January is coming and soon it will be time for the annual diet. You know you will give it a try because you do it every year. The coming month of self-denial casts a shadow over festive celebrations as dank and gloomy as the hardy perennials of bad weather, travel chaos and unbearably crowded shops.
It has become an inevitable postscript to seasonal excess, a grim calorific reckoning that we ignore at our waistlines’ peril.
Yet this time it is going to be different. Suddenly, diets are out of fashion. Whatever you are planning to eat or not eat in the weeks ahead, don’t mention the D-word.
It is not that we have given up on weight loss; it is more that the very mention of the word “diet” has begun to verge on politically incorrect. Our language is changing and nothing must be construed as being judgmental about body shapes.
For evidence that diet has become a dirty word you need look no further than the internet home page of the Weight Watchers support group — the front line of the weight-loss business — where there is not a single mention of dieting.
Or turn to Amazon’s hot new releases chart, based on advance orders for 2016 books. Four of the top five titles are dedicated to healthier eating and living (the odd one out, at No 4, is Star Wars-related). Not one of these potential bestsellers describes itself as a diet.
Top of the Amazon list is Lean in 15 by Joe Wicks, a fitness guru known as “the Body Coach”, who boasts 548,000 Instagram followers and has a popular YouTube channel, where, in addition to flaunting an impressive six-pack, he promotes his 90-day SSS (shift, shape and sustain) healthy eating and exercise plan.
His first book, published tomorrow, is a combination of 15-minute recipes and 15-minute workouts “to keep you lean and healthy”. It is rumoured to have an initial print run of 400,000 copies — huge for a new lifestyle author — after a bidding war between eight publishers.
Yet Wicks does not want anyone to think of this as a diet book. “Diets just don’t work — lifestyle changes do,” he said. “There is a real shift in understanding happening at the moment about how we can properly fuel our bodies. Calorie-counting, or cutting out certain food groups altogether, just isn’t sustainable — and it’s no way to live. If you can get into good eating and exercise habits then achieving and maintaining the body you want just becomes part of your everyday life.”
In one sense he may be judging astutely the mood of a dieting public who realised long ago their new year’s resolutions rarely outlasted their hangovers. Yet Wicks also seems to be suggesting, instead of a short-lived annual ritual of self-denial through January, that we face a lifetime of culinary misery. Don’t worry: food gurus are lining up to make the journey tastier.
The anti-diet view certainly makes sense to the nutritional therapist Amelia Freer. Her second book, Cook. Nourish. Glow, is published on New Year’s Eve and stands at No 5 on the Amazon pre-order chart. Her first nutrition guide, Eat. Nourish. Glow, became a bestseller — the pop star Sam Smith credited it with helping him lose a stone in two weeks. Smith said Freer had “completely changed my life”. She said: “There is enough evidence now to prove there is a far happier, long-term solution to managing one’s weight than deprivation and misery.”
Several other lifestyle authors are now nailing their how-to manuals to the non-diet mast. Ella Woodward, aka “Deliciously Ella”, whose first gluten-free and dairy-free food guide became the fastest-selling debut cookbook, has a new book out on January 21: Deliciously Ella Every Day. “The Deliciously Ella way of eating isn’t about following a diet . . . her easy-to-make food will become a natural part of your life,” reads the blurb.
Even the adventurer and television presenter Bear Grylls has joined the throng, with Fuel for Life, lengthily subtitled: Achieve maximum health with amazing dairy, wheat and sugar-free recipes and my ultimate 8-week eating plan. No mention of a diet there.
So if we do not want to call it dieting any more, what are we doing instead? Some would described it as “cleansing”.
The controversial practice of abandoning food in favour of fruit and vegetable juices — or juice cleansing — is now facing a new challenge from, of all things, soup.
Published this month, The Soup Cleanse promises you can “eat your way to a clean, lean, nourished body in less than a week” while The Ultimate Soup Cleanse describes itself as “a delicious and filling detox”.
Not everyone is convinced by the cleansing trend. Celebrity chef Nigella Lawson deplores the term and said recently on BBC Radio 4 that it implies “any other form of eating is dirty or shameful”.
Earlier this month Lawson added: “There is a way in which food is used to either self-congratulate — you’re a better person because you’re eating like that — or to self-persecute, because you’ll not allow yourself to eat what you want.”
It’s not all about self-image, of course. There’s a science to modern weight management, and no end of experts ready to tell you that eating the “wrong” things might actually be good for you.
Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, believes the secret lies in the stomach’s need for a healthy diversity of intestinal microbes, some of them derived from foods and drinks that give diet gurus the vapours — notably fatty cheeses and yoghurts, Belgian beer, coffee and dark chocolate. That’s a diet we can all sign up for.
