Fad panics

The nonsense talked on both sides of the Atkins diet debate shows the spread of our unhealthy obsession with food.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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It’s tough being a fad diet. One minute you’re flavour of the month, top of the bestseller charts and the subject of every dinner party conversation; the next minute you’re branded an irresponsible health risk.

As celebrities line up to love or loathe the Atkins diet, pitching inspirational stories of weight loss against too-much-information stories of bad breath and constipation, and the medical community is pestered for expert advice on the pros and cons of carb-free eating, it’s enough to make anybody rather dizzy. It’s only a diet, for crying out loud! What’s the big deal?

The Atkins controversy currently raging in the UK reflects the screwed-up nature of our attitude to food. Gone are the days when food was just something that we survived on, or even something that we enjoyed. Today’s well-fed Western world increasingly views food as a sin or a toxin: something we should berate ourselves for eating because it is good, or hate ourselves for eating because it is bad.

The Atkins diet was developed by the American doctor Robert Atkins in a book first published in 1972, and has become particularly popular in the USA and Britain in the past few years (1). The diet works on the principle that the effective way to weight loss is to eat as much protein as you like and minimal carbohydrates. So meat, cheese and fat is in; and bread, pasta and potatoes are out – as are (certainly to begin with) most fruit and vegetables. That’s the controversial bit: a diet promoting unlimited fried bacon and eggs turns conventional weight-loss wisdom (little food with no fat in it) on its head.

Listening to all the gluttonous endorsements of Atkins (‘I eat six steaks and half a pound of butter every day, and still have lost 10 stone!’) you could forget that the diet also outlaws such things as alcohol, cakes and crisps – all big culprits when it comes to weight gain. But even if the thought of sacrificing tomatoes in favour of double cream turns your stomach, you can see why Atkins is popular compared to other diets. You can eat bad-for-you food, and as much of it as you like. And, according to the testimony of the growing army that has been there, done it and bought the smaller t-shirt, it works.

The current controversy centres on the question of why it works. In the most basic terms, Atkins’ theory rests on the way the body processes carbohydrates. If you don’t eat carbohydrates, the body turns to its fat stores for energy, meaning that you lose weight. To a non-scientist like myself, it all sounds plausible, if not terribly good for you. But then, most fad diets aren’t very good for you: that is why you do them to get into your holiday clothes, then start eating normally again.

But Dr Susan Jebb, from the Medical Research Council’s Human Nutrition Research Centre in Cambridge, has taken an altogether more serious view. Speaking to journalists in London earlier in August, she argued that many of the claims made by the Atkins diet were based on ‘pseudo science’, and said that it would be ‘negligent’ to recommend the diet to anyone who was overweight (2).

‘We simply do not know the long-term health implications, and it’s such a profound change from what we’re doing at the moment’, she added. ‘I certainly think we should be adopting a precautionary principle in terms of public health.’ (3) Had Dr Jebb been talking about something like GM food or slimming pills, no doubt her words would have been accepted as sensible advice from an Expert Who Knows. But because she happened to be talking about a popular diet that people are following voluntarily, to the delight of their waistbands and bikinis, she turned overnight into a figure of controversy.

Her arguments have been rubbished and ridiculed by the ‘It worked for me’ crowd, while she has been adopted as the patron saint of those who blame Atkins for all manner of alleged side-effects, from headaches to kidney stones. In the ensuing furore, the arguments put forward on both sides have gone from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Against those who contend that Atkins has long-term health risks, others counter that it brings about short-term weight loss, and that you wouldn’t want to follow it forever. Against those who claim that it doesn’t really help you lose weight, others claim that the biggest problem is that people are not on the diet for long enough. Against those who attack fad diets in general, others point out that Britain is supposed to be at war against obesity, and so surely any attempt that people make to lose weight is a good thing.

But the prize for the most ridiculous panic and counter-panic goes to the following stories. On 17 August, the UK press reported that a 16-year-old girl has died while on the Atkins diet – though a close reading of the story revealed that the story actually happened last year, when an American teenager had died from heart failure, and happened to be on a low-carbohydrate diet (4). Also on 17 August, there was an attempt to smear Dr Susan Jebb with the news that she is working on a report on obesity that has received funding from the Flour Advisory Board (which, one presumes, are not the greatest fans of a flour-free diet plan) (5).

Whatever your personal views on the Atkins diet (and, let’s face it, everybody has one), the notion that cutting out the carbs for a while is going to kill you is as daft as the notion that anybody promoting a balanced diet is part of a flour-funded conspiracy. But ridiculous as this row is, it is entirely predictable. The Atkins controversy is merely a more focused version of the general obsession with food, diet, weight gain and weight loss that preoccupies today’s uptight society.

So Britain is supposed to be suffering from a harmful epidemic of obesity, brought about by our tendency to eat too much of the wrong type of foods. Forget the fact that we live longer, healthier lives than ever before; that access to fresh produce is increasingly cheap and easy; that there is a greater variety of food available to us than to any other generation. Forget, also, the fact that the categories ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’ include body-sizes previously known as tubby. There is a fear, promoted in particular by those in government circles, that people just don’t know what is good for them; that, in the midst of this cornucopia of good things, people will just feed chips to their kids and gorge themselves on chocolate and burgers.

The panic over obesity has led to a situation in which the public is bombarded with advice about what they should and shouldn’t feed themselves and their children, and companies producing burgers and chocolate find themselves tagged as the devils of the modern world. The fact that there are a few fat people around with lousy diets has formed the basis of an overarching health campaign, which treats people as morons who cannot tell that an apple a day is better for you than a cake at every meal.

No sooner have people been successfully corralled into shedding a few pounds, they are hectored about the possible dangers of dieting. It’s not just the Atkins: witness the ongoing scare about teenagers suffering from eating disorders such as anorexia, and the periodic attacks on our culture of celebrity slimness (which led, a couple of years ago, to the UK government organising a bizarre ‘Body Image Summit’) (6).

When it comes to body size, it seems, people can’t do right for doing wrong. And that’s before you get to the string of irrational panics about the everyday food that you eat, whether on a diet or not – GM, organic, peanuts, farmed meat, farmed fish, fruit potentially sprayed with chemicals….

When it comes to dieting, the official view – eat a balanced diet in moderation, and do exercise – is probably the right one. Unfortunately, there is a fine line between a sensible approach and a puritanical code that does not allow for people indulging themselves on certain types of food and drink, despite the fact that such indulgence doesn’t kill you, or generally even make you sick. In official quarters, there is also a refusal to admit that society’s obsession with the safety, calorific content, amount or quality of the food that we eat is more unhealthy than any number of fad diets or burger bars.

We should stop treating eating as a disorder, and apply our energies to countering some of these faddish food panics.

Read on:

Weight watchers, by Rob Lyons

spiked-issue: Sun, sea and scaremongering

spiked-issue: Food scares

(1) ‘Atkins: the gamble of their lives?’, Sunday Times (London), 17 August 2003

(2) Warning over extreme diets, BBC News, 12 August 2003

(3) Warning over extreme diets, BBC News, 12 August 2003

(4) ‘Girl, 16, died on Atkins regime’, Sunday Times (London), 17 August 2003

(5) Atkins diet opponent funded by flour group, Business Reports, Bloomberg, 17 August 2003

(6) ‘Superwaif’ regulation call, BBC News, 21 June 2000

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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