was telling me that, yes, I might be obese, but it wasn’t my fault.
In his charming Italian accent, he explained the complexities of body weight, how it’s tied in to hormones and genetics. It’s certainly not true for everyone, he said, that eating less and exercising more will lead to weight loss.
If some of his clinically obese patients could be persuaded to walk around the world while being force-fed a healthy diet, it wouldn’t even begin to touch their problem.
What sold me on the sleeve technique is that surgery prevents the hunger hormone, ghrelin, from pestering you as you begin to lose weight — for one simple reason. Ghrelin is produced principally in the part of the stomach that’s removed. As the professor put it: ‘It resets the software that’s embedded into the system.’
I decided to proceed privately. I’d just turned 65; I felt I couldn’t afford the year-long delay built into NHS treatment — not with the threat of developing type 2 diabetes hanging over my head.
I’d inherited a bit of money after the death of my parents, and I reckoned my mother — who was always accusing me of being too fat — would consider it the best £11,000 I’d ever spent.
On the day of the operation, in June 2015, I was terrified. I was in theatre for two hours. And when I got up the following morning, I realised I wasn’t at all hungry.
I had a shower and felt astonished at how little pain there was. At lunchtime I was offered a bowl of thin tomato soup. I managed about half. That was to be the pattern for the next two weeks as I followed a liquid-only diet.
By the time I returned to work, two weeks after the op, I’d moved on to purées; eight weeks after, I began to eat normally, stopping the moment I began to feel full.
Everything I’d learned about hunger hormones turned out to be true. With only a portion of them still active, I began to feel a bit hungry at mealtimes but was soon satisfied. By Christmas, five stone had gone. Incredible!
I was soon able to go out to dinner with friends. I’d order two starter-size courses and a small glass of red wine. No bread, no pudding. Finally, I was listening to my appetite.
Unsurprisingly, the weight loss did wonders for my energy levels and mobility. About five months after the surgery, my number-one son, Ed, suggested we take the dogs out for a walk on a chilly Saturday morning. He expected me to pull a face, then insist on a short route, on the flat, with plenty of benches for a rest.
On this occasion, we set off without any complaint from me. When we came to a steep hillock, I insisted on climbing it. He was astonished.
‘Gosh, Mum, you made it,’ he said, as we reached the summit. ‘No complaints. No breathlessness. No begging to sit down. No whingeing. This is great.’
Even Christmas was no problem. We sat down to the usual splendid feast — and I didn’t feel the slightest bit hard done by having to stick to smaller portions.
Four years on, my weight appears to have stabilised at just under 14 stone. I could try to lose more — maybe I could get down to 9½ stone and wear size 12 jeans again, but I know the result of such drastic weight loss in someone my age — I was 70 in May — would do no favours to my face.
Jenni Murray writes: ‘I was 64 years old, with a BMI between 45 and 50 — well into the obese range. I was also depressed and almost at the end of my tether, having tried so many diets and failed, failed and failed again to lose weight’
I’ve found myself saying, ‘I don’t want to look like [former Chancellor] Nigel Lawson.’ True, he lost a huge amount of weight through phenomenal self-control — but, afterwards, his face rather crumpled and he seemed to age ten years.
There’s a world of difference between obesity and a bit of plumptitude. I’m now happy to be a bit buxom and still have my slightly round, chubby, cheery face, which has not yet collapsed into miserable, thin, pinched wrinkles. I hope to stay this way for the rest of my life.
So what would I have done if I’d known in the early days what I know now? I would have ignored my mother’s sniffy comments about my fluctuating size. I would have learned to live in my own body without feeling I had to criticise my appearance constantly.
I would have accepted that I didn’t have to be super-slim to be healthy. Most importantly, I would have said ‘no’ to my mother on all those days as a younger child when I was forced to eat more than I wanted.
My advice to parents? Never criticise your child’s size. Never force food upon them that they really don’t want because they’re not hungry. Feed them a range of foods in sensibly small portions.
It’s also essential that parents never pass their own anxieties about their weight on to their children.
My own mother dieted all the time, and when she wasn’t encouraging me to stuff myself, she was cutting out anything that might make me fat. This led to an unhealthy relationship with food, which — in the end — only my surgery has managed to regulate.
Adapted by Corinna Honan from Fat Cow, Fat Chance, by Jenni Murray, to be published by Doubleday on July 16 at £16.99 © Jenni Murray 2020