Here we are, once again in the purge part of the annual binge-purge cycle. We do this every year so that by the summer holidays we will be what is termed ‘beach ready’ – or at least a bit less fat, after a month of mince pies and gin cocktails.
There are around 30,000 diet books on the market, despite widespread acknowledgment that diets don’t work. One fifth of Britain and Ireland is on a diet at any given time, and slim people – that is, those with a BMI of 25 or less – are in the minority. Since World War II, we have become wider, taller, heavier.
Modern humanity does not, however, hold the monopoly on fad diets, despite many people currently thinking that copying the diet of our Palaeolithic ancestors is a good idea. (It isn’t. We don’t know what people ate in the Palaeolithic era, plus life expectancy back then was about 25.)
People have always gone to extremes to lose weight, very often relying on bad science. Only recently are we starting to realise that long-held assumptions around calorie-counting are wrong, because the body burns calories differently, depending on food type. A chocolate brownie calorie does not equal a carrot calorie. We have long been told that it does.
In his book The Diet Myth, genetic epidemiologist Tim Spector writes about the “misleading medical calorie dogma”, and the importance of the microbiome, which “predicts obesity better than genes”, and the importance of “diverse microbial gardens to flourish”.
He recounts an experiment conducted with his wife to show how when it comes to diet, one size does not fit all. Both ate bread and pasta, and tested their blood sugar. Then they both ate grapes and orange juice, and tested it again. The bread and pasta caused a blood sugar spike in his wife, while barely registering with him; the opposite happened with the fruit.
“Confusing and conflicting messages are everywhere,” he writes. “Knowing who and what to believe is a big problem.” And now that we are online, we can access bad science and quack diets in seconds. But they pre-date the internet by centuries.
The 11th-century Persian physician Avicenna, one of the early fathers of modern medicine, advised eating bulky low-nutrient food, and encouraging it to pass quickly through the body with the aid of laxatives and exercise; he was one of the first to link food reduction with recovery from disease. The first printed cookbook, published in Latin in Rome around 1470, was titled On Honest Indulgence & Good Health. It was an early best-seller. This was followed by the earliest diet book in 1598 – The Art of Living Long by another Italian, said to have lived on one egg yolk a day.
In England, an overweight doctor called George Cheyne (1671-1743) linked obesity and depression, and advocated teetotal vegetarianism – his fans included Samuel Johnson and Alexander Pope. In 1820, a porky Lord Byron kick-started the celebrity diet that haunts us to this day, with the Vinegar Diet, in which he used apple cider vinegar as an appetite suppressant. Apparently it worked.
In 1864, Banting became all the rage after a publication, Letter on Corpulence, became a best-seller. Dr William Banting advocated a diet of just meat and fruit to a fat undertaker who had tried everything to lose weight but could not. The man lost 29kg in a year and kept it off, pre-dating the Atkins diet by a century.
During the Edwardian era, Horace Fletcher, an American known as the Great Masticator, promoted chewing 100 to 700 times, and swallowing only the resulting liquid. “Nature will castigate those who don’t masticate,” he said, promising his followers that they would poo only once a fortnight, and that it would smell of biscuits – he carried a sample around with him in a tin, to show people. Franz Kafka and Henry James were fans.
The early 20th century saw prototype fitness guru Sylvia of Hollywood trying to pummel the fat out of movie stars “like mashed potato through a colander”; she was employed by Pathe Studios for $ 750 a week, and as well as diet books, in 1932 wrote an indiscreet tell-all, Hollywood Undressed.
In 1939 diet guru – and Greta Garbo’s lover – Benjamin Hauser published Eat & Grow Beautiful. Movie stars, he said “simply can’t afford to become fat and unattractive.” Two years later, Stanley Burroughs created the Master Cleanse, aka the Lemonade Diet, involving nothing more than lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne pepper for at least 10 days. People still do it – most famously, Beyonce in 2006.
Some diets were deadly, as well as disgusting. The Last Chance diet of 1976 involved a low-calorie meat smoothie of pre-digested animal by-products – hooves, hide, horns – which was taken off the market after several people died. Psychosis-inducing amphetamine diet pills enjoyed quite a moment during the 20th century, immortalised in Darren Aronofsky’s film Requiem For A Dream, but Elvis Presley used pills to knock himself out in what was known as the Sleeping Beauty Diet, the idea being that you could sleep yourself thin. Turns out he couldn’t.
When it comes to food, we employ all kinds of mind games to trick ourselves – Andy Warhol’s routine in restaurants involved ordering food he disliked, putting it in a doggy bag, and later giving it to a homeless person. A French diet, Le Forking, involves eating only food that can be speared on a fork – broccoli, basically – while several American diets such as Pray Yourself Slim and the Daniel Fast (21 days of fruit, veg and grains) are popular with Christians.
While many diets remain scientifically suspect: does eating alkaline foods, superfoods, raw foods, foods that put the body into ketosis – think constipation and bad breath – really work? Dieters are nothing if not optimistic; or – if you apply Einstein’s definition of doing the same thing over and over yet expecting different results – insane. Perhaps then, the greatest dieting advice ever comes from Miss Piggy: never eat more than you can lift.
Diet a la carte
⬤ The Hay Diet, of which business magnate Henry Ford was a fan, involved food combining, and was developed by New York doctor William Hay in the 1920s. It was complicated. “Any carbohydrate foods require alkaline conditions for their complete digestion, so must not be combined with acids of any kind, such as sour fruits, because the acid will neutralise. Neither should these be combined with a protein of the concentrated sort as these protein foods will excite too much hydrochloric acid during their stomach digestion,” wrote Dr Hay in How To Always Be Well.
⬤ the Beverley Hills Diet, created by Judy Mazel in 1981, sold over a million copies and was popular with Engelbert Humperdinck and Dallas star Linda Gray. Like the Hay, it involved food combining, but was ultimately dismissed as quackery.
⬤ The Atkins Diet, formulated by cardiologist Robert Atkins in 1989, sold us the idea of carbs bad / fat and protein good. You could have all the meat and cheese you wanted, but no toast. When Dr Atkins died from slipping on ice, his medical records revealed a history of heart attacks and congestive heart failure.
⬤ The South Beach Diet, from physician Arthur Agatson, was 2003’s weight management best-seller. Originally called the Modified Carbohydrate diet, it became known after its place of origin, Miami’s South Beach. Agatson believed in ‘good’ carbs and ‘bad’ carbs, and advocated low-glycaemic foods. See also the GI Diet.
⬤ The Dukan Diet, developed by doctor Pierre Dukan, is a high-protein, low-carb regime in four stages, popular in the 2000s. Despite its popularity, it is associated with renal and cardiovascular issues, and should be avoided, according to the British Dietetic Association.
⬤ The 5:2 Diet takes an ancient idea – intermittent fasting, in the past associated with religious pursuits -and hitches it to weight-management and well-being. You fast for two days a week, and eat normally the other five days. The idea is that the body has a chance to rest from digesting, which not only regulates weight, but improves overall health. Side effects include outbreaks of hungry-angry, but unlike having carb-free steak and cream for breakfast, it is a relatively sensible way of regulating your weight.
Health & Living