Denial is the secret ingredient in modern lives of convenience

Mon, Jan 21, 2013, 00:00

No wonder the fast diets are doing so well. This January’s diet craze recommends eating very, very frugally two days a week – one version allowing just 600 calories per fast day for men, 500 for women. Whether this regime constitutes an old-fashioned fast is debatable. Whatever happened to black bread and black tea? It is hardly compatible with leading a normal life: a woman on the diet told a newspaper that over Christmas she went to bed at 7.30pm to avoid being offered chocolate.

On Saturday journalist Mimi Spencer, co-author of The Fast Diet, explained how to survive feeling pretty damn hungry. But fast diets are a wonderful way to pretend we can turn away from the murkiness of the modern food industry and spend a little time – say the month of January – feeling pure.

Fat is now such a dirty word that even Lance Armstrong won’t use it. Or so he says. Last week, in the first of his Oprah Winfrey interviews, he joked about how he had insulted another cyclist’s wife, Betsy Andreu, who had challenged his claim to be additive-free.

“‘Listen, I called you crazy, I called you a bitch, I called you all these things, but I never called you fat.’ She thought I said [she was] a fat, crazy bitch. I never said [she was] fat.”


Andreu responded to the interview by calling Armstrong deluded. But it is interesting that a man who rounded on anyone who questioned his purity and vilified in dreadful terms Emma O’Reilly, the young Irishwoman who was his masseuse – believes he can be amusing about the f-word. Not, I would have thought, a joke to share with Oprah.

Armstrong was a health hero. We enjoyed believing that he went from cancer sufferer to Tour de France conqueror, helped only by rubber-band bracelets and his sheer grit. His foundation, Livestrong, from which he has resigned, has pretty clear recommendations about what we should be eating. “Let us be your personal guide to becoming a better, healthier you,” says its website.

Armstrong looks extraordinarily healthy. And, of course, thin. A totem to discipline. He could do a Fast Diet, no problem. It’s a pretty safe bet that he would not put an economy burger into his body; just a lot of other stuff, via a syringe.

If you’re not a cyclist, or a cyclist’s wife, or a journalist or a witness who testified against Armstrong, it has been queasily enjoyable to watch his downfall. As always in these scandals, you’re left wondering how any of us believed such an unlikely story in the first place. We like people who beat inhuman odds, and we don’t really want to know how they do it.

For similar reasons I’d like less detailed food labelling, thanks. I don’t want to know about foreign filler in my burgers. There’s a lot about food production the average consumer is better off not knowing, and the main problem with food scandals, once human health has been secured, is that they lift the lid on the food industry, and we don’t want to look inside.

The treatment of agricultural labourers around the world is enough to put you off your dinner. It’s much better not to know about it, or about the details of how animals in our food chain live and die. What’s inside our cupboards is not a pretty sight. There was a lot of posturing last week about irresponsible poor people buying suspiciously cheap burgers, as if everyone else was angelically pure and living on organic steak.

Chicken nuggets

But the fact of the matter is that a huge number of people don’t cook at all, and their families are going to live on pre-prepared food for the foreseeable future. That includes the families of the lawyers who are going to sue certain food producers and the doctors who are going to testify in those court cases. The chicken nugget stalks the land, and has for some time. Pot noodles, pizzas and burgers are in virtually every home and, whether we’re poor, time-poor or simply couldn’t be bothered, that isn’t going to change.

Last week brought news not just of beefburgers adulterated with pork and horse and something called foreign filler but, in the vegetarian aisle of the global supermarket, a controversy about quinoa, of all things. This harmless grain has been so enthusiastically embraced by the prosperous and health-conscious West that people in Bolivia and Peru, its native territory, can no longer afford it. Quinoa (pronounced kin-wah; who knew?) is, or was, their staple food.

Also last week, in the food industry’s equivalent of the Armstrong interview, Coca-Cola mentioned the word obesity in an American advertisement for its product. The fact that Coca-Cola is fattening is hardly news, but perhaps, after years of presenting their drink as the epitome of good, clean fun, the Coca-Cola people see the lawyers massing on the horizon, ready to bring class actions against them.

Denial is the secret ingredient in our delicious, cheap and convenient modern food, just as it is in our sport and entertainment industries. The truth is that we don’t want too many more Lance Armstrongs.

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