A history of dieting: binge and purge

Fad diets are nothing new – people have been following them for two millennia. They are also little better than useless, so why do we keep following them? A new book looks back on 20 centuries of bingeing, purging, snake oil and strange ideas…

AFTER the binge of the holidays, many stumble into January with a hangover, some fragile resolutions and a desire to shed a few pounds. Alas, few will benefit from rigid calorie-counting or cabbage-soup slurping.

In a recent study of 31 long-term diet plans, the American Psychological Association found that up to two-thirds of participants ended up heavier than before they started. Some diets are more sensible than others, but any regimen that promises swift and dramatic results will doom most followers to failure. Weight-loss pills and surgery are similarly ineffective—and sometimes dangerous—over time. Yet girth-management is big business, full of charismatic hucksters and fake science (fat-burning lip balm?), earning $40 billion a year in America alone.

“The diet industry is all about exploitation and profit,” writes medical historian Louise Foxcroft in Calories and Corsets: A History of Dieting over 2,000 Years, her new, slim book about the history of dieting. Less a banquet than a tasting menu, she chronicles more than 2 000 years of movers, shakers and tummy-tuckers, highlighting both the wise and the wacky.

Foxcroft fixed on the topic of weight-loss schemes after speaking to a friend who’s a medic. “She said that whenever she gives talks, as soon as she mentions diet drugs, everybody in the audience perks up. I thought that was so interesting, so I decided to see if I could use the history of dieting to throw light on the assumptions we make about our health.”

And what Foxcroft found was 20 sorry centuries of bingeing, purging, snake oil and strange ideas about what we look like and why.

While the Greeks had a sensible approach to fat-fighting (“the Greek word diatia, from which our word “diet” derives, described a whole way of life… an all-round mental and physical way to health”), the early Christians were rather more conflicted about excess flesh.

As Foxcroft explains, “the heroic abstinence and starved bodies of early ascetics such as the third-century Saint Anthony were often the subject of exaggerated glorification”. No doubt their constant prayer ran something along the lines of “nothing tastes as good as God feels”.

One of the first regimes to tackle weight loss for its own sake (to achieve an “ideal body” free from “undue thinness and fatness”) was an 11th-century plan created by Avicenna, a Persian physician and philosopher, who advised the fat to eat only bulky food with little nutrition in it, and to get it out of the body as quickly as possible using exercise and laxatives.

As Calories and Corsets makes clear, when it comes to dieting, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Equally, the first modern “bestseller” was a 15th-century work, De honesta voluptate et valetudine by Bartolomeo Sacchi (Il Platina), which brought collected recipes to bring pleasure (voluptate) and health (valetudine) to its readers. Diet books have been money-spinners ever since.

But according to Foxcroft, people really got a taste for dieting during the 19th century. “People dieted mainly for health reasons and then in the mid-19th century it tips over into dieting more for aesthetic reasons. It’s to do with people moving into urban environments, having access to different and more refined foods and the explosion of the media,” she says.

Ideas about body shape also underwent big changes, she says. “Corsetry has been going for hundreds of years but in the Victorian age the corsets and the bustles really defined the sexes quite spectacularly.” A generation later, there was a backlash against this womanly silhouette and a move towards more boyish figures. “After the First World War there just weren’t any boys about and the girls begin to look like boys, with breast binding and dresses that fall from the hip.”

Gluttony harshly judged

Unlike the other deadly sins, gluttony is visible and so is often judged harshly, as if heft were always evidence of wanton indulgence or laziness. (The link between genetics and metabolism was not discovered until the 20th century.)

In particularly hard times such as the two world wars, fat people were seen as traitors. Greater access to food and a rising stigma against podge helped inspire the fashion for corsets in the 17th century, which caused overlapping ribs, bad breath and the occasional death.

“Body shape and what we see as the ideal is far more linked to economics and whether we’re in a time of war and peace than we might imagine,” Foxcroft says. “During the First and Second World Wars, if you were overweight it counted against you because it looked as though you were taking more of the rations than you should have done. Then in times of austerity, and I suppose arguably that’s having an effect now, there’s a great deal being said about obesity. It’s like a pendulum.”

When it comes to diets, women occupy a perversely central place, argues Foxcroft. They are condemned for their gluttony, criticised for their vanity, manipulated for their insecurity and also blamed for the flab on their husbands and children.

She is unconvinced by the quick-fix promises of many a diet regime. “Fad diets are little better than useless. They do the biggest business and arguably the greatest harm. Dieters can lose 5 to 10 per cent of their weight, but the weight almost always comes back.”

So why do we keep on trying? “The process is like falling in love,” she says. “It provokes the same feelings. You are yearning for something. Food is the immediate desire and thinness the more remote but possibly achievable goal. You dwell obsessively on the object of your love.” She advocates the unglamorous approach of eating less and moving more, focusing on healthy foods, fewer carbs and the odd biscuit…..

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