More Men Than The Sword":
The History of Dieting
& Weight Loss
Diet & Weight Loss Notes
In this episode of Eat My Globe, our host, Simon Majumdar, looks at the history of a genuinely controversial subject – that of weight loss and dieting. It is a subject that has concerned humans for centuries, both for aesthetic and medical reasons. It is a subject that has revealed gender differences and provided some of the oddest medical claims of all.
Find out more about the fascinating history of diet and weight loss, and tune in now.
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EAT MY GLOBE
“GLUTTONY DESTROYS MORE MEN THAN THE SWORD”:
THE HISTORY OF DIETING AND WEIGHT LOSS
My wife is on a tropical fruit diet.
Oh, how’s it going?
Well, she’s enjoying it, but it’s enough to make a mango crazy.
Mango crazy, you see?
Anyway. See, ‘cause we’re going to talk about diets.
I’m Simon Majumdar, and welcome to a brand-new episode of Eat My Globe, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
And on today’s episode, we’re going to be looking at a subject that is something that many of us might consider a relatively modern concern, but which in reality has been part of human’s relationship with food from the first time we plucked a plant from the ground or butchered an animal after hunting. It’s also a subject, which in one very specific definition – that of weight control – can be intimidating, confusing and the cause of much controversy.
It’s a subject with which I am all too familiar, which is unsurprising given that one of my major lines of work as food critic would, under normal circumstances, see me eating out on numerous occasions a week. A task that while is great fun, is not unrelated to the fact that I once tipped the scales at over 200 pounds. For the record, I now sit at a far more comfortable 163 pounds. Thank you very much.
It is also a subject that, as we shall see, has undergone many changes through history, and still indeed undergoes many changes today. This can be through new scientific discoveries, and changes in the understanding of the way that food can impact the human body. But, can also be seen culturally, as different communities and different genders and different points in history express different ideals in body image, how they believe men and women should look and how they should be treated if they do not live up to that era’s ideal body image.
It is, as you can already hear, a very complicated topic to be sure. Hopefully, in today’s episode of Eat My Globe, we shall be able to bring some clarity by examining the complicated, but amazing subject history of diet and weight loss.
Hi everybody, this is Simon Majumdar, the creator and host of the Eat My Globe food history podcast. Now, those of you have been listening to the podcast since we began almost three years ago – nearly 50 episodes so far – will know that we have never sought out sponsorship for the podcast. It’s very much been a labor of love. However, along the way, a large number of people have approached us suggesting they would like to support the podcast. And so, we have opened up a page on Patreon dot com to allow those of you who listen regularly to do just that. Any support we will get will allow us to purchase research materials, buy ingredients for recipes, and maybe, when we can get out and about to bring you some very special in-the-field reporting. But, and this is really important. This is not just a one-way street. For varying levels of membership of our Patreon club, there will be access to fantastic Eat My Globe swag, including that incredible chopping board so many of you have written to me about, recipes based on historical periods about which we can chat each week, video shout outs, signed pictures, and even along the way, some very special episodes just for members. So, if you’ve enjoyed the episodes of Eat My Globe you’ve listened to so far, and would like us to make many more into the future, please do head over to www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe and consider taking out a membership. Any support will be very much appreciated. Remember, that’s www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe. So thank you very much, and keep listening.
As always, as I like to do on each episode of Eat My Globe, let’s work to find a definition of exactly what it is we are going to be talking about. In this case that’s going to be even more important, because that word, “diet,” can have a variety of specific meanings and we should be clear about which ones we are discussing during the episode.
This can be seen by the definitions offered by our chums at Merriam-Webster because they offer up a number of suggestions. First, they define “diet” as,
“food and drink regularly provided or consumed.”
That is, the type of food consumed by individuals or a group of people.
Now, the word, “diet,” could also mean,
“the kind and amount of food prescribed for a person or animal for a special reason.”
And, Merriam-Webster also defines it as,
“a regimen of eating and drinking sparingly so as to reduce one’s weight.”
It is these last two that we will primarily be concentrating on today. As, although there are diets that are a response to ethical and religious concerns, such as veganism, and the laws of Kosher, this episode is particularly looking at weight loss.
How food was related to well-being and body image throughout history. How people were viewed or treated because of their size and weight. How food was prescribed for individuals through history to achieve the ideals of the day, and examining the point at which the monitoring of food for weight loss became the multi-billion dollar industry we see today.
