Are you planning to lose weight this year? Good money says that you are. And even better money says – sadly – that you won’t manage it, at least not by going “on a diet”.
Every gambler knows the bank wins. Yet, they also convince themselves that this particular bet is special. The more money they lose, the more they have to throw at the next bet or next spin of the roulette wheel in a reckless attempt to get it all back.
Something of the same queasy desperation fuels our January efforts at self-transformation. In 2015, 57 per cent of UK women tried to lose weight – “tried” being the operative word. As Leonard Cohen sang, “Everybody knows that the dice are loaded/Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed.” We are not stupid. We know that the people who sell us a “life-changing” blender for making green juice will principally change our lives by making us £400 poorer. We know that the slimming clubs benefit more if we don’t reach our target weight, because then we keep on coming. But still we cross our fingers and roll the dice because, much as we hate going on diets, the sad fact is that many of us hate our own bodies even more.
“I’m sorry it’s so packed today,” said the barista in the café of the gym I go to this time last year. “But don’t worry, they’ll be gone by February.” I half admired his honesty, but it also made me feel angry for all the people who had signed up to the gym, yearning for change. As a former yo-yo dieter, I used to be one of these people myself. Every January was like a blank slate: a new diet, a fresh exercise programme and a new punishingly small target weight that I proposed to reach.
No more talk about guilt and indulgence. Mashed potato is not a guilty pleasure – it’s just a pleasure
It feels too awful to be here again in the land of resolutions and regret, so soon after Christmas. What happened to all the plans we made this time last year? All the kale juice we were going to drink? All the spin classes we would fit in, between learning a new language and decluttering our pants drawers? To spend too long dwelling on the broken resolutions of the past is to descend into self-loathing. And so we hurtle, crazily, into fresh schemes so ambitious that they will wipe out the old ones. Maybe “clean eating” will succeed where Sirtfood failed. And maybe we will also wake up with Cara Delevingne’s eyebrows.
The saddest thing about the January mindset – which even the sanest find hard to ignore – is that it actually prevents us from making the diet changes we are so desperate for. All those books promising you a six-pack in 15 minutes are a diversion from the real business of adjusting your relationship with food for the better. In a world of Type 2 Diabetes, eating disorders and doughnuts on every corner, it’s perfectly reasonable to wish that you ate in a more balanced way. Surprisingly, this is also entirely achievable, but it doesn’t look or feel anything like a January diet.
If you can only zone out the January nonsense, changing your diet for the better is quite possible. It’s a question of psychology more than nutrition. You won’t find the miracle cure in any product that you can buy, whether it’s probiotics or seaweed. The answer is in your own brain. Nutrients only count when a person picks up food and eats it. If you feel trapped in unhealthy ways of eating, as so many of us do, you need to find a way to be consoled and excited by new foods. The same applies to exercise. The secret is to find a type of exercise you enjoy so much you want to do it for its own sake, rather than a sadistic boot camp that burns maximum fat, but leaves you wiped out and in urgent need of a Mars Bar.
In this godforsaken world of wars, Trump and taxes, there is much we cannot change. Luckily, our own food habits don’t fall into this category. It’s possible to unsweeten your palate to the point where you just don’t want the extra-large frappucino any more. Likewise, once you stop telling yourself that broccoli is a diet food, you can find yourself craving it (especially charred with garlic and chilli, Ottolenghi-style). I never thought this would happen, but I discovered that I now prefer eating structured meals and leaving longer gaps between them, because a bit of hunger makes dinner taste so much better. But this kind of habit adjustment takes time. It’s not about forcing yourself to eat ridiculous and expensive “superfoods”. It also involves a degree of self-acceptance about your own body and its appetites. No more talk about guilt and indulgence. Mashed potato is not a guilty pleasure – it’s just a pleasure.
If you make enough of these changes, maybe you can beat the diet bank after all. You know you have changed when January is just another month – a bit cold and dark, for sure, but not really all that different from February.
Bee Wilson's new book This Is Not A Diet Book: A User's Guide To Eating Well is out now.