Why healthy eating is bad for you

Food is essential fuel, sensuous pleasure and communal ritual. Yet the female relationship to it is all too often complicated by self- denial, calorie counting and low-fattism. Hettie Judah met the women for whom eating the 'right' food has become an unhealthy obsession
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"I am not on a special kind of diet, I eat everything and anything. I never really read the back of packets, but I am aware of maintaining a healthy diet." Sonia, aged 36, is describing her relationship with food. Recently divorced, she has decided that the time has come for her to develop a generally healthier lifestyle. We talk for a further 10 minutes. "I have tried to lose weight all my life. I don't calorie count, I just cut down," she comments in passing, apparently unaware that this contradicts her earlier statement.

It gradually becomes apparent that Sonia's healthy-eating plan proceeds in two weeks on, two weeks off fashion. For the first fortnight she will restrict her consumption to one very small meal a day, usually salad and white meat; for the other fortnight she will eat all the foods that she actually enjoys; and then the cycle will start again. "My life is more organised when I am dieting. I don't think that anybody notices when I lose weight, but I do, and I feel better," Sonia tells me.

This organised life is extremely fragile. If Sonia has to go to a party or wedding during her fortnight-long fast, the whole system crumbles. "If I go out and I eat one thing, I think, well, it's gone now, I can eat anything I like," she says. Although she refers to her eating pattern as a "vicious circle", Sonia sniffed at the idea of stability. "I don't live like that, I think that would be very boring. I'd rather skip backwards and forwards and have a week of fatness and a week off. That's my temperament."

Sonia is one of almost 50 women I interviewed during July this year in an attempt to understand a variety of what now appear to be very common disordered eating habits. The women in the group were chosen randomly, ranging in age from 16 to 50. Only two were officially on a diet, only one had officially suffered from an eating disorder and none were technically overweight. Most said that they tried to eat as healthily as possible. Initially, I was trying to track down the kind of women I had seen in supermarkets around the country, shuffling from counter to counter comparing the calories on the back of food packets. What I found were a whole range of peculiar food relationships, none of which were likely to be displayed to a doctor or psychologist.

Carol is a student from Leicester. She is vegetarian but beyond that regards her eating habits as relaxed verging on the lazy. "I buy low-fat stuff, and I always check to see how many calories there are in it - a friend told me that if nothing you eat has more than four per cent fat in it then you won't get fat," she says. "When I started following the four per cent fat rule I did have to trawl round Safeway looking at everything, but I did that to a certain extent anyway, even before I knew about the four per cent thing."

Yet this rule is quite simply a fallacy. In her recent book Like Mother, Like Daughter: How To Break Free From The Female Food Trap, Debra Waterhouse writes: "It is simply not true that you can eat anything you want, in any quantity you want, whenever you want, as long as it's non-fat. Overeating non-fat foods will lead to weight gain." I confirmed this claim with Kate Trotter, senior dietician at the Bethlem Maudsley NHS Trust, who adds: "Calories are calories. Even if you only ate lettuce, if you managed to eat enough, you would put on weight." She takes issue with low-fat food in general. "If you know that something is low in fat it does appear to make you eat more of it."

Carol, in common with many of the women I interviewed, has a fetish for chocolate and cakes and has attempted, rather unsuccessfully, to eliminate them from her diet. She now uses them as her treat at the end of a bad day. Healthy eaters go to ridiculous lengths to create a system whereby forbidden foods can occasionally insinuate themselves into an otherwise controlled diet. Ruby "follows her hormones" and only eats cake in what she refers to as her "fat" (ie premenstrual) week. Judith used to abstain during the week and eat freely at the weekends when she saw her boyfriend. Now she abstains at weekends, too, but finds that the cravings have got worse. "Every time I walk past a shop, I think, 'God, I could really go for a bar of chocolate now,' but I won't let myself do it. Sometimes, I think it would be better to stop and have a bar of chocolate and show myself how insignificant it is, but I always just say no, which I think makes it worse."