And, just in case you are in any doubt that weight loss remains a current obsession, or doubt the value of the diet market, then it is worth noting that in 2019, the “Diet and Weight Loss” market in the United States alone was worth over, wait for it, $72 billion.
Also, as I often do, I think it is worth not only looking at how the word, “diet,” is defined today, but also to examine its roots in history to see how it was used in the past, which may in turn inform its current meaning.
The way that ancient, pre-settlement human beings ate has recently come into more focus with the popularity of diets such as the “Stone Age” diet or the “Paleo” diet. This diet makes the assumption that these primarily nomadic groups, who foraged, hunted or fished for the majority of their food did not develop the number or levels of diseases that are prevalent today, such as cardiovascular disease, atherosclerosis or high blood pressure.
This diet also assumes that, even now, our bodies remain more suited to this nature of diet than to the modern diets, and that there are vast benefits to be gained from eating fruit, lean meat and fish, but abstaining from grains, beans and dairy products, all of which came into the diets as humans began to settle and farm.
Much of the research into this has been done through the medical examination of human remains from the time and from examinations of the health of those members of the few remaining nomadic tribes that can still be found on earth. While we might see some benefits to these diets with hindsight, the reality is that they paint a pretty broad picture of how the Stone Age people ate. Archaeological medical research showed that they did in fact have diets that included plants, nuts, starches and tubers. And a discovery a few years ago showed that people from the Stone Age ground oats into flour.
Anthropologists also note that there was not one homogenous diet for humans in the Stone Age – after all, they lived in different habitats through different climates.
It’s also worth noting that some of the artifacts discovered by archeological digging does show that, in the earliest period of the Stone Age, sculptors have created life-like obese figures, suggesting that obesity did occur during that era.
As people began to move from a nomadic life to one based in more permanent dwellings during the period of the ancient world, we also begin to see specific references to diet and weight loss. We also see the origins of one of the great dichotomies that remains part of the diet and weight loss conversation even today. That is, the opposing viewpoints that, on the one hand, having ample body weight often to the point of obesity could be viewed as good fortune and a sign of success and wealth, and on the other hand, that the same weight could also point to an excess and indulgence that could shorten life spans and be a sign of greed, gluttony and sin. As we shall see, this is a dichotomy that has changed through time, and also by location around the globe through history.
For example, in ancient Egypt, there is sufficient archeological evidence to suggest that the upper echelons of society were far from the slender images we imagine from their idealized statues and art but were in fact obese to the point where it promoted considerable ill health. A mummified body discovered in the 1920s was finally identified as that of Queen Hatshepsut, a legendary woman who ruled Egypt for fifteen years until her death in 1458 BCE. Despite her royal status, examination of the body revealed that not only was she obese but suffering from many of the ailments that might go along side that condition, including diabetes. She’s not the only mummy to display similar tendencies and the assumption is that the wealthy and elite of ancient Egyptian society ate abundantly, if not nutritionally, and did little exercise.
During the Tang dynasty, which ruled over China from 618 to 907 CE, the notion of being larger in size, particularly for women was considered a distinct advantage. Women of the high court were depicted as plump women in artforms and, believing that portly women would herald a prosperous life after death, tombstones also included figures of plump women. Perhaps the most famous of these larger women was a concubine known as Yang Guifei, who was the consort of Emperor Xuanzong, who reigned from 713 to 756. Women during this time wore long flowing gowns, which trend was supposedly set by Yang Guifei.
Even more extraordinary, in 2018, a Tang dynasty inspired theme park in Northern China offered free tickets to women who could show that they weighed more than Yang Guifei at time of entrance to the park. The target weight was a little over 136 pounds, and those who succeeded could then compete for the title of “Beauty of the Tang Dynasty.”
Inevitably and quite rightly, the promotion faced quite a bit of criticism, but not, as you might imagine, from women who considered being weighed at the gate of a theme park as rather demeaning, but rather from people who did not meet the weight requirement and men, who complained that they were not allowed to participate.
Ancient China did also recognize though that obesity could be an issue, as physicians recommended a number of remedies against it, including placing a sharp object in the “pinna” or the outside of the ear that was supposed to lessen one’s hunger cravings. Another remedy included providing a dose of an extract taken from the Thunder God vine herb, which was also supposed to reduce appetite. However, famed Tang dynasty doctor, Sun Si-miao, recommended that patients should first change their diet and lifestyle before being given these remedies.
