breakfast

The Way We Eat Now by Bee Wilson; Fourth Estate 2019.

AT home I eat from a melamine plate just over nine inches wide (23cm) given by an aunt in the 1980s and drink from a crystal goblet, bought in Prague twenty years ago, which holds a quarter of a pint (142ml). I do this out of habit with no idea, until I read this book, that I was helping to keep myself alive.

We can’t return to the sensible eating habits of our great-grandparents, writes Wilson, but ‘we could use their plates, bowls and glasses’ as the alternative to the disastrous culture of throw-away cartons, plastic forks and cups, used on the run to eat food which is often grossly calorific.

‘A large dinner plate in the 1950s had a diameter of 25cm, today it may be as large as 28cm,’ she writes. There’s been a sevenfold increase in the size of average wine glasses, from 70ml in 1700 to 450ml today. Her book is stuffed with such potentially life-changing facts.

Using ‘good plates’ is one small strategy for holding back the effluent tide of globalised food marketing which now affects everyone’s health. ‘Very little about the way we eat now would have been considered normal a generation ago,’ says Wilson. In some ways the current picture is good: in 1947, half of all people were chronically underfed, by 2015 only one in nine was. But in 2006 the overweight overtook the hungry for the first time, eating food paradoxically rich in calories but poor in nutrients.

Malnutrition means not lack of food but ‘bad feeding’ and the new ‘global diet’, replete with sugar and refined carbs, lacks crucial micronutrients such as iron and trace vitamins. In 2000 not a single child in the UK had type 2 diabetes; in 2016 more than 600 did.

In the UK poor diet now causes more cancer than cigarettes. Life expectancy is stalling and one child in ten is overweight by the age of five. This is a global epidemic: in parts of India babies are lighter than those in the UK but actually fatter. Their adipose tissue shows that they have higher rates of pre-diabetes hormones than English infants, gained from mothers who were once undernourished and acquired ‘fat-preserving genes’.

Those infants are ill-equipped for a rich modern diet, often growing up with a biological mismatch. This has led India to have the highest rate of diabetes in the world. In Chennai, two-thirds of the population are pre-diabetic or diabetic. A similar problem faces millions in the modern world. Wilson believes that during this ‘transition’ from scarcity to plenty, we’ve all taken a wrong turning.

Snacks now account for half of all ‘eating occasions’ in the US. We no longer tell our children not to eat between meals as snacks are a means of modern child care.

‘Parents used snacks less as a form of nutrition than as a tool to manage a child’s emotional state,’ she writes of a study in Philadelphia. ‘Snacks appease a grumpy child or reward a well-behaved one.’

Young and old are not just eating but drinking badly. ‘A rise in beverage consumption is one the key elements in the nutrition transition,’ says Wilson. Tap water and milk were long ago replaced by exciting sugary alternatives. ‘In 2015, Starbucks marketed a cinnamon flavoured Frappuccino containing 27 spoons or 102 grams of sugar in one serving.’ She says the surprise is not that two-thirds of the population of the UK and US are overweight, but that one-third are not.

The meat of her book is not just changes in supply, but the nature of what we eat and drink. Even fruit has been got at. ‘Here’s another strange new thing about grapes; the mainstream ones in the supermarket are always sweet,’ she writes – and you can picture her sour expression. ‘In common with other modern fruits such as red grapefruit and Pink Lady apples, our grapes have been carefully bred to appeal to consumers reared on sugary foods . . . if any single food illustrates the monotony of modern global diets, it is the banana. The Cavendish banana has found its way into kitchens around the world without having a great deal to recommend it.’

Enraged as she is, Wilson believes there is still a chance to turn back from this ‘craziness’. She wants us to think more carefully about what goes into our mouths, but at the same time not to worry neurotically about it, advising, rather like a priest to a sinner worried about going to hell: ‘If you are worrying about it, you are probably all right.’

She holds the liberal view that what we eat is not a matter of personal choice. She believes families are overwhelmed by the force of international capitalism rather than having any individual autonomy. She is more cutting about the purveyors of ‘pseudoscience’ who have caused ‘millions to look with terror on a range of basic and nourishing foods’ such as gluten, and points out that only 1 per cent of the population suffers from coeliac disease, despite 100million Americans claiming that they have to buy expensive gluten-free replacements for no good reason.

She doesn’t discuss education or class, and uses some cumbersome words such as ‘obesogenic’ and ‘fatphobia’, and although she disapproves of the modern American diet, she favours their English: cake icing becomes ‘frosting’ and ‘soda’ means carbonated soft drinks, rather than what some of us still enjoy with whisky, imbibed from the heirloom cut-glass tumbler, of course.

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