Zoe harcombe

In a study of formerly obese people, researchers at the University of Florida found that virtually all said that they would rather be blind, deaf or have a leg amputated than be obese again. (ref 1) That is the extent of our desire to be slim and yet two thirds of people in the UK, USA and Australia are overweight and one quarter obese. Why?

To be slim, to achieve the thing we want more than our sight, hearing, or mobility, we are told that we just need to “eat less and/or do more.” Quite specifically, the advice is “One pound of fat contains 3,500 calories, so to lose 1lb a week you need a deficit of 500 calories a day.” (ref 2)

So, why don’t we just follow the advice? Why on earth do we have an obesity problem, let alone an epidemic, when we so desperately want to be slim?

Dr Zoë Harcombe, PhD set out to answer that question in the late 1980s and the paradox of escalating obesity and overwhelming desire to be slim, has been a constant fascination ever since. At the time of starting her research, obesity levels for men and women in the UK had reached double figures. By the end of the millennium, UK obesity rates were 22.6% and 25.8% for men and women respectively and have worsened further since. (ref 3)

Zoë was the first person from her state school to graduate from Cambridge University, having won a scholarship to read mathematics/economics at this famous institution.

Zoë’s first book asked and answered the ‘million dollar’ question from the perspective of an individual. Why do you overeat? When all you want is to be slim was published in 2004 and then completely revised in 2013. This book still elicits the most wonderful comments from people who read it and finally understand where they’ve been going wrong.

Following the success of Why do you overeat?, Stop Counting Calories & Start Losing Weight was published in 2008, to share the real food message as simply and passionately as possible with a growing number of followers. A recipe book came out at the same time. Zoë has also appeared on TV and Radio and writes regularly for magazines and newspapers. (Media features can be seen here).

Zoë has a PhD in public health nutrition. The full title of her thesis is: “An examination of the randomised controlled trial and epidemiological evidence for the introduction of dietary fat recommendations in 1977 and 1983: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis“. Zoë researches in the fields of nutrition, diet, dietary advice, diet-related health and obesity and reads, writes and talks about these subjects as many hours as possible, seven days a week. Her goal and drive is to reverse the obesity epidemic. She has clear views on how it started and what we need to do to stop it and these were published in 2010 in the 134,000 word book: The Obesity Epidemic: What caused it? How can we stop it?

Ref 1: Colleen S.W. Rand and Alex M. C. Macgregor, “Successful weight loss following obesity surgery and the perceived liability of morbid obesity”, International Journal of Obesity, (1991).

Ref 2: British Dietetic Association’s leaflet “Want to lose weight & keep it off…?”.

Ref 3: Wadsworth M, Kuh D, Richards M, Hardy R, The 1946 National birth cohort (MRC national Survey of Health and development).

In Zoë’s words:

Full name?

Zoë Verna Harcombe (Verna is my mum’s name – it’s French for ‘Spring born’ apparently – and I was!)

Vital statistics?

Height 5’2”; Weight 7.12-8 stone; BMI 20.5

Favourite colour?


Favourite food?

Chocolate! (85-90% cocoa)


Husband Andy, his two boys – Gez and Max and our two mad rescue animals – one canine and one feline. They adore each other and there’s no Tom & Jerry stuff going on!

Have you ever passed off a bought meal as your own?

No way – my friends all know I can make chocolate mousse and that’s it! Andy is the cook in our household – I’m the taster!

Favourite book?

I have three: The Power of Now by Ekhart Tolle; The Diet Delusion by Gary Taubes and The Great Cholesterol Con by Dr Malcolm Kendrick . All brilliant and original and good to take on a desert island, as you would never get bored of re-reading them.

What do you do to relax?

I’m not great at relaxing – I’m pretty full on from the minute I wake up until the minute I crash. If the cat jumps on my lap – that’s the best thing guaranteed to make me sit still until he decides he’s had enough! Thinking about it – it’s animals that best help me relax – a walk with Roxy is wonderfully relaxing.

Favourite Film?

I have three criteria for a great film – the three “E’s” – if anything Entertains, Educates and Emotionally stimulates me, I love it. There are loads that Entertain and Emotionally ‘reach me’: “Love Actually”, “Bridget Jones”, “About a boy”, “Notting Hill” – I love all that stuff. There are also quite a few films that deliver all three – examples would be “Dead Poet’s Society”, “Cry Freedom”, “Amadeus”, “Erin Brockovich”, “Gladiator” etc.  I hate any depressing films, like “The Piano”, “Atonement”, “The Reader” – why would anyone want to watch a film that makes them depressed?! Fave overall? Dead Poet’s Society clinches it I think – if only for the brilliant Robin Williams.

Favourite TV?

I watch so little TV I hardly know what people are talking about. I do the thumbs up thing on TIVO to record all diet programmes, but I watch those with the laptop in front of me making notes and analysing things. I keep factsheets on things from the Horizon Atkins programme to “Why are thin people not fat” and “Britain’s Biggest Loser” and all sorts – these are not just diet programmes – they are a great source of research material.

Fave TV series is deffo “24” – best thing on the small screen ever! I loved Prison Break also – but only after the first series, which was a bit slow. My new faves are House of Cards and Stella.

What makes you cry?

What doesn’t?! Any human emotion makes me cry – someone getting through on the X Factor/American Idol, someone scoring the winning goal in a footy match (and I don’t even like football that much), every event at the Olympics, watching people reunite at airports – I’m a basket case!

What makes you laugh?

The dog’s face when the cat is in her basket! Twitter makes me laugh most days, Michael McIntyre, Gavin & Stacey, Stella (two mentions for this brilliant series), Friends, Gabby & Carlos on Desperate Housewives, Jo Brand, clever cartoons in newspapers, great one-liners and loads of my friends make me laugh – that’s nice eh?!

Personal Values?

Health, Relationships, Personal Development, Mutuality and Integrity.


Any time when I’m not reading something about obesity, I love spending time with Andy (we work together now, so we need to get non-work time also), walking the dog, stroking the cat, rugby (supporting Wales – can be very stressful), socialising and having great dinner parties with great friends.

Describe yourself in 5 words:

I asked Andy to do this and he said (he can’t count!): Friendly; Too bright; Enthusiastic; Principled; Chatty; Passionate (oh, & short!)