Wednesday, 6 May 2009

about food

i read an article in vogue last night about a woman who decides to stop watching what she eats in order to see what happens. she describes how she’d spent the last twenty years being extremely disciplined about food. 

she writes about her discovery of hot chocolate and salami baguettes as if she were doing some amazing, never-tried-before scientific experiment that might provide a clue to a rare disease, like the guy who infected himself with heliobacter pylori to prove that it causes stomach ulcers. not just eating.

the article is written by christa d’souza who i find so patently vacuous that the admission that being thin was her ‘thing’ didn’t surprise me. but when you think about it, it is extraordinary that this is how you would choose to define yourself. just being thin. not smart, or talented, or even beautiful. just not eating much.

and yet, i know plenty of slim and seemingly normal girls and women who behave in the way d'souza describes. it’s a life of constant denial and guilt: you eat cottage cheese and rice cakes and you drink diet coke but then have a splurge on cake or chocolate (it’s always something sweet, you rarely hear about women falling off the diet wagon by eating loads of roast pork belly) that leaves you racked with remorse.

these are the women who count every calorie, and every gram of fat. there is one in a supermarket near you as we speak – a young, trendy woman, spending far too much time by aisles of ready made food, or pasta sauces, or ice cream, examining labels for nutritional content as if her life depended on it. this is a woman who will order steamed fish in restaurants and then eat half of her boyfriend’s chips. a woman who will only drink vodka and slimline tonic or white wine. a woman who buy pret’s slim sandwiches and asks for salad dressing on the side.

more than that, these are women who think that all their problems would disappear if only they were thinner. they would miraculously find those elusive boyfriends, and the high street shops full of size 8s would be theirs.

don’t get me wrong though – i am pretty slim. and i know part of the reason why i do the primal/paleo thing is not just health but also sheer vanity. the older you get, the harder it is to look good and keep the weight off. you work out pretty soon after your 33rd birthday (or thereabouts) that something has to give. most people turn to exercise, not realising that their chances of losing weight by that alone are pretty much zero. they may be higher if you give up your job and train 5 hours a day but that’s about it. 

in reality, the only way to lose weight is to change how and what you’re eating. you have two choices there – either pick a ‘diet’, which is almost always going to be of the low fat, high whole grains variety, and continue counting calories and watching every mouthful; or pick paleo and eat what you want from a limited range of foods. it seems blindingly obvious to me that anyone sane would choose the latter. but the fact that we have failed to convince anyone we know to do the same shows how hard-wired certain beliefs about food are. 

i know that eating this way can also be seen as an exercise in denial, no better than d’souza’s fear of chocolate. but it doesn’t feel like it to me, and i suspect it’s the same for most people who’ve made the switch. this is partly a purely physiological response – you’ve brought your blood sugar under control and don’t get the same peaks and troughs you normally experience. this has been the biggest shock for me, and strangely disappointing at first. my relationship with food was driven by the extreme blood sugar crashes – that feeling that you will pass out if you don’t eat NOW. with paleo/primal, within a few weeks i wasn’t getting that ravenous hunger – but nor was i getting a nice, carb-laden reward at the end of it.

the fact that it doesn’t feel like denial is also about eating fat. fat is deeply, luxuriously satisfying and getting rid of the tyranny of low fat eating has to be one of the high points. fat is filling, it tastes good and – crucially – it’s quite hard to stuff your face full of it. as any good primal/paleo proponent will tell you - try eating loads of butter or even something like pork crackling. it’ll make you feel sick pretty quickly. but try eating cake with the same amount of butter in it but also containing sugar and flour will be...er...a piece of cake.

there are other differences too. there is no restriction on the amount you eat. just piling stuff high on a plate can sometimes feel good. i never think about portion control any more (to be fair, i don’t think i ever did but i certainly did leave the chicken skin on my plate whereas now we practically have a punch-up in the kitchen over who gets the best bits of it). it’s hard to eat enough fennel or spinach or fish for it to ever be a weight issue. you might overdo it occasionally on the nut front but it doesn’t seem to make a huge amount of difference. the odd sugar binge, is you are ‘clean’ most of the time, is irrelevant, though as the time goes, you feel less and less like having one of those anyway. high carbohydrate foods start tasting too sweet (i ate some butternut squash last night and it tasted overwhelmingly of...jam).

also, unlike ‘normal’ dieters, you are not excluding foods you should be eating simply in order to stay thin. i’ve seen it many times – christ, i’ve done it myself – those amazing feats of arithmetic where you pre-allocate your daily calories in a way you think will allow you to stick to the recommended daily intake (which you read in a magazine and so is probably rubbish but you fail to see that in your weight-obsessed blindness) and still go out for dinner or drinking.

but there is a more general point about women like d’souza. i find it perverse – and this can apply to my own eating choices – that we have become so neurotic about food when half of the world is starving. it would be hilarious if it wasn’t so tragically sad. when i succumb to my frequent affliction of seeing life as it is now from the perspective of history (with capital h), all i see is this bizarre morality – i can’t think of another word - that allows women in the western world to remain locked in a constant, relentless pursuit of thinness. do we stand a chance of being judged kindly by our descendants when women like d’souza say they go to bed straight after dinner so as to avoid temptation lurking in the kitchen?? or that they swig white wine to dull hunger pains? i feel like getting a tube to kensington, finding her and giving her a slap.

the weirdest thing is that people like her clearly don’t feel ashamed of admitting to being like this. the fact that you can write an autobiographical piece for vogue, embellished or not, means that you assume your behaviour is shared by others. so there must be lots of moneyed women roaming around kensington and chelsea in hungry, fake-tanned and designed-clad packs, validating each other’s neuroses.

i don’t know what the solution to this is. i am not going to end on a didactic note about how we should all ditch doughnuts and muesli and start eating venison. i know full well that the whole world couldn’t eat like i do – there are too many of us on this planet and i feel guilty about that on a daily basis. 

most people reading this will be in a fortunate position to buy whatever food they like. i guess my message is that they should at least question the accepted wisdom of nutritional advice. even if you don’t believe the science behind books like taubes’ good calories, bad calories (and you would be amazed if you read it, i promise you), you should at least realise that public health policy, like any policy, is not made on the basis of absolute truths discovered by scientific boffins in white coats. there’s a lot of intervention, a lot of dodgy clinical trials, a lot of conflicts of interest, and a lot of political interfering. 

so don’t believe everything they tell you, whoever they are.

3 comments:

  1. stumbled on your blog a few weeks ago. loved this post.

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  2. I couldn't have said this better (although I have tried).

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  3. Brilliant! And you have converted some people you know to a paleo life (at least most of the time!) And can I be with you when you slap that woman - just so I don't have to do it myself!!!

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