For most people the problem is not their size but the torment of fat weighing on their minds
- The Guardian,
- Friday March 10 2006
Poor old Waitrose. The supermarket really must think it is doing right by its consumers, helping them to discern the good, the bad and the ugly sandwich. After consultations with its customers, and following well-meaning but idiotic recommendations from the Food Standards Agency, traffic light signposting will be affixed to Waitrose’s sandwiches from Monday enabling us speedily to identify which sandwiches are low in fats, saturates, sugars, salts and calories.
Sensible, right? Well perhaps at first glance. But not at second or third. Out of the best of motives, Waitrose, and doubtless the other supermarkets, will go down a route which will, almost certainly, raise the level of fats and calories eaten. Worse, it will reinforce the over-simplistic thinking about food intake that ought to embarrass those charged with understanding a complex issue. It’s a version of the Department of Health’s useless mantra, calories in, calories out.
Shall we have a green sandwich with a chocolate bar or crisps today, but a promise not to have it again tomorrow? Consider the magnetism of that naughty red sandwich. How can one resist. You don’t need to be a shrink to know that what becomes designated a naughty, or immoral (since fat has now taken on moral proportions) or dangerous treat is then eaten guiltily and thus with decreased, rather than enhanced, pleasure. So decreased, in fact, that one misses the experience and craves another. Such are the dilemmas that turn eating into a considerable and often debilitating problem for millions of women daily.
We know that eating in a guilty or surreptitious manner affects how your food is metabolised. It simply is not a question of calories in, calories out. Adiposity depends upon many factors, including metabolism and set point. Our metabolism is a labile thing. Eating just what you want, when you are hungry for it, and stopping when you are full, is the only way to ensure a stable weight, the weight you are meant to be.
With the government’s declaration of an Obesity Crisis, the food and pharmaceutical industries are revelling in commercial opportunities that await them to scoop up the problem with pills and specialised foods. But, as with the green sandwich, beware. The epidemiological analyses that originally had the US Surgeon General putting obesity-related deaths at around 400,000 have been reanalysed, and we find they’ve dropped to less than 26,000. Not good by any means, but not enough to drive our own House of Commons committee on obesity and the Department of Health to respond robotically. Reanalysis also shows that the “overweight”, that’s to say people with a body mass index (BMI) of 25 to 29.9, live longer on average than those with a “normal” BMI of between 18.5 and 24.9.
Of course, the facts don’t penetrate, because we’ve bought into a scare and an aesthetic that fat starts the minute you can pinch a bit of flesh. It is a form of local terrorism aimed at our bodies. For most people, the problem is not their fat intake or their actual size, but the torment associated with fat in their minds. They imagine they are too large, they feel that they must get smaller. They worry about food intake incessantly. An epidemic of eating and body image problems plagues us. Every study shows women and girls of perfectly average and low weights consistently judge themselves to be too large. We’ve conspired with the idea that obesity is a kind of pandemic-like disease against which we must be ever vigilant. Fat, we’ve come to believe, is a curse on the culture, which we have a moral duty to combat. And Waitrose has inadvertently moved towards aggravating the problem, as it endeavours to sanitise our lunchtime.
© Susie Orbach
· Susie Orbach is author of On Eating, Hunger Strike, and Fat is a Feminist Issue www.any-body.org