Thursday, 5 January 2012

Your January diet of diet stories – digested

Being the start of a new year, with all those resolutions flying around, it’s apparently a good time for people to consider diets.

So with that in mind, it’s hardly surprising that a glut of stories on the subject has hit the media in recent days.

In France, a diet ‘guru’ has urged the government to partly grade university students on their weight.

Well of course! After all, being good at your subject is absolutely the same as being a few pounds overweight.

The French are way behind Brits in the fat stakes, but obesity is rising there too, so hence the issue raising its head – including with such idiotic ‘solutions’.

A story from the BBC about entrepreneurs in the US making money by catering for the growing numbers of big people in that country ignored the massive profits made by the entire diet industry, which is as dependent on people being overweight as a drug addict is for their next fix.

The diet industry needs people to be unable to shift that weight permanently and so frequently resort to weight-reduction programmes; and it needs people to be so worried about how they look and their body shape etc that they become repeat customers.

The article and comments section did, however, give some people the opportunity to show off just how nasty, rude and ignorant they can be when the subject at hand is those dangerous fatties who are obviously threatening the entire nation because of their greed and laziness.

What do you mean – you didn’t realise it was that much of a problem?

But fear not – help is at hand: the government has boosted the ongoing Change4Life campaign – with help from supermarkets offering cheaper healthy foods to help families cook cheap but healthy meals.

Good old Ainsley Harriott is involved too, producing a recipe book.

Now the statistics certainly show a big rise in obesity in the UK – British women are the heaviest in Europe, with men in second place for their sex.

And the health problems associated with this are entirely real.

But, setting aside the dire nature of the website itself – is this the answer? Let’s take a bit of a deeper look.

The supermarkets in question are Aldi, Asda and the Co-op.

At the time of writing, the offers at Asda include bagged salads, Auntie Bessie’s “finely chopped vegetables” (£1.50 for 700g), reduced-fat sausages (with assorted additives and only 65% pork), two varieties of oven chips and a kilo of chicken for £2.48; breakfast cereals with sugar and salt, various WeightWatchers products, lashings of Activia and Müller yogurts, and loads of fruit-based drinks with additives aplenty.

Bargain chain Aldi has six items on offer – cabbage, celery, Chantenay carrots, onions, swede and tomatoes – while the Co-op includes bagged salads, lots of Müller yogurts, lots of Co-op yogurts, bags of prepared stir fry veg (£1, reduced from £1.50, for 450g) and bags of vegetables for steaming (two for £2), plus a ‘three for a tenner’ deal on chicken products (including a full bird of almost 1.5kg).

In other words, Aldi apart, there are a lot of 'added value' products being offered as cheap and healthy alternatives here: that is, processed foods that, by nature of being processed, give the producer/retailer better returns.

The supermarket pages also include links to all the rest of the chains’ ranges – so for instance, at the Co-op, you get specific links for “bread and cakes”, “beers and ciders” etc.

Given the fact that most supermarkets are always running (and advertising) offers anyway, isn’t this just another case of the government providing free advertising for big business?

I’m all for encouraging people to cook from scratch, but why this emphasis on supermarkets?

The website aims to get you started with seven “supermeal” recipes that are “low-cost, quick and easy”. Apparently, your ‘supermeal’ for Monday could be “grilled plaintain with fresh salsa”. At just 94 calories, it doesn’t say what else you’re going to need to eat to keep hunger at bay.

Wednesday is cauliflower cheese at under 300cals. Are these really supposed to be a main evening meal?

If so, what are you eating for the rest of the day? Is it assumed you’ll have been tucking into a Maccy D for lunch?

This so-called promotion makes absolutely no inroads on the question of cooking skills, which many people lack.

And frankly, if you want to inspire people to cook more – and in many cases, actually learn to cook – then it might be an idea to make the suggested meals a tad more appetising than Tuesday’s “tasty tuna and sweetcorn pasta”.

Tinned tuna is bland, while many people can’t even digest sweetcorn – and you can buy fresh veg that are cheaper than anything in tins.

This is, in essence, uninspiring student food.

And if these are supposed to be recipes that are cheap, then it might be an idea to work out what to do with the rest of the ingredients that it suggests buying – for instance, you won’t be able to purchase “three celery sticks” on their own, even when that’s all that’s needed of that ingredient for Saturday’s sweet and sour chicken.

