New documentary reveals why some of us eat like a horse and stay slim

Why can some of us eat like a horse and stay so slim? That’s the question at the heart of a fascinating new TV show – and the answer could change your life

  • Gaby Shay wears size 6-8 clothes despite gorging on fast food and sugary treats
  • Often orders two main courses at restaurants and enough take away for 6 people
  • She’s part of Channel 4 show following unhealthy eaters who don’t gain weight 

Gaby Shay wears size 6-8 clothes despite ordering enough take away food for six people and gorging on sugary snacks

Gaby Shay and her husband were treated to a slap-up meal as part of the filming for a new programme about dietary habits.

The 35-year-old landscape garden designer from South London was given carte blanche with the menu. Order what you like, she was told. Enjoy!

She and her husband Roy duly did. They went for burgers (‘great dirty burgers, with everything on,’ she laughs), sweet brioche buns, fries, onion rings, fizzy drinks.

All the ‘baddies’ of the food world if you like. She doused everything in various sauces, piled on the pickles and had the plate swimming in vinegar (‘I love it. I could drink it from the bottle!’). She ate every bite.

Did she feel any guilt about having such enthusiasm (which some would call gluttony) recorded on camera, though? No, she did not. At the end of the meal, something surprising happened. She called the waiter over and ordered another burger. ‘What can I say? I was still hungry,’ she admits. ‘And it wasn’t a one-off. It’s a normal thing for me. Quite often I’ll order a second main course in a restaurant, after I’ve finished the first.

‘Roy and I are forever going out for, say a Chinese meal, and ordering enough for six people. It arrives and we feel guilty for a minute, and talk about how we will have to get a doggie bag. Yet when it comes to it, we do tend to eat it all.

‘I don’t know where it comes from but my capacity to put away food is quite something. I’ve always been like this. When I was a teenager, I’d get fish and chips on the way home —then eat the dinner my mum had made. It used to drive her mad. I do it now too. I’ll go to McDonald’s and have a burger on the way home, when Roy will have made us a nice lamb stir fry with oodles of vegetables. He moans about it. He says: “But you’ll spoil your appetite”. I say: “When have you ever known me not finish what is on my plate?” I just love food.’

Gabby, 35, has always stayed skinny despite ordering two main courses at restaurants when she eats out

So is Gaby one of those caught up in Britain’s obesity epidemic? Far from it.

The Channel 4 show is called The Secret Lives Of Slim People, and Gaby has been picked not because she is big, but because she is tiny. In the flesh, there isn’t a spare pound on her. She wears size 6-8 clothes.

Technically, at 5ft 7in, and weighing just over 8 stone, she is underweight. ‘I’m just in the underweight zone,’ she confirms. ‘But I’ve been this size since I was 18. I never put on weight. I just can’t.’

Why? It’s the question at the heart of this quite astonishing series. Why can some people seemingly eat what they like without putting on a pound, while the rest of us only have to look at a KitKat and start ballooning? Why is life so unfair to the rest of us?

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Gaby signed up to take part in the programme because she wanted the answers too. ‘It’s always just been one of those things. My friends watch me just eat whatever I feel like, and they just get confused about why I’m the size I am. I wanted to find out if there was a “reason”.’

The format of the show has the experts piling in. Gaby undergoes a series of tests to determine that she is healthy, and to check that she has no history of eating disorders.

Her family are interviewed (her baffled mum reveals that as a baby Gaby was anything but thin. She weighed 11½ pounds at birth).

The 35-year-old landscape garden designer from South London and husband Roy feature in a new Channel 4 programme following people who remain slim despite horrible eating habits

Then cameras are installed in her home — particularly in the kitchen, and by the fridge. When she leaves her home, private investigators go too. For one week, every item she puts in her mouth is recorded, and the calorific content is analysed. Every bit of her (dietary) life comes under scrutiny, even to the point of her poo being sent away for analysis.

In Essex, Karl Marley, a 37-year-old car alarm engineer from Braintree, is having his diet similarly examined. Like Gaby, Karl — who has a toddler daughter and another child on the way — has always been thin. He weighs around 9 st, and has never gone above 10 st ‘even when I’ve been really trying to put on weight with protein shakes and the like’. He’s the odd one out in his family.

‘They are all slightly larger than average. They just look at me — and the amount I eat — and tut. They say it doesn’t make sense. My sister is a dietician and even she says: “The maths don’t add up here.”

‘When I was younger, everyone said that it was because I did a lot of sport, and that I’d just blow up one day when I stopped. But I don’t do sport any more, and I’ve stayed the same size. I’ve worn the same size trousers — 28 in waist — since I stopped growing in my teens.’

Karl has a sedentary life now. He spends much of his day in his car, driving to see clients. A camera is put in his car to record what he actually eats en route.

Big appetites: Karl Marley, a 37-year-old car alarm engineer from Essex, weighs 9 stone despite having sugary cereal, two packets of crisps, a fizzy drink, a chocolate bar, a tangerine, an apple, five mini-sausages all before tucking into a ham sandwich for lunch

Brace yourselves, because Karl eats, and eats, and eats. Or so it seems. Every day, he has a sugary cereal with milk before he leaves home, but from mid-morning onwards, he starts the lunchtime routine. He has two packets of crisps, a fizzy drink, a chocolate bar, a tangerine, an apple, five mini-sausages. Then he has a ham sandwich for lunch proper.

‘It has to be ham,’ he says. ‘When we were filming, the TV people got my partner Bethany to put tomato in it, because they were fascinated by how I always ate the same things, and that was a complete no-no. I hate tomato.’

