Vital Information: The History Of Diets And Dieting
Last time, we started talking about the history of diets and dieting. I pointed out that although the word diet actually refers to those things that are customarily eaten, these days we usually mean an attempt to lose weight.
Since the idea of dieting began, there have been many hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of diet plans and diet theories. But the need to lose weight wasn’t a general problem in olden times. Food was scarce, and people had to work constantly to get enough of it. For the most part, in those days only the wealthy or powerful could become fat.
Gradually, food became more widely and generally available, and as soon as that happened, people started concerning themselves with what was eaten and for what reasons. Thus arose food-related behavior, such as ceremonial foods, foods allowed only to royalty, foods considered to be fit only for peasants, foods fed to religious leaders or sacrificed to the gods, and other ritual connections to foods. Eventually, when there was enough food available to the average person such that one could eat to excess, eating too much began to be seen as gluttony, and gluttony, as a sin.
Now, let’s stand back and look at this. For thousands of years, mankind struggled to get enough to eat, and just as soon as there was food enough to go around, some people started to get fat. We have to remember that our bodies are essentially the same as those of our ancient ancestors. Then, as now, food eaten in excess of that needed for immediate energy, growth, or tissue repair was stored for use later. Those of our ancestors whose bodies were most efficient at storing the excess tended to live the longest and reproduce most successfully. When there was a lot of food most of the time, the bodies of our more recent ancestors were ‘delighted’ to be able to store up even more. After all, hard times might come again, any day.
Consequently, we can see that the ability to store food as fat has been available to us all along, but the opportunity to store increasing amounts has only been a common fact of life for the past couple of hundred years. Most early ideas about diet and dieting, therefore, originated in the 1800s.
Food Choices And Gluttony
The first person to publicly combine ideas of religious fervor, food choices, and health appears to be an American minister by the name of Sylvester Graham. In the early 1830s, Graham began to preach that all manner of immorality was related to the sin of gluttony, and that the answer to good health, both morally and spiritually, was to follow a bland, vegetarian diet. In Graham’s view, gluttony led to indigestion, which then led to a state of what he called ‘overstimulation’. This, he said, eventually led to illness.
Graham preached temperance, and a life without coffee, tea, or other stimulants. He stressed a diet high in coarse-ground whole-wheat flour which he baked into flatbread, referred to as Graham Crackers. Graham objected to the bread produced by city bakers because they used refined flour.
Graham’s followers were known as Grahamites, while he, himself, came to be known as ‘Dr. Sawdust’. Although his devotees claimed they gained strength and health from following Graham’s plan, they were described by others at the time as looking pale and sickly.
Obesity In The General Population
The relationship of foods to health was not well understood in the 19th century or before. (Some would question whether or not it is well understood even today.) People did not much believe that it mattered what you ate. Diets typically included a lot of bread, potatoes, pastry, and root vegetables such as turnips. People were starting to eat more and more sugar in puddings and cakes, and they ate only as much milk and meat as they could afford. Meat was typically spread thin in stews, flour-thickened soups, or meat pies. Beer, wine, and other distilled beverages were considered part of the daily fare. Obesity, which had been largely unknown, began to be a more common complaint in the late 1700s and the early 1800s.
Gathering The Important Information
Before the late 1800s, no one understood why some people got fat and others didn’t, except that it might relate to sin or serious disease. No one knew what to do about it, or what might help. Consider that the first artificial sweetener, Saccharin, wasn’t invented until 1879.
In the 1890s, chemist Wilbur Atwater began to study how foods were made up of nutritional components, specifically proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. He developed the idea of measuring the heat value of each of the groups by burning the nutritional components and measuring the amount of heat they gave off. Each amount of heat that raised the temperature of one gram of water by one degree centigrade he called a calorie. But no one was sure what to do with the idea.
The Beginning Of Diet Aids
By the early 1890s, doctors who had previously thought obesity was incurable began to think of it as a disease caused by a lack of thyroid hormone. Animal-based thyroid compounds started to be prescribed for weight loss in 1894. And, since something could be given to treat obesity, people thought other things might also work. In 1896 the first advertisements for products said to promote weight loss appeared. Common ingredients in these products were laxatives, purgatives, arsenic, strychnine, washing soda, and Epsom salts.
But, something else happened in the middle of the 1800s which is of major concern to all of us. We’ll talk about that next time. Don’t miss it.