Christina Patterson: Why our very big society is a sign that something's gone wrong

The Saturday Column
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The Independent Online

For some people, eating is very hard work.

You can't just point at a sandwich and say you'll have it. You have to ask the person who's selling the sandwich, and who probably didn't make the sandwich, what exactly is in it. If the person starts talking about the filling, and says something vague like tuna, then you have to let them know that this isn't a time to be vague. You need to find out, for example, whether the filling is made with mayonnaise, which may have sugar in it, and things you call "chemicals", and whether next to the mayonnaise there's butter, which you call "dairy", and if the bread is made with wheat and gluten, which it normally is. And then, when you hear the word "gluten" or "sugar" or "butter", you shake your head sadly, and say you'd better have a baked potato, but with no butter, please, and no filling.

You do this not because you'll swell up and go purple if you touch any of these things, or come out in a rash, or even get tummy ache, but because you think that gluten, and sugar, and yeast, and dairy are, though delicious, bad for the system, and you don't want to eat things that are bad for the system, because you want your body to be a temple. And your body is a temple, if temples are places where people do lots of strange rituals, and can eat some foods, but not others, and probably don't touch caffeine or alcohol. It's the kind of temple where you have to sit, or stand, or prostrate yourself, very uncomfortably, for a very long time.

If you eat like this, and exercise an awful lot, and spend a lot of money on, say, funny little crispbreads made from "organic flax, buckwheat and brazil nut", with labels saying things like "vibrant living", then you may be suffering from something called "orthorexia". This isn't like anorexia, which is, at least, quite cheap and simple, and just means that you can't eat very much at all. "Orthorexia" means that you can eat quite a lot, though you probably don't, but you have to be on your guard all the time.

"Orthorexia", which is a word made up by, of course, a Californian doctor, and means "correct appetite", but probably where "correct" is like a very, very vicious policeman, is, apparently, on the rise. It's on the rise among people who think of themselves as "celebrities", and among thirtysomething professional women who might like to. It's particularly common among middle-class women with lots of time and no boyfriend. It isn't very common on sink estates.

On sink estates, and also on ordinary estates, and also for most people on most high streets, eating isn't nearly such hard work. You can just point at the chips, and the deep-fried chicken bits, or the pie, or the burger, and shove it in your mouth. You don't have to ask anyone long, boring questions about what's in it. You don't, in fact, give a monkey's what's in it. Which may be just as well.

While some people are trying very, very hard to eat things that are "pure", maybe because it makes them feel important, maybe because they think it will make them more attractive, maybe because they think it will get them a boyfriend, other people are eating things which aren't very pure at all. They may, for example, be eating frozen ready-meals which may have things in them from 500 different places, and they may, in a year, be eating up to 9lb of chemical food additives, which is the same weight as a baby. It's very easy to eat things like this, and very cheap, and you don't have to cook them, and can eat them very quickly, so you can then eat more of them, which may be why we're the best in Europe at being fat.

Unfortunately, being fat doesn't always make us jolly. It can make us very ill. It might even, according to experts this week, make us so ill that it bankrupts the NHS. Since the NHS costs £110bn a year, and we've already spent £850bn bailing out the banks, and money is, like our clothes, now a bit tight, you'd think it might be a good idea to try to make us thinner.

To be thinner, you don't need to eat organic flax crispbreads, and baked potatoes without butter. You just need to eat food that doesn't have things in it from 500 different places, and that doesn't all come in packets. You also need to be able to afford the food that doesn't come in packets, which probably means that you need to have a job.

It probably also means that you need to have a government that doesn't think that the best way for people to get jobs is to tell them to get them, even if they're not there, and one which thinks that when reports come out saying that 37,000 people in the North die earlier than their counterparts in the South, and that this is because they have less money than people in the South, the thing to do isn't to cut more jobs and services in the North than the South.

It probably means that you don't put the companies which make the horrible food in packets, whose only aim is to sell more food in packets, in charge of setting government policy on food. It means that you recognise that people are fat because they're poor, and if they get poorer they're likely to get fatter. It means that you recognise that to avoid one problem, like a big threat to something that already costs £110bn a year, you might have to spend some money first.

And it means that you think health isn't something to do with not eating gluten or dairy, but something to do with people not feeling anxious, and having jobs to get up for, and feeling valued, and thinking that even a society whose members are getting bigger is big enough for them.

The tribulations, and trials, of twin souls

It hasn't been a brilliant fortnight for elderly leaders with dyed black hair. First, poor old Mubarak, who thought his people adored him, and that Egypt was a giant kindergarten where troublesome toddlers could be calmed down with a few smacks, and then a few sweeties, discovered they didn't. And now, apparently, he's not at all well. Locals in Sharm el-Sheikh say he's stuck in bed, and can't walk. One wouldn't wish ill-health on anyone, of course (not even on a man who routinely ordered the death and torture of anyone who disagreed with him), but if he were to pop his clogs after all that effort to oust him, it would be just a little bit ironic.

His friend Berlusconi, who could, with a little work on the lips, play him in the biopic, and who apparently told Italian police that a Moroccan belly dancer was Mubarak's granddaughter, is now in a spot of bother himself. First, nearly a million Italian women, who didn't all look like the ones at "bunga-bunga" parties, took to the piazzas to protest about their leader. And now he's been accused of paying for sex with the belly dancer, who was only 17 when he met her, and told he'll have to go on trial.

Anyone who has seen Berlusconi's ability to wriggle (in ways that would impress even a belly dancer) out of trouble, and emerge with his popularity ratings soaring ever higher, won't assume that the end is nigh. But it would take a heart of Italian marble, or perhaps of an Italian male, not to be cheered by the news that the judges who will decide the case, who are allocated strictly by rota, are all women.

More tales from the frontline of nasty nurses

To all those people who emailed me this week, with kind words and good wishes for my health, thank you. My inbox has almost collapsed under the weight of sad stories, mostly from patients, but also from nurses who have seen the decline in nursing care, and are shocked by it. There's no doubt that many, many nurses are doing a wonderful job in sometimes very tough circumstances, but there's also no doubt that this is a system in crisis.

A year ago, when I was lying surrounded by very ill people whose suffering was being made unnecessarily worse, I vowed that I'd try to do something about it. Now that I'm fighting fit – with the emphasis on fighting – I will. If you think you can help, and particularly if you have medical or nursing expertise that you think would be useful in identifying the problems, and beginning to formulate some answers, please get in touch. If Egyptians can brave bullets and tear gas to topple a tyrant, it must be possible for some nice, well-mannered people to do something about nurses who make you think you're in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.

To the people, by the way, who thought that the whole column was a pack of lies, I don't really know what to say. Except, perhaps, to note that one of you called yourself "Nurse Nicola".

c.patterson@independent.co.uk

twitter.com/queenchristina_

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