A Historical Look at Dieting


Can you remember the first time that you heard the term “dieting”?

If you’re like most others, then you probably can’t. It’s a rather sad comment on the state of society that the concept of “dieting” is so pervasive in our culture that many children at the age of four or five know what a “diet” is.

Most people of our generation look back to the 70’s or even the 60’s as the culprit, when sugar-free diet sodas and other “low-calorie” foods managed to sneak their way into our collective psyche. Some may even look to the 50’s and the demonization of saturated fats (and the corresponding rise of margarine as a healthy substitute for butter) as the point when Western societies became obsessed with “healthy eating” and “dieting”.

William Banting, the “original” low-carb dieter.

However, the real history of dieting in our culture goes back much further than that. Before war-time shortages and The Great Depression forced a subsistence diet on most, and even before the Pure Food movement in the early part of the 20th century, Europeans and North Americans were watching their growing waistlines.

In 1864, a gentleman by the name of William Banting, who was not a health professional by any means, published a 36-page booklet titled “Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public”. In this small work, Banting lauded his weight-loss success due to his adoption of what we would now call a low-carbohydrate diet, noting that:

“The items from which I was advised to abstain as much as possible were: Bread, butter, milk, sugar, beer, and potatoes, which had been the main (and, I thought, innocent) elements of my subsistence, or at all events they had for many years been adopted freely.

These, said my excellent adviser, contain starch and saccharine matter, tending to create fat, and should be avoided altogether.”

Although Banting was certainly not the first person in history to advocate a particular diet to combat the growing waistlines of a well-fed segment of society, his was one of the first to become extremely popular among the middle classes, who were finding that they had more free time on their hands, as well as the means to indulge in more food than was absolutely necessary. The term “bant” was even adopted into the slang of the times to denote that one was following the Banting Diet.

Of course, it wasn’t long before others took the same approach, deciding that there were particular foods that were prone to cause obesity in humans.

In 1889, Nathaniel Edward Davies published a book with the none-too-subtle title of “Foods for the Fat: A treatise on corpulence and a dietary for its cure”. (Archive.org has a wonderful scan of the entire book here.) In the book, Davies presents lists of acceptable foods, arranged by meal type AND by season, along with a slew of recipes showing the reader how to prepare such dishes as “Oxtail stewed with spinach”, “Calf’s liver à la mode”, and “Sea-kale, boiled”.

Are you laughing yet? I am, but not because the dishes or the approaches are particularly hilarious. I laugh because in reading these old publications on diet and health, I realize just how little has changed!

Atkins popularized his low-carb diet in the 70’s and again in the early part of the 2000’s, but in truth, there wasn’t anything revolutionary about it. The basic foundation of removing simple carbohydrates from diets had been known for over 100 years. Even the first chapter of Davies’ book makes use of shock value to trap the readers:

“”…for Daniel Lambert weighed some 450 pounds at the age of twenty-three years, and could then walk from Woolwich to London; subsequently he attained the enormous weight of 739 pounds, and died at the age of thirty-eight years.”

Watch any episode of “The Biggest Loser”, “Too Fat for 15”, or “Heavy”, and the message is loud and clear: “OMG YOU NEED TO EXERCISE AND EAT CELERY ALL DAY OR YOU’LL END UP LIKE THESE FATTIES!1!!!!!!1!”

Is it any wonder that I’m such a skeptic of any modern weight-loss activities? The normal course of any scientific endeavour is that over time, findings and methods start to converge upon a single point, or set of points, that define a set of commonly-accepted theories and behaviours. In almost 200 years of study of the human body and weight-loss, that convergence has not yet begun. Just as Banting made quite a name for himself (and a rather tidy sum!) from selling his booklet, years later the weight-loss industry is still making money from selling us products (purportedly based on NEW SCIENTIFIC DISCOVERIES) that don’t do anything but promote the further consumption of goods and services offered to help us lose weight and keep it off.

In 200 years we haven’t discovered a general solution to the “obesity problem.” It’s rather safe to assume that no such general solution exists. That’s why I advocate a self-directed approach to any wellness program. Look at what your own individual needs are. Treat your body and mind as intertwined experimental subjects, try a multitude of approaches, and see what sticks for you. Be the wellness rebel that your body wants you to be.

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