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Rosemund Handler

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

A Weighty Obsession

My mother worshipped in pounds and ounces. Every day of her working life in downtown Johannesburg, she prowled for a parking space, entered Stuttafords store and confronted her sentence, meted out by the huge, impassive face of the scale. Had she earned her daily bread? An ounce over – no bread; an ounce under, her single block of Cadbury’s chocolate was assured.

Her weight took precedence over punctuality and work obligations unless she was sick, and even then her dearest wish was that being ill would make her lose weight. She spent a lot of money at doctors who put her on courses of injections to induce weight loss, and endless hours sharing diet tips with her sisters and friends. A curvy, shapely woman, she despised her curves and longed to be skinny. ‘But you aren’t fat, mom,’ I often told her. ‘I feel fat,’ she replied. ‘And I want to feel thin.’

There is nothing new about dieting fads and fetishes, only creative salespeople and ever-inventive gurus and zealots. These kooks of corrective consumption, some better-intentioned than others, all share one characteristic: they are fiercely committed to their cause. The list is long, but there is no doubt that Banting, Atkins and our very own Tim Noakes and his team have created industries in their wake. They have raised our consciousness of health and diet to the status of a religion which has enslaved followers in ways that some regard as so invasive that their influence extends far beyond the dictates of good nutrition.

Walking behind a hiker on the Banting diet, I was treated to an amalgam of smells redolent of an over-used toilet. When he turned to chat, his breath was mephitic. He noticed my involuntary recoil. ‘I know I stink,’ he admitted, ‘but once my body adjusts – it’s called ketosis, you know, when your body begins burning fat for energy instead of carbs – it’ll be fine. And I feel fantastic.’

I didn’t. I couldn’t help wondering how his wife felt.

In the company of Julianne, I am treated to a diatribe of what superfoods do for her. ‘I feel so good all the time and people tell me how good I look. The Banting diet has saved my life!’ Holding her nose, she gulps down kombucha (a tea made from a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast). ‘Ghastly stuff but sooo good for you!’ She pulls out a bottle of homemade kefir and invites me to taste. ‘Marvellous, isn’t it?’ she enthuses. ‘Puts yoghurt in the shade for probiotics!’

Julianne consumes a cupful of supplements a day, some of which cost R20 a pill – ‘it’s worthwhile paying for the best, don’t you think?’

Worthwhile for the nutritionist. Julianne is herself a Banting coach, and no student could wish for a more devout instructor. Those whose nutrition she is in the process of upgrading, she says, swear by her. Breaking her Banting diet with a small glass of white wine seems, by her expression, to be the equivalent of an alcoholic falling off the wagon. Almost biblical in her fervour, she grumbles and sips. ‘I know I’ll regret this, but my gym instructor will fix it.’ She follows this expert devotedly whenever and wherever he instructs.

Her eight-year-old son helps me cover potatoes in foil for the braai. ‘My mom never eats these,’ he remarks. He does a great job, and I ask him if he’d like to be a chef when he grows up. ‘Ja,’ he says, ‘but I’ll never cook healthy food.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Because I’ll never eat it, I hate it,’ he retorts.’ His brother agrees, and the three of us scoff a forbidden pre-braai feast of Aero and pretzels.

Miranda exercises strenuously daily, gobbles her Bubbly every evening and monitors like a Nazi every other gram she consumes. Her hip joints ache and her ankles tremble in anticipation of the next day’s price in workouts, but her programme never varies. Victor has over-exercised and dieted to such an extent that his dedication literally consumed him. He lost a fortune of weight, but his knees gave out. In agony as well as financial difficulty, he has taken to binge eating and is now enormous , diabetic and depressed. Tim Noakes’s new bible has failed to recruit him to the cause.

We are all born free, our minds and spirit unfettered. Today, more than ever, our socialisation seeks to pervert this freedom, to subject us to wholesale, subliminal indoctrination through marketing and technology, and a diverse arsenal of mind-bending tools. The purpose is to make us captives, to deprive us of imagination and individuality, of the essence of our humanity; to the point where we lose the capacity to know our own minds, or make our own decisions.

In his day, my father’s response to such pressures was to adopt a tried and tested, but still largely rejected, mantra: moderation in all things brings balance to body and mind, and liberation to the spirit.

Us and ThemRosemund Handler’s most recent book is Us and Them

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