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London - Those who claim they are following their diets “religiously” are not only being figurative about their diligence.
Matt Fitzgerald, an endurance sports writer, coach and nutritionist, makes the interesting point in Diet Cults that each and every weight-loss fad – the grapefruit diet, slimfast diet, Scarsdale Diet, Atkins diet, among many others – embodies core elements of a sacred sect, with followers and disciples, converts and renegades.
Slimming World, my own cult of choice, even meets in a church hall – and we, the stout, enjoy the camaraderie, the fellowship, and shout hallelujah when a kilo or two are shed.(Thirteen kilograms in my case - I’m heading for canonisation.)
Diets don’t appeal to reason as such – like religion, they operate on the emotions, for which some kind of structure is nevertheless required and is why I call my Slimming World “Food Optimising” handbook my bible.
Fitzgerald says that people fear being on their own, and assume that it is impossible to attain maximum health without joining a diet cult. And in their own turn, religions are keen on gastronomic rules and regulations: there are 613 rules of correct living for Jews in the Torah, for example.
Muslims have halaal methods of slaughter. Christianity is based around the rituals of dining – suppers, wedding parties, parables about crops and vineyards.
One of philosophy’s great puzzles is the connection between the soul and the body – fleshly impulses versus spiritual feelings.
People want to feel purified, and vegetarians and vegans see the body as in imminent danger of rotting and fermenting from too much protein, which is “clogging up the vision, clogging up the lymphatic system”.
While this very well may be so, I am the son of a Welsh butcher. Vegetarianism holds all the appeal for me of the Moonies.
In evolutionary terms, we have not done very well with our diets. When the apes dropped from the trees, where they’d subsisted on fruit and insects, and began to hunt on the grassy plains, assuming an upright posture and opposable thumbs the better to capture, kill and market (I presume) woolly mammoths, in two shakes of a lamb’s tail, complex societies existed and everyone was obese, lolling on sofas all afternoon in front of the telly, guzzling on snacks and crisps from vending machines, cheeseburgers and beer.
Though such a scenario is convincing, the cavemen were probably thin because they had to keep running away from sabre tooth tigers. Nevertheless, there are now cults in California that won’t eat bread because people didn’t 8 000 years ago. They won’t cook, because “cooking destroys vital nutrients in food”. That’s rubbish. Frying aside, cooking increases the amount of energy the body can extract from what it ingests. As Fitzgerald says, “cooking made us human”.
There is a religious sense of asceticism or mortification behind diets – the notion that being lardy involves a sense of sin and shame. We all know people who will never admit to being greedy. Instead they say with a straight face they are big-boned or have a slow metabolism.
As Fitzgerald says, if people are blobby, it is because they can’t sustain the self-discipline necessary to keep fit in the modern age.
“Just one burger won’t kill me” is the fatal line of thought – a demonic temptation. If, in the 19th century, no fewer than 10 dishes were served at a typical gathering in grand homes, people didn’t immediately collapse because they were simply more active – walking or riding, marching and colonising India.
Our contemporary equivalents are athletes, who eat eggs and pasta by the bucket, yet remain slender because they swim six hours a day, lift weights, run for kilometres – “and if the furnace is hot enough, everything burns”. Whose furnace today is switched on, let alone up high? Were we to go back in time, we’d never adjust to the cuisine, in the same way that Red Indians, Hawaiians and Aborigines are destroyed by any abrupt switch to the modern Western diet.
Our ancestors were enterprisingly carnivorous in ways alien to us now. Explorers in the New World dined on badger, beaver, bear, cormorant, otter, porcupine and wolf. Meat was the most concentrated source of energy available – and what a lot of big girl’s blouses people are today with their gluten and lactose intolerances, or those maniacs you hear about who rinse cottage cheese to reduce its fat content.
One problem for the early settlers in the American West was they survived almost entirely on elk. The monotony nearly drove them crazy.
As Jesus said, man cannot live by bread alone – or in my case, stew. Stew was the only thing my mother wished to cook, God bless her. A cauldron bubbled on the stove for decades, into which was tossed any old scrap or gritty carrot. Indeed, when Shakespeare heard about my mother’s stew, he wrote Macbeth.
But it didn’t kill me, did it? It’s the modish low-fat, high-carb, or high-fat, low-carb, or liquid diets based on pricey weight-loss supplements that you have to watch.
The orthodoxy is always altering. Atkins demonised the potato as the most calorifically productive crop on Earth, with the result there was an 8 percent drop in demand worldwide, even in Ireland, where it had been a staple. There were notorious famines in 1845 and 1852 when the crop failed and everyone had to emigrate to Boston and drink Guinness instead.
Yet, in 2011, a researcher decided to eat nothing but spuds for 60 days straight. He lost 10kg, his cholesterol dropped to healthy levels, and his wife said he stopped snoring. Result: knickers to Atkins.
What is gospel one minute is heresy the next. Sugar, creamy milk and red meat are now carcinogenic evils. Coffee, which we were advised to cut down on, is now, according to the Harvard School of Public Health, an elixir: “Habitual coffee drinkers were up to 40 percent less likely to kill themselves.”
Bars of chocolate are also back on the menu, as cocoa “has a favourable effect on blood platelet formation and reduces the risk of heart attacks and strokes”. Does that mean I don’t have to feel guilty about wholenut? If the voices from the pulpit now agree that a little bit of what you fancy does you good, and that the purpose of a diet is to enable higher energy levels and improved mood states and mental health, the answer is yes.
And as any fool always knew, plump people are jollier than sour-looking skinny people. But if you don’t really want to be a fat pig, only exercise will stimulate major weight loss – though no way will you find me watching workout videos.
The best method of all, of course, is not to eat a thing – hence the religious notion of fasting, which the devout go in for to practise humility and self-control.
But it amused me to learn that though for years people thought their splendid olive oil was the reason why Greeks seldom died of heart disease, it has now been worked out their longevity is related to the fact that in the Greek Orthodox Church there are no less than 180 fasting days each year.
So extra virgin olive oil has nothing to do with it. My theory, however, is that Greeks are in tip-top shape because of all that plate smashing. – Daily Mail