Eat, drink and be wary? New Year diets be damned

V0042012 The dance of death: the glutton. Coloured aquatint by T. Row
‘The dance of death: the glutton.’ Credit: Wellcome Trust.

After the holiday blow-out many people start to think uneasily about New Year reformation. New Year, new you and all that biznai. From my window I saw joggers stumbling red-faced and queasy through the streets on New Year’s Day. People join gyms and sign up to diets. They make resolutions. They look at themselves unhappily, feeling old and unwell. Some of this is a natural revulsion of sentiment after the long Christmas and New Year binge, and it can be healthy enough. Where it fails is where it touches the fault lines in our peculiar attitudes to food and health.

Diets: fail or go mad trying

I grew up in the Lake District and my parents and many of their friends worked in catering. Most of my early jobs, including my first graduate job, were in restaurants, hotels and cafés. By the time I was an adult I was well used to people talking about food, sometimes with a lot of knowledge and feeling. Not long into my first office job, however, I realised that I’d never heard people discuss food with such frequency and intensity. The professionals were nowhere compared to this mob. It was a strange thing, or so I thought at the time, because the biggest talkers were the dieters, and there was something not wholly sane in the way they talked. Partly it was the resemblance to the tabloid newspapers’ crème brûlée approach to describing sex scandals; creamily concupiscent description covered by the burnt sugar of moral disapproval. Odi et amo, I hate and I love. But beyond that was the place food had taken in their minds. It was too big. It made me think of Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, Babylon Revisited, where a reformed drunkard tries to reclaim custody of his daughter from his dead wife’s family.

‘I haven’t had more than a drink a day for over a year, and I take that drink deliberately, so that the idea of alcohol won’t get too big in my imagination. You see the idea?’

‘No,’ said Marion succinctly.

‘It’s a sort of stunt I set myself. It keeps the matter in proportion.’

‘I get you,’ said Lincoln. ‘You don’t want to admit it’s got any attraction for you.’

‘Something like that. Sometimes I forget and don’t take it. But I try to take it.’

It may not have done Fitzgerald much good, but he understood obsessive craving, or addiction if you prefer.

Dieting makes food become big in the imagination; the dieters think about food all the time, and with a horrible intensity and an unwholesome mix of guilt, desire and self-abnegation. Life is an unending secular Lent or Ramadan.

Naturally, most people fail to keep this up. It asks too much and offers too little, and what could be more difficult than doing it while brooding endlessly on food? Especially if it’s a radical change and food has to be endured rather than enjoyed. It may work for a while, but then nature reasserts itself. The few who maintain it indefinitely require a quasi-religious commitment, an obsessiveness and focus that eating just doesn’t merit. Literally and figuratively, it’s navel gazing.

I love food, and agree with Johnson that ‘Some people have a foolish way of not minding, or pretending not to mind, what they eat. For my part, I mind my belly very studiously, and very carefully; for I look upon it, that he who does not mind his belly, will hardly mind anything else.’ Nonetheless, there’s something ignoble and dispiriting about harnessing your mind and—how best to put it?—your soul, your moral sense to your body. Food was made for man, and not man for food. Seneca’s dictum, Nemo liber est qui corpori servit, Call no man free who is a slave to his own body, cuts more than one way; don’t be a glutton, don’t be a health nut. And getting fit is meaningless unless you’re making yourself fit for something; it’s a means to an end, not an end in itself.

There’s nothing wrong or impossible about considering what you eat and changing it, but for the love of God don’t go on a diet. It probably won’t work, and if it does, so much the worse for you. When I think of a successful dieter, I think of Gillian McKeith.

It’s a poor diet that’s never enjoyed: Michael Pollan on food

He showed the words ‘chocolate cake’ to a group of Americans and recorded their word associations. ‘Guilt’ was the top response. If that strikes you as unexceptional, consider the response of French eaters to the same prompt: ‘celebration.’

If you want to eat better this year you could do worse than buying one of Michael Pollan’s books; In Defence of Food, say. It’d be money better spent than on a dieting book or programme. Pollan writes so persuasively that it’s tempting to make him into what he derides: a food guru. However, what he suggests is a change in attitude rather than a prescriptive diet, and whatever you take away from reading him is likely to be at the very least interesting, if you like food.

Pollan is not only concerned with what we eat, but how we eat it. He also enjoys debunking nutritional science and is horribly revealing about how the food and dieting industries work. ‘Bad’ foods, ‘superfoods’ and the cure-all diet are all knocked on the head, and he points out that humankind has survived very nicely on many different diets around the world. His one bugbear is the modern American (or ‘Western’) diet:

Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the Greeks. Confounding factors aside, people who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally healthier than we are. Any traditional diet will do: if it weren’t a healthy diet, the people who follow it wouldn’t still be around. True, food cultures are embedded in societies and economies and ecologies, and some of them travel better than others: Inuit not so well as Italian. In borrowing from a food culture, pay attention to how a culture eats, as well as to what it eats. In the case of the French paradox, it may not be the dietary nutrients that keep the French healthy (lots of saturated fat and alcohol?!) so much as the dietary habits: small portions, no seconds or snacking, communal meals—and the serious pleasure taken in eating. (Worrying about diet can’t possibly be good for you.) Let culture be your guide, not science.

His advice is simple enough: eat real food (i.e. not ‘edible food-like substances’; if bacteria won’t eat it, neither should you) and enjoy it. Don’t be morbid, and don’t be greedy. Oh, and…

Avoid even those food products that come bearing health claims. They’re apt to be heavily processed, and the claims are often dubious at best. Don’t forget that margarine, one of the first industrial foods to claim that it was more healthful than the traditional food it replaced, turned out to give people heart attacks.

You’re probably better off with beef dripping, which delighted me, not least because of the years of slightly priggish mockery I endured for keeping meat fats in my fridge and always using butter.

Paul Fishman (Bristol, January 2015)

For the record, ‘Eat, drink, and be merry’ comes from two Biblical sources:

  • ‘Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry.’ (Ecclesiastes 8:15)
  • ‘Let us eat and drink; for to morrow we shall die.’ (Isaiah 22:13)

F Scott Fitzgerald 1931 Babylon Revisited (available online and in various Penguin print editions)

James Boswell 1791 Life of Johnson (available in an abridged version online, but much better in the various print editions—I have the Oxford University Press World’s Classics edition)

Michael Pollan 2008 In Defence of Food (Harmondsworth: Penguin)

(Listen to Michael Pollan being interviewed on BBC Radio 4, 5 October 2014 here.)

Header image: The dance of death: the glutton. Coloured aquatint by T. Rowlandson (1816). Credit: Wellcome Trust, Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 4.0.

3 thoughts on “Eat, drink and be wary? New Year diets be damned

  1. “And getting fit is meaningless unless you’re making yourself fit for something; it’s a means to an end, not an end in itself.”

    All ends are arbitrary and self-determined, so you could make the same statement about reading and it’d be no more or less justified. But, that aside, you’re dismissing the pleasure that can be had in exercising for its own sake. You know the satisfaction that comes with the intellectual challenge of a difficult book; well, why think that physical self-improvement with no other purpose in mind is any less rewarding? What a joy it is to find and push against the limits of your fitness, and to see them recede month by month!

  2. I take your point, though I have no joy in pushing against the limits of my fitness. In fact, I dislike it. However, as the late Auberon Waugh said about vandalism … ‘”Senseless” is a word usually applied to these acts […] but when one grasps the simple proposition that vandals obviously enjoy breaking things, then vandalism is no more senseless than playing tennis’.

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