I’m so obedient it’s tragic, really. I am a government campaign’s model audience. Give me a command, see how I run. A few weeks ago, the news was full of how sugar was killing us all. I approached the newspaper articles with some complacency, taking for granted that we were a virtuous household, but then was horrified to see from the pictures of all the things containing “as much sugar as a can of Coke” that I was wrong.
The low-fat yogurt I shovel down my neck and the smoothies I’ve been promoting to my vegetable-allergic teenage son might just as well have been crystal meth. Being a typical self-blaming middle-class mother, I spent the next hour gloomily pondering this unexpected failure, before mentally regrouping and deciding it was time to take action. That evening I announced to the dinner table that we were “having a crackdown on sugar.”
This went down about as well as you might imagine. Protestations that they were already being forced to eat a diet virtually Stone Age in its wholesomeness and frugality were met by my unyielding assertions that I was now in possession of New Information, rendering everything we’d thought up until now about our eating habits out of date. Rationing was about to begin. Foods that had once been a treat had insidiously wormed their way into every mealtime and were now back to being a treat. The response was a general wailing and gnashing of teeth, followed by despondency. For the next few days, cupboards would be opened ostentatiously with mournful sighs to reveal that where once there had been KitKats, now there was empty space; where once there were Honey Nut Clusters, now there was porridge.
A week or two went by, but then a certain sneakiness crept in. While I’d adjusted the shopping order, everyone else, it seemed, had adjusted their daily schedule to incorporate a trip to the shops for emergency biscuits. I had hidden a few chocolatey titbits, to be doled out at intervals and not exceeding the daily recommended allowance (although, the more I looked into it, the more this seemed to be an alarmingly vague and shifting figure, comfortingly high on the back of cereal packets, impossibly low according to World Health Organisation guidelines). Handing out the sweet treats without giving away the hiding places was tricky, and soon it became obvious that the secret stash was secret no longer and it began to disappear faster than I was distributing it.
Into this already fracturing scenario came a sudden and extremely unwelcome announcement. In the matter of vegetable consumption, it turns out that five a day is useless and that we should be eating seven, if not ten. And it can’t be fruit or, even worse, smoothies (yes, I’m looking at you, Tracey Thorn, as I read this out on the radio): it must be mostly vegetables; proper green, leafy, cabbage-smelling, earth-smeared vegetables. This was a bit of a blow. I might have deluded myself that our sugar consumption was Paltrow-ish, but there was no way I could stretch the youngest’s tally of baked beans and pasta sauce to look like ten portions of kale. I am defeated. Later that day, standing in the queue by the till at the local Tesco Express, I look at all the shiny things on sale. Reaching out, all I can touch is a floor-to-ceiling array of things that will kill me. Ciggies, booze, choccies; nothing that is necessary or good for me, but all of them in their own way representing a little shot of joy, a hit of pleasure to brighten the day. Despite my obedience, and my willingness to listen to health campaigns, I don’t know why we’re so surprised that we like these things. We wonder how we’ve ended up here, eating things that aren’t really food and ignoring all the health warnings, but it’s simply because we’re human.
We need treats, and it’s only a sliding scale of spending that leads you from the pricey ones that will do you no harm—trips to the cinema, new shoes, weekend minibreaks—to these little, cheaper ones, which will. If you’re lucky you can balance the two, and congratulate yourself for doing as you’re told, and being good, while you cross your fingers and hope that it’s good enough.
This article was originally published in the New Statesman.