A culinary clean slate. Photo: Gallery Stock.
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Felicity Cloake: let’s face it, detox diets are making fools of us

In many ways, January diets are as self-indulgent as the Christmas binge.

Well, that’s Christmas done for another year, with only a spare tyre and some cheap chocolate to show for it. Already the cheery social media snaps of festively red-faced hordes have made way for the annual torrent of sludge-coloured smoothies. Welcome to January, the month of self-righteous cleanses and mindful eating.

Boring as the details are to listen to, at least the basic idea of the “juice cleanse” is straightforward. Even the dimmest of us can understand that replacing a diet that’s two-thirds Stilton with a few puréed green things will cause you to lose a little bit of weight along with the will to live. But if that stringy glass of cellulose sticks in your craw, the slickly written “science” that goes with it will be even harder to swallow.

According to a fashionable supplier of organic cold-pressed juices whose packages start from £80 a day (about the same as Ed Miliband’s idea of the average British family-of-four’s weekly grocery bill), cleansing is “a healthy form of routine maintenance” that helps the digestive system to rid itself of “accumulated toxins”. The benefits don’t stop there: the magical vegetal elixirs will also, apparently, transform your nasty “acidic interior” into an “oxygen-drenched alkaline” environment.

It’s pretty tempting, I’ll admit. The mere phrase “oxygen-drenched” is likely to put a spring in anyone’s step. But here’s the rub: according to the NHS, our clever old bodies can regulate their acidity levels anyway, “regardless of diet”.

The British Dietetic Association gives similarly short shrift to the claim that we’re all toxic time bombs, calling the whole notion of a detox diet “a load of nonsense”. It points out that filtering waste is what our kidneys do, whether we bombard them with £13 cucumber cocktails or not. It seems that if we really were storing up vast quantities of dangerous substances in our bodies, being a bit fat and spotty would be the least of our worries.

Yet apparently sane people – people who work with food every day, who write endless articles about the importance of a balanced diet and would rather die than be seen with skimmed milk in their trolley – still witter on about raw smoothies and “clean eating”. Clean eating, for those of you who are lucky enough to be unfamiliar with the idea, has nothing to do with the three-second rule: pick it up off the floor quickly enough and it’s still safe to eat. Instead it means consuming food “in its most natural state”, as an American magazine devoted to the subject puts it.

The problem is that food in its “most natural state” seems to involve way more chia seeds and hemp protein powders than you might imagine – fine if you’re Gwyneth Paltrow, who has made a good deal of unnecessary dosh out of her clean eating cookbook (even the title, It’s All Good, is annoying), but considerably less realistic for us with lives to live and mortgages to pay.

These ridiculous January diets are every bit as self-indulgent as the Christmas binge that precedes them. Truth be told, we all already know the secret to healthy eating and it’s not cold-pressed or blonde or glamorous – it’s our boring old friend moderation.

Sadly, moderation doesn’t sell juices or require much in the way of scientific explanation; it’s tediously simple. It’s a couple of squares of chocolate after dinner, rather than the whole bar – or indeed an entire tin of Gwyneth’s spelt and brown rice syrup brownies with soy protein mayonnaise.

As my granny, who lived well into her eighties without the benefits of blue-green algae, used to say, a little of what you fancy does you good. In her case, that meant a mindful and moderate diet of jam doughnuts and Silk Cut.

Happy New Year, all.

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 08 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Churchill Myth

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Theresa May "indifferent" towards Northern Ireland, says Alliance leader Naomi Long

The non-sectarian leader questioned whether the prime minister and James Brokenshire have the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the impasse at Stormont.

Theresa May’s decision to call an early election reflects her “indifference” towards the Northern Ireland peace process, according to Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who has accused both the prime minister and her Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the political impasse at Stormont.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman, Long – who is running to regain her former Belfast East seat from the DUP for her non-sectarian party in June – accused the Conservatives of “double messaging” over its commitment to Northern Ireland’s fragile devolution settlement. The future of power-sharing province remains in doubt as parties gear up for the province’s fourth election campaign in twelve months.

