I know three things about the Atkins diet: it involves eating huge quantities of meat, it causes bad breath and its fans never stop banging on about it. Now I've learnt another, which is that its popularity has upset potato growers in this country, who are worried that its fanatical anti-carbohydrate message is hitting sales. Spuds are to the Atkinsistas what garlic is to vampires, and they would much rather accompany their T-bone steaks with a side helping of scrambled eggs and blue cheese, possibly even a hamburger, than anything as harmful to the human metabolism as boiled potatoes with a sprig of fresh mint.
I have to say I am with the potato growers here, chiefly because a regime high in animal protein and fat strikes me as rather disgusting. Another thing I have against the Atkins system is that it has become the celebrity diet du jour, followed by actresses such as Jennifer Aniston, who pursue an impossible ideal of slenderness. I mean, how thin does that woman want to be? The diet puts the body into a state of ketosis, which is what happens to people unfortunate enough to suffer genuine starvation, where it begins to consume its own fat. And I can't help thinking there is something grotesque about the spectacle of affluent people trying to mimic the bodily experience of a starving child in Africa or a concentration camp victim.
The Atkins diet is popular in the City, where eating vast quantities of animal flesh appeals to traders who like to think of themselves as red in tooth and claw; this is not a diet for cissies or vegetarians (the latter tend to have lower body weights than carnivores anyway). Three decades of warnings from doctors about the risk of kidney damage, the effect of saturated fats on the heart and the link between cancer and diets high in red meat have largely been ignored - and you can forget all that boring old advice about eating five portions of fruit and vegetables each day.
Experts concede that the Atkins diet produces rapid weight loss in the short term, but it is no better than other regimes over time, and the real bummer is that you have to keep eating steak, eggs and cheese for the rest of your life. In that sense, it allows you to go on eating a "normal" diet - or what passes for it in affluent Western societies which have not yet adjusted to permanent conditions of over-supply and a food industry dedicated to persuading consumers to eat too much saturated fat and sugar. On the contrary, its appeal lies in turning conventional wisdom on its head and encouraging you to eat things banned by other regimes. I've noticed that Atkins enthusiasts love sitting down to a plate glistening with grease, and then assuring you that it's all part of a strictly controlled diet.
This is not to say I don't take the problem of obesity seriously, but there is something suspect about systems that are so single-minded about weight loss that they ignore the need for a balanced diet. The success of these weird regimes is also a testament to the human longing for rules about eating, no matter how faddish or nonsensical - a role that used to be performed by priests, and is now the territory of self-appointed experts such as Robert Atkins and Rosemary Conley. One of the world's earliest diets appears in the Old Testament, in the book of Leviticus, which contains sensible suggestions for nomadic people in a hot country at a time when refrigeration had not been invented: avoid animal fat, pork and shellfish.
It also has some silly rules about sex, which are taken seriously these days only by the evangelical loonies who are currently running the Church of England. Taken together, however, they confirm my theory that people's most basic anxieties are about the body and what to put in it, whether in terms of other people's organs or food. Diets and monogamy are both solutions to the problem of appetite, although they also create taboos which just beg to be broken. The Atkins diet is particularly clever in that respect, offering a seductive combination of self-indulgence and denial, which is probably why it made millions for the late doctor. Sadly, my personal system for achieving a healthy weight will never make me a fortune, even though it can be summed up in two words. Eat less.
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