Go Figure


Body ideals have changed little over the past century. Image courtesy Library of Congress.

I come from a long line of perpetual dieters. Between the four of us in my immediate family, we’ve tackled every fad and trend of the past three decades—Diet Center, Nutrisystem, Atkins, the South Beach Diet, Weight Watchers, and the Zone, to name a few—along with an exhausting list of non-diet diets, detoxes, and fasts. Rarely are we trying to lose more than that infamous final ten pounds, and yet these nearly-negligible extra ounces influence our entire relationship with food.

This is a hobby shared by innumerable people in the Western world. Where does the irrational fear of fat come from? According to Chin Jou, in the Chemical Heritage article “Counting Calories,” we need only look as far back as the start of the 20th century when plumpness ceased to be linked to “beauty and wealth” in favor of youthful, disciplined slimness. The flapper set, who epitomized this new body ideal, also introduced a still all-too-familiar concept: the fad diet. Take the Hollywood 18-Day Diet, “a spartan ration of citrus fruits, melba toast, vegetables, and hard-boiled eggs, amounting to 585 calories per day.”

Sound ridiculous (and unsatiating)? Absolutely. But compare to a new diet fad that my mom just called me about last week: The Dukan Diet. A four-step weight-loss process—the phases entitled Attack, Cruise, Consolidation, and Stabilization—the diet is almost overshadowed by its most recent claim to fame: being responsible for Kate Middleton’s wee royal wedding frame. 

Having spent most of 2011 ignoring all dieting advice and instead warming up with gooey, calorie-laden bowls of cheesy pasta and thick burger patties on crusty rolls, I’ll admit it—I took the bait. A quick Google search, however, revealed just another celebrity-endorsed, unsustainable high-protein, low-carb plan.

Our susceptibility to dubious “scientific” research on new ways to shed pounds hasn’t changed much over the past century. While we have gurus like Oprah, our elders had Lulu Hunt Peters, a best-selling author and weight-loss guru whose promotion of calorie counting Jou refers to as “a mathematization of dieting,” lending it the appearance of being scientifically valid. Compare to conflicting research on high-protein diets, which have been lauded as “helping overweight and obese people lose weight more effectively,” and high-carbohydrate diets, which—surprise, surprise—have also been cited for being the most efficient way to lose weight in addition to having an added bonus of “raising mood levels.”

Clearly, there is no scientific consensus on the perfect strategy for effortless weight-loss. But one thing is certain: we’ll never run out of ideas.

Counting Calories [Chemical Heritage]
Salt's Fat Chance [Chemical Heritage]
Episode 82: Food Myths [Distillations]

Posted In: History

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