E Jane Dickson: Eat more, live longer? It'll never catch on

There will be tuttings about whether people should even think about that Friday-night kebab
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It's the news we've all been waiting for: a doughnut a day keeps the doctor away. The latest and most comprehensive study of obesity suggests that carrying a few excess pounds is not in fact a crime against humanity, and may even be good for you.

It's the news we've all been waiting for: a doughnut a day keeps the doctor away. The latest and most comprehensive study of obesity suggests that carrying a few excess pounds is not in fact a crime against humanity, and may even be good for you.

The controversial study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, was based on body-mass index (the ideal height: weight ratio that leads many of us to conclude we are six inches too short), and found that those who are overweight can expect a longer lifespan than those of "normal" weight. The advantage of the spare tyre apparently kicks in with age, as older people need extra fat for when they fall ill and are unable to eat properly.

This is undoubtedly good news for those us wobbling towards the grave, but is unlikely to make a dent in the health/beauty orthodoxy of our times, where the emphasis is not just on being thin, but on being young and thin. Gratifying as it may be to imagine Hollywood stars begging their plastic surgeons for the latest "lipo-enhancement" techniques (I particularly like to think of Gwyneth Paltrow hooked up to an intravenous doughnut drip), it's not going to happen. Give most women under 30 the choice between shedding a couple of pounds now and adding a couple of years to their lifespan and they will strike the deal before you can say Mephistopheles.

In an era of (Western) peace and plenty, the atavistic notion of storing up fat against lean times has been all but eradicated. Two years ago, I visited Ethiopia, a country recently ravaged by famine and still largely dependent on external food aid. In a country pharmacy, among the pitiful scatter of aspirins and ancient condoms, I was shocked to a see a poster, illustrated with a pair of tubby Westerners tipping the scales, warning about the dangers of obesity. The pharmacist was proud of his "modern" initiative. I'd like to think of this as a sign of the country's optimism, but the cheerful, malnourished children pointing first to the poster and then to their own distended bellies made it feel more like a cruel form of cultural imperialism.

For if fat has recently been a health issue, it has been a cultural issue for centuries, inextricably bound with notions of beauty, morality and class. The "eat more -live longer" study comes hard on the heels of the less surprising finding, published this week, that the children of affluent, educated parents grow up to be taller and thinner than their poorer, less educated contemporaries (interestingly, the tall, thin élite may be more at risk of osteoporosis in later life).

The notion of the well-toned aristocrat goes right back to Aristotle, who drew a clear line between care of the body and beauty of the soul. And he was not the only Greek in the gymnasium agonising over the state of his pecs. It is a tenet of concerned society that modern eating disorders are a direct result of a movie and advertising industry obsessed with the Body Beautiful.

This seems entirely likely, but I can't imagine it's a new obsession. The idealised forms skipping around Greek urns and everywhere apparent in Hellenistic art cannot have done much for the self-esteem of tubby ancients. Certainly, the point was not lost on Friedrich Nietzsche, who urged Germans to "become Greeks" in their cult of the body - a cult which reached its chilling apotheosis in the Nazi vision of a physical perfection that would render Aryans distinct from other, "lesser" races.

It is almost comforting to dismiss our modern preoccupation with body shape as a shallow regard for cosmetics, but distinction - race, class, even moral distinction - plays a larger part than most of us like to think. The Duchess of Windsor's silly quip that one can never be too rich or too thin has taken root in our consciousness. Already in the US there is a yawning divide between those affluent enough to spend time and money on maintaining their size 0 figures and an "underclass" of supersize slobs.

It rarely seems to occur that people eat crap, not necessarily because they have no self control, but because, being crap, it is cheap, while the ever-expanding diet industry retailing expensive "pretend" foods - low-carb chocolate, low-fat ice-cream and other such nonsense - is a 21st-century allegory of wastefulness. One is reminded of Little Britain's Margery Daws advising her weight-watchers that they can eat their cake as long as they throw half of it away - "half the calories, so you can eat twice as much!"

The findings of the American study will surely be contested; with so much invested in public awareness of the dangers of obesity, there will be nannyish tuttings about whether it is permissible for people even to think about that Friday-night kebab. Common sense - and indeed Ann Widdecombe (who made short work of an overly pious personal trainer on Celebrity Fit Club) - dictates that there is a difference between being slightly overweight and morbidly obese. It seems unlikely, however that the "laugh and grow fat " argument will catch on, however compelling the medical evidence.

At least not over here, where we are traditionally strong on vanity and impatient with valetudinarianism. It was GK Chesterton who said, "The trouble with always trying to preserve the health of the body is that it is so difficult to do without destroying the health of the mind." GK Chesteron, it should be noted, was not a thin man.

e.dickson@independent.co.uk

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