I happened across a copy of Broccoli and Brains recently and my curiosity was piqued (enough to order the other copies). As a complete nerd, reading material on the topic of dieting which wasn’t illustrated with women laughing at salad was something I could actually sink my teeth into (so to speak). Before I reached the end of the first page I looked for the publishing details, to confirm my suspicions that it was very soft sales material; ever the marketing sleuth, I was correct, and the magazine is produced by Lighter Life Limited. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – although I have a slight wariness of Lighter Life due to it being the diet of choice for a former boss who was a pretty unstable individual. I remember being tempted to throw sandwiches into her office twenty minutes before I went to see her because wow, that woman was hangry!
My prejudices thus confessed, I was immediately taken by the first article from the first edition of the magazine. There, Leo McKinstry stated; ‘In the noisy demand for action on obesity, there is now a tendency to treat the overweight not as autonomous citizens, but as passive, infantilised victims who need protection from the wicked food companies and constant support from the Government. Perhaps the most offensive illustration of this trend is the drive to have obesity classified as a disability, a move that, according to some campaigners, should be accompanied by making “appearance-based” discrimination a hate crime like racial or homophobic bigotry. This is carrying institutionalised victimhood to a grotesque new level.’
Not much sympathy there – and why should there be? McKinstry is quick to admit to his own 19 stone frame. For me this throws light on a crucial aspect of the discussion surrounding obesity; that to classify obesity as a disability would surely undermine the existing disabilities associated with obesity. Let’s take the example of an obese person with type II diabetes and back pain. In the simplest assessment, what they require is medication and dietary support for the diabetes and medication and exercise support for their back pain. Of course their weight needs addressing, but while it is undoubtedly the cause of their other problems, the diabetes and back pain are genuine problems in their own right. My concern would be that by making obesity a disability, access to treatments for associated problems would be limited. Already, there are complaints by the obese that their pains and concerns aren’t taken as seriously as those of individuals with what’s deemed a healthy weight. To classify obesity as a disability is reductionist, and misses the point of how deeply complex the issue is.
I don’t think anybody is fat because they don’t know pizza has more calories than salad.
In the second issue of the magazine, Tanya Gold says; ‘I suspect that, in my deepest self, I want to be fat. My experience tells me that if I wanted to be slim, I would be. I am tenacious, and one of the things I am most tenacious about is being fat.’ Gold has weighed less than ten stone; her weight is absolutely within her control in a physical sense. Instead, her weight is a defence mechanism, ‘I think I am afraid of slenderness; I also know why. I am, on the whole, afraid of men and, if you are fat, men do not notice you.’ Could the standard advice to eat less and move more be any more patronising to a woman as brilliant as Gold. (‘…this is not a body I want to share. But hey, don’t you want to fuck my sentences?’)
On the last page of the third edition, Professor Tony Leeds – a bariatric physician – summarises the problem; ‘GP’s have little to offer apart from the extremes of surgery and advice to go away and eat apples and lettuce.’ Hardly surprising then that the diet industry is so (financially) successful.
Lighter Life sells a cocktail of VLCD (Very Low Calorie Diet) and CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). What interests me about this approach is that there is an understanding about the need to make change in order to maintain weight loss. Reading through Broccoli and Brains, it becomes apparent that treating obesity has much in common with treating alcoholism or drug addiction. The obese person doesn’t overeat because they’re hungry any more than the alcoholic drinks because they’re thirsty.
Why are obese people addicted to food?
I think that, ultimately, obesity has very little to do with food. I belong to a private Facebook group of individuals wanting to lose weight and, while various approaches have been credited with success, again and again I see expressions of thanks for the friendship and support. We talk about our relationships (there are plenty of toxic mothers and an increasing number of ex-husbands), our dreams and ambitions. None of us are stupid, but all of us are busy. We have children and careers, health problems and money worries, and – at one point or another – taking care of ourselves tumbled down our list of priorities. Some would resonate with Gold’s desire to not be noticed, others with McKinstry’s use of food to soothe, but all of us needed someone to talk to. I write this wearing the fluffy socks I was sent from my Secret Santa in the group, and they remind me to take care of myself. This reminder comes not, I’m eager to point out, from me belonging to a ‘fat girl club’ but from knowing that – out there in the world – someone cares, and understands the temptation to join my son in a midmorning snack when I’m exhausted, and the energy boost will help me through the next few hours…
Just like alcoholics and drug addicts, obese individuals are struggling with issues based on fear, anger, guilt and control. As Caitlin Moran observed in How to be a woman, food is the drug of choice for the individual who needs to get on with life. One can’t be drinking and toking with a baby on one’s hip, but a few rounds of toast are just fine.
I consider myself one of the lucky ones. My exhaustion turns out to be a medical problem, which can be treated. I will soon see an improvement, which should curb my cravings for energy boosting food – although that is, of course, only part of the problem. I’ve had some bad habits for several years now, and breaking them will be a bigger challenge than getting a diagnosis was.
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