It’s not just me, though. Dip your hand, for a moment, into the stream of media babble and you can haul out any number of articles on food anxiety of one sort or another. Over the last weeks or so, without conscious effort, I’ve acquired an essay on clean eating, an article on food waste, a Radio 4 documentary called Getting to Grips with Anorexia, Mark Austin’s documentary, on Channel 4, Wasting Away: The Truth about Anorexia, an article in the Guardian, yesterday, about how overweight people are being discriminated against at work…We clearly all have a problem with food.
Bee Wilson, writing in the Guardian (The Long Read, 12/08/17) suggests that the Clean-Eating movement is like a post-truth cult. This cult, she claims, calms the fears of their acolytes that they are being poisoned by Agri-business scientists, a fear she traces back at least to the adulterated foodstuffs of Victorian England. It’s not, she says, that there is white lead in the bread anymore, but rather “that our entire pattern of eating may be bad for us, in ways that we can’t fully identify…our current way of eating is slowly poisoning us”. By sticking to a rigidly restricted diet, the Clean-Eaters wrest back control of their diets, their guts and their waist-lines from big business.
This was certainly my experience. I’d developed Graves’ Disease, an auto-immune condition that gave me a highly over-active thyroid gland. Along with (because of) terrible insomnia, anxiety, acute heat intolerance, a complete inability to concentrate and a resting heart-rate of up to 120bpm, I was able to burn off any number calories and still weigh in at around nine and a half stone. I could eat a cheesecake and a pizza a day and remain at nine and a half stone. It was great.
But it wasn’t healthy. So, eventually, I had to have the wayward gland cut out. Then the chickens came home to roost, because, it turns out, there is no such thing as a calorie free lunch. I began to put on weight again – I’d got a little porky before I developed Graves’ disease. It dawned on me that modern processed foods were packed full of fattening crap, that, as Bee Wilson puts it “to walk into a modern western supermarket is to be assailed by aisle upon aisle of salty, oily snacks and sugary cereals, of “bread” that has been neither proved nor fermented, of cheap, sweetened drinks and meat from animals kept in inhumane conditions”. “Affluence and multi-national food companies [have] replaced the hunger of earlier generations with an unwholesome banquet of sweet drinks and convenience foods that teach us from a young age to crave more of the same”.
And it seemed impossible to stay slim under these conditions. All around me more and more people seemed to be morbidly obese, waddling, wheezing down the streets with type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Bee Wilson points out that in 2016 600 children were diagnosed with type 2 diabetes; before 2002 there were no recorded cases of children developing this condition from their diet. The Guardian (31/08/17) reports that 27% of British adults were obese in 2015, while 58% of women, and 68% of men, were overweight.
So when Jo asked me to cook more healthily, I got hold of the Hairy Dieters’ cookbook and, without any noticeable discomfort, my weight started to come down. By cooking all our meals myself, I was able to take back control of what we ate, and of my weight, quite easily.
I started to enjoy watching my weight creep slowly down. I began to see it as an achievement and I was proud of it. Week on week, my weight was the same or marginally lower. I started, inexplicably, to feel exhausted all the time, but on the plus side, about the same time my weight really went off a cliff. I’d got into the habit of seeing this as a pleasing thing, a success, so, at mealtimes, I started to carefully make sure I didn’t overeat, calorie counting, feeling anxious about it…
The point is that I got into this state by resisting the great insistent tide of food that’s sweeping us all towards morbid obesity. And it is literally a huge, physical, actual volume of overproduction. The Waitrose Weekend magazine claims that, in Britain, we throw away 7.3 million tonnes of food worth £13 billion. Our poor hunter-gatherer brains are obviously overwhelmed by the sheer abundance. We don’t know what to do with it. Our choices seem limited to surrendering and becoming massively overweight, or forming a habit of resistance and denial, which is an invitation to self-starvation. It is literally a case of “Cake or Death”.