Louise Foxcroft has set out and succeeded in detailing the history of food formulae designed to achieve weight loss, fashionable shape and, presumably, happiness, satisfaction and success. She achieves this with a pacey,detailed, fact-filled account of numerous diets, many promoted by influential people and publications over centuries. The ups and downs of the physical and emotional effects of failure to achieve sustainable goals are in many cases grim but they are interspersed with humour, often allied to methods and appliances designed to aid the shedding of fat (and money).
Ms Foxcroft argues persuasively that diets over the ages have been fabricated to suit the perceived social and cultural styles in vogue in a particular era, especially more contemporary times when diet is a multibillion pound industry. Diet books are best sellers ironically sitting next to a plethora of cook books. Although these often harsh regimens were aimed at females and their vanity, they were usually devised by men from observation of personal successful weight reduction programmes. These were lauded and applauded by popular dissemination of the apparent benefits of shedding excess 'corpulence', considered 'horrible and disgusting' reflecting gluttony and loss of self-control.
The word 'diet' is derived from the Greek 'diaita' describing a whole way of life rather than weight loss per se. Hippocrates (460-570BC) supported this principle and advocated all round mental and physical health should be a balance between food intake and exercise or work aided by forced vomiting. Socrates (469-570BC) believed diet was the route to health and if abused the way to disease and death. The 17th century poet Sir John Harrington's idea of feminine beauty was "skin and teeth must be cleare, bright and neat [with] large breasts and hips' reminiscent of the erotic 'reproductive figures' of Rembrandt and Reubens fashionable art. In 1558 Venetian merchant Cornaro published 'Diet-Art of Living Long', still in print over 450 years later promoting self-control, eating little and frugally,'what is good for the palate cannot be good for the soul'. The forerunner of today's calorie restriction. Lord Byron (1788-1824) was 'a little fat', and whilst at Cambridge went on a severe diet to avoid the horror of fat that he associated with lethargy and dullness. He said romantic youth should drink vinegar to lose weight and eat rice to give a pale complexion. "A woman",he said,"should never be seen eating or drinking, unless it is lobster salad and champagne".(Hypocritical, as he remarked that Lady Caroline Lamb was haunting him like a skeleton after she lost weight when their marriage ended).
Brillat-Savarin was an early proponent of low-carbohydrate diets with avoidance of farinaceous foods, starches and sugars, eating instead green and root vegetables, light meat and water.Self-starvation also beneficial and "shun beer like the plague".Banting (1863), a London undertaker, who lost considerable weight on essentially a high protein, high fat low carbohydrate diet, produced a pamphlet of his methods with considerable success. 'Banting' became a synonym for dieting in the UK. So popular was 'The Banting System' he was satirised in 'Punch' (1869):
'I've done it said brave Mr Banting,
And so may each overfed Briton,
If he'd only adopt resolution severe,
All bread, butter,sugar, milk,'taters' and beer'.
These were the forerunners of today's fad diets (e.g Durkin, Atkins).
'The Great Masticator', Harold Fletcher (1849-1914), introduced 'Fletcherism' as an aid to cut food intake involving chewing each mouthful of food several hundred times. It still has its supporters.
Corsetry has been popular for hundreds of years. Women were prepared to be laced into whale bone garments causing discomfort, overlapping ribs, breathing problems and bad breath to achieve the 'wasp-like' effect. If they could put up with this, severe calorie restriction could also be tolerated. New foods, films, magazines,newspapers introduced media pressure to 'look good'. Film stars such as Jane Russell brought back busts from the boyish post-world war one look. Men were influenced by Sandow and Charles Atlas. Another tappable market. Benjamin Hauser was diet guru to the stars (as well as Greta Garbo's lover and a con man) but his directions were slavishly followed by the rich and famous.
Apart from corsetry including garments such as 'The Merry Widow' aids to a new bodyshape included laxative-laced chewing gum, cigarettes with appetite suppressants in them, cigarettes without,'Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet','Eat what you like if you smoke Lucky Strike', electric shock therapy, magnetic belts, pills and potions containing arsenic and strychnine and 'mother's little helper' containing amphetamines. Other unorthodox approaches were Edward Baron's 1960s LPs: 'Reduce through listening which helps you develop a dislike for fattening foods', and weight loss through prayer."We fatties are the only people on earth who can weigh our sin" wrote pastor Charlie Shedd.
Louise Foxcroft puts her own stamp on the study of diets over the centuries. How far have we really come with diets appearing then being rehashed? How much have we changed from Cornaro and Banting to Atkins, Durkan etc? She feels the need to return to the Greeks' true meaning of 'diaita', modernising it in the light of success and failures. Perhaps an evidence based dietary approach allied to exercise may be an answer? Who knows? Anything that removes misery, whether from perceived body shape or dieting would be welcomed. I found this an enjoyable, educational,sometimes painful in its content (not its writer),lightened by touches of humour. Very readable and recommendable.