How Britain is going to waist
Well Roman, I’ll give you some advice, and I won’t even ask for any of your £11 billion fortune in return. You don’t need needles if you want to shift the pounds; you just need to stop living in Britain.
I moved to France six years ago but have just spent a two-week holiday in England and Scotland. It was the first time I had been back to the UK for any length of time since we moved. And it was only five days into my holiday when I noticed something disturbing was happening to my jeans. They seemed to have shrunk without being washed.
Then my youngest daughter, aged five, solved the mystery.
‘Mummy, why does your tummy look like a bouncy castle?’ she asked.
The problem was not my jeans, the problem was me. I had put on weight by doing nothing at all apart from eating a normal British diet.
I don’t know why I was surprised. The first thing I noticed when we got off the plane was that everyone in England seemed to have doubled in size. Even my children noticed. Unfortunately we had arrived in the middle of the heatwave so not only were the people around us fat, they were practically naked.
Now call me a Froggy Figure-Fascist if you must, but I find the six rolls of fat spilling over the typical Englishman’s hipster jeans quite disgusting. Some of the examples of flesh I encountered in my first days back home were beyond description in a family newspaper.
I felt like going up to one or two of them and asking if they possessed a mirror. And if so, would they mind using it before they went out next time.
Shortly after our arrival, my mother drove us to her house, stopping off at the supermarket en route, and it was here I discovered the root of the problem.
I could not believe the utter rubbish stocked there that passes as food. I was hard-pressed to find anything I wanted to eat at all among all the processed junk.
Why on earth would you eat something that calls itself a ‘Cheestring’ and claims to be 100 per cent cheese but comes in a foil packet? Why not just eat a piece of cheese, as the French do in abundance?
And what does your average British mother think is a good idea for lunch? According to a check-out girl I spoke to at Tesco in Tiverton, Devon, it is frozen pizzas, chicken nuggets, chips and Coca-Cola.
I know how hard it can be to get young children to eat healthily. But have things really changed so much since I moved to France that British mothers have now simply given up even trying to feed their children well? Or is it just that I’ve changed?
Either way, the modern British diet now appals me. People in England just don’t seem to understand the old adage that ‘you are what you eat’.
The fact is, if you stuff your face with greasy chips and processed foods you’re going to end up pale, spotty and fat. And even more scarily, if we don’t stop feeding our children this rubbish we’re going to have an ever-increasing delinquency problem. It’s so blindingly obvious to me that if you feed children poison, they turn out to be poisonous.
This is something that French families have long understood. But I was horrified to read a report yesterday that 60 per cent of British families don’t eat together on Sundays any more and that one in four don’t even own a dining table.
Where on earth do they eat? It’s not as though every town has cheap, local bistros like the ones I have become used to in France.
Yes, London may have a wealth of top-class restaurants. But I was appalled to find that the choice in most ordinary British towns is still confined to takeaway pizzas, greasy spoon cafes or fish-and-chip shops, reeking of cooking oil that has been re-boiled umpteen times.
You could smell some of these places at 50 paces. Just the stench was enough to put me off eating for a fortnight.
Nor is this a problem that’s confined to the lower end of the social spectrum. Middle-class parents have been every bit as culpable in this slide towards Junk Food Britain, as I discovered when I went to stay with a dear friend in Scotland last week.
Out shopping one morning we saw a classic fatty wandering down the road clutching two loaves of Mothers Pride, her bat’s wings (fat under the arms, really attractive) swinging.
I hate Mothers Pride. To me, now accustomed to the wonderful freshness of French baguettes, it’s like eating soggy cardboard. Shockingly, it is the fourth best-selling bread in the UK.
‘You see,’ I said, turning to my friend. ‘She’s going to stuff herself with that bread, probably loaded with margarine. And as there’s so little nutritional value in it she’ll be hungry in half an hour and then probably eat 14 crumpets before dinner. No wonder she’s so fat.’
It was only later, as we prepared sandwiches to eat on a picnic, that my friend’s dirty secret came out of the bread bin. She had bought Mothers Pride, too. Oh dear.
Time and time again during my fortnight in Britain, I saw similar examples of intelligent, sophisticated friends feeding themselves and their families the sort of stuff that French women wouldn’t dare feed to their dogs.
Why had I never noticed the poverty of British food before? I suspect it’s because if you’re immersed in this unhealthy eating cycle it just goes on and on.
You don’t realise how disgusting it is until you’ve stopped eating it — rather like a smoker who doesn’t notice how revolting the smell of smoke is until he’s given up.
It’s only now that I live in France that the true horror of British cuisine is apparent. The scales have fallen from my eyes: and what I see are bloated stomachs and triple chins waddling down every British High Street.
My French friends live in fear of this time of year, when Brits start heading for the Continental beaches. ‘The sight of red British flesh bulging out of cheap swimwear is too disgusting for words,’ says one. ‘And the worst are what I call the “junior porkies”. There is no excuse for obesity aged 11; it just wouldn’t happen here in France’.
I dread to think what they would make of the visions of horror I saw on my fortnight back in the UK.
But I’m by no means the only one who has returned to France feeling bloated and depressed. Chantal Thomass, one of France’s leading underwear designers, has a factory in Norfolk that she visits once every couple of months.
‘Without fail, I put on weight every time I go to England,’ she told me. ‘I come back to Paris and have to go on an immediate diet.’
But here’s the thing: it doesn’t have to be like this. There is an alternative — and it doesn’t involve acupuncture needles in your ear, or moving to France.
You just need to stop eating food or drinking drinks that have no nutritional value. Go for water instead of some sugary processed liquid that I wouldn’t even use to remove my nail varnish.
Stop pouring money into the junk food industry. Find delicious alternatives to the snacks filled with salt and fat. Think olives not crisps; brown bread not white and don’t even touch a processed meal with your acupuncture needle.
Wake up, Britain! You have no idea how revolting you’ve become.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi-based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor-in-chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019