"The general feeling among people who work in this area is that if you start to make something forbidden it becomes that much more attractive," says Dr Jane Wardell, a clinical psychologist who heads a research unit into healthy lifestyle at University College London. "When we run groups for overweight women, trying to help them get out of difficult cycles of bingeing and dieting, we spend a lot of time trying to understand that to eat in a reasonably restrained and healthy way is to do what is good for your body and should not be seen as a terrible deprivation. It's helpful to stop people thinking, "Everybody else can have these things, poor little me, why can't I have them? It's not fair," and to start them thinking, "Well none of these people ought to be eating that kind of stuff either; it isn't good for any of us."

Trotter is keen to avoid forbidding foods. "It isn't healthy to avoid crisps and chocolate all together - it destroys social eating. You do have psychological health as well as physical health, and there is a real need for special foods in bringing people together. One needs to look at complete health, not just the body."

It is this psychological health that often seems to suffer in the devotion to healthy eating. "Many who regard themselves as being health-conscious and watching what they eat are actually quite obsessive," notes Trotter. For some of the women I interviewed, the whole issue of health seemed more tied to ideas of control and asceticism than any concept of nourishment. Kate, for example, is 21 and keen to eat healthily. I asked her how she would feel if she accidentally missed a meal. "It would be a bonus," she said enthusiastically, and confirmed that she would definitely feel more healthy having missed the meal.

The concept of health is increasingly strained by the many contradictions that appeared during the interviews. The greater the emphasis on a healthy lifestyle, the more likely it seemed that the women would smoke. "Rather than having a packet of crisps I'll have a cigarette instead. I smoke about 15, maybe 20 a day," explains Victoria. "In the back of my mind there will always be the idea that if I give up I will put on weight."

Charlie sees no apparent conflict between her diet, based on "healthy organic ingredients", and her "vicious clubbing and drugging lifestyle". She is quite happy to put chemicals directly into her body, but not, apparently, into her food. Her fondness for recreational drugs led to a mild eating disorder a few years ago. "When I wasn't eating enough it was subconsciously deliberate, but it was a lot to do with my lifestyle - although I always had time for a cigarette, I may not have had time to eat sufficient food. It takes quite a lot of self-control, especially when you feel nice and fluffy."

It became apparent that food for many was associated with unhappiness, not celebration. Because of years of yo-yo dieting, eating normally or abundantly was associated with failure and loss of self control. A fairly normal impulse to comfort-eat in times of stress is exacerbated by a diet or restrictive healthy-eating drive. "When people try to deliberately inhibit something - in the case of dieters, their food intake - they have got to push it below what their bodies are telling them they need. This sort of deliberate inhibition is something that can easily have its lid blown off. When dieters are upset or under certain kinds of stress, it seems that there is a kind of abandonement of inhibition, and some go over the top," Wardell explains.

Such inhibition of natural urges starves a body of more than food. Dieters distance themselves for the bonding processes involved in sharing a meal. Joan Smith, author of Hungry For You, identifies the rejection of sensual enjoyment in food as being a particularly female problem. "Food and sex are two of the great pleasures of life and are closely linked. Women haven't traditionally given a lot of thought to their own appetites, instead concentrating on giving pleasure to men and making sure that they have enough to eat. Men have colonised the glamorous side of cooking and eating while our relationship with food has been utilitarian - female chefs, on the whole, don't become Byronic Marco Pierrre White figures. Women are somehow disconnected from food and pleasure, and if they do connect with it, it is in a very guilty way."

We are living through a paradox. On the one hand, people are increasingly becoming obese and genuinely need to lose weight; on the other, dieting as it is generally practised seldom seems to end up with the desired result. Messages about health and weight loss become confused as people increasingly follow incorrect advice from friends and magazines rather than doctors and expert dietitians. If you do genuinely need to lose weight, no temporary diet will ever have a lasting effect. The only way to lose weight permanently is to permanently change your lifestyle.

Depressingly, the problem seems to be predominantly female. Wardell recently researched the eating habits of a group of middle-aged men. To her surprise she discovered that most of them exercised effective control over their diets, refusing to eat puddings or cheese. Far from deducing that men were naturally better at controlling their eating habits than women, Wardell explained that their decisions to exercise control were made in a cool emotional state. Women often make the same decision in a state of anxiety with all the heat of the issue for their sex surrounding them, and are thus more likely to fail. Nearly 20 years after Susie Orbach first opened the door, it seems that fat is still a feminist issue.

All cases names have been changed.