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Friday, January 6, 2012

The story of diets is a self-flagellating history.

Eating it up: diet fads of the ages

Louise Foxcroft, contributor
10487349.jpg(Image: Mary Evans/Grenville Collins Postcard Collection)
As we embark on a new year, many people are undoubtedly beginning new eating regimens in the name of slimmer waistlines. But as they wrestle with the diet du jour, perhaps it’s worth taking a lesson from the methods of the past.
The story of diets is a self-flagellating history. In the quest to lose fat, people have often become slaves to rogue quick-fix ideas that might, just might, help them get thin. The fashions changed like the methods depending on the times - and scientific advance has long fuelled such changes. The medical profession in particular has a long and not always pretty history of making a good living out of its patients’ grosser habits, and diets have always been a money-spinner.

The ancient Greek notion of diatetica is where our word “diet” originates, but it is a long way from the faddish novelty slimming aids we are familiar with now. In the 3rd century BC theCorpus Hippocraticum recommended that the fat eat emollient food for the laxative effect, take sea-water enemas, and vomit after lunch. Wrestling and walking naked helped shift the pounds, too, though sex should be avoided because it encouraged laziness. In classical medicine being too fat, or too thin, was a sure sign of an imbalance of the four essential “humours” (black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm) so moderation was essential for a healthy body.
Keeping the pounds off through moderation was the key to the first best-selling diet book, Luigi Cornaro’s The Art of Living Long (1558). Enormous by the age of 40, his doctors gave up on him and he planned his own semi-starvation diet, which at its worst meant one egg-yolk for his daily meal (Nietzsche tried it in the 1880s but wasn’t impressed - apparently German nihilists need their calories).
Down the centuries, physicians prescribing diets have often been overweight themselves. George Cheyne, who advised the too-plump to go for temperance and vegetarianism, weighed 32 stone (nearly 450 lbs.) in the early 1700s. His own excess flesh didn’t seem to put off Alexander Pope, David Hume and Dr Johnson, who all looked to Cheyne for help. “Always attentive to the bulk of his body”, Johnson firmly believed that “whatever be the quantity that a man eats, it is plain that if he is too fat, he has eaten more than he should have done”.
In 1793, Thomas Beddoes came up with a forward-thinking alternative to self-starvation, which he referred to as “pneumatic chemistry”. He argued that the accumulation of fat could be prevented by improving oxygen levels, and so carbon dioxide output, but his experiments were inconclusive. In the 1820s, Dr William Wadd, dismissing the theory and the sizable Beddoes as “a walking feather bed”, came up with the “little and often” diet advising bran, vegetables, digitalis, horse-riding, eating soap, reading aloud and salt rubs. Under this regime alcohol was forbidden (to avoid spontaneous combustion when mixed with fat), and strictly no vomiting after supper.
Around the same time in France, Brillat-Savarin advised a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet, mixing it with a dash of misogyny: “A dinner without cheese”, he wrote, “is like a pretty woman with only one eye”.
The influence of race and nationality was thought to be a major factor on fat, and a prevailing sentiment in Victorian England was that the French were lean because excitable - “Our gay neighbours … seem to quiver from head to foot”.
But the most sensible and popular Victorian diet was the Banting System, published by a hugely fat coffin-maker called William Banting in the 1860s, but devised by his ear, nose and throat specialist who had been studying diabetes and the detrimental effects of sugars and starches; it was well-known that farm animals were fattened on these foods, and the same must surely hold for man, his physician reasoned.
In the Victorian age the true “medical idol of the moment”, according to the Lancet, was Horace Fletcher and his mastication theory. Dieters chewed everything several hundred times (700 times for a shallot) and not only slimmed down but defecated less. Fletcher was so proud of his faeces that he always carried one with him to prove that it smelled like a hot biscuit and weighed only 2ounces. Franz Kafka and Henry James were fervent Fletcherites and came to loathe food.
It was at the turn of the twentieth century that calorie-counting first arrived. Wilbur Atwater’s “respiration calorimeter” measured the energy provided by food, and the public were hooked, taking to measuring and counting with a vengeance. Hormones were big news too, and over-the-counter slimming pills laced with them - thyroid extract in particular - were widely advertised and sold in huge numbers. Anti-fat “cures” such as Kellogg’s Safe Fat Reducer, Figuroids, and Dr Gordon’s Elegant Pills, contained everything from arsenic to lard and were either useless or, occasionally, dangerous: the best-selling Dinitrohpenol was a carcinogenic dyeing agent used in WWI explosives which was eventually banned in 1938. Even today, in spite of side-effects including liver problems and colourfully oily cases of the runs, slimming drugs remain popular.
And just as they do today, throughout history quacks and doctors using magical “science” have continually remodelled and recycled their spurious wares as though they were brand new. All you need is the once fat person or, better still, a doctor whose overweight patient comes for help, and who then devises a diet which is startlingly successful and goes on to market it with books, foods, and celebrity endorsements. But the truth is that, for all that hype, like their predecessors, today’s quick-fix fad diets are never going to work.
Louise Foxcroft is a medical historian and author of Calories & Corsets: A history of dieting over 2,000 years (Profile Books).

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