Of all the bullshit that is bullshitted, some of the sloppiest, stickiest nonsense is the stuff about diets and exercise, and there’s more of it around in January than at any other time of year. Well, apart from the bikini diets in June, the Christmas party body blitzes, the Easter eggs-ercise routines and, for all I bloody know, the Ascension Day ass-sculpting. The point is, this stuff just goes on and on, accompanied by the low whine of concern about the obesity crisis as journalists wibble on about how the nation got so fat (and meanwhile, picture editors wibble on about how they didn’t get into this business to source endless footage of broad, trembling backsides shuffling down highstreets).
There are two important things about weight. One: losing it is pretty simple in theory. If you exercise a bit more and eat a bit less, your body will turn on its fat stores to sustain itself and you will get thinner. Two: there are several hundred ways in which circumstances beyond your control will conspire to stop you from eating a bit less and exercising a bit more. Modern life is radically sedentary. Commuting? That’s sitting down, on a train, a bus or in a car. Office work? Sitting down. Relaxing? You’re probably watching telly or on the internet – again, sitting down. The most encouragement to activity you’ll get is pottering around the supermarket for your weekly shop (obviously, you drove there, because it’s an out-of-town megastore that’s sucked all the trade away from the high street), where the high-calorie value-added snacks are heavily promoted and convenience foods promise to claw back some of the time you lost on that godawful commute.
Work habits, town planning, transport policy and the food industry are all ganging up to keep you chubby. No wonder most people in the UK are classed as overweight or obese (66% of men, 57% of women). And you’ll get bugger all help from the government when it comes to resisting those pressures, because policy is all directed at helping people make “healthy choices” and “individual responsibility” – which is a shabby and craven get-out for successive governments that are terrified to govern in any way that might put them in conflict with cars or the food industry. Change4Life can print patronising recipe leaflets up the wazzoo, and it will not make a lick of difference as long as things like “building a decent bike lane” or “refusing planning permission for a massive Tesco on the green belt” are seen as dangerous hippy radicalism.
As well as all these barriers to losing weight, you’ve got your own body, which is a treacherous hoarder. Humans just aren’t made for living with perpetual plenty – more for scraping along on a thousand-odd calories most days, with the occasional feast of mammoth fat. Try explaining to your evolutionary archetypes that you couldn’t possibly eat another doughnut because you’re watching your waistline, and they’d probably grunt in your face. And then steal the doughnuts. So with all of this against us, it’s tempting to believe either that there’s some arcane science to weight loss (here come the nutritionists, with their forbidden food groups and mystical ordering principles for your plate), or that it’s just not worth bothering at all.
Diets — that is, drastic, short term changes to your eating habits — are awful. Diets are misery and restriction and failure. They’re the copy of Rosemary Conley’s Hip And Thigh Diet I found in a charity shop, with cruel grids at the back for you to record every body measurement week by week; the previous owner had put down her thigh girth to the mismatched quarter inch in the first column, and then never gone back (maybe she’d taken the next lot of numbers after a week on the pasta and baked potatoes, found no change and simply despaired). Or they’re the eBay seller I found, flogging a wardrobe’s worth of size 6 clothes and a Dukan Diet book. I like to imagine her waking up one morning, thinking about another day of eating nothing but eggs, and deciding, “Fuck it, no Topshop tea dress is worth this malarkey.”
But a change in your general diet can be a very good thing indeed, and there are a few diet plans that are quite successful in helping people achieve this. Weight Watchers, for example, has a good record for weight loss, a fairly low drop-out rate, and seems to show decent long-term results. (I haven’t used it myself, but I know people who’ve found it really helpful.) Which makes it an odd target for Susie Orbach, who has singled out the slimming clubs for locking members into “straitjackets for the rest of their lives”. She was speaking to a parliamentary inquiry on behalf of lobby group Endangered Bodies, which has said, “The diet industry claims to offer solutions – to the ‘crisis’ it has just funded researchers to determine,” making it sound like type-two diabetes is an evil invention of Slimming World.
There’s a miserable insistence that women should hate their bodies, and it depresses the piss out of me that plainting about how fat you are is level one ladies’ smalltalk. No one – whatever size and whatever shape – should be made to feel unhappy in their own skin. But the reaction to that can’t be, “And so let’s get on with being jolly and round.” Alongside the bad, self-loathing reasons for wanting to lose weight, there are some really, really good ones too. Anyone who tells you there aren’t health risks that go with being overweight is telling big fibs, and possibly big self-serving fibs.
You can get a sniff of the eagerness to believe that weight loss is hopeless in a New York Times article called The Fat Trap, which leads off on an example designed to show the futility of the whole enterprise. A group of obese subjects lost a great deal of weight on a diet; a year later, they’d regained about a third of the weight. Damning, except the diet they were on was a crazy, below-starvation-level business. For two months, they ate less than 600 calories a day. No surprise that they were left with shanked metabolisms and food neuroses. But instead of querying the experiment, the article takes it to mean that the whole idea of weight loss is a con. Because, when something is so bloody hard, wouldn’t it be reassuring if it really was impossible – even unnecessary?
Here’s Sally Feldman, extemporising the acquisition of an extra stomach roll: “Let’s indulge in our greed, give thanks for our original sins and join together to say no to easy answers and yes to life with all its cruelties, dangers and fabulous guilt-free food.” Lovely. Except, of course, what if getting fat isn’t a joyous expression of appetite, but another straitjacket? What if, rather than yearning to be a size 0, people are just hoping for a relatively long, reasonably active life with minimal risk of losing their toes to unmanageable insulin levels? What if the anti-dieters are as full of bullshit as the supplement pushers and meal plan hawkers? Eat a bit less, exercise a bit more. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but it really does work.