Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Obsession with Healthy Heating: Our New Religion?

Two research papers released this morning caught my attention. The first, that taking vitamins could actually shorten dramatically, rather than prolong your life will no doubt horrify the vitamin supplements industry even more than it will turn the stomach of those who have for decades believed in their magical promises of longevity, beginning and ending every day with a cocktail of pills. The second suggests that while eating ice cream will enhance a woman’s chance of conceiving a child, switching to ‘healthy options’ such as skimmed milk and low fat yoghurt have precisely the opposite effect, helping decrease a woman’s chance of conceiving by as much as 80%. Cue a cacophony of protest and a ferocious PR scramble on both counts.

Meanwhile, having just finished my breakfast of bananas, honey and full fat Greek yoghurt and knowing my lunchtime salad will come with a dollop of full-fat mayonnaise, I am feeling slightly smug. I gave up low-fat foodsages ago, realising they only tasted good because of the added sugar manufactures put in to compensate (check out the carbohydrate content of low as opposed to full fat yoghurt next time you’re anywhere near a pot and you’ll see what I mean).

As for vitamins, I was put off those by a former boyfriend who shunned proper food every morning in favour of a handful of vitamin tablets. He got thinner and thinner and his skin ever more sallow. A picture of health he was not. In any case, I never saw the health benefit in eating the small lumps of rubbery plastic most vitamins come encased in.

I have come to believe that eating three, moderate, healthy meals a day and avoiding high calorie snacks and processed food is the way to stay trim, happy and healthy. I’m also a firm believer in the adage that a little bit of what you fancy does you good. It’s when we get obsessed that the trouble starts, be that an overuse of prescription drugs or alcohol; eating large bars of chocolate regularly as opposed to a couple of squares once or twice a week; or developing an obsession with healthy eating and over-exercising.

It is hardly surprising we first became obsessed with food and what not to eat in the latter half of the 20th century, when we in the West, at least, were fortunate enough to have food in abundance and when society became increasingly materialistic and industrialised. When secularism is pervasive and God unimportant for many, a common certainty in salvation, heaven, or whatever religion says might be our ‘life after death,’ is lost. Yet, in the same way food manufacturers replace fat with sugar, this sense of loss too has to be replaced with something.

It seems to me this ‘something,’ our new quest for salvation, has become to strive to live for as long as possible, doing whatever it takes to achieve this goal. If this means following every piece of ‘healthy’ advice we get, regardless of common sense or evidence to the contrary, we follow, like lost sheep.

Eschewing priests, ministers and our spiritual needs, we instead feed our physical bodies as directed by our new diet doctor gods, bloating ourselves up with two unnecessary litres of water and binging on at least five huge portions of fruit and veg every day. With the passion of religious zealots, we turn to our recipe Bible, penned by the great nutritionist and spiritual guru Gillian McKeith, and chomp our way through an unappetising bowl of mung bean stew, convinced will save us from certain death. Then we worship at the altar of exercise, taking up jogging in middle age, risking torn cartilage, ripped tendons and even heart attacks.

Why do we do all this? Because, despite the risks of such behaviour, we actually believe indulging this obsessive madness will protect us from the evils of old age, illness and death, so we can once again live without fear of our ultimate demise.

Eagerly, we pounce on every new piece of research suggesting a cure for cancer is only five or ten years away. We don’t question it; we just celebrate the good news, rejoicing that salvation is at hand. We put our faith in science and our healthy lifestyles, forgetting the only certainty in life is death, however hard we try to stay alive and however many medical advances are made. Perhaps we even come to believe death can be cured within our lifetimes.

When the late Cardinal Basil Hume was diagnosed with terminal cancer and faced imminent death, he relayed the news to one of his closest confidents who replied with words along the lines of: “How wonderful! I wish I was coming with you!” The Cardinal said those words were the closest that came to summing up how he felt about his diagnosis.

The militant atheist Richard Dawkins would no doubt say Hume was deluded. I'd say his attitude was no more deluded and a lot healthier than that of those who believe the elixir of life can be found in a vitamin pill or the bottom of a glass of skimmed milk.

Labels: , , , , ,