"Are You Hungry" spelled out in spaghetti
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Shaming women about the food they eat helps no one 

Contradictory or alarmist news reports risk masking the real problem about food and our health, says Bee Wilson

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By Bee Wilson on

I was about to make spaghetti carbonara last week when the news came in that eating bacon could raise my risk of breast cancer. A study from the University of Glasgow based on 260,000 women found that middle-aged British women who ate just 9g of processed meat a day – equivalent to three rashers of bacon – were 15 per cent more likely to get breast cancer than those who ate none. Suddenly, the unsmoked streaky bacon in my fridge looked sinister. Should I switch to courgette carbonara instead?

It’s impossible to open a newspaper or scroll through a news feed without being bombarded with “health” stories, many of them aimed at women. These reports oscillate wildly between alarm and false hope. Since the new year rolled around, I’ve read stories about exercise snacking and gut health, about raw water and cumin (the “new kale”, apparently).

Reading too many health stories, I’ve decided, is bad for your sanity. They make us feel anxious about our own bodies and guilty for eating almost anything. It doesn’t help that the assertions so often contradict each other. This week alone, one newspaper feature suggested that the secret of weight loss and wellbeing was to eat practically nothing but meat, while another indicated that an ultra-strict vegan diet was the answer.

Some of these health stories appear on the surface to be positive. It was heart-warming to read the story of Dieneke Ferguson, a 67-year-old woman who had “beaten” her blood cancer – myeloma – with high doses of curcumin, one of the chemicals in turmeric. This story made me think I might start drinking fashionable turmeric milk, or at least using more of the yellow spice in my curries.

But even upbeat health stories such as this one can encourage us to have an unhealthily obsessive relationship with food. In her new book, Orthorexia, Renee McGregor argues that the sheer overload of information about health and food in the media contributes to the rising numbers of people suffering from orthorexia: an obsession with eating in the “right” way that becomes an eating disorder. McGregor notes that those vulnerable to eating disorders are often very receptive to uplifting health stories, whether it’s “a gluten-free diet that’s allegedly ‘fixed’ migraines or a sugar-free diet that’s ‘cured’ ME”.

One way or another, the subtext of many health stories is that women’s bodies are wrong and need to be cured. As American feminist Roxane Gay writes in her amazing memoir Hunger, about living in the world as a fat woman, any time she goes to the doctor, “whether for an ingrown toenail or a cold, doctors can only see and diagnose my body”.

Rather than feeling guilty because we have sometimes eaten more than three rashers of bacon in a week, we should feel angry with the industry that chooses to use carcinogenic nitrates

There are two kinds of photos that tend to accompany articles about health and diet. The first shows a fat person eating something like a double cheeseburger, as if to say: “Look! She brought it on herself!” The second type of photo shows someone with an insanely flat stomach in a bikini. Sometimes a heart is drawn around her navel. This seems to imply that flat-stomached women are more lovable, as well as necessarily healthier than those with curves. All too often these stories conflate beauty and health.

Alarmist health stories are good for selling gym memberships and expensive green smoothies, but not so good for making us any healthier. Take obesity. There’s rising evidence that the welter of judgmental articles about the “obesity crisis” may actually make it harder for people to lose weight. A study from 2017 looking at nearly 3,000 Americans found that the more someone felt stigmatised about his or her weight, the more likely they were to overeat and gain more weight.

The media angle on food and individual health encourages us to turn our anger in on ourselves, rather than outwards to the true culprits. Let’s go back to the story about bacon and breast cancer. This study was just the latest in a gathering body of research linking processed meat consumption to cancers. But the fact that ham and bacon are so carcinogenic is due to the food industry’s insistence on using nitrites and nitrates. Last year, French journalist Guillaume Coudray published Cochonneries, a book exposing what he calls the “nitro-meat lobby” for its disregard of human health. As Coudray explains to me in an email, “There is clear evidence that [bacon and ham] made with nitrate is much more carcinogenic than charcuterie made with only salt.”

Rather than feeling guilty because we have sometimes eaten more than three rashers of bacon in a week, we should feel angry with the industry that chooses to use nitrates in salami. The healthiness of our food is never just a matter of personal choice.

If you want to stay on an even keel with food, you need to learn to read the health stories and say, “La la la.” A healthy life means avoiding the twin imposters of cancer scares on the one hand and miracle cures on the other.

But you know what? Spaghetti carbonara with courgettes is delicious.


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