Transmuting fat into thin air: the alchemical delusion of our age

One of the less appealing attributes of modernity is our tendency to look with disdain on our forebears because they didn’t have the scientific world-view that we sophisticates now enjoy. Alchemy, and the doomed search for a method of turning base metals to gold, is frequently trotted out as a pretext for just such condescending self-congratulation. Not enough merely to note that we have found out some things that our predecessors had not: our sense of superiority also requires that we rubbish their pathetic credulity, their seeming willingness to believe any old tripe. Surely the search for the philosopher’s stone was self-evidently fatuous, and yet enormous amounts of money and energy were expended in its fruitless pursuit.

Well, actually, our ancestors had one very big excuse that we do not – they actually were ignorant of the mechanics of chemical transformation. But for our equivalent of alchemy – the equally fruitless search for some magical way of stopping ourselves from getting grossly fat, and of doing something about it when we have already become so – we have no such excuse. There is nothing whatsoever that we do not already know, that we have not already known for well over half a century, about how and why we are getting fatter and fatter, nor about what we need to do to stop continuing down the obesegenic road, nor indeed about what we need to do if we’re already too fat and want to get thinner. Nothing. Oh, to be sure we don’t know all the ins and outs of the duck’s arse that is the exact relationship between our personal genetic make-up and how easily we put on weight, or with how much difficulty we might then shed it. There is always more to know. But apart from the minuscule number of people who have a genuine pathology of weight-gain, we have no need of further knowledge. For all the rest of us we know what to do, and what to stop doing. Doubtless if we all used that knowledge, there would still be some fatter, and some thinner, people. The human species is rich in genetic variation, and our energy metabolism is a part of it. But that is not a “public health disaster”. If I, as a middle-aged man of average height, weigh 75 kilos I’ll be pissed off with an equivalent comrade who behaves exactly as I do but who weighs a more ripped 68 kilos, but then I’m also pissed off that I’ve never resembled Robert Redford in the facial beauty department. Actually, by living a reasonably disciplined life, I no longer weigh 75 kilos, and I endeavour with good success to keep as close to 70 kilos as I can. But if I were less vain, then 75 kilos is unlikely to have me high on anyone’s obesity-related health scare index.

And yet, as the New year comes around once more, we are bombarded again with the alchemy of weight loss. Join this support group. Eat this wonder food. Follow this vacuous celebrity’s DVD. Buy this processed meal substitute. Pop this “natural” pill derived from the roots of an unheard-of miracle plant from the pitiful remnant of some tropical rainforest. As in every New Year preceding this, thousands of men and women – mostly women – will part with their hard-earned cash, lining the pockets of the alchemists de nos jours. None of them will succeed, any more than past believers in hocus-pocus succeeded in turning lead into gold.

But we do know what to do. We all know that we eat too much of the wrong crap, and we sit around the place doing bugger all. We use lifts we don’t need. We have remote controls to spare us the ordeal of getting off the sofa to change the channels of our flat-screen TVs as they peddle more weight-loss alchemy. I can guarantee, absolutely guarantee, that if you do the following things, you will never get obese. Unless you really do have a pathological condition, or are disabled in some significant way that prevents you from undertaking any form of aerobic exercise, then follow this advice. It will work. You can pay me if you like, since you may feel that nothing’s for nothing, but you don’t need to. I am not an alchemist.

  • Buy an exercise machine, such as a cross-trainer or treadmill.
  • If it doesn’t have a heart-rate monitor, buy one that uses a chest strap rather than relying on finger pulse measurement.
  • Put the machine in your bedroom.
  • As soon as you get up, before breakfast, get on that machine and use it to raise your heart-rate to 75% of your aerobic capacity (for most middle-aged people about 130bpm).
  • Keep going, without stopping, for 30 to 40 minutes.
  • Don’t go on a diet, but never (well, hardly ever) buy anything that is a cake, a biscuit, a confectionery item, a ready meal, a pie, or suchlike.
  • In Michael Pollan’s pithy phrase, “eat food, not too much, mostly plants”.

I know this will work, because we all know what to do. Mostly we don’t want to admit it. Mostly we want to hide from it. Mostly we want a philosopher’s stone that will shield us from doing what we know we need to do. There is no such thing. Get over it. And whilst, like me, you may have watched “Britain’s fattest man” on Channel 4 last night, you will also know that Paul Mason has no physiological problem. He is mentally ill. His tragic case has nothing to teach you.

3 thoughts on “Transmuting fat into thin air: the alchemical delusion of our age

  1. Actually you dont need to buy any equipment -the best exercise is free- brisk walking or running for 1/2 hr 3-4 times a week.Eating when your hungry not when your bored, lots of fruit, veg & fish, cook your own food, no ready meals. As you say -simple, but completely counter to the pressures to consume peddled by the food industry. Also counter to our ‘lifestyled’ times.

    • That’s true, of course. But for lots of people that’s quite a difficult discipline to keep up for long, and things like weather (and especially for women, security on dark evenings) can quickly sap resolve. But hard to really make an excuse for not spending 30 minutes in your own bedroom! :)

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