Diet & Denial

‘Tis the season to regret and abstain.  Yep, every year it’s the same. After the excesses of Yuletide many of us retreat into our own punishment room, replete with various methods to deny ourselves pleasure.

January Diet Options

Why January is the worst time to give things up:

1) January (in the UK) is a horrible boring month, beset by short days, vitamin D deficiency, post-Christmas overdrafts, dreary weather and people whinging/boasting about their diets/teetotal life/lack of nicotine. You’re driving the rest of us to drink, don’t imagine that your diet is interesting to anyone else.

2) Cold turkey hurts (particularly if thrown). The worst time to give up is after a binge. Your body and mind hate you just now. They are fantasising about chips, wine and cigars.

3) January is followed by February (a horrible boring month, beset by short days, vitamin D deficiency and dreary weather). You’ll end up comfort eating, drinking in bed and smoking like a 19th century mill chimney just to cope with February. This feast of poisoning will be worse after a period of abstinence.

4) You’re not special, you’re following the herd. Your lack imagination and autonomy and this correlates with your lack of self-control from Feb – Dec.

Why not try moderating your lifestyle permanently and begin at another time of year? January ‘changes’ are doomed to be temporary. Fact is that we love excess and we lack self-control. Look at our expanding waistlines. One month of good behaviour will achieve nothing. We wouldn’t let a criminal out on parole if she promised not to commit any crimes in January each year whilst assiduously creating a one woman crime wave from Feb to Dec. Why is it so difficult to be ‘good’? We will now explore the psychology of excess with specific reference to over-eating.

For many, excess food consumption has become the norm. This is true even for many lower-income households in the developed economies; in fact they are more likely to be obese, and this is mad by any measure. (Forgive me, I simplify the facts: obesity is reaching epidemic proportions throughout the social hierarchy in many countries.) In Victorian London fat was a symbol of excess and wealth, leanness a signifier of poverty. That situation is logical: you have less, you eat less; you have more, you eat more. How have we turned this on its head?

The ability for many to eat in excess is the product of a supply-side success that can trace its origins back thousands of years. It is evidence of our enduring desire to divorce ourselves from the harsh realities of nature. Agriculture and the food production system are highly efficient and inventive industries (at least in the developed world). Gone are the days when the average farmer could be dismissed as a swivel-eyed, straw-chewing cider drinker with a florid complexion and a whimsical grin. Farming has become highly mechanised, corporate and technologically advanced (satellite-controlled ploughing and data-rich animal monitoring systems being cases in point). Some lament these achievements on the grounds of the environmental and cultural impacts; others see them as something we should be proud of. Whatever your politics on this issue, the fact remains that the Malthusian nightmare has so far been a falsehood; it has thus far been a night-time story to scare the offspring of economists, geographers and agronomists. It might come true one day and the uneven global distribution of food distorts and complicates the picture. However, the mass global starvation predicted by Malthus has not yet come to pass. Many of us have become complacent about food and some even treat it with contempt; we have lost our collective ability to be reverential to food and treat it with the respect it deserves. The excessive eater is not often a true food worshipper; the excessive eater is a food abuser.

So many people struggle to lose weight. Why? Has our physiology changed? Is it the fault of the food and the people who sell it? Ah, asking that question brings us back to a recurrent issue in this blog – who to blame? How much of this blame should burden the consumer? My answer would be ‘quite a bit’, or ‘their fair share’.

Blaming McDonald’s and their ilk 100% is like blaming the prostitute for the punter’s libido. Supersize Me was a funny piece of theatre. However, it did not sufficiently grapple with the demand side of the equation. It’s ultimately up to the consumer to eat more. Yes, consumers can be encouraged and even coerced into excess. IDIOTCONSUMERCOM asserts that eating has become an exemplar of our attempts to deny our responsibility. Why/how do we try to wriggle out of the burden of our own responsibility to ourselves?  These are psychological mechanisms or rationalisation mechanisms we use to justify behaviour that is troublesome or contradictory. There are five of these and they are will be explored in greater detail in the future (indeed they have already been referred to in other posts). Denial of responsibility is probably the most powerful in terms of its ability to explain the increasing trouser and dress sizes.

All of the following are examples of denial of responsibility:

  1. ‘It’s not my fault. I try to control my weight, but you get bombarded with ads.’
  2. ‘It’s impossible to avoid high–fat, high-sugar foods when you eat out. They’re everywhere.’
  3. ‘I’ve tried to lose weight, but I can’t. I’ve asked my doctor to check my thyroid again.’

Let’s deal with each of these examples in turn.

(1) Okay, blame ads and marketing if you like. Yes marketing is powerful and influential but only because we are receptive to it. It is not the equivalent of a psychological hypodermic needle: there are ways of questioning and resisting if you want – it really isn’t all that difficult.

(2) Now, this has to be the flimsiest and least complex of the three. The fact that things are available doesn’t mean you have to avail yourself of them. Narcotics aren’t difficult to come by; cigarettes are sold legally and alcohol too, but you don’t have to have them. That fact that something is there isn’t good enough as an excuse for consumption or ingestion. The mountaineer can get away with it: ‘I climbed it because it was there.’ That sounds heroic and sort of makes sense, acknowledges the inherent absurdity of mountaineering. ‘I ate the cream cake cos it was there’ doesn’t sound like that: it sounds stupid.

(3) This is perhaps the most disconcerting. I only have anecdotal evidence for this, but many people try to deny responsibility and instead to transfer it to the inability of their physician to find the ‘real’ cause of their plumpness. They’ll get tested for anything – thyroid disorder, bowel disorder, this disorder, that disorder, anything – and the results are always negative.

Weight is based on a simple equation. It’s an input–output equation. If you eat less you will lose weight. If you do more exercise you will lose weight. If you do both simultaneously then you will lose more weight more quickly.

If you want to be overweight and like it, fine, do it and love it and enjoy it, but don’t bore your friends for years on end about your unbending desire to lose weight – over a lavish lunch which finishes with a cream cake and begins with a ginger cosmopolitan. Food is cheap but it’s the most crucial thing you buy. Many of us have either made an enemy of food or at least have devalued it.

Now, where did I put those doughnuts?


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