When Did Dieting Begin?

By Ali Luke
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We often think of diets as a very modern invention – gaining popularity in the 1980s and 1990s – but the idea of dieting has been around for a long time.

The Word “Diet”

The word “diet” was used to mean “Prescribed course of food, restricted in kind or limited in quantity, esp. for medical or penal reasons; regimen” as early as the 14th century (according to the Oxford English Dictionary). From the quotations cited by the OED, it’s clear that “diet” was often used to refer to a regime in prisons – as in “bread and water diet”. It’s interesting that the link between “dieting” and “deprivation” or “punishment” is still present in many people’s minds today!

Dieting Throughout History

Diets as we now know them – weight loss regimes – only really became common from the 19th century onwards. Much earlier, during Biblical times, or in early Greece, dieting usually meant something akin to fasting – restrictions on food intake for religious or moral, rather than health or medical, reasons.

For most of history, people’s main difficult with food has been getting enough of it – not eating it to excess. Being overweight was often restricted to the upper classes, including royalty. Apparently, William the Conqueror attempted a rather misguided form of diet when he wanted to lose weight to get back to his peak riding condition; he tried drinking wine instead of eating. (Does this sound anything like what the media has dubbed “drunkorexia” today?)

Modern Dieting Begins

Historians trace the origins of a modern conception of dieting to two 19th century figures: Rev. Sylvester Graham (1795-1851), a New Jersey preacher, and William Banting (1797 – 1878), a London undertaker.

You may never have heard of Rev. Graham, but chances are that you’ll be familiar with his dieting invention: the Graham cracker. Perhaps the first diet food, the Graham cracker was made from flour that was unsifted and didn’t have additives (refined white bread was becoming popular with the middle-classes during the 19th century, who could afford to buy it). Graham saw white bread as nutritionally poor, and he and his followers, the Grahamites, eschewed it – again, we can see the roots of modern diet advice back in the 19th century.

Graham believed in a strict vegetarian and teetotal diet, and saw diet primarily as a means to control sexual urges.

William Banting, by contrast, was interested in diet for the same reason as most dieters today are: he wanted to lose weight. In 1863, he wrote a pamphlet, Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public. His diet plan, based on advice given to him by a doctor, featured:

  • Four meals a day, consisting of protein, greens, fruits, and dry wine.
  • Avoiding starch and sugars.
  • Milk, butter and meat were all permitted.

This could be the forerunner of the modern Atkins diet plan.

Banting’s success story inspired others to follow his example, in perhaps the first popular diet in history. The History of Dieting explains that:

[Banting’s] obesity had been cured but the British Medical Association immediately attacked this approach, and because Banting was not a scientist, claimed that it had no scientific value and would not work for others. The public however were impressed, and people all over the English speaking world read of his plan and lost weight themselves, not caring about the doubters.

Calories Start To Count

One of the other staples of modern dieting, counting calories, began in the early 20th century. A Californian doctor, Lulu Hunt Peters introduced calories as a mainstream concept (they had formerly been used by scientists) in her book Diet and Health, with the Key to the Calories. Like Banting, her interest in dieting appears to have been sparked by her own need to lose weight.

CalorieLab notes that “calories were such a new concept that Dr. Lulu had to explain to readers how to pronounce the word itself.”

Several aspects of Dr Peters’s book that might be familiar to fans of modern dieting books:

  • She aimed the book at married women.
  • Her list of calories was of food portions that each consisted of 100 calories – almost an early POINTS system, or a forerunner to 100-calorie snack packs?
  • She recommended that 60-65% of food intake consisted of carbohydrates (this is what modern government nutritional advice recommends).
  • The book included a formula for the reader to determine her ideal weight.
  • She wrote in a chatty, popular style rather than a scientific one.
  • She offered advice on dealing with weight-loss obstacles, like jealous husbands and friends.
  • She stated that “food, and food only, causes fat”, saying that diet pills should only be used under medical supervision.

