However new a dieting idea may sound, chances are someone has thought of it before.
That, at least, is the conclusion one can draw from "Never Satisfied: A Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies and Fat," a new book by Hillel Schwartz (Free Press, $19.95).
Some of the ideas promoted by the popular publications in 150 years of our dietary past, according to Schwartz, have included: A natural and wholesome eating regimen leads to a tempered and temperate life. The first American weight watchers were followers of the Rev. Sylvester Graham, a fiery lecturer and writer in the 1830s, who believed that gluttony led to indigestion, illness, sexual excess, social disruption and ultimately civic disorder. The diet Graham advocated consisted of whole grains, vegetables and water and omitted beef, pork and ale. Follow a diet high in protein and low in starchy and sugary foods. William Banting, a fashionable London undertaker who made the Duke of Wellington's coffin, had "an inexpressible dread" of growing fat. Banting advocated a diet of lean meats, green vegetables and dry toast in his popular diet book, "Letter on Corpulence." After his death in 1878, "banting" became the most common method of dieting to lose weight advocated by American physicians. Obesity is a disease. "An excess of flesh is to be looked upon as one of the most objectionable forms of disease, and must be treated as such," wrote Sarah Tyson Rorer, a popular cookbook author in the 1890s. (The National Institutes of Health, at a 1985 conference, made much the same declaration, omitting the value judgment.) Count your calories. The first weight-reducing diets geared to calorie counting appeared before World War I, and shortly thereafter, Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters, wrote "Diet and Health, With Key to the Calories," the first such book to become a best-seller. Published in 1918, it sold 800,000 hardback copies and remained in print for 20 years. Peters' program began with a fast ("to show you are master of your body"), then continued with a 1,200-calorie-a day diet and a lifelong maintenance program. In 1924, Peters also wrote the first calorie-counting book for obese children: "Diet for Children (and Adults) and the Kalorie Kids."
Dr. William Engel, responsible for the lamb chop and pineapple diet of the 1920s, choreographed calories to dance steps in 1939. (The rumba: 8.85 calories/pound/body weight/hour; the Big Apple: 10.75; the polka: 16.76; the mazurka: 24.03.) Plastic surgery is a cure for obesity. The first abdominal lipectomy was reported in 1889 by Howard Kelly, a gynecologist at Johns Hopkins University, who sliced layers of fat from the abdomens of obese men and women. Over the next 30 years, there were reports of similar operations abroad, so that by 1920, the idea of plastic surgery was accepted with equanimity by Drs. William S. Sadler and Lena Kellogg in their popular book, "How to Reduce and How to Gain." The glitter approach to weight loss quickly gains popularity among stargazers. "Fat comes out through the pores like mashed potatoes through a colander," said Sylvia of Hollywood, masseuse to the stars in the 1920s, who also dispensed diet advice in Photoplay magazine. Sylvia promoted the "Hollywood 18-Day Diet," which consisted of 585 calories a day of grapefruit, oranges, Melba toast, green vegetables and hard-boiled eggs. Gimmicks and rapid weight-loss plans are the way to lose weight. In 1950, Elmer Wheeler's "Fat Boy's Book: How Elmer Lost 40 Pounds in 80 Days" allotted readers 4,500 calories to spread how and when they wished over the course of three days. Wheeler apparently couldn't stick to his 72-hour plan; in 1952, he was on tour with his second diet book, "Fat Boy's Downfall and How Elmer Learned to Keep It Off." Reducing cholesterol and saturated fats in the diet may reduce the risk of heart disease. Cholesterol in the bloodstream was originally isolated in 1823; by 1880 physicians had been advised to watch blood cholesterol levels in the obese, since it appeared to be the culprit in their circulatory problems. Although there was little concrete evidence throughout the 1950s that reducing cholesterol in the diet would significantly reduce the risk of heart disease, dieters became attentive to fats during the Depression, and by the late 1940s weight reducing usually involved some attempt to change the character of fats in the diet. In the early 1950s, commercial publishers began printing diet cookbooks, with titles such as E. Virginia Dobbin's "The Low Fat, Low Cholesterol Diet." Then in 1963, Elmer Wheeler came out with his third diet book, "The Fat Boy Goes Polyunsaturated." ::
Today, the themes may be changing. Schwartz points out that people are beginning to rebel against the Thin Society. Concludes Schwartz: At present, the Fat Society is only a sliver of what it might be, but "Inside every diet doctor," writes Richard Smith in "The Bronx Diet," "is a pastry chef screaming to get out."