Matter of Taste: January's inevitable fad diets remind us we're gluttons for punishment

From seizure-inducing detoxes to a friendly tapeworm assistant, what's gained in losing seems worth the pain

Matter of Taste: January's inevitable fad diets remind us we're gluttons for punishment

[Flickr/Real Moms Wear Capes]

New Year, the adage goes, new you. Of course, the subtext of that is usually more along the lines of New Year, less you, as the doughy hangover of festive indulgence weighs heavy on the soul.

January, long month of misery, brings with it as many inescapable realities as December did mince pies, with the concept of a leaner, more toned body a tantalising prospect. From muffin tops to six packs, the road to looking well is paved with good intentions and grouted with protein shakes slurped out of vessels that come from the same Chinese factory that moulded your bathroom’s bin. Unless you fork out more for the kind of plastic that won’t currently give you cancer.

Statistics suggest that within a couple of months, these containers will soon be sitting idly in your kitchen press, their domes standing like a miniature St Basil’s, but that kind of thought is best repressed in January, a 31-day grace period of anything’s possible through the embracing of discipline.

It’s a time of year of holdfast fads, of the novel and the quick fix. Dry days of cottage cheese and cabbage soup, a time to put into the back of your mind that nobody has a good body, they have to keep it that way. By counting calories, counting steps, counting repetitions, and counting Instagram likes. You can always rely on the kindness of strangers and a Zuckerberg-endorsed algorithm to lay the grounds for a disorderly approach to what you put in your mouth.

As such, you might consider going on a detox, starving your body of proteins and carbohydrates, flooding it with fruit juices, lukewarm water, and a heady mix of herbal elixirs designed to perform some abdominal alchemy. Beware the Ides of March, avoid the tides of January, with doctors now warning that a woman was admitted to a UK hospital with a life-threatening condition after going on a New Year detox. Skipping meals and drowning her hunger pangs with milk thistle, molkosan, L-theanine, glutamine, vitamin B compound, vervain, sage tea, green tea, and valerian root, a dangerously low sodium level led to confusion, teeth grinding, collapse and seizure.

While there is always a new one scrambling for the right social influencer to endorse it, there is nothing new about the fad diet. Fad, believed to be from the French fadaise (‘nonsense, trifle, twaddle, claptrap’), ultimately owes its roots to the Latin fatuus, which stingingly means ‘stupid’. These days, Century Dictionary describes a fad as a “trivial fancy adopted and pursued for a time with irrational zeal,” which brings us back to the aspirational counting down from 10 that ushers in the new you.

The drive to exercise complete control and to influence both physical and mental states through food has been a constant in the history of civilisation, whether ascetics reaching a higher plane of awareness or wrestler Milo of Croton, the gainsiest muscle brah of the ancient world, taking his place at the table to down to a meal of 40 average-sized steaks and 11 loaves of bread in one sitting. That guy really had a thing for cows, it has to be said.

The fad diet has come, for want of a better term, in every shape and size; the end of the 20th Century saw American Horace Fletcher take a bite out of it, his Fletcherism craze advising you chew all the goodness out of the food before spitting it out of your mouth. Each different food item required a different number of chews, with the poor shallot demanding a rather onerous 700, with diligencs rewarded by defecating something smelling like “warm biscuits” only once a fortnight.

Since then there’s been parasitic symbiosis with tapeworms, arsenic-filled pills, and vinegar veneration. High-fibre, low-carb, and grapefruit, by way of the cigarette diet with the ad slogan, “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.” Bananas and skimmed milk, cabbage soup, and Weight Watchers. A shake for breakfast and a shake for lunch, or grain-heavy macrobiotic or other such vague polysyllabic adjectives. You could follow the Drinking Man’s Diet all the way to liver disease or answer your cravings with cookies spliced with a “secret amino acid protein blend.” Sedate your way to slimness with the Sleeping Beauty Diet, or follow the lifestyles of the rich and famous with the Beverly Hills regime, which dictates what foods can and must not be consumed together – though at least Champagne is a neutral, so can be enjoyed with everything. Bottoms up.

Atkins, South Beach, Enter the Zone, Sugar Busters, Eat Right for Your Blood Type, raw food, gluten-free, Paleo, 5:2, and vegan. Each one more guaranteed than the last to promise the body beautiful, mindfully reaching the zen of dropping below a size 10. And for most of us, we’ll forget all about them by St Brigid’s day, when the divine work of an Irish saint known for her fondness for beer stops us worrying about our bellies. At least until the first sight of beach bodies on the horizon.

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