Eat, drink and be merry

Hester Lacey is sick of being told how bad for her wine, good food, sunshine and anything else that's any fun is (it'll be sex next). So say yes to life and no to the joyless neo-puritans

THIS MONTH'S issue of Elle magazine contains a three-page article by a writer who explains at some considerable length that, although she is mainly vegetarian, she occasionally eats the odd bit of meat or fish because she doesn't think it will do her any harm really and might even be quite healthy. Amazing! In the same spirit, I would like to reveal that, although I don't have a sweet tooth and rarely eat chocolate, a few weeks ago I tried a Maverick bar and really quite enjoyed it; so much so that I have a second one in the fridge and might well eat it at some time over the next few days. Fascinating, no?

Even if it isn't actually that interesting, it's the kind of spiel you'll hear a lot of these days. For if there is one topic on which most people can manage a monologue, it's the subject of what they eat. Or what they don't. Or what they try not to, at any rate. Food itself may not be much fun any more, once fat has been excised, starch and protein rigorously separated and dairy and wheat and sugar cut down or out; but neo-puritan yapping about diet has never been more popular. And it's not just food. Wine, one of the oldest pleasures of the civilised world, is another neo- puritan no-no. One to two units a day (two small glasses) for women is not thought to pose any risk to health, runs the official line. An intake of three or more units, however, is classed as potentially harmful. Bridget Jones, beloved by the nation, is heading for an alcoholic grave. Someone should rescue the poor girl and stick her on a diet of tofu and seaweed and spring water for her own good - incidentally, of course, deleting at a stroke all her sparkle and joie de vivre. And don't think about taking your watercress salad out in the garden; even half an hour in the sunshine, however contented and relaxed it may make you feel, is frowned on as irresponsible. Cover up! Hide away! Don't have any fun whatsoever!

Because fun is not a very neo-puritan concept. A rigorous control ethic knocks for six virtually any convivial gathering. Taking one's own bottle of Aqua Libra to a party and sticking to it does not put everyone else in a joyful mood. Stephen Twigg, the masseur and holistic health practitioner who came up with the Kensington Diet, a ritzy form of food combining, advises that when dining at friends' homes, you should feel free to say to your host that you don't eat meat or fish with potatoes, but that you'll quite happily have the other vegetables. Which is very big and kind of you, and will earn you the humble thanks of whoever has cooked the meal. At the same time everyone else round the table will feel particularly lumpen and you will gain the neo-puritan high ground at a stroke.

Except that eating and drinking and simply being are meant to be a pleasure, not a joyless process that simply involves staying alive. "Part of health is feeling good about yourself and about life, and eating tasty food with a dollop of cream occasionally is part of happiness for me," says Sybil Kapoor, chef and food writer, whose new book Modern British Food is shortly to be published by Penguin. "By all means apply common sense - but you can have anything in moderation without being either enormous or like a stick-insect. I think in its extreme form, worries about food express other anxieties about life."

Indeed. And it seems that neo-puritanism may do as much harm as good. The Association for Research into the Science of Enjoyment (Arise), founded by Professor David Warburton, head of psychopharmacology at Reading University, set out to test the pleasurable properties of such evils as chocolate and alcohol, using scientific measures more often used to measure the effectiveness of antidepressants. And, surprise. They found that wine and fresh cream truffles cheer people up no end and make them feel better. Equally interesting, they also discovered that the stress caused by restraining all natural impulses towards pleasure is actually worse for health than indulging in the first place. And they also found that most people are self-regulating and, given free rein, will not gulp a pound of foie gras washed down with a gallon of whisky a day. "When people are over-consuming, it says more about the person than what they're consuming. We have a very serious point: pleasure is good for your health," argues Professor Warburton. "Jogging and bran muffins are fine," he concedes - "but only if you like jogging and bran muffins."

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