The Feminine Agenda – Part Two: Diet is a Dirty Word

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Like SO many women I know, I’m always complaining about my health, diet, weight and expressing a desire to do something about it so that I can feel better about myself / look better/feel better.

Every evening when I come home from work, I have developed the hunger of ten men and practically the first thing I do is to reach out for a snack. ( I say practically the first thing as I may have to hang a right to the loo – commute plus middle age equals a need to wee more than ever). I charge through the house to the kitchen and go straight for the cupboard where I keep the peanut butter. Armed with my weapon of choice – a teaspoon  ( a dessert spoon has proved to be too big to get into the neck of the jar) – its an easy battle to snatch off the lid and stick the spoon into the craters of the delicious, satisfying goo left by previous home time snack attacks.

Whilst in the shower one morning I was contemplating what else I could have as a less fattening ( oh yes it is – you should see the size of the spoonful/s I dig out) but equally as satisfying arrival snack. Then, in the car on the way to the train station an advert played on the radio for a well know diet and and weigh loss company. It said, ‘Don’t do this diet, or try that one (mentioning two other well known weight loss methods), try us instead because we’re healthier’.

This started me thinking.

What is healthy?

What should a healthy diet consist of? What does it mean to be healthy and what is this whole diet malarkey all about? What is this obsession with diet ? When did dieting become necessary and when did it become such a global past time?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines DIET as:

  • the kinds of food that a person, animal, or community habitually eats.
  • a special course of food to which a person restricts themselves, either to lose weight or for medical reasons.

The UK diet industry is apparently worth a staggering 2 billion GBP.

In our effort to ‘be healthy’ and as part of our ‘dieting’ lifestyle, out of the 64.1 million Brits, 1.5 million of us are members of a gym. Sport England reported that as of April 2016, the number of people taking part in sport is growing, with approximately 15.6 million people taking part in some form of sport at least once a week (more about women in sport in a later post).

What’s dieting all about? What started us restricting our food intake out of choice?

Dieting is generally considered to be a fairly modern invention that kicked off along with Jane Fonda’s workout videos when she told us to squeeze our buns tight, but actually it started much much earlier – there is evidence that dieting began in the Greek and Roman times.It is believed that dieting then was for all round health, mental and physical health, but the modern concept of fad dieting didn’t start in earnest until the 19th century.

Throughout history the issue humans had with food was that there simply wasn’t enough of it. Think the Irish Potato Famine, Marie Antoinette suggesting her starving subjects desperate for bread should eat cake instead and young Oliver Twist asking for more gruel    (okay he is a character in a novel, but as we know, Dickens wrote about real life issues). The simple fact was that for your average person, wages were simply not enough to support a whole family. Families were large; there was no birth control. Work was hard but not well paid and it was only the upper classes and royalty who had a surfeit of food.

There have been some weird diets since the 19th century. Here are a couple of the craziest that I’ve discovered. You could try either the Chew and Spit Diet or the Tapeworm Diet

At the turn of the 20th Century, an American named Horace Fletcher advocated the Chew and Spit diet. He promoted the belief that food should be chewed until all goodness had been extracted – for example a shallot should be chewed 700 times. (Seriously, they just ate a shallot on its own?) Both Henry James and Franz Kafka were followers of this diet. The ghastly thing about it was that you ended up only going to the loo perhaps once every two weeks and then when you did go apparently the resulting specimen was a weird non smelling affair. Fletcher carried one around with him in a tin to show other people!

A truly ghastly diet idea was the Tape Worm diet. This was about 100 years earlier in the early 1900’s when dieting suddenly took off as a concept. The boom in celebrity caused a real interest in dieting with mass advertising on various cures for being overweight. This was one of them and you’ve guessed it, it involved swallowing a beef tapeworm egg and then once the thing had reached adulthood it would absorb food causing weight loss (yahoo) along with vomiting and diarrhoea (not so yahoo). Once the dieter had reached their goal weight they would then have to take an anti parasitic pill which would help them to (hopefully) excrete the tape worm. Of course this also caused other problems like abdominal and rectal complications. However, whilst having the creature in your body other problems could occur. Tape worms can grow up to 30 feet ( 9metres) long and can cause many diseases such as meningitis, epilepsy and dementia.

