When it comes to explaining why a person's weight has ballooned, the finger is often pointed at some very specific culprits. Chocolate. Takeaways. Fried breakfasts. Fried Mars Bars. And the worst offenders, naturally, are those that combine two enemies: chips with melted cheese, for example, which I once devoured empty-headed and starving in a New York diner following a particularly drunken gig and can highly recommend.
Personally, while I obviously understand the concept of calories out and calories in, I suspect that at the root of a huge amount of extra poundage lie not specific foods so much as diet deadlines and dread. Bookshop shelves up and down the country buckle beneath the strain of 28-day detoxes, 14-day fasts and seven-day starvations, and our attraction to these futile diet sprints is powered by both an urge for instant gratification, and fear. If we can just get thin quickly, we think, then we will be able to show our face and, more pertinently, our upper arms, at our ex-boyfriend's wedding, school reunion, or on the beach. Aware of this dread, the diet industry often ties its 14-day plans to the looming shadow of the annual beach holiday, an event that should be preceded by dreamy expectation, but is instead all too often preceded by a nervous flick through a "bikini diet" book.
In my late teens and early 20s, I set myself a lot of diet deadlines and responded in one of two ways, both of which led me to put on more weight than I lost. The first scenario was that I would stick stringently to whatever plan I had made, throughout the allotted time. So, for instance, having been shown my costume for our sixth-form production of Cabaret, balking slightly at this transparent leotard with only a sprinkling of sequins to protect my modesty, I decided that until the performance, three weeks away, I would eat nothing but fruit, baked potatoes, and the occasional hard-boiled egg. By the time the performance arrived, I was both marginally slimmer, and arm-eatingly ravenous. After the three-day festival of leg-kicking was over, I could be found holed up in the nearest kitchen with a loaf of bread, a pat of butter, and a very busy toaster.
The other scenario was that I would make myself a deadline, devise a plan, and keep on failing. So, for instance, a friend asked me to be her bridesmaid, and to ensure that I didn't weigh more than twice as much as the three size-six women I was marching down the aisle with, I decided drastic action was necessary. With the wedding six and a half months away, I figured that I should diet for six months - a nice round number - and ate frantically for the next two weeks, in the knowledge that 24 weeks of dietary hardship were to follow.
Having opted for a highly restrictive diet, I folded three days into that six-month stint, and decided that five months really would be quite long enough, and was still a reasonably round number. Serious pre-diet eating ensued again and, again, six days into the five-month stint, I folded. Four months would be quite enough. This cycle of bingeing and restriction and bingeing continued, with the restrictions and binges growing bigger and bigger in direct proportion to the diminishing time frame, until the night before the wedding I could be found carbing up like a marathon runner.
All of which has given me a serious aversion to deadlines. When I began this diet, I decided that I would just keep going until I reached a healthy weight, and the lack of pressure means I'm not restricting myself in an unsustainable way, I'm not bingeing as a result, and, when I decide to have a takeaway - not out of pure hunger, but because I want one - I'm not thinking, "Damn, I've blown it all!" and going off to gorge on vast vats of ice cream. I may not lose as much weight as I'd like to by my holiday this summer, but I'm pretty sure I will be slimmer than when I started - and certainly much more so than if I was following the month-long sprint of self-loathing that is your average bikini diet. I never thought I'd say it, but the long haul feels good.