Spector’s book, The Diet Myth, published in May, was among the first to make a convincing case that old-school advice to count calories or eat less fat or sugar simply was not working.
Spector claims that the microbes in our guts are essential to weight management, yet diet-friendly artificial sweeteners and antibiotics are killing them. The solution, Spector argues, is “gut health”.
“People have realised traditional diets of calorie-counting fail in 95% of cases,” he said. “Medical advice has been to reduce calories and increase exercise to lose weight — even I was saying that to patients — but the number of overweight people has tripled. Reducing calories slows down your metabolism. The best thing to do is improve our gut health and that crucial aspect has been ignored because of calorie restriction.” “Gut health” can apparently be better achieved by including beer and chocolate — not leaving it out.
Ella Woodward, aka Deliciously Ella, right, with fellow chef and food writer Tess Ward, claims her regime ‘isn’t about following a diet’However persuasive we consider these arguments, few would deny that dieting has failed millions of people who need to lose weight and eat better. It is surely no coincidence the NHS is increasingly turning to weight-loss surgery for obese patients.
One UK researcher has calculated that if all 1.4m morbidly obese Britons had bariatric surgery — reducing the size of their stomachs — 80,000 cases of high blood pressure, 11,000 cases of angina, 42,000 cases of diabetes and 5,000 heart attacks would be prevented.
The most up-to-date figures from the Health and Social Care Information Centre suggest that in the UK 67.1% of men and 57.2% of women are either overweight or obese. According to a recent study for the (not entirely independent) health supplement brand Healthspan, the average Briton will have consumed an extra 20,000 calories over December.
That is a lot of caramel truffles, and even the most sceptical dieter might conclude that the only way of countering that seasonal surge is old-fashioned post-seasonal denial in January. If you do not want to call it a diet, call it penance instead.
Chloe Miles, a spokeswoman for the British Dietetic Association and community dietitian for the NHS, warns that some of these not-diet books “are still diets, but are trying to convince us that they’re not”.
She added: “It may just be a marketing ploy and if they cut out any food groups or are very restrictive in any way, then they are diets. They may be fads and could lead to nutrient deficiencies.”
The advice Miles gives is pretty much what we all know already: “increasing intake of fruit and vegetables, cutting down on saturated fats and increasing activity . . . usually based around long-term changes and not dieting”.
Spector agrees we need to change our approach: belt-tightening is so 10 minutes ago. What matters now is microbes.
“People are cutting out huge amounts of foods for no reason,” he said. “They are being told they must worry about gluten, lactose or meat. In our studies we see that the less diversity of foods you eat, the less diversity you have in your gut microbes.”
Spector concedes many lifestyle books make well-intentioned efforts to improve our health, “but [also] take one step that isn’t scientifically sound, because it sells”.
In other words, you are right to worry about losing weight. Just don’t go on a diet.
Codewords for losing the curves
The new year may be just around the corner but the forces of political correctness have decreed that you cannot say you are on a diet in 2016, writes Richard Gray. At the same time, you want to let people know you are not unaware of those broadening bulges around your midriff. So what do you say about your weight-loss plan instead?
Serving pasta at a party? Be careful: more and more foodies have decided they are now “wheat-intolerant”, even though they probably aren’t. That means no pasta, no bread, no semolina, and so on. The result of cutting out wheat? Less bloating. Oh, and a lot less, ahem, personal wind. You certainly do not want to talk about that.
“Juicers” are the liquid-diet obsessives who whizz up greens in expensive blenders and down them as a substitute meal. Granted, these verdant drinks are packed full of vitamins, but do not expect a juicer to sit down at the table with a knife and fork — they are too busy knocking back a delicious cup of cold liquid kale.
Do not say “curvy”, say “real”. More and more women are leaving the former adjective behind and settling on one that is not so, well, body-descriptive. “I’m size-real” means I have got real hips and a real bottom, and real bosoms as well. No lipo, no diet, just real. Got it?
Think of clean eating as the opposite of processed food. Wave goodbye to microwave meals and say hello to food that comes straight from the producer. It is like shopping at a farmer’s stall rather than an aisle in Waitrose.
Motivational memes are those cringeworthy quotes you see on Instagram, meant to inspire healthy-eating acolytes and fitness goons. “Focus on your goal!”; “Don’t look in any direction but ahead!”; and “Pain is temporary. Pride is for ever!” — not to mention the eye-rolling “I have a dream”, complete with a picture of rock-hard triceps. On the plus side, you do not actually have to stop eating. You just have to sound completely determined to become a better you.