What fascinates me most about these early diets is how we can see the roots of modern advice very clearly. Although William the Conqueror’s wine diet is unlikely to find any modern backers, going for wholegrain rather than refined bread, cutting down on carbs, and counting calories are all features of modern diet plans.

17 Comments

  1. Courtney

    I just wanted to say that this blog post was really helpful for me! I am writing a persuasive paper on low-carbohydrate dieting and in all of my research hadn’t come across William Banting but after reading your blog and doing some more research about him, it has proven to be a big asset! So I just wanted to say thanks 🙂

    Reply
  2. Joe

    My most difficult problem to overcome has always been motivation. It’s easy to start dieting but to keep on it is another issue all together.

    Reply
  3. Judith B

    Good post, Ali. When I lived in the UK years ago I had a very elderly neighbour who used the term “banting” the way we would say “dieting”. I had heard about Banting so it was really interesting to read his “Letter on corpilence.” Thanks for the link.

    Reply
  4. Dieting Debutant

    I never knew that dieting originated that far back. It is interesting because we tend to think that there has been a spark of awareness about obesity just recently but they were dealing with dieting centuries ago.

    Reply
  5. medical information

    Thanks for sharing this post.. Very informative.. 🙂 Nice reference for my research.. 🙂

    Reply
  6. Spectra

    Cool post! I knew a little bit about Rev. Graham (mostly that the original Graham crackers were disgusting and nothing like the Keebler variety we have today) but the rest of that info was really interesting. I’d be curious to read that “Diet and Health with the Key to Calories” book. Obsolete literature is kinda fun to read.

    I had been under the impression that the modern “dieting” lifestyle sort of launched around the turn of the 20th century. Once calories were discovered and the number of calories in various foods was determined, people became obsessed. But it seems like a lot of people early on tried various methods of trying to lose some weight, either successfully or unsuccessfully.

    Reply
  7. Liz

    I think it was actually a collection of Miss Marple short stories called The Thirteen Problems, and the particular mystery with banting in it was “The Tuesday Night Club.”

    Reply
  8. Katie

    Which book was that one?

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  9. katec

    I would have thought dieting would have been around a lot longer, I suppose it makes sense with when people’s lifestyles became more lazy. I wonder how many children do regular exercise in comparison to the children of the 80s.

    Reply
  10. Liz

    I first learned about “banting” in an Agatha Christie mystery. The diet was an Important Clue! I am such a little old lady ;).

    Reply
  11. e.

    Ol’ Will was the first drunkorexic! The celebutards are just following historical precedent.

    Reply
  12. Zorbs

    I found a copy of Diet and Health, with the Key to the Calories in my parent’s basement. It is a hoot and hilarious to read. The diet advice is quite horrendous, but the book has cute illustrations done by the author’s nephew.

    Reply
  13. Cari

    “Prescribed course of food, restricted in kind or limited in quantity, esp. for medical or penal reasons; regimen” ….”

    Well let’s face it, going on diet does seem to have a few things in common with ‘prison.’ First of all – it can quite easily feel like some kind of a sentence – we all look forward to being over. And reaching your ‘goal’ weight can become your gaol (jail) weight when you become even more obsessed about not regaining what you’ve just lost.

    And as for restricting sexual urges…. hey, I’m sure many prisoners have to find a way to do that in jail too!

    Reply
  14. behaviorexpert

    Great points Alli. Lets not for get that dieting as we know it today(most forms) is a pattern of disordered eating, the lessor known cousin of eating disorders.

    Both are fairly new concepts (~20 yrs) and binge eating disorder is the youngest of them all.

    I find it useful to group dieting into 3 dangerous forms to help individuals lose weight without risking disordered and emotional eating patterns.

    Reply
  15. Heather

    Great post!

    Reply
  16. Kym

    I’ve heard of Rev. Graham’s contribution to dieting, but the other events were unknown to me. Thanks for that! 🙂

    Reply
  17. cereal

    The more things change, the more they stay the same.

    I thin William the Conqueror’s diet would have definitely caught on nowadays. He would be a celebrity ,and people will follow celebrities dieting advice no matter how crazy it sounds.

    Reply