Last time we continued our discussion of the history of diets and dieting by talking about the first low calorie diet plan, and about the beginnings of counting calories. We also looked at diets that were based on ‘magic pairs’ and on special food combinations said to promote weight loss because of some supposedly long-forgotten-but-now-rediscovered chemical connection between the two foods. These connections were said to somehow fool the body into absorbing less nutrients than the individual foods, eaten separately, would provide. (Check out parts one, two, three, four, and five.)
In addition to those ideas (which do not work, by the way), there was one notable version of the food combination diet that suggested the important factor was the category of foods eaten. Whereas former incarnations of food combination ideas stressed revealing the so-called ‘secrets’ of food combinations, this other plan claimed to be telling the public the actual truth about human physiology, the truth about what our bodies really want and need.
The “Truth” About Human Physiology – ?
In the 1970s Harvey and Marilyn Diamond promoted their book Fit for Life which proposed that our bodies have scientific needs for certain categories of foods at certain hours of the day. Their plan included recommendations for eating only fruit before noon, and never eating protein at the same time as carbohydrates during the remaining hours of the day. Although they claimed that science supports this viewpoint, they offered no science to show that the body could tell morning from afternoon, or that the body cannot digest both proteins and carbohydrates at the same time.
Even a cursory reading of the book showed it to have glaring faults. For one thing, many naturally occurring foods have both carbohydrates and proteins in their make-up; rice, beans, and grains are prime examples. Additionally, the book was quite dogmatic (and quite wrong) on the differences between some recommended morning fruits and some recommended protein-free afternoon vegetables. For example, the Diamonds included tomatoes as one of the food items they called vegetables. But tomatoes are actually fruit. By their own advice, the authors should have included tomatoes and tomato juice as breakfast foods, yet these things were rejected for before-noon eating, and relegated to later in the day.
But, faults not withstanding, the paperback edition of the book claimed to be “Americas All-Time #1 Health and Diet Book,” and asserted that there were “over 3 million copies in print.”
Treating Obesity With Less
Obesity has been of concern for a long time, but, as we have previously discussed, most doctors before (and even during) the 19th century had little idea concerning its cause. As early as 1829, the Surgeon Extraordinary to the Prince Regent, Dr. William Wadd, decided that he had the simple answer. Obesity, he said, was caused by “an overindulgence at the table.” Wadd also gave as his first principle of treatment, the “taking of food that has little nutrition in it.” However, just exactly what that might be was not entirely clear at the time. In 1943, some 115 years later, one Marion White came up with an idea of how to do it.
Ms. White wrote a book called Diet Without Despair in which she advised her readers to use mineral oil in their foods instead of olive oil. This was a bizarre idea since it was clear from the outset that it would have, at minimum, uncomfortable results.
Mineral oil cannot be digested by the human body, but it doesn’t pass through the digestive system harmlessly. It causes intestinal gas, bloating, diarrhea, and other not-so-pleasant gastrointestinal disturbances. Because of its tendency to cause diarrhea, it has been used (unwisely) as a laxative.
If you have been a reader of these pages for some time, you will recall that when we were talking about fats and oils, I pointed out that the word oil refers to a fat that is liquid at room temperature. The word oil does not refer to something that is necessarily a food. Dieting Without Despair did not become a household bible. (to find those articles, click here: Vital Information)
Also along the line of providing food that isn’t food was the birth of the fake fat industry. This began in 1955 when a man named O. A. Batista spun some rayon in a blender and found that it looked and felt like fat. He marketed this substance as Avicel, but it didn’t taste anything like fat, and was a total commercial flop. Some 40 years later, in the 1990s, another fake fat was introduced. Called Olestra and sold under the trade name Olean, it was (and possibly still is) used in such things as potato chips. Olestra is a fat molecule that is too big to be digested, but clearly, no one learned from the lessons taught by mineral oil, that indigestible fats cause major intestinal discomfort. Olestra/Olean produces diarrhea and other gastrointestinal symptoms, but since the manufacturers had a great interest in selling the product, they simply reported that “most people” have had no problems with it.
Treating Obesity With Still Less, And Finally With Nothing
Another odd investigation into weight loss by the “taking of food that has little nutrition in it” was done by the US Army during World War II. In a study that was disturbingly too similar to some of the so-called experiments done by the Nazis in concentration camps in Europe, the Army investigators studied the effects of semi-starvation diets, using military conscientious objectors as subjects. Most of the participants were healthy and vigorous young men when the study began, but by the time it was over, most of them had become quite ill.
The logical extension of the trend to advise less and less food went beyond semi-starvation to a No Food At All plan. In the 1970s, this idea was promoted by Dr. Robert Linn in his The Last Chance Diet. Linn promoted a fast; the dieter ate nothing at all. But, several times a day the fast was broken by a small drink of the concoction that Linn had invented called Prolinn. Prolinn, a liquid protein that provided less than 400 calories a day, consisted of ground-up and crushed animal horns, hooves, hides, tendons, bones, and other slaughterhouse byproducts that were treated with artificial flavors, colors, and enzymes to break them down.
Warnings were issued about the dangers of staying on this program for a prolonged time, since the drink did not provide enough nutrients, and it was thought to endanger the kidneys. This is interesting since there is always talk about how high protein diets endanger the kidneys. But the Last Chance diet was not high protein; it was merely only protein. It could just as easily been called a low protein diet. It is doubtful that the drink itself was actually dangerous. What was dangerous was the prolonged fast. Nevertheless, an estimated two to four million people tried the diet. Some lost weight. Fifty-eight people were reported to have died from heart attacks while on the plan.
Next time we’ll look at food substitutes as a weight loss idea, as we continue our study of the history of diets and dieting. Join me then.