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Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Weighty matters

I was invited to an extraordinary dinner party over the weekend. What made it so unprecedented was not the food itself but the singular choice of guest. My friend had laboured to produce a five course menu including roast lamb done in the Finnish style in my honour, pork, seafood soup and culminating in a choice of three home made ice-creams. As we went into the dining room one of the guests announced she could not participate in the banquet as she was a diet. Therefore she would be restricting herself to a meal made by applying boiling water to a packet of dried dietary soup. Her regime is extremely rigorous. For 13 weeks she is expected to ration herself to the special replacement meals. Fruit is forbidden to the extent that even fruit teas are banned. The diet promoters argue that the chemicals contained in fruit interfere with the alleged fat burning effects of their diet. The daily calorific allowance, if the diet is followed religiously, is well below what is normally deemed acceptable for a healthy adult woman. Alongside the diet, participants are expected to follow an exercise programme and undertake counselling. The latter is meant to help combat patterns of behaviour that lead to the dieters becoming greatly overweight in the first place.

At first the dieter claimed that she had not deviated from her diet. Later, she admitted that she had succumbed to eating the occasional piece of real meat rather than that of the reconstituted variety. She also allowed herself to inhale the enticing aromas of the myriad dishes set before her fellow diners on Saturday evening. I thought it showed a great deal of self restraint on her part not to be tempted as she fasted whilst the rest of us indulged. However, I asked her whether she was concerned about what would happen when she stopped eating only diet food and tried to adopt normal eating habits. She said she thought the counselling would help her and she could still undertake maintenance programmes should the weight start piling on again. In addition, she planned to extend the diet by a further 3 weeks or so beyond the original target. According to the hostess, it seems the guest had already lost 3 stones. As I had never seen her before I had no idea what she looked like prior to her recent weight loss. Still, she is an intelligent woman and must be aware that her diet is highly controversial. As each week passed more of the fellow dieters in her group slunk away, finding the regime far too tough to sustain.  In the UK a number of deaths have been attributed to the diet, although the diet company dispute this. Telling, recent newspaper photographs of the diet’s founder show someone who is undeniably overweight. Clearly a case of: do as I say, not as I do.

This dysfunctional attitude towards food is nothing new in the West. In the early 19th century the poet Lord Byron was known to have taken strong laxatives and Epsom salts in a desperate bid to lose weight. His contemporary, the Prince Regent, later King George IV, resorted to corsets to try and conceal the consequences of his unbridled appetite for food and drink. The prince might have had gained more benefit from his corsets had he been tightly laced into them before he sat down to a banquet. In view of the number of courses we dined on at the weekend, I was thankful I had not worn a corset for once.  What was true for Byron, still holds true today: eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we diet.