POLEMIC : Eat, drink and be miserable

Stress is unhealthy. But we don't see the cure, says Lorraine Gamman
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"A minute on the lips, a year on the hips" is for many the reality of high-fat foods. Yet despite the obvious health problems associated with being overweight, for both men and women "comfort" eating or drinking is often a knee-jerk response to stressful situations. What else can make you as happy for less than 30p as the endomorphine high of a bar of chocolate?

No wonder the latest Department of Health report this week reveals that English men and women are getting fatter, and smoking and drinking too much. Despite government health campaigns to persuade us to take more exercise and to look after our health better, there is no evidence from 16,500 people surveyed in 1993 that this is happening, or that the health of the nation is improving.

When we learn that more people feel their health is being adversely affected by stress today than in 1991-92, it is not surprising that government targets to reduce obesity and the risk of heart disease are unlikely to be met. Professionals and managers are reported as the most likely group to be suffering "a great deal of stress". These people may not be among the 13 per cent of men and 16 per cent of women in England found to be obese, but they are nevertheless "swallowing" their anxieties.

Most of us learn to relax socially by consuming: drink, cigarettes, snacking and so on. So we come to associate tension relief with products and external remedies. "Tense, nervous headache?" Of course we buy or swallow something. In stressful situations, consuming appears to reach the parts that meditation and exercise do not affect so quickly.

Stress makes us look for easy answers and advertising offers them to us. Deep down all of us know that without real conviction and a desire to change, the latest diet or food fad won't really make any difference, but when we are tired or worn out we often just give ourselves up to the sales pitch. We forget logic and are carried away by persuasion.

The slimming and self-help industries have made a fortune out of this fact. They spend millions of pounds each year telling us to consume more new products to lose weight or relax, rather than advising us simply to cut down. It's both crazy and obscene. In one year the West spends more money than it would take to feed all the world's hungry twice over. Yet we don't seem any nearer to finding an end to the battle of the bulge.

Princess Di's mixed-up bulimia and this week's reports of six-year-old Bobbie Beadle's anorexia (she weighs 2st 4lb) are perhaps extreme responses to the perverse double messages of so-called healthy consumer lifestyles. Yet that does not mean all nutritional information in advertising is irrelevant or wrong. When one in seven men and women are assessed as being at high risk from heart disease, it is obviously unwise to ignore the relationship between stress and poor diet and to make the case for fat liberation.

The hard reality is that the Government's target to reduce obesity to no more than 6 per cent in men and 8 per cent in women by 2005 will only be achieved when we find new ways of making educational information as persuasive as advertising is. Both kinds of communication are worried about what we eat, both offer coping strategies, but only one really wants us to think before we swallow. Bon appetit.

The writer is co-author of `Female Fetishism: A new Look', Lawrence and Wishart, £12.99.