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.