There are also two celery sticks required for Thursday’s pork with apples and celery, but that’s it for the week, yet with no explanation of what to with the rest of your celery or where to buy just the five “sticks” required for that week’s recipes.

Strangely enough, people who need to watch pennies as well as the pounds can’t afford to buy ingredients and then throw half of them away.

Monday requires three spring onions and a quarter of a cucumber, while Sunday requires half a savoy cabbage. Guess what – there are no explanations of where you’ll buy these amounts or how to use them up if you have to buy the full amounts.

The example of a week’s planned menus is neither appetising nor coherent.

If you wanted to do the latter, it would be better to start with a Sunday dinner and plan for a piece of meat that will leave you with leftovers that can then be used in the coming days.

So if you have a piece of roast pork, for instance, then you can use some of the pork for a casserole on Monday. If you’ve got some sprouts and spuds left over, you keep them for bubble and squeak.

It’s difficult to see that this is anything except a thinly-disguised attempt to boost big businesses that don’t need it.

In the meantime, as the obsession with how we look shows no signs of letting up, it seems that increasing numbers of British women are having either full cosmetic surgery or non-surgical cosmetic procedures.

At this point, I am going to break my resolution to make no resolutions: I promise that I am not going to have botox (it’s a poison, for fecks sake!) or go under the knife or have my skin stretched to try to look like an expressionless, middle-aged impersonation of a baby.

The line has been drawn at having colour put in my hair, moisturising my skin and tweezing away the moustache that threatens to break out over my top lip: facial hair looks great on men, but I remain unconvinced of it as a female thing.

For better or for worse, my lines and the bits of me that sag where once they didn’t are me; they show some of the story of who I am and who I have been.

And with my fiftieth year now under way, I am damned well not going to buy into the cult of an imagined, airbrushed, artificial eternal youth. Why on Earth would I want to?

When did we become so uncomfortable in our own skins that we started to spend our lives trying to be what we’re not?

Okay, that’s not the reason for the rise in obesity, but perhaps it’s not unconnected. Perhaps part of the problem is that people feel less control in their lives than ever; in feeling that they cannot match the ‘perfection’ that is increasingly demanded of them, they simply give up?

Perhaps too, people are so sick and fed up with being spoon fed the sort of pap that the Change4Life campaign dishes out, as well as the sheer nastiness of the people who, in typical cowardly fashion, hide beneath the anonymity of the internet to mete out their bile against those who are overweight, that they simply stick two fingers up to it all and, if they want to eat nothing but deep-fried Mars bars, do so?

I have no concrete solutions to offer, but at the end of the day, is anyone made even a shred happier by all this?

If there is a key, then, perhaps it’s actually pleasure: pleasure in what you eat – which obviates the desire to eat junk anyway – and a pleasure in the experience of life itself.

Perhaps I should publish something on that theme – a voluptuous manifesto, in other words.


  1. You are a treasure, dear!

    The supermarkets and vendors whose processed products they sell, have a vested interest in convincing people that cooking is difficult and time-consuming and they have the solution. Of course, their solution of processed, salt-laden, chemically "enhanced" products are part of what led to the increase in obesity in the first place. Now, they have to convince people they have the solution to "healthy" eating in order to keep the profits coming in. Real cooking with real ingredients -- those perishable things with limited shelf life and low profits -- still needs to be avoided.

    And that same advertising system that tells us cooking is hard and complicated, tells us, especially women, that we are unattractive and need more products just to make ourselves presentable enough to walk down a public street, and even more products if we ever even hope to one day attain the unattainable and completely unrealistic "ideal" of "beauty" they sell to us along with the diet pills, spanx, botox, plastic boobs, lip plumpers, lotions, potions, and "procedures" that keep the beauty "industry" rich and women insecure. It is all connected because it's all based on fear. Make us afraid, then offer an antidote for that fear, whether it's pre-packaged steamed vegetables -- because slicing veggies and sticking them in a steamer is scary stuff -- or "vaginal rejuvenation" because no one wants anything to do with your unsightly ancient genitalia you gruesome old hag.

  2. Cheers Irene – and yes, absolutely.

    Mind, it's not only women that are being 'encouraged' to have negative, unrealistic body images, but increasingly men too, as illustrated by this story on the BBC today. Great for business, of course.

    On only a very slightly different tangent, have you heard of the trend for a vajazzle? If you haven't, I'll let you Google that one. ;-)