It’s worth stopping here to recognize that the examples here of obesity from ancient times were women, which is an early example of the gender bias regarding weight perceptions that continues today. Now, I do think, given the limitations of time we have on this podcast, it would do a disservice to discussions about gender, and indeed class, that have been a huge driving force on dieting and weight loss. However, I don’t want you think that I have forgotten this and in our next episode, we will have an interview with Dr. Terry Simpson, a renowned weight loss surgeon and I know we will be able to discuss it more fully then.
Some of the earliest discussions about the impact of food and diet had on lifestyle came from the famous Ayurvedic texts of ancient India. Meaning “Science of Life” in Sanskrit, Ayurveda started some 5,000 years ago. It is based on writings that are split into the three “Great” classics of Ayurveda:
“The Charaka Samhita”
“The Sushruta Samhita”
“Ashtanga Hridayam and Ashtanga Sangraha.”
And, the three “Lesser” or “Minor” classics:
These writings includes how to deal with obesity. Foods were given morphological features, which were believed to have an impact on the body and to create balance. A “Prakriti,” or individual diet plan, was created for each individual based on how they were diagnosed.
In the “Charaka Samhita,” the author discusses obesity and says that it is due to,
“an excessive intake of heavy, sweet, cooling and unctuous food, want of physical exercise, day sleep, uninterrupted cheerfulness, or a lack of mental exercise.”
And fighting obesity includes some form of,
“administration of testicular tissue.”
Uh… Hm. Yes, not the sort of diet I’d want. But there you go.
It is remarkable that some 5,000 years after they were written, the Ayurvedic Diet is still incredibly popular today. It is based on an individual’s primary composition – the vata or energy of movement; the pitta or energy of digestion or metabolism; or kapha or energy of the structure of the body. While there is often dismissal of Ayurveda from modern medicine, some of the rules suggested such as, eating small regular meals, consuming whole fresh foods and making sure to balance the six prerequisite tastes – sweet, salty, sour, bitter, pungent and astringent – do seem to make common sense, and bring with them some anecdotal success stories.
The word we use in English, “diet” actually has its roots in the ancient Greek word “diaita.” The use the Greeks gave this word had a much wider spectrum than we might give it today. It referred to a more general look at a, quote, “mode of life,” which encompassed a variety of different parts of a person’s day to day activities. These included such things as exercise, baths and massage, sleep patterns, sexual activities, and of course the food that a person ate, and the drinks they imbibed.
This approach was believed to have been promulgated by the person often described as the “Father of Modern Medicine” Hippocrates, who lived from 460 to 370 BCE. We actually don’t know terribly much about his life, as much of the writings attributed to him were likely not actually written by him. The first biography we have of him came nearly 500 years later, written by another notable physician in his own right, Soranus of Ephesus.
And, of the 60 or so medical writings that bear his name, in what is known as the “Corpus Hippocraticum” or “Works of Hippocrates” it is unsure how many were actually written by him or were just ascribed to him by future writers.
Hippocrates is often remembered for the famous quote, which is credited to him,
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
However, research has shown that such a phrase may actually be a misquote. That being said, the Hippocratic Oath does show that nutrition, food and well-being were completely intertwined as far as he was concerned.
As part of the oath, he says,
“I will use those dietary regimens which will benefit my patients according to my greatest ability and judgement, and I will do no harm or injustice to them.”
This use of the word, “dietary,” covers that wider spectrum that I mentioned a few moments ago and includes not just the food but also exercise, sleep and even quote, “passions of the soul.”
All of this was done, as with Ayurvedic medicine, to balance the body. In this case, to balance the four “humors” or fluids that controlled the body. These were black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood.
Those suffering from melancholy are thought to have too much black bile. Those who are angry are thought to have too much yellow bile. Those who are sanguine, that is, brave or hopeful or passionate, have too much blood; and those who are phlegmatic, that is, calm or unemotional, have too much phlegm.
Both food and lifestyle were modified on a personal basis to achieve the perfect balance for the type of person the patient was considered to be.
For Hippocrates, this balance meant that he considered obesity to be the result of a sedentary lifestyle. And he prescribed exercise to overcome this situation saying,
“It is very injurious to health to take in more food than the constitution will bear, when, at the same time one uses on exercise to carry off this excess.”
The Romans too had a similar approach to diet and weight control.