If you didn’t fancy ingesting a worm (and I really can’t think why you would) then there were other ways of dieting. Pills and potions were invented to help people to lose weight but the trouble was that these drugs contained some pretty dangerous ingredients. These ingredients were advertised as helping to speed up the metabolism. We now know them to be injurious to life – strychnine and arsenic being two. Generally, these ingredients were only a very small part of the recipe but just as so often happens today, people overdosed on the drugs or took drugs that didn’t have a list of ingredients so they didn’t really know what they were taking. The industry, so similar to today, was full of charlatans and people claiming miraculous effects of their products and were clearly just as gullible and desperate then as we can often be today. And there were other diets such as the Vinegar Diet favoured by Lord Byron and the other Romantics.

The Women’s League for Health and Exercise

Fast forward to the 2oth century: the 1950s to be precise. Listen up ladies, the average house wife in the 1940s and 50s was having more sex than us! She was at it at least twice a week (gratuitous fact). Despite the fact that food was scarce and rationing was still in place, we were dieting. Back then, diet books were delivered and read covered in brown paper, but women were as interested as ever in dieting into that delicious hour glass shape. We also started exercising and the Women’s League for Health and Exercise was created. Take a look at this classic film:

 

Then came the 1970s and 80s. Lynda Carter must have caused a lot of jealousy among modern women when she donned that Wonder Woman outfit ( she had already been crowned Miss World). She had never intended to be a sex symbol for anyone except her husband but she set pulses racing.

In 2016 in the UK, PwC reported that 725,000 people have an eating disorder.

11% of those are male, meaning that a 89% of that number are women with a disorder. Eating disorders have been reported in girls as YOUNG as 6 and in women as OLD as 70. in 2014 the NHS reported that it had received an 8% increase in eating disorder admittances. around 40% of those suffering from a disorder suffer from Bulimia and 10% with anorexia, the other disorders are non specified. Of all anorexia sufferers around 20% will die prematurely as a direct result of their disorder.

Eating disorders and their causes are extremely complicated. They are not caught as if they were a cold or mumps and they aren’t a sign that the sufferer is mentally unstable in any way. They can be triggered by a number of root causes including trauma and loss.

However, its also true to say that the demands of society today requiring women to look a certain way absolutely don’t help. And..girls, we can be so hard on ourselves and to each other can’t we? I went to a convent school and there was definitely bullying of all sorts. Bullying if you weren’t one of the “in” crowd; bullying if you weren’t pretty; bullying if you didn’t come from a wealthy family; bullying if you got lower (or higher) grades; bullying if you were rubbish at sports; bullying if you cried when you were bullied and, of course, bullying if you were fat.

We diet because we want to look good and its been the same for hundreds of years and much of the time its because of the (often overwhelming) external pressure to do so. These days the images of film stars, singers and catwalk models have women and men doing somersaults eating and drinking virtually nothing, or some of the craziest foods and/or supplements to achieve even a semblance of their looks. The demand for non-surgical cosmetic surgery is on the rise in the UK and cosmetic interventions are worth an estimated £3.6billion.

Despite the fact that so many of us are dieting and undertaking cosmetic procedures to enhance our looks, Britain is the Fat Man of Europe.

Medical agencies state that a healthy BMI is between 18.5 and 25. Over 24.8% of adults in the UK are obese with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or over and a staggering 61.7% are either overweight or obese according to statistics developed this year. Obesity is caused by eating too much and moving too little and by eating the ‘wrong’ kinds of food foods that are too highly processed and/or with too much fat and sugar.

Where will it all end?

From what I have read (and indeed, from what I can see on a daily basis), we are a nation that is massively polarised between the food and health followers who study every millimetre of a food label before even considering using what its stuck to, to the other end of the spectrum where, through ignorance, lack of time or other circumstances no food is too fatty or salty or sugary and enough is never enough.

Whilst doing my research for this post, I’ve been surprised at how many people seem to be unaware of the effects of their daily diet – for good or for ill – even though we have more information at our finger tips than ever before.  Despite society’s development and quest for a generally more tolerant society, we seem to judge and be judged whatever we put in our mouths. There is no end to the relentless quest for uber health and beauty amongst an ever-growing number of people and there is no sign of a let up in the tsunami of new ideas and techniques to help people lose weight, gain muscle, burn fat or manipulate and pummel their bodies into their desired shape.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with dieting. People should be able to do what makes them feel better about themselves ( except maybe ingest tape worm larvae). I agree with the Greeks though – it should enhance emotional and mental health as well as your waist line. So, in that spirit, I’m off to have a spoonful of peanut butter to keep my spirits up!

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