Asked whether she believed the prime minister – who has been roundly criticised at Stormont for her decision to go to the country early – truly cared about Northern Ireland, Long’s assessment was blunt. “We have had no sense at any time, even when she was home secretary, that she has any sensitivity towards the Northern Ireland process or any interest in engaging with it at all... It speaks volumes that, when she did her initial tour when she was prime minister, Northern Ireland was fairly low down on her list.”

The timing of the snap election has forced Brokenshire to extend the deadline for talks for a fourth time – until the end of June – which Long said was proof “Northern Ireland and its problems were not even considered” in the prime minister’s calculations. “I think that’s increasingly a trend we’ve seen with this government,” she said, arguing May’s narrow focus on Brexit and pursuing electoral gains in England had made progress “essentially almost impossible”.

“They really lack sensitivity – and appear to be tone deaf to the needs of Scotland and Northern Ireland,” she said. “They are increasingly driven by an English agenda in terms of what they want to do. That makes it very challenging for those of us who are trying to restore devolution, which is arguably in the worst position it’s been in [since the Assembly was suspended for four years] in 2003.”

The decisive three weeks of post-election talks will now take place in the weeks running up to Northern Ireland’s loyalist parade season in July, which Long said was “indicative of [May’s] indifference” and would make compromise “almost too big an ask for anyone”. “The gaps between parties are relatively small but the depth of mistrust is significant. If we have a very fractious election, then obviously that timing’s a major concern,” she said. “Those three weeks will be very intense for us all. But I never say never.”

But in a further sign that trust in Brokenshire’s ability to mediate a settlement among the Northern Irish parties is deteriorating, she added: “Unless we get devolution over the line by that deadline, I don’t think it can be credibly further extended without hitting James Brokenshire’s credibility. If you continue to draw lines in the sand and let people just walk over them then that credibility doesn’t really exist.”

The secretary of state, she said, “needs to think very carefully about what his next steps are going to be”, and suggested appointing an independent mediator could provide a solution to the current impasse given the criticism of Brokenshire’s handling of Troubles legacy issues and perceived partisan closeness to the DUP. “We’re in the bizarre situation where we meet a secretary of state who says he and his party are completely committed to devolution when they ran a campaign, in which he participated, with the slogan ‘Peace Process? Fleece Process!’ We’re getting double messages from the Conservatives on just how committed to devolution they actually are.”

Long, who this week refused to enter into an anti-Brexit electoral pact with Sinn Fein and the SDLP, also criticised the government’s push for a hard Brexit – a decision which she said had been taken with little heed for the potentially disastrous impact on Northern Ireland - and said the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont was ultimately a direct consequence of the destabilisation brought about by Brexit.

 Arguing that anything other than retaining current border arrangements and a special status for the province within the EU would “rewind the clock” to the days before the Good Friday agreement, she said: “Without a soft Brexit, our future becomes increasingly precarious and divided. You need as Prime Minister, if you’re going to be truly concerned about the whole of the UK, to acknowledge and reflect that both in terms of tone and policy. I don’t think we’ve seen that yet from Theresa May.”

She added that the government had no answers to the “really tough questions” on Ireland’s post-Brexit border. “This imaginary vision of a seamless, frictionless border where nobody is aware that it exists...for now that seems to me pie in the sky.”

However, despite Long attacking the government of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” to handle the situation in Northern Ireland effectively, she added that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had similarly failed to inspire confidence.

“Corbyn has no more sensitivity to what’s going on in Northern Ireland at the moment than Theresa May,” she said, adding that his links to Sinn Fein and alleged support for IRA violence had made him “unpalatable” to much of the Northern Irish public. “He is trying to repackage that as him being in some sort of advance guard for the peace process, but I don’t think that’s the position from which he and John McDonnell were coming – and Northern Irish people know that was the case.” 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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