Each year, the siren song of January gets louder. It is full of terrifying hope. ‘I will change you’, it cries. ‘I will give you abs of steel and a clean colon. I will make you half the size you were in December’. January calls to the part of us that yearns for fresh starts. All you need to do in exchange is to give up all the things you love to eat and drink and adopt a punishing exercise regime. On these unforgiving mornings, you must deny yourself the very comforts you rely on to warm you up and force yourself outside to grow breathless on dark roads.
And each year we wonder why it doesn’t work. Maybe we blame the diet but most likely, we blame ourselves, for lacking the willpower to stick it out. From the years when I was a yo-yo dieter, I remember the sinking feeling of self-recrimination as the jogging was abandoned and the carbs resumed. Suddenly, a slice of buttered toast feels like failure. And since you have failed already, you may as well have another one.
The problem with January is not that we try to change the way we eat but that we go about it in such a self-defeating way. Plenty of us in the affluent West would do well to change our relationship with food. Two-thirds of the population in Britain is either overweight or obese. Nor is overeating our only issue. Around 0.3% of young women are anorexic and another 1% are bulimic. Meanwhile, thousands of adults are such ‘picky eaters’ they will only consume a handful of foods and avoid all vegetables, as if they were still toddlers spitting broccoli from a high chair. Apart from being an unhealthy way to live, it can be socially isolating. The adult picky eater may avoid invitations to eat with friends, in case they are offered something they know will make them gag.
What statistics are not very good at telling us are just how many people – whether overweight or underweight - are trapped in a perpetual state of anxiety about what they consume, living in fear of carbs or fat grams and unable to derive straightforward enjoyment from meals. In 2003, a survey of 2200 college students in the U.S. suggested that 43% were worried about their weight most of the time (across both sexes), with 29% of women describing themselves as ‘obsessively preoccupied’ with weight. This is no way to live.
There is a general view – which the diet mania of January does nothing to help – that you can never really change the way you eat. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. All the foods you regularly eat are ones you learned to eat. It follows that we can learn to love new ones. It isn’t easy, but the evidence suggests that it is possible.
We could start by making a different kind of January resolution. Instead of renouncing our passions, we could aim to adopt new ones. My daughter has a friend called Lily. She used to be one of the pickiest eaters we knew: no ‘mixed-up’ food, no sauces, no fruit except for raspberries. Aged ten, she decided to try a new food every month for a year. Unlike most January diets, it felt like a fun project rather than a form of denial. By the end of the year, she had a completely new repertoire of ‘likes’ and had adopted a far more balanced diet. She learned to like tomatoes and chicken curry and apples and spaghetti bolognaise. She still wasn’t crazy about bananas or fish, but no one has to like everything.
When you actually find yourself craving salads and soups more than doughnuts, half the battle is won. The same is true of exercise. When I was an overweight teenager, I never believed I could find exerting myself anything other than a humiliation and a pain. Now, I discover, slightly to my amazement, that half an hour of yoga or swimming can be an enjoyable interlude, rather than something so unpleasant it requires chocolate to compensate.
It isn’t the urge for change that is wrong but the way we approach it. To adjust our food habits is one of the hardest things anyone can do, because the way we eat is bound up with so many deep-set memories. It takes time. But it can be done. Instead of trying to force ourselves to eat what we dislike, we would do better to work on changing what we like. Bite by bite.
You know you have changed when many of the foods that bring you comfort are also ones that do you good. When January is just another month.