He is an extraordinary creature of habit. ‘I have to have my three meals a day, however much else I have eaten. My wife can skip lunch, or just have a banana, and not think about it. For me, the world would end if I didn’t have my lunch.’

The filming process reveals Karl eats exactly the same things every day, in pretty much the same order and his mealtimes run like clockwork — almost to the minute. Once he has had lunch, though, he doesn’t eat again until evening (although he might have another packet of crisps or two).

When he goes home to a meal prepared by Bethany. It might be a half pizza, with chips, or a stir fry. Whatever, dinner is most certainly followed by dessert. ‘I always have to have something sweet, even if it’s just an ice-cream bar. What the filming did show up, though, was that I eat with military precision. There’s something even robotic about the way I eat.’

Karl (with his daughter and wife) eats exactly the same things every day, in pretty much the same order and his mealtimes run like clockwork — almost to the minute

What on earth to make of these very different — but equally unhealthy, surely —approaches to food? Well, the experts are baffled at first. ‘They just saw me eating junk food, and more junk food,’ admits Karl, but the first surprising revelation comes when the calorie content is worked out, and averaged out over the week.

While there are some days that both Gaby and Karl seem to eat their own body weight in food, the average consumption is not quite as high as you’d imagine. Karl averages 2,600 calories a day which — as resident nutritionist Amanda Ursell calculates — is exactly the amount a man of his age and size should be eating.

‘But because I was quite rigid in when I ate, there wasn’t any uncontrolled snacking,’ says Karl. ‘I didn’t go mad. I don’t really. Everything happens in a specific time-frame.’

Is this significant? Yes, believes Amanda. She wonders if Karl could be inadvertently following a ‘chrono diet’. There is quite a buzz about chronobiology in the nutrition world at the moment.

The thinking behind it is that it’s not just what you eat that influences weight and health, but when you eat it. Karl consumes the majority of his calories early in the day — a good thing, we are told. The meticulously regulated nature of his eating, in terms of the clock, could help too.

‘I found that fascinating. I’d never even heard of chronobiology before,’ he says. ‘I will now have to test it out by stopping eating my food in the way I do — and see if I turn into a whopper!’

What about Gaby and her seemingly endless appetite? Surprisingly, the calorie results are similar. Her meals are much more varied than Karl’s. She may have cereal or toast for breakfast, or pick up a muffin on her way to work. Lunch may be a sausage roll, or a salad grabbed on the hoof. She will tend to wolf down crisps for snacks.

Evenings are interesting. Every night, without fail, her husband Roy cooks. He piles her plate with lots of vegetables as well as meat. For every burger she eats, she will have a mountain of fresh vegetables. She loves pickled vegetables. The couple make their own and she will snack on these.

When the maths is done, it seems that Gaby is NOT eating an obscene amount. (She’s averaging 2,000 calories a day — again the recommended amount for a woman).

There is something rather unusual about Gaby though. Her poo. Samples are sent off to a laboratory in Cork and scientists there make a remarkable discovery. The test they are doing is on gut bacteria, assessing the numbers and types of (good) bacteria present in the digestive system.

They discover that Gaby has the most varied range of gut bacteria they have ever seen — ‘the most diverse bacteria we have ever seen in the whole of Western Europe,’ says Professor Paul O’Toole.

Gaby, who understandably has never given this a thought, is stunned at the news. ‘I feel special,’ she says. What does it mean, though? There is a direct link between gut bacteria — and the speed in which food moves through the system — and obesity.

In a nutshell, low levels of gut bacteria are more likely to be associated with obesity. ‘Those are not the levels you would expect to find in an overweight person,’ says Prof O’Toole, of Gaby’s results.

‘I can only conclude that because I eat a really varied diet, I get away with the stuff that some people might think “bad”,’ says Gaby. She does have her own theories about why she is still slim. Gaby reckons that her job as a landscape gardener plays a role.

‘I’m always outside. There’s a physical aspect — carting big plant pots around — but it’s also usually quite cold. My theory is that I expend so much energy just trying to stay warm that I can eat anything.’

There is also something, she reckons, in her vinegar obsession. ‘I’ve always had that. As a child my mum had to take the vinegar off me because I’d try to drink it out of the cap. I can drink salad dressing straight from the bottle.’

Mother-of-two Rinia Rijker, 30, of Surrey, also features in the new show. In less than 24 hours, the 30-year-old was seen tucking into a fast food breakfast, pictured, munching on crisps and enjoying swigs of cola. She later had a takeaway for dinner

Some believe that a daily dose of vinegar can help you lose weight, though this has never been scientifically proven. Few doctors would suggest glugging it straight from the bottle.

If there are lessons to be learned from both of these people, though, it seems to be that being relaxed about what you eat might well work to your advantage. Neither has the word ‘diet’ in their vocabulary. Neither frets about what they are putting in their mouths.

Neither thinks of any food as ‘bad’ or ‘off-limits’. Neither starves themselves all day, then binges — the thing that horrifies dieticians more than anything (even more than asking for a second burger, it seems). They eat simply when they are hungry.

‘I do feel that I have a very pragmatic approach to food,’ says Gaby. ‘I eat when I’m hungry. I’ve never eaten for comfort, to cheer myself up. When I eat I’m not filling a void in some way.’

And while she can appear to eat her own weight in burgers, all washed down with loads of vinegar, she can turn down a biscuit.

‘I don’t go for sweet things. We can have a packet of biscuits in the house for months and I really won’t be tempted. We still have chocolate left over from Christmas. It might sit there for a year. I honestly won’t be bothered.’

Is this the true answer to why some people are sickeningly slim, though? Perhaps it is.

Secret Lives Of Slim People is on Channel 4 on Monday at 8.30pm.

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