Calories and Corsets: why dieting never went out style

From vomiting and food abstention to mastication and ‘reducing salons’, a new book shows that weight-loss regimes have a long, weird and unhealthy history.

Rob Lyons

Topics Books

Given the many scare stories about obesity in recent years, it would be easy to conclude that piling on the pounds is some kind of contemporary novelty. But, as Louise Foxcroft points out in Calories and Corsets, ‘Fat people are nothing new’. And for as long as there have been fat people, it seems, there has been advice about how to lose weight, ranging from the sensible through the wacky to the downright dangerous.

The trouble is, as Foxcroft notes, diets are generally a failure. She quotes research from the American Psychological Association which found that two thirds of people were actually fatter two years after starting a diet than they were before they began. The authors concluded that diets ‘do not lead to sustained weight loss or health benefits for the majority of people’.

Yet despite this, it is seen as perfectly reasonable to moralise about the weakness of fat people and criticise their inability to lose weight. ‘Fat is a synonym for the worthless, the slow, the inert, the unattractive, the weak, the poor and the stupid’, Foxcroft writes. ‘We have to scrutinise the way in which our culture is exploiting fat at the same time as it castigates it’, she adds. Moreover, this aversion to fat has been built far more on ‘aesthetic distaste’ than on concerns about health, though the desire to lose weight has always been driven by concerns related to both vanity and longevity.

A historical sense of perspective is always invaluable in discussions like this one. Foxcroft starts right back with the ancient Greeks, who knew that ‘those who are uncommonly fat… die more quickly than the lean’, even if they also recognised that ‘in all maladies, those who are fat about the belly do best; it is bad to be thin and wasted there’. (The failure to recognise this latter point today is a reminder that progress should never be taken for granted.)

Hippocrates, the father of medicine, recognised through observation that people’s constitutions were different and so were foods. Over 2,000 years ago, he was prescribing eating less and exercising more as a way to lose weight. He was also, however, prescribing vomiting as a weight-loss measure. If this seems extreme, writes Foxcroft, it was only following the fashions of the day in which vomiting was ‘popular and almost an art form’. She quotes Hippocrates when he writes that ‘fat individuals should vomit in the middle of the day, after a running or marching exercise and before taking any food’. He even offers the correct recipe for a suitable emetic.

A highly influential Renaissance writer was the Venetian merchant Luigi Cornaro. His book, The Art of Living Long, is still in print. For Cornaro, the first rule is to regain self-control, something he lacked in the earlier part of his life when he engaged in ‘dissipated, gluttonous overindulgence’. Moderation is key. For starters, that meant not indulging in food that actually tasted of anything, and it certainly meant eating frugally. Cornaro was, therefore, a forerunner of today’s dietary advisers.

Cornaro’s influence continued into the nineteenth century, as Foxcroft notes. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who piled on the pounds in later life, was not a fan of Cornaro, however. Cornaro’s slim frame was the result of a slow metabolism, Nietzsche wrote, not simply eating less. ‘But whoever has a rapid metabolism not only does well to eat properly, but needs to. A scholar in our time, with his rapid consumption of nervous energy, would simply destroy himself on Cornaro’s diet. Crede experto – believe me, I’ve tried.’

Nietzche wasn’t the only famous writer to struggle with his weight. Samuel Johnson got fatter and fatter as he got older. Lord Byron, on the other hand, became disgusted with himself and spent his time starving and bingeing, and was accused of having an unhealthy influence on Romantic youth, rather like the celebrities of today. An American physician complained that young women were starving themselves rather than ‘incurring the horror of disciples of Lord Byron’.

Constantly starving oneself is, one imagines, probably very effective in keeping weight down, even if it seems a good route to an early grave and a rather miserable existence. But some dietary advice has been downright bizarre. Take the ‘the Great Masticator’, Horace Fletcher, a nineteenth-century American diet guru and entrepreneur. ‘Fletcherism’ involved chewing food until it became liquid – at least 100 times for each mouthful, but as many as 700 times for a shallot, for example. The upshot may have been simply to make mealtimes so utterly laborious and time-consuming that his followers were simply too tired and bored to eat much.

