At his fattest, the journalist William Leith weighed 236lbs. His clothes were spotted with gravy stains, from where he'd lifted up his plate to lick it clean. His girlfriend didn't like to have sex with him. And if it was his birthday and they did have sex, he needed to lie on his back, submissively. The sensual language that he uses to describe the act of buttering thick slices of warm white toast makes you suspect that he uses food to sublimate his sexual desires. He's hungry all the time. He's 'in a toast frenzy' and the toaster can't toast quick enough. He eats a jar of peanut butter. Pours half a jar of coffee creamer down his throat. His hunger is insatiable and it frightens him.
At 236lbs he went to interview the diet guru Dr Atkins " a cry for help masquerading as a professional assignment " and Atkins explained why Leith could never get enough of buttered white toast. The butter isn't the problem: we eat 15-per cent less fat than we did when Atkins invented his diet in 1972, and we're 20-per cent fatter. The white bread is the problem. When you eat carbohydrates your blood sugar level goes up and your pancreas produces insulin to drive it back down, making you hungry again. If you overeat carbohydrates you overproduce insulin, your blood sugar levels crash and you get uncontrollable cravings.
So carbs and sugar can never satisfy you. Like pornography, slimming products, nicotine or cocaine, they offer a short-term fix but always leave you wanting more. That's why there are so many hundreds of sugary and carbohydrate snacks on the market: they're the perfect product. And that, thinks Leith, explains why each time there's been a resurgence of interest in the Atkins diet, a powerful backlash swiftly followed. (Just as this book was published, sales of Atkins products were revealed to have crashed.) Low-fat diets promote the sale of low-fat products, but Atkins had nothing to sell and his low-carb message was potentially very damaging to the food industry: 'Carbs are powerful. Carbs have influential friends.'
By cutting out carbs Leith eliminated his cravings, and has since maintained a fairly ideal weight of around 200lbs. After a while he reintroduced a moderate amount into his diet …