Galen, along with Hippocrates, is arguably the most famous physician of the ancient world. He was born in 129 CE in Pergamum, an area that is now part of Anatolia in Turkey. At the age of 16 he began to study medicine and spent time in Alexandria, Egypt, which was the greatest medical center of the ancient world. In 162 CE, he moved to Rome and his medical career began to take off, as he became the physician to a plethora of influential patients. His work, following on from that of Hippocrates, became influential in medical history for centuries to come.
When it came to nutrition, Galen was amongst the very first to use the scientific methods of the day to define and treat obesity. He also created three classifications for obesity:
“Pachis” – which meant fat.
“Efsarkos” – Which meant overweight.
And, “Polisarkos” – Which meant morbidly obese.
In his work, “De Methodo Medendi” or “The Methods of Medicine,” Galen described the person with the conditions of Polisarkos as being,
“unable to walk without sweating and having difficulty reaching a table when sitting due to the size of his stomach, with accompanying difficulty in breathing, and an inability to clean himself.”
Following on from the work of Hippocrates and the humors, Galen believed too much phlegm caused morbid obesity. Which, I guess, makes sense because if one is too calm, I assume they are not moving, andhis that is, not exercising.
Also, like Hippocrates, Galen was a fan of what he called,
“Motion and exercise.”
He believed that,
“The uses of exercise . . . are twofold, one for the evacuation of the excrements, the other for the production of good condition of the firm parts of the body.”
However, I am delighted to find out that he was not a fan of athleticism, which he believed,
“neglected the old rule of health which prescribes moderation in all things.”
Quite right too.
And, Galen’s theories for attaining a healthy life – exercise and a balanced diet – did not remain in ancient history but are familiar to us in the modern world.
Feasting and gluttony, and the inevitable obesity that accompanied it, was part of ancient Roman society, at least for those who could afford it. And one’s position in the upper echelons of society could be gauged by one’s abilities as a host and a connoisseur.
And there are many examples of those who took their love of food to extreme levels. I’ve previously talked about ancient Greek scholar, Athenaeus, and his book, “Deipnosophists” or “The Gastronomers,” on our episode on the history of spices, the history of cookbooks, and the history of caviar. And today, we mention him and his book again.
In “Deipnosophists,” Athenaeus mentions a tyrant by the name of Dionysius of Heraclea, who became so fat that he had trouble breathing, and his doctors had to stick needles on his chest and sides to wake him up. And, in the end, Athenaeus says that Dionysius died at the age of 55 years old.
Feasting was depicted in art, such as wall frescos, and satirical plays were written about the indulgence of certain Romans for fine living. In one of the Roman poems by Horace, he shares the details of a lavish meal that includes amongst its delicacies, Lucanian boar, fowls, oysters and fish, honey apples, pregnant lamprey, sea urchins and pickles along with the best wines that the host could afford.
And, in another play entitled, Satyricon, by Gaius Petronius Arbiter or Petronius, written during the reign of Nero, we hear of the “Banquet of Trimalchio,” or “Trimalchio’s Dinner Party,” a lavish feast that included dormice, peahen eggs, goose, fish, wine and mead, amongst many other dishes.
So great was the potential for decadence that Emperor Augustus, who ruled from 27 BCE to 14 CE, was forced to bring in very strict legislation and reforms to prevent the compiling of such menus and the expenditure that went with them. He saw them as part of a decay of the traditional Roman morals of
“austere duty and healthy poverty.”
It was this potential decay and the fame of Roman decadence and indulgence when it came to food that was to have a profound impact on the view of food during the Middle ages and the Medieval period, particularly when it came to those professed by the Church in their writings.
However, before we move on to that part of the story, I do want to dispel one myth that seems to have become almost rote when one is talking about Romans and their rich and lavish lifestyles, and that is the existence of the “vomitorium.” That is, we are led to believe a small room, often adjacent to the dining room, that the wealthy Romans would retire to during a long meal where they could, with the use of a feather or some other implement, promote vomiting, to empty the stomach and make room for another rich indulgent dish. Now, much as this story might be a fun one to share with people at a dinner party, the reality is there is no such mention of anything in any ancient sources.
The only mention of the word, “vomitorium,” found in any sense is in the work, “Saturnalia of Macrobius,” as a term to describe the passages in large stadia that would be used to shepherd people to their sections and seats. It was not until the 19th century when the word began to be misused to describe a place where people went to throw up food to make room for more food.
In 1871, a French journalist named, Felix Pyat, recounted a Christmas in England, and described the meal as,
“a gross, pagan, monstrous orgie – a Roman feast, in which the vomitorium is not wanting.”
