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Dominic Lawson

Dominic Lawson: Why do we believe there's virtue in our choice of food?

Because, under the modern Western dispensation, thinness is seen to be beautiful, dieting has become a form of self-sacrifice

Eating is good for you – and eating a lot is even better. There, I've said it; but before the obesity police take me away for re-education in the cells beneath the Department of Health, I offer – as evidence in my defence against high treason in the war against fat – some findings published in the latest edition of Nutrition Journal, the results of a survey of 350,000 randomly selected Americans.

The analysis, in this highly respected academic publication, concludes that overweight people live longer lives, and that those who are obese in old age tend to live longer than those who are thin. They are also, say the researchers from the University of California, more likely to survive certain dangerous medical conditions such as heart disease, renal failure and type 2 diabetes.

The lead researcher, Dr Linda Bacon, concludes: “It is overwhelmingly apparent that fat has been highly exaggerated as a risk for disease or decreased longevity. For decades the US public health establishment and the $58.6bn a year private weight-loss industry have focused on health improvement through weight loss. The result is unprecedented levels of body dissatisfaction and failure in achieving desired health outcomes.”

Hallelujah and pass the cream! Actually Dr Bacon’s observations elide two very different phenomena, which should be treated separately. As she points out, there is the publicly funded campaign (as bloated here as it is in the US) which spends countless millions telling us that fat in food is a terrible thing because it will kill us off prematurely – an assertion for which there is very little evidence, but which has the status of holy writ. Then there is the obsession with being thin, a phenomenon which is overwhelmingly the province of well-to-do women; this has nothing to do with health, and does not make any claims to be beneficial, in the medical sense. It is about image rather than content – and no less significant for that.

This distinction was brilliantly encapsulated by HG Wells in his short story “The Truth About Pyecraft”. Mr Pyecraft is a morbidly obese man who constantly complains to a fellow member of a London club, Mr Formalyn, about the misery caused by his excessive weight. Eventually Formalyn gives Pyecraft a secret weight-loss formula. It works: after taking it, Pyecraft floats up to the ceiling, where he remains helplessly until he is handed several volumes of Encyclopaedia Britannica, which give him the necessary ballast to return to earth. Wells was making the distinction between weight – or mass, if you prefer – and fatness.

Thus, while the average dieter says that she wants to lose weight, what she really means is that she wants to be a different shape; it has nothing to do with being a “healthy weight” (whatever that is); and indeed such a dieter would almost certainly give up the last five years of her life expectancy in exchange for what she would regard as a perfect figure – although admittedly that view might be amended when the Faustian payment became due.

Nevertheless, because thinness is, under the modern Western dispensation, seen to be beautiful, and because beauty has always been regarded (with no basis in fact) as a visual manifestation of underlying virtue, dieting has become a form of self-sanctification, of moral purification.

It has sometimes been argued that in an increasingly irreligious age, the body has become the most fashionable temple, to which devotion is paid in a peculiarly self-obsessed manner, to the benefit of no one but the owner.

In fact, religion and diet have always been closely linked. Fasting – still practised in one form or another by strictly observant adherents to each of the great Abrahamic faiths – is the most obvious example; but religious dietary laws go well beyond that, as Jews and Muslims can attest. Although some claim that the dietary rules of what had once been desert tribes can be explained by what would have been common sense and hygiene in the days before refrigeration, the truth is that such rules were never intended to be for the benefit of the physical health of adherents. They were always about being virtuous, in this case by obeying God’s word unquestioningly, and to be part of a group who by eating in a certain (highly constrained) way, were closer to that God.

There really is not such a vast difference, psychologically, between those ancient faith identities and the modern cults of food faddism. The latter, too, identify certain food items as inherently and absolutely “bad”, quite distinct from any nutritional or scientific evidence. Vegans are an extreme example of this tendency, in that they are able to judge all those who do not observe their own strictures as being participants in a form of collective wickedness. Yet other, less ascetic, brands of nutritional nonsense are also little more than food cults – for example, the socalled “organic” movement, which has as its high priest the future head of our established church, the Prince of Wales.

While every meta-analysis conducted over decades has failed to demonstrate that “organic” food has any superior nutritional properties to that grown with the aid of chemical fertilisers, the adherents to this cult remain unalterably convinced that they and their children will live longer and healthier lives than those who do not adhere to the same quasi-religious dietary law. They believe that so-called “non-organic food” – in reality there is no such thing – gives people cancer; yet since 1950, as pesticides and industrial farming have taken an increasing role in food production, stomach cancer rates have actually declined by 60 per cent in Western countries.

Back in 1974, Dr Lois McBean and Dr Elwood Speckmann produced what remains the most incisive demolition of the pseudo-nutritional cults, in a paper on what they termed “food faddism”.

Their list of its typical adherents bears repeating today: “Miracle seekers or those who adhere to an uncritical belief in bizarre or unrealistic promises; ritual or authority seekers; those pursuing ‘super’ health; paranoiacs; ‘truth’ seekers; fashion followers … and the ‘afraid’ who are anxious about the uncertainties and threats of living.”

That last category is the most telling; it makes the point that those who are frightened by food are frightened by life itself. Eat up – and enjoy yourself.