How to Live Longer

spiked-TV: Why do TV bosses have an insatiable appetite for diet makeover shows?

Rob Lyons

Topics Culture

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Ever since ‘Dr’ Gillian McKeith burst on to our screens in You Are What You Eat, upsetting fat people by telling them that they were killing themselves, the desperately unimaginative controllers at Britain’s television channels have thought ‘we all want one’.

Five has now got Diet Doctors, two middle-aged posh women who have the on-screen presence of the testcard. And after providing us with Fat Nation and Honey, We’re Killing the Kids, the BBC has now produced How to Live Longer.

The first run starts next week at 9.15 every morning, reversing a trend of taking the tacky programme values of daytime TV and exporting them to primetime. But the moral narrative remains the same. This is what women’s magazines call a ‘Triumph Over Tragedy’ story, the tragedy in this case being the life of today’s subject.

Take one person who is overweight, underfit and deeply unhappy. Conduct an autopsy on their pathetic, self-destructive existence. A wee bit of an emotional reaction is good at this point. Introduce an expert outsider(s) who takes over their lives for a few weeks. See the subject pathetically attempt to resist these essential life-changes (a few more tears are good at this stage) before eventually doing what they’re told. Finally, return to see them reborn, like butterflies from the chrysalis, to extol the virtues of their new ways.

How to Live Longer even has its very own Scottish ‘nutrionalist’, Amanda Hamilton, although she’s a good deal more charming and easy on the eye than the poison dwarf McKeith. In fact, it features quite a few of the staple elements of the You Are What You Eat formula, including the ‘look at the shit that you put into your body’ bit where a week’s worth of junk food is laid out on a table. Thankfully, it doesn’t copy the ‘look at the shit that comes out of your body’ segment, but 9.15am is probably a little too early to be discussing runny stools.

How to Live Longer has another ‘expert’ along for the ride, Professor Ian Philp. What he doesn’t know about the subject of ageing isn’t worth knowing, apparently. The most striking thing about Philp though is not his expertise but the fact that he runs like a big girl’s blouse. And finally, there’s the voiceover provided by Mr Smug Voiceover himself, Quentin Willson.

What is striking is just how willing people are to be beaten over the head with this moralistic mallet. It is surely a bad sign when perfectly amiable and self-confident individuals are prepared to subject themselves to the humiliation of a lifestyle makeover show – particularly when the health claims made in the show are so frequently tendentious.

The particular conceit of How to Live Longer is that Hamilton and Philp assess the subject and arrive at a ‘biological’ age for their bodies based on their cholesterol, blood pressure, fitness, weight and bad habits. In the case of 37-year-old Colin Plews, the ordinary punter featured in the preview edition, they estimated his ‘real’ age was 47. After six weeks of vigorous workout and a diet of steamed fish, his cholesterol fell through the floor, he lost weight and he ‘became’ 32.

This notion of ‘biological’ age is complete nonsense, dreamed up by someone as a good way of communicating health messages to the masses. What they really mean is that they’ve added up all the health risks from various sources on different lifestyle factors (including whether you’re in a relationship and how well educated you are) to give people a sense of how quickly they will kill themselves. In the case of the unattached middle-aged men, the ‘kill themselves’ bit can be a significant factor.

While it may be true that a truly monotonous and vegetation-free diet, a total absence of exercise and morbid obesity could have a detrimental effect on an individual’s life expectancy, for most people eating five-a-day or walking for 30 minutes isn’t going to make much difference to their waistline or their lifespan.

As Paul Campos notes elsewhere on spiked, the fears about obesity are overstated (1) while Malcolm Kendrick notes that the know-your-number obsession with cholesterol ignores the numerous holes in the theory that cholesterol will kill you (2). Apart from giving up the fags, the evidence that changing your personal behaviour will lengthen your life is surprisingly slim.

Still, it all seems to be a bit of a game. We watch the programmes that tell us to change our ways, admiring the transformation from slob to saint. Then on Friday, we go out and drink beer, smoke fags and eat takeaways. ‘You’re eating empty, addictive, toxic rubbish,’ Hamilton says, berating Plews for the sheer quantity of yellowy-brown stodge he puts away. ‘But it all tastes nice,’ points out Plews, helpfully.

Or, to put it another way, life’s too short to eat salad.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Obesity

spiked-issue: TV

(1) The Obesity Myth, by Paul Campos

(2) The Great Cholesterol Myth, by Malcolm Kendrick

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

Topics Culture


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