Zoe Williams: Chewing the fad

In death, as in life, Dr Robert Atkins cheated the po-faced medical community. Everyone wanted him to die of a huge coronary meltdown, but no, he slipped on the pavement and banged his head. Atkins-refuseniks had to admit that in the ultimate test case there is no retribution whatever for a carbohydrate-free life (apart from my friend, who mooted the possibility that there had been some butter on the pavement, and had there been a cracker underneath, Atkins would have been OK).

There are now 3 million people on the Atkins diet in this country, that's why I'm assuming you know who he is; but just in case, his theory is that carbohydrates make you fat. Fat, conversely, makes you thin. Critics say that the theory is pretty much irrelevant, and the main point is that you can't overeat on protein, because it makes you want to gag. But those are just the lightweight nutritionists, trying to give the other side of the story. If you want serious harbingers of death, look ye to the medical profession.

Experts have claimed the diet could, in the long term, cause heart disease, kidney stones, bowel cancer, liver damage and osteoporosis. Since the only person who's really been on it long term is Atkins, there's no real evidence for this, except a projection of what one's body might do if deprived of carbohydrates for good. Dr Susan Jebb, head of nutrition at the Medical Research Council, said the diet was "pseudo science" and a "massive health risk".

Let's imagine, for a second, that this diet does pose a massive health risk - in order to get so exercised about it, you'd have to believe that followers were going to stick to it, grimly and through all the kidney stones. Most people last about four days, before they have a pint by accident (oh happy, topsy-turvy world, where an accidental pint can save your liver). Faddy diets are not dangerous, because they are fads. Do we know what a fad is, ladies and gentlemen of the renowned seven years' training? It is a trendy thing that doesn't last very long. The only weight-loss method with any serious danger attached to it is anorexia.

Now, that will be very easy to refute, since every doctor everywhere will have met someone once who ate nothing but carrots for six months and ended up with no lungs (though very good night vision). The trouble is, they address us all as if we were the 2 or 3% of loons or luckless victims from whom such horror stories emanate.

Medicine tacitly likes to bill itself as above politics, since it is allied to science, which doesn't indulge opinion or seek consensus, but rather quests after pure truth. Actually, though, there is something profoundly authoritarian about the way that medics deal with us. In the case of diet and exercise, we are given information that falls into one of two categories: the first, things that all sentient adults know already; the second, dangers that really only obtain in some pretty unusual circumstances.

I don't think for a second this applies to the entire profession, just the media-friendly ones, who got that way by headline making. Health headlines do, unfortunately, tend to be made by inducing either guilt or fear. This will probably turn out to be the fault of the media, at the final count, but consider for a moment the impact made by the doctors who collude with it.

What they ask of us, firstly, is that we take a more responsible, less hedonistic attitude to our health. This is reasonable, though irritating - they can bloody talk, for starters (top three alcoholic professions - law, medicine, journalism). More importantly, though, as they cite chilling dangers that would only come to pass if we were all complete idiots, they ask us to believe that in caring for our bodies as we see fit, we have taken on a task for which we are wholly unqualified. We are driving Ferraris with a provisional licence.

This is echoed in the cancer debate, wherein each week brings a new discovery that something we can't avoid (childbirth, say) or didn't know to avoid (HRT) or didn't want to avoid (cheese) will have brought about our downfall. It's all fairly enigmatic, this information; it fosters insecurity. It readies us to suspend our critical judgment and put a childlike trust in the power of medicine, while at the same time asking us to take our responsibilities more seriously. It can't be done, this mixture of maturity and infantilism that media-medicine requires of us.

And, as the criminal pointlessness of the Atkins debate crystallises this attitude, so our response to it should be definitive - chill out. We're not going to do anything daft. And if we do, we probably know it as we're doing it.

zoe.williams@ntlworld.com

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.