Despite repeated suggestions that it raises levels of heart disease, the cult movement that is the Atkins diet rolls on. Devotees of the low-carbohydrate regime can now eat at Burger King, which provides a no-bread hamburger — as with human beings, the buns are made of a form of meat. Many health practitioners see it as another in a long line of fad diets. In reality it is something more and other. Where earlier diets focused on the quasi-magical and briefly explained properties of specific foods — the grapefruit diet, the high-fibre diet — the Atkins diet sells, and demands, an understanding of systemic metabolic processes. By depriving one of access to the easily converted supply of carbohydrate energy, it throws the body into starvation, thus attempting to trick it into ‘ketosis’ — the fast conversion of fat stores to energy. In other words, it is a form of ‘jacking into’ the metabolism and reshaping it.
Ketosis not only burns calories; it ‘switches off’ the appetite, signaling to the brain that there isn’t much food around, so there’s no point in making the person hungry. A survival strategy for famine — those who undertake total fasts notice that hunger disappears within three days — it has been adapted to current conditions, where sugar is in such a state of oversupply that large numbers of people are faced with the choice of either surrendering to obesity, or developing a strategy to fend it all off. ‘Jacking in’ to one’s metabolism is a way of short-circuiting the manner in which the food industry has jacked into the cultural system — by fusing sugar drinks and sugar-based hamburgers with themes of love, life and community — and thus circumventing the manufacture of addiction via advertising. Feast and famine give a culture of myth and extasis, superstition and collective madness — Brueghel and Bosch are its twin representatives. The famine within the feast that must be individually created in our supersize era, can only be maintained by a type of ultra-Protestant personality form — the hard-bodied Atkins elect, walking through the fallen world. Their goodness is proved by a reverse accumulation — that of calories not consumed. Power and control become the raw material for such hungry souls, and that is just what the doctor ordered. The spontaneous satisfaction of taste and appetite, of being in a sensuous and particular world, are a small price to pay for being Saved. We have reached what has been dreamt of as paradise in many cultures — the land of milk and honey, the garden of fruits and flowers, Cockayne (where the animals walk around ready-roasted) — and made a hell in heaven’s despite. There is a treadmill gym on the Big Rock Candy Mountain, and Hansel and Gretel are moving onto injectable insulin any day now.
Guy Rundle is co-editor of Arena Magazine