From the late nineteenth century onwards, rising wealth also meant a proliferation of fad diets. If it wasn’t dieting, then the answer to obesity would be weird and wonderful exercise regimes, life-threateningly restrictive garments or ‘reducing salons’ where machines would endeavour to squeeze the weight out of you.

At least such fads might only last as long as the patience of the poor sucker who had put his or her faith in them. Far worse were the variety of harmful chemicals being marketed as weight-loss remedies. Brand names, writes Foxcroft, ‘hid basic ingredients: arsenic, which speeds up the system, was an ingredient in some slimming drugs, often mixed with strychnine, caffeine and phytolacca or pokeberry (a common emetic and purgative)’. Other concoctions were less harmful, but with no more scientific basis.

So what, if anything, does help us lose weight? Foxcroft does express some sympathy for the idea that carbohydrates are a problem. The apparently faddy idea of cutting out carbohydrates has almost as long a history as the eat-less-move-more school of thought. In 1825, the French author of The Physiology of Taste, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, was advising his readers to avoid ‘starches, sugars and farinaceous foods’. William Banting had great popular success in the 1860s with his pamphlet, A Letter on Corpulence, to the extent that ‘banting’ and ‘to bant’ were the original verbs for dieting.

Foxcroft notes how the British diet-book author and physician, Richard Mackarness – whose book Eat Fat and Grow Slim ran to six editions – explained the amazing nature of the Banting diet: eating as much as he liked while avoiding certain foods, Banting was consuming 2,800 calories per day and still losing weight. If the eat-less model of dieting were correct, this should have been impossible. Mackarness, who promoted a ‘Stone Age’ diet, was blunt in his explanation of obesity: ‘A DEFECTIVE CAPACITY FOR DEALING WITH CARBOHYDRATES.’ While Foxcroft thinks there is something in this theory, she also seems sold on the idea of ‘sensible’ eating habits, as propounded by the likes of Ancel Keys – the American doctor who popularised the idea that cholesterol is deadly – and his idea of a ‘Mediterranean diet’. The trouble is that it was Keys and his obsession with dietary fat that helped to turn low-carb diets from common sense into dangerous fads in the eyes of the medical profession.

Calories and Corsets concludes with the idea of ‘industrial dieting’. As long as there are fat people who want to be thin, there will be companies willing to sell them services, eating plans, ready meals and snack bars, potions and gadgets that it is claimed will provide a quick and easy means to lose that spare tyre. The result is rarely sustained weight loss, however, and Foxcroft rails against this weight-loss industry.

Foxcroft is right to argue that this obsession with weight is a recipe for misery. But that obsession does not simply come from corporations intent on making a fast buck or charlatans preying on the desperate, though both share some guilt. Rather, alongside the age-old moralisation against the corpulent, we now have a medical establishment desperate to tell us how to live, too. There is also the real, lived experience of those who would like to exercise some control over their bodies, which expand despite their best efforts to prevent it. At a time when exercising control over anything in our lives seems harder than ever, there is a tendency to focus on our bodies as objects to shape, to exercise our will upon.

A major problem is that the eat-less-move-more mantra – which is the basis of both fad diets and official advice – does not produce lasting weight loss. The one diet that does seem to work for those who are prone to obesity – to eat less carbohydrate – is officially frowned upon as a harmful ‘fad’. That leaves those who want to lose weight in a constant cycle of semi-starvation, relapse, weight gain and depression, while all the while being berated for their lack of willpower. No wonder that obese people are routinely assumed to have psychological problems when they are in a constant turmoil of hunger and self-flagellation.

Foxcroft’s book, if a little bit too much of a whistlestop tour at times, is a useful corrective to many of the themes in the modern debate about obesity. Her righteous anger at the pressures on people – particularly women – to aspire to a certain body shape is understandable, too, even if it sometimes misses the real culprits.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. His new book, Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder, is published by Societas. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).) Read his blog here and follow him on Twitter here: @paniconaplate.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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