And, amongst other misuses, in 1927, the Los Angeles Times made mention of it in discussions about Roman feasting, helping to cement it as a permanent part of our view of the Romans and their decadent way of eating.
Despite this, there is no doubt that some wealthy Roman’s love of overindulgence with food was true, and this had a considerable impact on the next people in our story – the rise of the Christian religion and the attitude towards diet in Europe.
Food shortages became common in Europe during the Medieval period. And because of the lack of food, people saw obesity as a sign of prosperity.
At the same time, during the rise of Christianity, it became a popular opinion within the church that people became sick because of sin and that being sick was God’s punishment.
And in the 6th century, we see the first mentions of the “Seven Deadly Sins” or the “Seven Cardinal Sins” as they are known in Roman Catholic theology.
They were first listed by Pope Gregory I, although the notion of cardinal sins had been present in earlier Christian history and also had some more ancient antecedents in works such as “The Nicomachean Ethics” by philosopher Aristotle. In this latter work, Aristotle lists several “virtues” such as friendship, courage, generosity, temperance and “greatness of soul.”
In Pope Gregory I’s list, the seven cardinal sins are listed as “Vainglory or Pride,” “Greed or Covetousness,” “Lust or Illicit Sexual Desire,” “Envy,” “Gluttony” – which also included drunkenness – “Wrath or Anger,” and “Sloth.” Each of these could be counteracted by a virtue, those of “Humility,” “Charity,” “Chastity,” “Gratitude,” “Temperance,” “Patience,” and “Diligence.”
For our story, it is cardinal sin number 5, that of “Gluttony,” that is most relevant. The word, “gluttony,” comes from the Latin word, “glutto,” which is connected to the Latin “gluttire,” meaning “to swallow,” and “gluttus,” meaning “greedy,” and “gula,” meaning “throat.” In his 13th century work, “Summa Theologica” or “Summary of Theology,” Italian philosopher Saint Thomas Aquinas defines this sin as,
“Gluttony denotes, not any desire of eating and drinking, but an inordinate desire. Now desire is said to be inordinate through leaving the order of reason, wherein the good of moral virtue consists: and a thing is said to be a sin through being contrary to virtue. Wherefore it is evident that gluttony is a sin.”
That is to say that to him, it is not food and drink itself that is sinful, but just the over indulgence in it. This would have been an issue throughout the middle ages, when the notion of individual weight was very interesting, to say the least. Although, it might be fair to suggest that Saint Thomas did … ah… not exactly practice what he preached. As, he is reported to have been hugely overweight himself, and suffered from related illnesses, such as dropsy, which is what we might call edema.
The obvious differences of the time would have been between the rich and the poor. For the poor, whose daily lives would have been based on subsistence and who lived under the Sword of Damocles of regular famines, the notion of abundance and excess girth was seen as aspirational. And for the rich, whose lives were torn between the powerful and athletic ideal of the knightly class and the reality of a life of wealthy indolence fueled by the abundance of food. This was also further complicated by the relationship of food and a church that preached gluttony as a sin and a view of women, particularly before the 13th century, as
“A mixture of refinement and tender flesh, of grace and fat.”
Perhaps two of the most obvious stereotypes from this period are those of the fat clergyman and that of the oversized monarch. The fat clergyman is a staple in many stories of the Middle Ages, from the monk of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, of who the author writes,
“His head was bald, and hone like looking-glass;
So did his face, as if he had been greased.
He was fat and personable priest;
His prominent eyeballs never seemed to settle.”
To a character very well known to any fans of the tales of Robin Hood, that of Friar Tuck. Who is jolly, lecherous, overfed, and to quote a Robin Hood fan site,
“seems to love food and ale as much as his God.”
The reality is that these stories were probably statements of objections to the church’s wealth in comparison to the relative poverty of their church members.
That other great stereotype would be that of the oversized monarch, and there are many of them throughout the Medieval period. In 1087, famed victor at the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror, died. During his time on the throne of England, he had become immensely fat, and it was found at this funeral that his body was too large to fit into his sarcophagus. The monks who were carrying out the ceremony tried to force him into the encasement, but unfortunately caused his intestines to burst with an inevitable stench that made everybody flee the cathedral.
