Belfast Telegraph

I've had my fill of people telling me what I cannot eat

By Fionola Meredith

Ah, Boxing Day: the fattest, guiltiest day of the year. Most of us will have spent Christmas Day stuffing ourselves silly. Turkey, ham, sausages, three different kinds of potato. Then there's the puddings, the pies, and that extra helping of sherry trifle that you really don't need, but - with the help of a sneakily undone button or two - you manage to cram in.

By the time that St Stephen's Day rolls round we're often rolling around ourselves, feeling bloated, sickened and generally horrified at our monstrous greed.

Then, by teatime, we start to feel peckish again, and the prospect of turkey curry, followed by a little left-over Christmas pudding - fried in butter, of course - seems like a perfect way to round off the day.

This is the traditional way the Twelve days of Christmas go by, until we're so consumed by guilt that we resolve to spend the rest of January sipping broccoli and kale smoothies, interspersed with the odd rice-cake as an occasional treat.

It might sound crazy, but I think there's something reassuringly sane about our annual fit of festive self-indulgence, and the amusingly predictable remorse and self-flagellation that follows. At least we're enjoying ourselves, even if we have to pay for it afterwards. No, it's the way we look at food throughout the rest of the year that troubles me far more.

Because, for many of us, food has become the enemy. We obsess about it, we agonise over it, we view it with suspicion, distaste, even fear. It should be a source of simple pleasure, one of life's small joys, but we've got it all screwed up and out of proportion. We can't get enough of shows like Masterchef and the Great British Bake-Off, but we have pathologised our relationship with what we actually eat.

Have you noticed, for instance, how many people claim to be allergic to everyday foods?

Bread? Ugh, take the dirty thing away, don't you know that gluten is poison to me? Dairy? You must be joking. Dairy's scary. Evil cow juice is a nightmare for your digestive system, darling, and it gives you spots.

This is what I always wonder: if wheat is so deadly, and milk makes you sick, how did human civilization manage to survive so long on these most basic of staples?

Now sugar is in the firing line, having replaced fat as the nightmare substance that's going to wipe out civilization. Eat the white stuff and die: it's more addictive than crack cocaine, according to the health hysterics, and almost as dangerous to your health. It'll make you blow up like a whale, and all your teeth will fall out, and that's just for starters. The pushers, we're told, are the food industry, who cunningly hide sugar in innocent-looking things like breakfast cereals, especially the low-fat ones, to make them taste less like cardboard and a little more like something you might actually want to eat. Then, when we get our sugar hit, we're like lab rats fed amphetamines: all the pleasure-points in our brain light up like, well, Christmas, and that's us hooked - until type 2 diabetes or some other obesity-linked scourge pops up to spoil the fun.

Or so the grim, scare-mongering fairytale goes. I'm not convinced.

Like fat, wheat and milk - those other taboo substances - sugar has been around for quite a long time. Millennia, in fact. It's hard to believe it suddenly morphed into a ruthless killing machine at some point in the last two or three years. Besides, the evidence that sugar has a specific role in causing problems like type 2 diabetes, other than by increasing people's weight, is far from clear. Being fat is the real problem here, not sugar itself.

Neither do I buy the idea that we are all the witless dupes of cynical multinational food companies, which are happy to sacrifice our collective health for the sake of an obese profit. Credit us with some intelligence, for goodness sake, when it come to what we choose to put in our mouths. And slapping a 100% sugar tax on fizzy drinks, as some health Nazis have recently demanded, treats everyone as greedy children who don't know any better and need to be saved from themselves.

Being an adult is about choices, and if I want another helping of trifle I'll have one, thank you.

You know what they say about a little of what you fancy.

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