A Little History about Confusing Diets

Dieting is the curse of the modern man. Today the whole world of dieting is a mismatch of information and claims. Even today I can find conflicting articles on the same website. One article titled “Forget Detox: Nourish Yourself “says, 5 simple steps towards nourishing yourself : Lighten your digestion: Have a week of meals and snacks without any processed foods, dairy, red meat or wheat.

But the same Body and Soul website has another article titled “How to boost your energy levels”  where it says; Eat iron-rich foods. Iron is necessary for the production of energy from glucose, which is the main fuel for both the brain and the body. Iron-rich foods include lean red meat, chicken, fish, eggs, whole grain breads and cereals, legumes, nuts, seeds and green leafy vegetables.

So does that mean I can nourish myself but I’ll have no energy, or I can be full of energy but not nourished? It is this conflicting information that has many people baffled. If your one of them, don’t worry, it’s been going on for over a century, only now it’s a 50 billion dollar industry in the US alone.

For most of human history, getting enough to eat just to survive, has been the issue, and at many times, a single crop failure has led to large-scale famine and death. The fact that people were thin with a “healthy” body fat index was more due to the lack of food than making the right choices or portion control. In many places there were no choices, you ate what was in season and what was available in the amounts available.

Henry VIII King of England 1491-1547

There are, of course, some exceptions, William the Conqueror was known to have a very large stomach. So much so, that King Phillip of France said he looked pregnant.  William is said to have gone on a diet consisting solely of beer in 1087, as his large size prevented him from riding his horse properly. Since he died later that year, after a fall from a horse, you could say his diet had worked.  King Henry VIII is another famous exception.  He is depicted as a very large man in portraits and was known for consuming large feasts. So if you had money and power, you had access to larger amounts and choices in food.

Prior to the 18th Century (1700’s) food was not refined. Even the diet of bread and water fed to prisoners at the time, contained sufficient protein to sustain life, just. This could not be said of supermarket bread today. The 1700’s brought the industrial revolution and the creation of large cities and mechanised farming. The quantity and choice of food increased and the level of physical activity of many workers has decreased, notably over the last few decades.  This has led to an increase in cases of obesity.

In 1830’s America, Sylvester Graham tapped into this “growing problem” by hosting health retreats to help people lose weight. The diet he used had no meat products, but was heavy on promoting his namesake “Graham Crackers”, and the weight loss industry was formed.

In 1862 a chance meeting of William Banting and a Doctor William Harvey, led to Banting pursuing a diet with little to no simple carbohydrates. Today we have the similar “Atkins” diet. Banting was so impressed with his weight loss and zest for life that he published his experiences and guide to losing weight and produced the first weight loss book. Well more like a pamphlet to be honest. He was publicly vilified and false rumours were spread about his diet. This is said to be due to the diet just restricting the types of foods you ate, so there was no pill or potion to be sold, so no profit to be made, so no interest in promoting it to the general public.

The first artificial sweetener Saccharin, was produced by Constantin Fahlberg at John Hopkins University in 1878. He was working in Ira Ramsen’s lab on coal-tar deratives, when during dinner one evening he noticed the sweet taste on his fingers and linked it to the Benzoic Sulfimide he was working with in the lab that day. Fahlberg and Ramsen published a paper on the substance in 1879, but it was Fahlberg who later patented the compound in 1884 and went on to market the sweetener and make a fortune.

Saccharin the common name for Benzoic Sulfimide, did not become popular until the sugar shortage in World War 1.  It also had a resurgence in the 1970’s as the diet craze kicked into gear. Today the most common brand of Benzoic Sulfimide is “Sweet n’ low” in the little pink packets next to the sugar at the local coffee shop.

In the late 1800’s Wilbur Atwater was conducting experiments into the energy content of different foods. It was these experiments, where food was burnt and the heat produced was measured, that gave us the calorie. Atwater concluded at the end of his study, in the early 1900’s, that the people of America were eating too much fat and sweets and exercising too little. Some things never change.

Other notable diets include; Horace Fletcher’s chewing diet. People were not to swallow any solid matter, just the liquid produced by chewing the food. Once the item was chewed around 40 times the remaining matter was removed from the mouth. And Marian Whites promoted “Diet without Despair” where the key message was consuming food without any nutritional value. This led to the idea that mineral oil should be substituted for olive and vegetable oils in cooking. To me, the idea of frying and egg in Castrol GTX3 is just not appetising.

Even cigarette companies promoted smoking as a way of losing weight, but it is the pills and potions that were rather alarming. At the turn of the century (1900’s) diet pills became the latest weight loss cure. The diet pills of the day were known to contain laxatives and purgatives, but it was the inclusion of chemicals such as arsenic, strychnine, Epsom salts and washing soda that ring alarm bells today.

In the end the studies and data keep coming back to the one thing that works, diet and exercise. The human body does not evolve fast enough to deal with the quantity and quality of food we have developed in the western world over the last few hundred years. So when we eat too much it stores the excess energy from the food as fat, as humans have done for thousands and thousands of years. To prevent this from happening we need to balance the energy (food) we ingest against the energy we use (exercise). To reduce your weight you need to use more energy than you take in. It’s a long process, just like weight gain. Quick fad weight loss programs are not sustainable, it has to be a shift in your lifestyle and habits to create long-term lasting results when dealing with weight loss.

Now where are my snickers and coke….?

This entry was posted in Citizen Science, Scientific Fact or Fiction and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A Little History about Confusing Diets

  1. Pat says:

    Good article to use as stimulus for discussion of nutrition in Yr 8 science class. Thaks

  2. Ebonie Naiman says:

    Products that are labeled zero calories are not that promising. It’s true. There are no calories in them but to make them taste as good as they are, substitutes are added. Artificial sweeteners that come with side effects are included in the ingredients. They have to be, to redeem the flavor. Otherwise, the products will end up too awful to be a delight.You’d think you’re in the right track with artificial sweeteners. With no calories, you can say goodbye to some extra pounds in your system. You feel as if you’re doing alright. Well, you’re not. Truth be told, if you intend on losing weight through these empty calories, you are kidding yourself. Not only do they not have any dieting advantage, they, also, puncture your body with other effects.;

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  3. Excellent goods from you, man. I have understand your stuff previous to and you are just too fantastic

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