We're discussing detox diets over tiramisu. As we dig our spoons into the creamy coffee-laced dessert, a friend tells us about her Maple Syrup diet. One week of maple syrup, pepper and water, weight loss guaranteed. There are appreciative oohs and aahs followed by an order for chocolate milkshakes chunky with ice cream. As we siphon them up through candy coloured straws, we discuss the master cleanse lemonade detox, shots of pure lemon juice followed by dramatic weight loss. The cabbage soup diet follows. Dramatic weight loss, of course, with the added benefit of smelling like old socks.
There's nothing as alluring as the promise of easy results.
It's a new year, the perfect time for imperfect resolutions. Get skinny. Get a six pack. Marry Ashton Kutcher. All in one month. Even the Chowhound newsletter, powered by dedicated foodies from all over the world, has two features on ‘detox' this week. Which is why the word ‘diet' has reared its ugly head in a food column. In January people feel like they need to atone for the sins of December. And the market enthusiastically responds with reckless, crazy, seductive promises. How do you make sense of it all, and still find ways to eat better this year?
After whooping it up over New Year's Eve, I pick up the newly released Confessions of A Serial Dieter by Kalli Purie at the airport, and read it in horrified fascination over the flight home. It provides “secrets from 43 diets and workouts” that took her from 100 kg to 60 kg. The diets range from workable to downright ridiculous. She talks of a three-week stint on a health farm run with military zeal. It was, apparently, the “health capital of the 80s” with a long waiting list of clients. The daily menu? Coconut water for breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner. Four glasses in all, and nothing else. Plus a daily enema. (Now there's another word you thought you'd never see in a food column!) Her other diets include the Yoghurt-Papaya meal plan and an intense detox lemonade diet which lasted all of 24 hours. Then there's her own creation: the champagne diet, which she admits is “not sustainable and will probably kill you in the long run.”
Not even the world's greatest writers and thinkers were immune to the allure of get-thin-fast fixes. Calories and Corsets: A History of Dieting over 2,000 Years by Louise Foxcroft talks of the diets of Hippocrates, John Milton and Samuel Johnson. Even dashing Lord Byron, described by Lady Caroline Lamb as “mad, bad and dangerous to know,” had “a morbid propensity to fatten”. So, at Cambridge, he ate biscuits with soda, while in Italy he lived on a frugal diet of claret and soda.
Every country has its own way of dealing with overeating. According to Chowhound, in France, holiday indulgences are compensated for by “taking the waters: drinking or bathing in spring water high in calcium, magnesium, sodium, and other elements.” In the Philippines, they eat Mung Beans: “cheap, tasty, and good for digestion, absorbing toxic residues from the lining of the intestines. Cooks make monggo guisado, stewed mung beans with shrimp and greens.” And in Russia, beetroot compensates for a vodka-fuelled night. “As well as being tasty and nutritious, beets are a superb liver tonic (Chinese medicine agrees, by the way).”
If you want to eat healthier, follow the sensible food fads. More whole grains. Learn about millets, and how to cook them so you can painlessly incorporate them into your daily diet. (Start with ragi porridge for breakfast.) Swap your junk food snacks for beans, nuts and lentils. Eat unprocessed food. Experiment with Meatless Mondays, a campaign launched in 2003 in association with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, now active in 23 countries.
There's no moral here. This isn't a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. You don't need to be told that crash diets are impractical. What stands out in this sea of diet advice and confusion is the fact that people seem to be terrified of food. So many of you have an intense love-hate affair with what you eat. Binge. Hate yourself. Starve. Hate yourself. Eat chocolate cake. Hate yourself. It doesn't have to be so complicated. It's just food.