It’s time to realise that there is no gain without some pain
Early January is a time of sober, sluggish reflection. Mentally burdened by lavish Christmas spending, and physically burdened by an excess of rich food, you gaze down sadly at your expanded tummy, undo the top button of your jeans and resolve to make a new start.
Many of us plan punitive health and fitness regimes, as a kind of self-flagellation for recent excesses. We vow to run five times a week, stop buying butter, and only have hot water with a slice of lemon in it for lunch. We feel pure and thin and holy for a while, just at the thought of it.
But of course, like all over-ambitious projects borne of guilt, disgust and frustration, it is destined to end in failure. Most of us simply don't have the will-power to keep it up.
And so we have that large wodge of chocolate cake, with cream, and maybe another one or two slices as well, if the day has been long and challenging.
We forgive ourselves for these lapses, telling ourselves that we deserve a treat, or we need a little nurturing. There's a whole language of cosy self-help out there — “me time”, “pampering” — that supports us in doing lazy, indulgent things that we like, rather than nasty, demanding things that we don't.
Maybe it's time for a tougher approach. Fitness author and former criminal barrister Ruth Field certainly thinks so. She recommends stripping naked in front of a full-length mirror, preferably one with harsh lighting.
Then stare long and hard at yourself. That's the first part of the exercise. In the second part, you look yourself in the eye and say aloud, “you fat bitch”. (This is probably even more effective if you're a man.) No excuses, no pussy-footing around. Now this is a little too personally abusive for my tastes.
But there's something to be said for Field's general approach. “Stop wanting things to be easy,” she says. “Grit is required to achieve anything worthwhile.
“We're so out of touch with anything being difficult or hard. But that can be the making of you. We have an inner toughness that's not a bad thing to exercise sometimes.”
Whatever happened to self-control? Discipline? Personal responsibility?
These old-fashioned virtues — the concept of duty is another one — have been cast aside, treated as though they are laughable relics of an age of Victorian repression. But in the modern era of gluttonous yet dissatisfied self-indulgence, this could be exactly the kind of medicine we need.
When it comes to what we eat, many of us have got into the habit of wanting things to be far too easy. Those fatty, salty, sugar-laden snacks slip down like baby food, and just like greedy babies, we want more and more. Have you noticed how you barely need to chew this cheap, addictive junk food? It's been pre-masticated so we don't even need the tiresome bother of crunching it up.
The trouble with that kind of eating is that it over-rides the body’s signals that tell us we’re full. David Kessler, former head of the US Food and Drug Administration, and the author of a book called “The End of Overeating” describes the phenomenon as “foods that go whoosh”, as they disappear effortlessly down your throat. Our collective addiction to milky coffee — whether in cappuccino or frappuccino form — comes from a similarly infantilised place. One expert tells Kessler, “It’s about warm milk and a bottle .... one of my colleagues said, if I could put a nipple on it, I’d be a multi-millionaire”.
We are supposed to be kind and supportive to fat people, recognising that there are numerous psychological and emotional factors that make them eat too much. We are expected to treat them with the sympathy extended to alcoholics and drug addicts. It's certainly in all our interests to get to the root causes of the epidemic of over-eating.
Dealing with obesity-related conditions is hoovering up around 20% of the entire health care budget, and here in Northern Ireland, about 24% of adults are obese.
The unpalatable truth is that huge swathes of the population are stuffing themselves like harvest pigs, all the while believing that when the heart or some other organ goes pop the state will sort it out. We have all had enough, more than enough. It's time to start practising saying no to ourselves.
Our spoilt inner child may stamp and scream, but we'll be the better for it in the end.