The class system, with its fixed mealtimes, stopped us all from getting fat, says Andrew M. Brown. Today we are a nation of all-day munchers — and it shows
Imagine if, at breakfast, a mother were to offer her family, instead of cornflakes or boiled eggs, slices from a gigantic cake smothered in icing. Would that seem odd? Well, yes, it would: but that’s exactly what a lot of us do — eat cake for breakfast. A muffin is a cake by another name. And on our way to work plenty of us snap up a white chocolate and strawberry muffin, say, from Starbucks, at 583 calories, and wash it down with 300 calories’ worth of warm coffee-flavoured milk.
Our readiness to guzzle cake at any time of the day or night, and not only at around four o’clock — the time our ancestors set aside for tea — is a symptom of a wholesale change in behaviour. The class system in Britain has unravelled and, at the same time, a kind of relaxation, or deregulation, has occurred in our way of eating. Once, British life was more prescriptive. You had your meals at fixed times, they were fairly formal occasions, and they served as potent indicators of class. What time you sat down to eat, whether you referred to ‘luncheon’ or ‘dinner’, ‘tea’ or ‘supper’ — these things shouted out your origins, as well as your aspirations. Now, few bother with meals at set times except in conditions of exceptional formality. Instead, we have become a nation of all-day munchers, who cannot tolerate the discomfort of waiting for lunch, as we were taught to do in childhood. The classless society has made us fat.
We nibble snacks at the faintest rumblings of hunger. And we encourage our children to do the same. The middle classes used to drill their offspring not to eat between meals and ‘spoil their appetite’. Now vexed modern parents, fearful of I’m not sure what (hypoglycaemia, maybe?), feel that their tots’ every exertion — a trip to the swimming pool, the museum — deserves a mollifying bite of a fruit bar or rice cake afterwards. Plus a drink to be sucked on. A snack acts as a pat on the back in edible form — even if, later, Mummy is pulling her hair out because her child shows no appetite for lunch. The toddler has caught the habit of grazing.
In letting go of the discipline of regular feeding times, we have forgotten what it’s like to be hungry. We can no longer summon the appetite for a full-sized plate of food. If you want to understand how humans eat these days, have a look at a field of dairy cows. Cows stand, or sit, and look around, and from time to time they bend their heads down, rip up some grass and chew it. They masticate, slowly and without urgency — after all, there’s plenty of grass to go around — all day long. Humans have adopted the bovine style. It’s no wonder the Department of Health now says that 38 per cent of adults are overweight and one in four is obese (which means seriously weighty). In the 1960s the figure for obesity was more like one in ten. But then in the 1960s most of us, by the time we sat down for lunch, would have felt properly starving.
The food industry, ever sensitive to the wants of consumers if not their needs, provides evidence for these changes in our habits. McDonald’s, for instance, enjoyed double-digit growth in Britain last year. They put their success down to the new Little Tasters menu. Costing between £1.49 and £1.59, these are miniature sandwiches with names like Oriental Snack Wrap and Little Chorizo Melt. The idea was to attract new customers, especially yummy mummies who wouldn’t normally be seen dead at McDonald’s.
Discerning young mothers who kit their offspring in polka-dot gumboots from Cath Kidston are not, as a rule, prepared to force down a Big Mac for their elevenses. But they might consider two or three luscious mouthfuls of Chicken Caesar Snack Wrap, ‘succulent Chicken Select with ranch sauce, bacon, shredded lettuce and Caesar cheese wrapped in a soft tortilla’. (According to Jan Moir of the Daily Mail, a Tikka Snack Wrap looked like ‘a severed big toe wrapped in a tiny bath towel’.)
The other end of the restaurant business also bears witness to the public appetite for snacks. If you want to appeal to London diners, set yourself up as a ‘grazing joint’. Polpo, Hix’s basement, various branches of Wahaca, Terroirs, Bocca de Lupo and numerous oriental places offer micro-dining. They serve tiny savoury platefuls in the style of tapas or what the French call ‘petits plats’.
Of course, these reduced portions appeal to diners, especially women, because they are small. Mini-plates fend off the nagging guilt about overdoing it. The obsessively thin like to snack just as much as the portly, since they fear that going too long without any food may trigger an uncontrolled binge. Above all, mini-plates demonstrate that customers don’t go to restaurants because they’re famished. If you cannot face a normal-sized plate of food at lunch or supper, you can’t be truly said to be hungry. Lack of appetite also explains why the treats we feed on with most gusto are either highly salted or super-sweet or, even better, a tangy mixture of the two — the foods which the industry calls ‘hyper-palatable’. Since our appetites are basically sated, our taste buds jaded, they crave ever more piquant stimulation.
Last week, a report from the King’s Fund found that the government’s efforts had ‘hardly dented the obesity problem’ and there was ‘no sign of the tide turning’. The report demands more regulation of the industry, better labelling and so on. The trouble is that characterising obesity in these terms — as an unstoppable tidal wave, a force of nature, and as the responsibility of the food industry — tends to hide the truth, which is that individuals get fat because they eat more food than they need.
Overeating is only another manifestation of the innumerable dependencies which afflict society, where humans worship substances and build their lives around them. In the past, obesity was believed to be a women’s problem. Men seeking consolation have relied on substances other than food — alcohol, gambling, sex. Sir Stanley Davidson’s Principles and Practice of Medicine, a classic mid-20th century textbook, casually referred to the obese patient as ‘she’. These days, though, men are catching up; soon there will be more extremely fat men in Britain than women.
With overeating, it does not matter about the distant causes. There is a simple remedy: three meals a day and no snacks in between. That old-fashioned regime is what the Priory hospital in London prescribes for all its patients with overeating problems.
‘People overeat,’ Sir Stanley Davidson wrote, ‘either because they are too fond of their food or, quite often, because they are unhappy.’ In that search for instant happiness, many of us are no longer prepared to postpone gratification even by a few hours. So we cheat ourselves of pleasure, because no treat is more delicious than one that has been postponed.