Fighting temptation: Beyoncé and Jay-Z snacking at Madison Square Garden in New York in 2012
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I’d rather binge on booze than self-denial

Please, don’t tell me about your pious dry January.

Thank God it’s February. For those of you who gave something up for January, it was a long month; for those of us who had to listen to you go on about it, it was even worse. As many have pointed out, the idea of giving up alcohol for 31 days and then expecting people to sponsor you for your trouble is laughable, however worthy the cause.

But booze wasn’t the end of it. There were the usual ridiculous juice cleanses and soup diets – and the backlash against sugar put it firmly back on the naughty list this year, along with peanuts for the Paleoistas, devotees of a regime also known as the “caveman” diet. Loosely based on the meagre larder of our Stone Age ancestors, it’s the hip new thing to bore other people about over your herbal tea. (If Tom Jones is doing it, it must be cool, right?)

This was also the first year that Veganuary made it on to my radar – largely, I must admit, because of the recent 22-day “spiritual cleanse” undertaken by the bootylicious singer Beyoncé and her rather less comely husband, Jay-Z, in which the couple embraced a vegan diet: “Or, as I prefer to call it, plant-based!!” the rapper wrote on his blog.

“I don’t know what happens after[wards],” he admitted. “A semi-vegan, a full plant-based diet? Or just a spiritual and physical challenge?”

I know what happened afterwards. The pair were seen (as the Daily Mail puts it) “indulging in gourmet non-vegan treats” at a seafood restaurant in Miami: “pappardelle, lobster risotto and seafood casserole”, according to the paper.

There’s been no word so far on the effect that the cleanse has had on their spiritual well-being, however (though many column inches have been devoted to the effects on Beyoncé’s bottom), or indeed their long-term eating habits. But I note that her Instagram feed features considerably more po’ boy sandwiches than portobello mushrooms, these days.

And therein lies the fundamental problem with temporary abstinence: if you stick to it, you may lose weight. You’ll probably, after a few days of grumpiness, even feel better and you’ll almost certainly learn how to do things with tofu or tonic water that you had never even dreamed of and possibly never wanted to. Then the month’s up and suddenly you’re back on the Chardonnay and cheeseburgers as if nothing had happened – and this time, the attraction is twice as strong. It takes an awful lot of lager to plug the hole left by all that smug self-denial.

Jay-Z chose to go vegan for 22 days on the basis that: “Psychologists have said it takes 21 days to make or break a habit. On the 22nd day, you’ve found the way.” I don’t want to be the one to break it to him but according to research by University College London, it actually takes about three times that long, which means that all those January abstainers will have to keep denying themselves until 8 March in order to see any lasting effects.

As someone who’s tried a good few diets over the years (it’s practically a professional necessity), my heart always sinks on hearing the inevitable words: “This isn’t a diet. It’s a lifestyle change.”

How many of the people who forsook carbs back in the early 2000s still diligently avoid the evil starch? Giving up something for a month holds within it the promise that, in four weeks, you’re going to take it up again – and take it up with a vengeance. It’s bingeing on self-denial instead of booze and I know which option sounds more fun to me.

Here’s a novel idea. If you want to eat fewer animal products, how about cutting down on meat and dairy? If you think you should probably drink less, do. But for everyone’s sake, please keep quiet about it.

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Can we talk about climate change now?

Photo: Getty
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It's not WhatsApp that was at fault in the Westminster attacks. It's our prisons

Britain's criminal justice system neither deterred nor rehabilitated Khalid Masood, and may even have facilitated his radicalisation. 

The dust has settled, the evidence has been collected and the government has decided who is to blame for the attack on Westminster. That’s right, its WhatsApp and their end-to-end encryption of messages. Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, wants tech companies to install a backdoor into messages like these that the government can then access.

There are a couple of problems here, not least that Adrian Russell aka Khalid Masood was known to the security services but considered to be low-risk. Even if the government had had the ability to gain entry to his WhatsApp, they wouldn’t have used it. Then there’s the fact that end-to-end encryption doesn’t just protect criminals and terrorists – it protects users from criminals and terrorists. Any backdoor will be vulnerable to attack, not only from our own government and foreign powers, but by non-state actors including fraudsters, and other terrorists.

(I’m parking, also, the question of whether these are powers that should be handed to any government in perpetuity, particularly one in a country like Britain’s, where near-unchecked power is handed to the executive as long as it has a parliamentary majority.)

But the biggest problem is that there is an obvious area where government policy failed in the case of Masood: Britain’s prisons system.

Masood acted alone though it’s not yet clear if he was merely inspired by international jihadism – that is, he read news reports, watched their videos on social media and came up with the plan himself – or he was “enabled” – that is, he sought out and received help on how to plan his attack from the self-styled Islamic State.

But what we know for certain is that he was, as is a recurring feature of the “radicalisation journey”, in possession of a string of minor convictions from 1982 to 2002 and that he served jail time. As the point of having prisons is surely to deter both would-be offenders and rehabilitate its current occupants so they don’t offend again, Masood’s act of terror is an open-and-shut case of failure in the prison system. Not only he did prison fail to prevent him committing further crimes, he went on to commit one very major crime.  That he appears to have been radicalised in prison only compounds the failure.

The sad thing is that not so very long ago a Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice was thinking seriously about prison and re-offending. While there was room to critique some of Michael Gove’s solutions to that problem, they were all a hell of a lot better than “let’s ban WhatsApp”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.