For foodies, January is the cruellest month. After the glorious, guilt-free excess of Christmas, suddenly all talk is of diets, exercise and abstinence. Friends and work colleagues cannot wait to extol the virtues of their Atkins, 5:2 or paleo programmes in a way that makes you wonder who they’re trying to convince.
The evangelism of the dry January brigade is enough to drive anyone to drink, as is the pseudo-science of detox regimes. If such a secular penance gives you some psychological satisfaction, great, but count me out. The mere mention of ‘clean eating’ makes me want to grab a pot of double cream and down it like a pint of best bitter.
I say this not because, self-evidently, crash diets do not work (if they did, the £2bn-a-year diet industry would wither away). Nor do I say it because my life is devoted to sybaritic pleasure (well, not entirely). No, I say it because to torture yourself about reaching your ideal weight, is, given the forces ranged against you, futile. It’s a fight you will never win and a miserable way to live.
If you’re significantly overweight, you can tackle that. Eat less and exercise more. 12 years ago I was 18.5 stone. I started walking a lot, ate smaller portions, stopped nipping to Greggs, and, later, started running regularly. It was simple. Or it was, up to a point, because I still hover around 15 stone. Even now, I’m carrying excess timber. And unless I make weight-loss the prime, pinched and pious focus of my existence, that will never change.
I refuse to, not just because good food makes me happy, but because to be overweight in a 21st-century Western society is to find yourself caught in a complex web of self-deceit, strange habits, contradictory information and commercial pressure, from which – short of rebooting your life in a, frankly, exhausting way – it’s impossible to escape.
The alternative? Accept that you are a flawed, illogical human being in a messed-up world and find happiness within your own parameters of good health. Here, for instance, are a few idiosyncratic reasons why I will never hit 13.5 stone. You may recognise a few.
Phil Oakey made me do it
In a mid-1980s’ Smash Hits interview, I dimly remember the Human League singer confidently asserting that biscuits make you fat, but chocolate does not. It made sense, biscuits being greasy, sugar-dusted things, and it set me on a fairly disastrous pattern of consumption. In fairness, Phil didn’t suggest eating a Mars bar every day for 10 years. That was my own personal spin on it.
The fridge dance of fools
I won’t have lunch, you think. I’ll grab something from the fridge: a bite of this, a scoop of that, a few slices of that nice ham. How can this be fattening? Look, I’m stood up! I’m moving around. I’m burning calories. Newsflash: it all counts. Sorry.
High Street horror show
Once, if you wanted to be thin, life was simple, you just smoked cigarettes and drank coffee. The French taught us that. But now, your morning mocha-choca-frappe-latte could be pushing 500 calories. Food manufacturers everywhere have turned once benign foods into almost unavoidable extra pounds.
Because even the good stuff is bad for you
Do you remember those innocent days when fruit juice was healthy? And have you seen how many calories there are in an avocado? Food is a minefield.
The exercise paradox
The one thing that high-intensity exercise makes you is hungry. And because you’ve done your virtuous 10k that day, you feel entitled to eat more. And more. Until any benefit is eroded and your weight, if it drops at all, drops at the pace of someone running the London Marathon in a Victorian frogman’s outfit. There is some evidence that, although it improves fitness, exercise has a negligible impact on weight. That is a very painful realisation for a middle-aged runner.
A little low-cal difficulty
Have you ever eaten a low-cal chocolate pot that tasted as good as the real thing? Or a diet lasagne that satisfied your appetite? Of course not. Which is why you always eat double the amount of each, for only a fraction of the potential pleasure.
Not getting your just desserts
As a food writer, over-indulging comes with the territory, so I’m keen to learn how my fellow professionals control their weight. In a 2005 Guardian feature, Evening Standard stalwart Fay Maschler advised avoiding dessert. It’s a wise dictum which I took with me. Unfortunately, Fay didn’t say anything about swapping dessert for another pint or a brandy. And I totally missed her warning to, likewise, swerve the bread basket. That explains a lot.
Never trust a hippy
Hummus seems so worthy and pure, doesn’t it? But what the wholefood nuts don’t tell you is it that hummus is more addictive than crack cocaine. And much better on a tortilla chip than on a carrot stick. That’s why you invariably wolf down the whole tub, in a feast of salty carbs, on day one of any new diet.
That Sunday evening feeling
No matter how self-disciplined you are, come Sunday night, staring down the barrel of the working week, all bets are off. You need comfort food. You need a curry. ‘And can you stop at the shop and get some Ben & Jerry’s, too?’ It’s genetic.
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