What Nancy Mitford can teach us about diet

I’ve been revisiting Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate and have found it just as enjoyable second time round. You can’t beat the lady for incisively witty observation at the upper end of the social scale. I, of course, can’t vouch for its accuracy because 1. I’m not quite old enough to have been around at the time of which she writes (late 1940s) and 2. even if I were, I have no firsthand experience of those rarefied circles.

I was struck by her treatment of a topic that is as universally enthralling now as it was then, i.e. the latest diet fad.

Currently this seems to be the 5:2 diet (aka the fast diet), which some of my friends have taken up. Here is Nancy on a diet regime “very much in vogue at that time”:

The aim is to warm up your glands with a series of jolts. The worst thing in the world for the body is to settle down and lead a quiet little life of regular habits; if you do that it soon resigns itself to old age and death…Accordingly he [Uncle Davey] ate in turns like Gandhi and like Henry VIII… 

Nancy’s diet went even further, extending the same principle to alcoholic consumption – it was also important to get drunk from time to time. Apparently Uncle Davey “always got drunk at the full moon”, all on doctor’s prescription. It was quite frustrating for his household because on his drunk days nobody could get a sensible word out of him. As with the diet, to reap the benefits there could be no half measures. It was either dead sober or dead drunk.

My dear departed mama was also a great proponent of fasting when I was growing up, scheduling two-week fasts at least twice a year to “cleanse” her system. During these periods of abstinence she survived on fresh fruit-and-veggie juices. I can’t vouch for the state of her innards, but her mood certainly took a turn for the worse whenever she was on the juice. Maybe she was also undergoing emotional purging at the same time?

Intermittently in the 70s and early 80s I applied my mother’s fasting principles to my own attempts to lose weight. Reasoning along similar lines as the 5:2 diet, I would alternate between feast and famine on a weekly basis. If I restricted myself enough on the fast days and didn’t indulge too much the rest of the time I would lose weight overall. Most of the time, however, I remained constant, adding and shedding the same couple of kilos week after week. Eventually I grew tired of this, not to mention the grumpiness that descended on me on the fasting days, just like poor Mama. To be tetchy two days a week is a tiresome way to lead your life.

In her later years Mama’s faith in fasting wavered and she gave it up in favour of regular eating. Personally I prefer the middle way. Or, as it’s also known, moderation. I often fail to live up to it, but what is life without an elusive goal or two?

I simply adore my kale days. Yum!
I simply adore my kale days. Yum!

On the other hand, perhaps Uncle Davey’s drinking diet could be worth a try? For the sake of my health?

But my drunk days are even better.
But my drunk days are even better.

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