We've never had it so good, so what exactly are we worrying about?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 January, 2012, 12:00am

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I often wonder which of our fads and foibles people will look back at in 100 years time and find the most ridiculous. My money is on some of the fears and superstitions about what we eat and drink every day.

History shows that we humans have the capacity to believe in some arrant nonsense. It was only 100 years ago that the Titanic attempted its Atlantic crossing carrying 1,316 passengers and enough lifeboat capacity for 1,178 of them - in the belief that the chances of a collision with another ship were too remote to make the lifeboats necessary at all. The belief that light travelled through an invisible substance called the ether was prevalent and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the writer of the Sherlock Holmes stories, believed that fairies existed and that some children had managed to photograph one.

During and after the first world war, spiritualists believed they could contact the dead and the random motions of a marker on a ouija board would reveal significant insights into life. Two hundred years ago people believed in phrenology - that it was possible to determine a person's character through feeling the bumps on their head.

As fans of the television series Blackadder will know, there was a time when the only cure for any disease was to stick a leech on the affected body part.

Arguing against many of those propositions at the time would have been contrarian or even rebellious.

These days, in my recent experience, you only have to say, 'I don't think there is a consensus any more that eating red meat is bad for you' to be labelled offensive and argumentative. At a time when life expectancy across the world is rising as diets improve, we are all becoming panicky about what we eat. According to United Nations statistics the average number of daily calories available per head of population around the world was 2,300 in the early 1960s. That number has risen to 2,700. A '60s diet in the developed world would seem dull to modern palates that have the world as a warehouse.

The contradiction here is that as we have access to more and better food and are at the same time living longer we are getting increasingly anxious about what we eat.

More than this, our fear that the next egg, prawn or pinch of salt will kill us is destroying the quality of our lives as much as it is doing little or nothing to extend the quantity of our lives. My mother certainly likes to eat but for some reason feels obliged to sigh and mutter about how bad everything she eats is for her waistline or general health. One of life's basic pleasures has become a guilty one. (Perhaps that's also why she only seems to enjoy a visit to a restaurant if she can find something to complain about and have an excuse to shout at a waiter.)

It made sense to worry years ago when food could really kill you because it wasn't stored properly and you were eating in the half dark so couldn't see if what you were eating was cooked properly. I'm hoping our great-grandchildren will find our current preoccupations nuts.