And, perhaps the most famous portly monarch of all was Britain’s Henry VIII. During his younger days, Henry was known as a very handsome man, but one with a voracious appetite. During a meal with his illegitimate son in 1526, the menu revealed a meat centric list that included,
“boiled meat . . . beef and mutton . . . 4 green geese . . . 3 roast capons . . . roast veal . . . custard . . . half a lamb or kid . . . 6 rabbits . . . 14 pigeons . . . a wildfowl . . . ‘tairt or bakenmete’ . . . 4 gal. ale. . . 2 pitchers of wine . . . fruits.”
It’s good to see they ended with some healthy fruit.
And, while all of this consumption was kept in check in Henry’s younger days, where he was a keen athlete and a notable jouster, after a serious accident during a jousting tournament, he was almost unable to exercise. His weight climbed, to the point that his waistline, which had once measured 35 inches in 1514, increased to 54 inches by 1541. And his weight had climbed to nearly 400 pounds by the time he died in 1547. Although, given that it is claimed that Henry ordered the execution of 72,000 people during his reign, I would not have been the one to suggest that he cut back on half a lamb every now and again.
It was in the late 15th century that we see the publication of what many claim to be the first diet books in Europe. Or at least books that accommodated the belief of royals like King James I who purportedly said,
“your dyet should bee accommodatte to your affiares, & not your affaires to your diet.”
By the 16th century, these diet books became more prohibitive instead of accommodating of the court. These included Thomas Elyot, who published his book, “The Castel of Helth,” in 1534, and who advised people that the way to be healthy was to reject,
“continual gourmandise, and daily fedinge on sundry meates, at one meale.”
It also included Luigi Cornaro – who lived from 1464 to 1566, dying at a ripe age of 102 years old. Cornaro had spent the early part ofi his life enjoying the rather wild and dissipated life of a young Venetian nobleman. However, by 40, he was plagued with ill health and had been more or less abandoned by his physicians. He decided to do something about it himself and created a restrictive diet, which consisted of 12 ounces of solid food a day – bread, egg yolks, and meat – and 14 ounces of wine. The result was almost immediate, and by the end of the year, he was completely back to full health.
He spent the rest of his life promoting this new approach to health and wrote four books entitled, “Discourses on a Sober and Temperate Life.” All of which were published when he was over 80 years old. He also wrote a book called, “The Art of Living Long,” where he declared,
“I accustomed myself to the habit of never fully satisfying my appetite, either with eating or drinking – always leaving the table well able to take more. In this I acted according to the proverb: ‘Not to satiate one’s self with food is the science of health.’”
Cornaro’s books were hugely successful and received terrific reviews, including one from “The Spectator” from James Addison which announced,
“…and is written with such a spirit of cheerfulness, religion, and good sense, as are the natural concomitants of temperance and sobriety.”
Bet he was fun at parties.
In the 17th century, we see another addition to the library of early diet books. George Cheyne, who lived from 1671 to 1743, was a hugely successful physician, first in his birth country of Scotland, and then in Bath. He was also hugely corpulent, weighing in at 32 stone, which for those of you not familiar with this peculiarly British measurement equates to 448 pounds. And he suffered with chronic and massively painful gout.
This came through his overindulgence in rich food and led to him being on the edge of suffering a number of heart incidents and strokes. Similarly to Cornaro, Chenye undertook an extreme change of diet, to milk and vegetables. Although he still remained in a constant battle with his weight and other ailments, he felt inspired enough to write a number of works including an “Essay on the Gout” in 1720, “Essay of Health and Long Life” in 1724 and “The English Malady” in 1733. His books were a huge success, particularly, “Essay of Health and Long Life,” which was reprinted six times in its first year alone and also translated into different languages including French, Dutch, Latin and Italian.
Interestingly, if one was to look at his recommendations, some of them might still pass muster today. He suggests an abstinence from red meat and most alcohol, except a little wine. A diet of milk, vegetables, poultry and water. Going to bed early – by 10pm – and getting up early – by 6am – and drinking green tea. I do however disagree with his view of chocolate drinks which he said provoked,
“A false and hysterical appetite.”
Perhaps the most famous of these early “diet” books came from a man who had the potentially compromising occupation of an undertaker. The gentleman’s name was Mr. William Banting. His diet proposals became so well known at the time that they became a household name and a verb in their own right, with people declaring that they were “Banting” or being asked by others “do you Bant?” So famous did it become that term “Banting” actually appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary until 1963 where it was described as,
“The treatment of obesity by abstinence from sugar, starch and fat.”
