History Of Diets Part 1
With this article, I’m starting a series of columns that look at the history of diets and dieting – the plans and the personalities behind the plans. We are all so used to the idea of diets, that it is hard to believe there was ever a time when the “D word” wasn’t on everyone’s lips from morning to night.
The word ‘diet’ actually means “those things that are customarily eaten,” but when we speak of diets nowadays, we are usually referring to a food regime designed to change something. There are diets for those who wish to avoid certain chemicals in foods, such as salt-free diet or a lactose-free diets. There are diets to increase the consumption of certain nutrients, such as a high-potassium diet. There are even diets designed to encourage weight gain – an amazing thought, in itself.
But for the most part, when the word ‘diet’ is used, it is in relation to losing weight. And weight loss diets are Big Box Office! Nearly ten years ago, in 1993, Americans were spending some 30 billion dollars on books, video tapes, nutritional aides, reducing salons, and other diet-related goods and services. Today, we spend much, much more.
We’ll be talking about the various diet plans and about some of the weight loss devices as we go along. But where did it all begin? Of that, we can’t be certain, but we can start with some stories of attempts at dieting from years gone by.
History Of Diets: How About A Liquid Diet?
It is said that in the year 1087, William the Conqueror (who became King of England after his success at the Battle of Hastings) found he could no longer ride his horse because he was too fat. He reportedly refused to get out of bed, and began drinking alcohol instead of eating food in an attempt to lose weight. If this story is true, it may be the first recorded instance of someone changing food intake in order to reduce their bulk.
Although it is apparently true that he had grown quite fat by the end of his life, we have no record of what success King William’s alcoholic ‘liquid diet’ might have had. King William died that same year, but since he died from injuries he suffered when his horse fell, we may assume his regime was at least partially successful because he was on his horse once again.
In the close to 915 years since King William’s death, there have been many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of diet plans and diet theories. But it wasn’t until nearly-current times that anyone has had any real understanding the relationships between eating and gaining or losing weight. Everyone knew that food played some part in the process because if people had no access to food at all, they wasted away. But even though that part would seem obvious enough, many who had no food, had no water either, and they would die from lack of water long before they would die from lack of food. This confused the observations. Another fact that muddied the waters was that some people managed to live on the same amount of food that others were unable to survive on.
History Of Diets: Nutrition Is A Modern Concept
Until modern times, it was not known that certain foods were required for life. It was generally thought that all foods were the same, and so long as people ate something, they would be all right. People ate what they could get, what they could afford, what they liked, or what they could grow, raise, or catch. And, for the most part, unless they were amongst the well-to-do classes, they ate pretty much the same thing all the time. (As late as 1965, I personally knew a man who ate virtually the exact same thing every single day – from choice, not necessity. He was of the quite-firm opinion that the human body would take whatever food it received and convert it into whatever was needed.)
Prior to the 18th century, foods were not refined in any way. Since most naturally-occurring foods have at least a little protein and little fat, even when people ate a very limited diet, they managed to scrape by. Prisoners fed ‘only bread and water’ were occasionally given something else, and the bread provided just barely enough whole-grain protein to sustain life, at least for some of the poor fellows. There was precious little or no food science at all.
History Of Diets: The First Nutritional Link
Once people were able to build boats that would withstand voyages on the ocean, sailors started getting (and dying from) a mysterious disease called scurvy, which had not been known before. But, it was not at all clear to anyone that it was a lack of something in the food the sailors ate (a lack of Vitamin C) that caused the problem. But, even when people of the time could see that certain seafaring groups didn’t seem to be getting the disease (primarily groups who ate sauerkraut), they didn’t make the connection for a very long time.
To be fair, the connection was not all that easy to make. After all, even though many of the sailors came down with scurvy, not all did, and not all contracted scurvy at the same time. Furthermore, not all the sailors who did get the disease died from it.
History Of Diets: Knowledge, Little By Little
Knowledge is slowly acquired, and with it come strange, often ‘crack-pot’ ideas. Unfortunately, it is not always easy to tell one from the other. (Consider that there are many who truly consider the low carbohydrate approach to be, at best, less than thrilling.) Some of the diet ideas we will be talking about over the next few articles will seem very odd, perhaps resembling nothing more than ‘snake oil.’ But it is instructive to look at them, and we will assume that the originator of each plan had the best motives, if we can. The best way to judge where we are now, is to look at where we’ve been.
I know you’ll find these articles interesting. Please join me next time.