It’s hard to avoid thinking about food, which has meant that this quarter’s award – now in its fourth year…
Jean-Paul Sartre refused to eat lobsters because they resembled giant insects. Fresh fruit and vegetables, he felt, were also too close to nature, so he opted for the canned variety. Sartre needed evidence of human consciousness, of the pour-soi. Raw foods, redolent of the consciousness-free en-soi, elicited in him a kind of nausea.
For Sartre, and for all of us, diets have implicitly moral, aesthetic, philosophical, and political dimensions. Foods can be virtuous (vegetables) or wicked (chocolate); homely (soup) or exotic (caviar); artisanal (home cooking) or corporatised (soft drinks). Our dining rooms are theatres of morality, where we signal our virtues, vices, and aspirations by what, and how, we eat. Fad diets are an extreme form of signalling, of identity with a dietary tribe – Pritikin (high carbohydrate), Atkins (low carbohydrate), or Last Chance (no carbohydrate).
Fad diets are above all a performance of self-denial. In 1899 the American sociologist Thorstein Veblen proposed, in his The Theory of the Leisure Class, the idea of ‘conspicuous consumption’, the ostentatious spending of money on useless goods. Conspicuous consumption, the performance of non-productivity and idleness, is predicated upon a society of scarcity: only where scarcity exists can wastefulness be meaningful. It is a measure of our progress towards a society of abundance that social worth today can be marked not by consumption but by abstinence. ‘Conspicuous abstention’ is only meaningful in a society of abundance. Churchill drank Pol Roger; Brad Pitt drinks pitaya juice. The rich diet; the poor starve.
Abstention is purifying. Food is literally pre-processed crap: less rubbish in means I am less rubbish. The Cabbage Soup Diet (the name says it all, it’s cabbage soup on infinite loop) is an egregious example, as is the Master Cleanse Diet (nothing but tea and lemonade made from maple syrup and cayenne pepper – you couldn’t make this stuff up). Another promotes “a whole body cleanse that helps remove harmful impurities from the body while infusing it with essential botanicals”.
In the infinitesimal calculus of calorie-counting, the limit as calories approach zero is Inedia, or the Breatharian diet – consisting entirely of air and sunlight. With its strong Rosicrucian and pranayamic origins, the Breatharian street cred was somewhat damaged when Wiley Brooks, the founder of the Breatharian Institute of America, was filmed in 1983 leaving a Santa Cruz convenience store with a slushy, a hot dog, and a packet of cakes. More dedicated devotees of Inedia have actually died, the latest being a Swiss woman in 2012 who was seeking pure spirituality. She found it.
The Last Chance Diet (1500 kJ of liquid protein daily) is credited with 58 people consuming their last meal earlier than they would otherwise have done. It’s easy to understand why. We can run mathematical models incorporating metabolic responses to dieting which predict that an average 80 kg man would last just 88 days on this diet, weighing just 40.8 kg when he breathed his last.
More surprisingly, less radical weight-loss techniques can up your chances of achieving room temperature before your due date. Danish epidemiologist Thorkild Sørensen followed 2,957 adult Finns from 1975 to 1999. He found that people who intended to lose weight, and succeeded, had an 87 per cent greater chance of dying at any given age than people whose weight remained stable. Sørensen’s study has been backed up by recent US research finding that, apart from superobese people who gained weight, those most likely to die were healthy, normal-weight folk who lost weight. Overweight adults who lost a lot of weight (10-15 kg) were 61 per cent more likely to die than people who just maintained their weight, and even modest weight loss of 3-5 kg increases your risk of death. The message is clear: dieting doesn’t make you fat; it makes you dead.
Abstention is not the only moral dimension of fad diets. Fad diets typically forbid ‘processed’ or ‘refined’ foods, and prescribe raw, processed, or unrefined foods. Youthful fraudster Belle Gibson credited the fictional cure for her fictional cancer to her raw fruit and vegetable diet. These diets imply a suspicion of modernity, a mistrust of manufacturing which would have nauseated Sartre. Some diets, such as the Paleo diet, which advocates a return to the imagined diet of our Paleolithic forebears, make an explicit reference to a legendary Golden Age of Diet, an ancestral gastro-intestinal Eden before Adam ate the apple, a historical moment when people’s diets were in tune with their genes. That paradise may be more imagined than real: the Paleo staple of broccoli didn’t exist in the Paleolithic era, and the prescribed wild almonds would have been so high in cyanide they would have instantly killed any Paleolithic Paleo dieter. At least it would have been quick.