If that sounds familiar, then it should come as no surprise to you than many people consider this the origin of the low carbohydrate diet that became so successful at the tail end of the 20th century, particularly with “The Atkins Diet” that we shall mention later.
Banting was from a line of successful funeral directors whose family owned a Royal warrant. However, once he reached 64, he began to battle with ever increasing weight gain. He was a mere 5 feet and 5 inches tall and weighed over 200 lbs.
He was aware that not only was obesity a threat to his long-term health, but also it made him subject to the sneers of his peers. He considered it his “parasite” saying,
“Of all the parasites that affect humanity I do not know of, nor can I imagine, any more distressing than that of Obesity. . . .”
After various medical issues including a problem with his hearing, he was pointed in the direction of a William Harvey, surgeon of the Royal Dispensary for Diseases of the Ear. Harvey had been researching how fats, sugars and starches impacted the body and suggested to Banting that he change his diet to, as Banting outlines, it,
“For breakfast, I take four or five ounces of beef, muton, kidneys, broiled fish, bacon, or cold meat of any kind except pork; a large cup of tea (without milk or sugar), a little biscuit, or one ounce of dry toast.
For dinner, Five or six ounces of any fish except salmon, any meat except pork, any vegetable except potato, one ounce of dry toast, fruit out of a pudding, any kind of poultry or game, and two or three glasses of good claret, sherry, or Madeira-Champagne, Port and Beer forbidden.
For tea, Two or three ounces of fruit, a rusk or two, and a cup of tea without milk or sugar.
For supper, Three or four ounces of meat or fish, similar to dinner, with a glass or two of claret.
For nightcap, if required, A tumbler of grog
-(gin, whisky, or brandy, without sugar)
-or a glass or two of claret or sherry
This plan leads to an excellent night’s rest, with from six to eight hours’ sound sleep.”
I like that diet.
Following this diet, Banting lost 35 pounds in 38 weeks. And, he was so invigorated by his change in health that he decided to write a small pamphlet or extended letter so he could share this with the wider public.
The letter entitled, “Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public,” was created by Banting as an act of altruism. He self-published the first two editions and gave them away free. He sold the third edition at six pence each. This edition also included mention of and an essay by William Harvey, to give further detail of the diet and, I’m told is still in print to this day.
The book was also published in the United States of America by publishers Mohun, Ebbs and Hough in 1864. And, as in Britain, it became a huge success and its basic principles reincarnated to this day.
Until the end of the 19th century, carrying a small amount of extra weight in the United States was not considered to be too big of a deal. Many people believing it to offer some extra insurance against infectious diseases.
However, a growth in general wealth towards the end of the 19th century gave people more certain access to food. And as technology developed during the same period, and into the beginning of the 20th century, including the development of public transportation, cars, and machinery in the workplace etcetera, the amount of calories that people would burn off in a normal day plummeted.
In the early 1900s, dietary guidance in the United States emphasized food groups and adequate intake of vitamins and minerals. The latter half of the 20th century expanded on this guidance and emphasized how such guidance is delivered – for example, recommending how to choose certain foods as opposed to recommending to avoid certain foods.
From this point forward, from the end of the 19th century to the beginning decades of the 20th century, we see what social historian Harvey Levenstein described in his book, “Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet,” as,
“The Golden Age of food faddism.”
This brought with it both a plethora of diets to support them – Levenstein name checks not just vegetarians but fruitarians, nutarians, lacto-ovarians, as well as all-beef dieters, raw foodists, the no-breakfast group, and the like – where these were usually based on the personal struggles of their founders. And it also brought weight loss aids, such as pills and even an “obesity soap” to remove the fat.
At the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, diet pills, in particular, became increasingly prevalent. These were sometimes called “Fat Reducers.” Some were based on a thyroid extract that was thought to increase metabolism. However, they also had some alarming side effects that included high blood pressure, chest pains, abnormal heart beats, and, in some cases, these even led to the death of those who were taking them.
Another was based on a drug called “2,4 Dinitrophenol.” This was developed to burn fat. It too had many related side effects including rapid hyperthermia, because of the rapid heat production it engendered, and creating cataracts in those who took it. So adverse were the reactions that the government banned it in 1938. Although, rather scarily, it is still allowed on the market today in non-regulated versions – where it is used primarily by those in the bodybuilding community – despite the fact that, in 2011, the Food Standards Agency declared that it was quote, “not fit for human consumption.” End quote.
Just as alarming were another style of diet aid that involved swallowing a tapeworm. Yep, I said tapeworm. It comes in a pill with a tapeworm egg.
