I’ve finally become thoroughly British – I’m hooked on dieting and now I’m as mixed-up and miserable as the rest of the country

Food faddism and hopelessly muddled advice sap the will


Confession: since last Mother’s Day I’ve been on the 5:2 diet. I’d never dieted before but now am hooked and so, properly British, am anxious, obsessed about what to eat, what not to eat, what’s in, what’s out – perpetually discombobulated. For two days a week, I eat only 500 calories, which is very hard and makes me more belligerent than David Starkey; for the other five, I eat normally and become as sweet as honey. And the weight drops off. I am full of fear that I will swell up if I eat reasonably seven days a week, so stay on course. I’m not sure this is a healthy way to be. (Eric Pickles, I salute your guts and free spirit.)

Now there is added pressure never again to be the round, fleshy plum I once was. Sally Davies, our Chief Medical Officer, eminently sensible, size 12-14, states she is extremely worried that obesity is becoming normalised in Britain and that plus-size models may be disincentivising overweight people who should lose weight. There are serious flaws in this quasi-official concern. It simply piles on the guilt and shame, which sometimes leads to more comfort eating and more kilos being piled on. It does not examine the exceptionally twisted relationship that most Britons have with food and their bodies. Worst of all, now it is even harder for people to know what is a reasonable size and shape. She is right to point out the dangers of obesity, but hers was half a message, and half-messages are unhelpful, and arguably dangerous.

She must know how young women in particular have been brainwashed into thinking only very thin is beautiful. Some even die before they reach this goal  and most battle against their own flesh.  Self-hatred among those who have boobs and bums and tums is shockingly widespread and growing. No class is immune. Go to any girls’ private school and see just what the average type there is. Our top health adviser needs to speak up against the normalisation of extreme skinniness, too, because that is leading to some tragic mental instabilities and, according to some medical researchers, serious vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

Say we come to agree about what weight is within the acceptable/desirable/healthy spectrum. We still don’t know how to get there because food faddism, conflicting research, unending arguments and hopelessly mixed and muddled advice sap the will. These confusions don’t seem to be as prevalent in other EU countries and parts of the world but they are spreading. Exports of British food and drink to China are expected to raise £39bn, and there has been a growth in food sales of between 300 to 600 per cent to Bulgaria, Hungary and the Czech Republic – let’s hope it’s not in sticky toffee puds and frozen, fat chips.

Butter was forbidden. Now it’s allowed and all those marg substitutes are damned. The mother of our Queen-to-be apparently tried the Dukan diet – oh, I don’t know, broccoli only on Wednesdays, and beef broth without salt for breakfast and whites of eggs. All that suffering to get into a small dress? Pierre Dukan, the doctor who invented the dos and don’ts, was temporarily banned from practising as a GP in France. Boy George apparently lost weight on something called “biotyping” – eating stuff that didn’t inflame his hormones or something like that. The Paleo diet is allegedly keeping Tom Jones in shape and Miley Cyrus too. That is meat, nuts, no grain, dairy, peas, beans, sugar.

Sugar is now pronounced the deadliest enemy of all; its opponents are like fiery priests. It may well be banished from God’s kingdom and prohibition orders imposed on fruit and fruit juice. Black marketing and smuggling will thrive. (I wonder if Chris Martin just wouldn’t eat any more kale, Gwyneth Paltrow’s fave in a tiresomely rigid eating regime? Can you imagine life with her? Never a Magnum moment.)

While the proselytisers rail, big business and crafty TV cooks sell us sugary delights, pre-packaged products and killingly calorific recipes. Councils do not stop the proliferation of fast-food parades and all our governments are held hostage by the food and drink industry. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, that self-reverential food activist who speaks up for endangered fish and all that, also shows us how to make “healthy” flapjacks dripping with butter and peanut butter. He, Nigella, Jamie, Mary Berry and others do not include calorie counts in the stuff they urge us to make. Trust me. You can get very tubby eating wonderfully made, middle-class grub.

The only food whims I was subjected to were invented by my mum: “Beetroot because it makes blood straightaway, cashews for fresh kidneys, walnuts for the brain – and almonds, also – milk to keep skin white.” Life was simple then. Now I am lost in a labyrinth with too many culinary maps. How did we Britons become so dysfunctional, joyless and demented about basic pleasure and life-giving food?

First-class singers, second-class citizens

Morgan Neville has made one hell of a documentary about backing singers, most of them African-American women. The Oscar-winning 20 Feet from Stardom is stirring, haunting, perfectly integrates music and story, and leaves imprints deep in the consciousness. But the director also lacks guts, and has carefully circumvented the central truths exposed by his own film: racism, sexism and exploitation. Maybe Neville thinks he does address these with finesse and subtlety. So much finesse and subtlety that most audiences will leave without being unsettled by these injustices. And probably singing some of the wonderful old songs.

Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega, and so many others with divine voices tell their stories – about being raised to sing gospel songs, the agonies and ecstasies of being vocal accessories to famous pop stars, the way the industry treated them, how some had to do menial jobs, and what they now think of back then. That rat Phil Spector attributed their recordings to other singers. When some did get solo recording deals, the companies appeared to do little to promote them. But they still laugh, are proud, look beautiful and keep faith. And Love has made a comeback at the age of 72.

Multimillionaire Sting opines that money matters less to these women than their need to sing. Really? Jagger, Bowie, Springsteen, James Taylor – all generously praise the backers; so too Stevie Wonder and Luther Vandross. But they still kept them in their places, away from stardom.

So go, enjoy – and then get angry.

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