Learning To Like Lettuce

17th January 2014

Kathy Walton looks at the history of dieting, and offers her own tips for New Year success

“i’ll start when the festivities are over,” you say – but once you’ve scoffed the final stale mince pie, microwaved the last scraps of turkey with a cook-in curry sauce and demolished the chocolates (even the ones you profess to dislike) you wake up to find it’s half way through January. Your resolutions are long gone, but it’s not too late to start hopping on and off the bathroom scales, shrieking in horror at what they tell you and averting your gaze whenever you catch sight of your reflection– bingo wings and muffin top – in a shop window. You may only need to lose half a stone, but combine just a small festive weight gain with a spell of grotty January weather and even the most self-confident of us is left feeling depressed and vulnerable...

… and susceptible enough, in fact, to embark on that annual ritual, the post-Christmas ‘lose weight, get fit’ plan – and to fall for the blandishments of the many diet organisations. Their campaigns are highly persuasive, and they work. For them, at least.

The average dieter spends more than £500 per year on trying to get slim: from gym membership and exercise equipment to diet foods, ‘miracle’ weight loss supplements and ‘this is the one’ diet books. We might all be struggling, but the UK diet industry, at least, has never been in better shape. It’s no surprise that it is currently worth £2bn.

It is estimated that at any one time in Britain just under 40% of women and almost a quarter of men will be on a diet.

The supermarket shelves are full of products promising to help us shed flab, from ‘diet’ drinks, soups and snacks to entire meals with less fat, fewer carbohydrates or reduced sugar, but each with the disclaimer that they must be consumed ‘as part of a calorie controlled diet’.

For all the ‘miracle cures’, though, a hefty 85-95% of us will put the weight back on within weeks of losing it. Ironically, some will end up heavier than before, possibly through ignorance. It’s sad, but true, that there is a large rump of people who genuinely believe that consuming a ‘diet’ product on top of their usual food, will help them lose weight.

With our cultural prejudice around overweight people, you can see why being slim is so compelling. Celebrities are happy to collude in our efforts, with many picking up fat wads of money to endorse this product, or that slimming method. It seems that nobody is anybody unless they’re on a weight loss ‘programme’ and striving to be super slim.

Think of Sarah Ferguson, for example, who, for all her faults, was voluptuously feminine but was dubbed the ‘Duchess of Pork’ by the tabloid press, before becoming the international face of Weight Watchers. TV presenter Carol Vorderman sang the praises of ‘detoxing’; Gwyneth Paltrow waxes lyrical about her macrobiotic diet, and only this month has been promoting a winter three day detox plan that delivers a mere 300 calories a day.

In the 1960s, it was stick-thin Twiggy whom women wanted to emulate. In 1963, overweight New York housewife Jean Nidetch founded the world’s first organised slimming club – Weight Watchers – which now operates in 30 countries, with 2 million members in the UK alone. The concept has, of course, been frequently imitated.

Even President Nixon got in on the act. After the privations of food rationing in the 1950s, rising disposable incomes meant that people could afford to spend more on their food; working mothers would pick up a pre-prepared meal on the way home and people began to eat out more.

Alarmed by increasing obesity levels in America, and taking the best scientific advice that was then available, Nixon ordered US food manufacturers to reduce the fat content of many foods. They did, but they added extra sugars and salt to give flavour. As a consequence, many foods marketed as ‘healthy and low fat’, contain more calories than the unadulterated original, and, to make things worse, some time between then and now we forgot how to prepare fresh, genuinely healthy food.

This all feeds into the agenda of diet industry critics, who point out that signing up to a slimming club is just like joining a dating agency: the club entices you with seductive promises of speedy results, while all the time having a vested interest in your failing, continuing to feel wretched about your figure or your love life, and remaining on their books.

Last year (which was, coincidentally, Weight Watchers’ 50th anniversary), the great, the good and presumably the slim of the diet industry were summoned before an all-party parliamentary group inquiry into the causes/consequences of body image and anxiety. Lib Dem MP Jo Swinson wrote to magazine editors asking them not to promote unrealistic eating programmes and to desist from showing doctored images of impossibly slim models.

Other detractors of the industry went further, accusing it of creating a symbiotic relationship between their message and obesity. Psychotherapist Susie Orbach, author of the iconic Fat Is A Feminist Issue, observed “All this abundance linked to a culture of slimness makes people go crazy about food”, as she joined a group of protestors outside Westminster to burn their diet plans, slimming magazines and calorie counters.

“We want to expose the role of the diet industry in destabilising women’s and girls’ appetites and desires,” she added, echoing a similar group in the United States, called Endangered Bodies, whose members maintain that despite its benign public face, the diet industry causes confusion and misery.

If, like me, you have perhaps just half a stone to lose, you might resolve this year to accept that your body is predisposed towards being a certain weight and that, unless you exercise to the point of exhaustion, eat nothing for days at a time and have surgery on an annual basis, you will never look like Liz Hurley. Despite this knowledge, though, you find me numbered among the New Year dieters this month, even though my husband says it’s not unlike marrying Elizabeth Taylor: you know it won’t work but you cross your fingers and do it anyway.

Actually, he’s wrong. Eight years ago, in a bid to lose my ‘baby weight’ after my third child, I shed 18 pounds in as many months at a well-known slimming club. Hardly an overnight success, but because I did it slowly, I’m proud to say that I was able to maintain my new slim(ish) figure and it is only in the past year that seven pounds have crept up on me.

The club approach worked for me then, but since my teens, I have also tried the Scarsdale and the Atkins diets (both low on carbs and high on protein), the Nordic diet (plenty of fish and root vegetables), Rosemary Conley (which factors in the amount of exercise you do) and the 5:2, which allows you to eat what you like for five days a week, providing that you cut down to 500 calories (half the usual recommendation for a woman trying to lose weight) for the other two.

One of the few I haven’t tried is the newly fashionable Stone Age Diet, also known as Paleo, which is designed to take us back to our evolutionary roots by eliminating any food that evolved since farming began, such as wheat and dairy and even some beans and pulses.

On occasion, when I didn’t eat enough roughage, I must confess to having helped support the British laxative industry (currently worth £20m annually) as a short term measure, but generally, I’ve found that diets, if you follow them, do pretty much what they say on the skimmed milk tin.

Try a draconian regime if you can bear it (rumour has it that the already sylph-like Middleton women lost weight on the Dukan diet before a certain wedding), but generally, the advice is to eat a balanced diet of protein, carbohydrates and fat and to take gentle exercise.

Keep busy (it will help take your mind off food); try cutting out sugar from your tea and coffee; eat plenty of fresh fruit and veg and don’t gorge on seconds or overdo the alcohol.

Eat regularly; avoid big meals late at night and cut out snacks between meals. Eating just one biccie a day will pile on half a stone in a year, all other things being equal.

It sounds straightforward, but too many of us are in a hurry to see instant results; we lack willpower and get discouraged and, frankly, just need to lighten up: emotionally, that is.

Losing weight and getting fit is a lifelong challenge; you have to create a calorie deficit in whichever way suits you, whether it's by rigid self-control or having your hand held by a dietician or slimming organisation. Whatever you choose, a New Year really can be a great place to start (the more motivation you can muster, the better it will be) and there's plenty of help around if you need it…

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