The diets, too, were often, shall we say, eccentric?
1913 saw the publication of a book entitled, “Fletcherism: What It Is.” It took its name from the founder of the diet, a British industrialist named Horace Fletcher. He developed a diet system that involved chewing food 32 times, to the point of liquification, before swallowing it. This had a double effect. One was on the diet, because he believed that you would absorb more nutrients from the food and consequently eat less. The other was economic because if you ate less, you would need to buy less food. The bottom line, less fat on your body and more money in your pocket. All sounds like a bit too much work for me.
In 1918, one of the first books that made reference to diet in terms of calories consumed and expended was published. It was entitled, “Diet and Health: With Key to the Calories,” and came from the hand of a Los Angeles based physician named Lulu Hunt Peters. Like so many other founders of diets, she had a constant battle with her own weight. Once tipping the scales at 100 kilograms or 220 pounds, and using the diet she shared in her book she began to lose weight by counting calories. As she said,
“you are going to eat calories of food. Instead of saying one slice of bread, or a piece of pie you will say 100 calories of bread, 350 calories of pie.”
A calorie being the number of energy in a food that we consume. The basic notion being that if we eat and drink more calories than we expend, we store the extra energy as fat and consequently put on weight. For the record, the recommended intake of calories in the United States is currently between 1600 and 2400 for a woman and between 2000 and 3000 for a man.
Peter’s book was a huge success, which received a second printing in 1919 and, in 1922 alone, a further nine printings.
Since then, of course, there have been hundreds, perhaps thousands, of diets that have been promulgated to those who are looking to control their weight. I, I couldn’t possibly list them all, but I am sure you have heard of many of them. The Keto diet, The South Beach Diet, Weight Watchers, The Zone Diet, The Atkins Diet, The Paleo Diet, The Mediterranean Diet. I could go on and on and on. But, I am sure that would not be of too much interest to too many people.
That being said, diets still remain incredibly popular. An article in “The Independent,” newspaper in the U.K claims that the average person will try around 126 diets during their lifetime. The majority of which will be the “quick fix” type, and unfortunately, they will usually abandon those diets after six days.
This loss of staying power does not seem to have impacted the whole industry that has been built up around diet and weight loss. As I mentioned at the beginning of the episode, in 2019, the industry in the United States alone was calculated at $72 billion. This includes diets, meal replacements, anti-obesity drugs, and weight loss related bariatric surgeries.
And, before we leave you, I think it is also worth touching for a moment on one of the other increasingly prevalent methods of weight loss management, that of bariatric surgery. This is a collective term for a range of weight loss surgeries that includes gastric bypass. One Dr. A.J. Kremen is believed to have carried out the first of these surgeries in 1954. Although, I am told that it came along with some pretty serious side effects such as severe diarrhea, so was not yet something for mainstream adoption.
It was not until 1966, when a Dr. Mason, a surgeon from the University of Iowa carried out the first gastric bypass, and by the mid 1990s the first less invasive “laparoscopic” gastric bypasses arrived, causing as Science Direct say,
“The exponential growth of bariatric and metabolic surgery had definitely started.”
In fact, in 2018, over 252,000 bariatric surgeries were performed in the United States alone.
Which seems like a good place to wrap up this episode.
I know that, like me, so many of you food lovers out there are keen to keep an eye on your weight. So, I, I hope that this episode about the history of diets and weight loss was one that you found interesting, and are reassured that if you do want to lose weight, you’re not the only one. Not just today, but throughout history.
Perhaps best to leave you with an excellent quote from food writer Michael Pollan and his guide to eating well,
“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
Oh, and if any one ever comes up to you and asks, “are you Banting?” you’ll now know exactly what they mean.
See you next time folks.
Do make sure to check out the website associated with this podcast at www dot Eat My Globe dot com where we will be posting the transcripts from each episode, along with all the references and resources we used putting the episodes together, in case you want to delve deeper into each subject. There is also a contact button, so please do let us know if there are any subjects that you would like us to cover.
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Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, we’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”
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and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History. We would especially like to thank Professor Carla Pestana, the Department Chair of the Department of History and Doctor Tawny Paul, Public History Initiative Director, for their notes on this episode. Also, a huge thank you to Sybil Villanueva for her help with the research and the preparations of the transcripts for this episode, which can be found on the website.
Published Date: May 3, 2021
Updated: May 6, 2021
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.