This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode We’ve Lost It: The Diet Episode, first released on January 30, 2018. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
WEIGHT WATCHERS AD
NICOLA TWILLEY: Oh yeah. This is living indeed.
CYNTHIA GRABER: It’s January, and that’s the time of year that many people decide they want a reboot. Time to start a new project, to take on new goals… And one of those age-old, evergreen resolutions is, yes, to lose weight.
TWILLEY: But this is Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history, so we’re not here to give you diet tips. I’m Nicola Twilley.
GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber. We are, of course, all about food. But this episode, we’re going to take a closer look at where our obsession with avoiding food comes from. Like, when did we start thinking that you were somehow a better person if you were thin and avoided certain foods? As it happens, this is not a recent idea.
TWILLEY: Or, to go back even further, when did people decide that there was an ideal body shape and, if you were larger than that, you needed to lose some weight?
GRABER: Serious questions, yes, but we’ll also look at what some of the strange results of that obsession have been. Like chewing a shallot seven-hundred times. Where’d that genius idea come from?
TWILLEY: Or what about avoiding carbs like the plague? Or only drinking shakes? And is there any scientific evidence that any of these diets actually do what they promise to do?
GRABER: Quick note, this episode is focused on the Western notions of ideal body shape and dieting to achieve that ideal. We know that there are lots of other ideas about body shapes and diets all around the world, and perhaps that will be in a future episode.
GRABER: Also, we are on Stitcher—Stitcher Premium, in fact—and we created a special episode just for Stitcher Premium listeners. It’ll be out next week, on February 6, so get your first month free at stitcherpremium.com/gastropod and check it out!
LOUISE FOXCROFT: Some of the earliest figurines found in Europe, they’re quite small, made of mammoth tusk, probably only two or three centimeters high. One of the famous ones was the Hohle Fels Venus, which was discovered fairly recently, which is of course several thousand years old. And it’s a short, squat little figure of a woman, very fecund, and so she has tiny little legs, very big belly, huge bottom, and enormous breasts, tiny little pinhead.
TWILLEY: This is Louise Foxcroft and she doesn’t have a tiny little pinhead. She’s actually a British historian and she wrote a book called Calories and Corsets: A History of Dieting Over 2,000 Years. And she’s describing what is one of the very first representations of fatness.
FOXCROFT: But nobody really knows what they are. They were thought to to be figures of fertility, but they could equally be just general representations of female form at that time, or they could be representative of a desirable female form. Or it’s been suggested it could be early pornography. Nobody knows really.
GRABER: Would the culture at the time, thirty-five thousand years ago—would they have thought these women were overweight? Or was this the idealized female body? No way to know. But what we do know is that it means that there were fat people in ancient history. Some people have this image of thin, muscular hunter-gatherer ancestors. But that’s not the full picture.
FOXCROFT: The idea that that many years ago there were very full figures is a really interesting thought. You know, given the way that we think about fat in our modern food environment. The fact that these women existed that long ago is an interesting thing.
TWILLEY: But what’s also interesting is, yeah, these women are fat. But to call them overweight—that’s different. To call someone overweight means you have to have an idea of an ideal weight, one that you’re not over. We don’t know whether the Paleolithic people who made those figurines even had that concept. But we do know when the idea of ideal body shapes and losing weight to reach them became a thing in the West. Or, at least, we know when the D-word was invented.
GRABER: The ancient Greeks. The original word was diaita.
FOXCROFT: It’s all to do with a lifelong regime of good, responsible living.
GRABER: The ancient Greek version is not a diet as we know it—it’s not just about losing weight.
FOXCROFT: The early diet was based on the Greek and Roman ideal of healthy mind, healthy body. And the Greeks and Romans thought of it as eating regularly, eating sparely, eating plainly, i.e. no spicy foods. And plenty of sleep, plenty of work, plenty of exercise. But they also recommended running naked and vomiting.
TWILLEY: Which, maybe not. Still, most of their advice made pretty good sense.
FOXCROFT: You know, they didn’t get the whole thing right. But they did know that a healthy mind and a healthy body made for a healthy society and that it’s good for everybody. They also knew that, say, overweight women had more difficulty conceiving a child and that overweight men are susceptible to heart disease. So it’s based on experience and observation.
GRABER: So they had a somewhat evidence-based view of how to be healthy. But they did have some problematic biases.
FOXCROFT: The ancient Greek ideal body is male. And, to go off on a slight tangent, I have to say that the female was regarded as pathological. And it’s an aberration, really—the male is the ideal. So females are already in trouble, you know, and the Greek male ideal is quite slim, is quite muscled—he’s very, very beautiful. Women can’t live up to that or weren’t thought to be able to live up to that. So the onus on diet and and having an ideal body, it’s always been a much more difficult concept for women. And that’s reflected in our modern diet culture as well.
TWILLEY: There’s another aspect of ancient Greek dieting that still resonates today, across gender lines, and that’s the idea that the size and shape of your body wasn’t just your own personal business.
FOXCROFT: It was to do with responsibility and it’s to do with being responsible for the whole society and not just one’s self.
GRABER: The Greek and then Roman ideals about bodies and diet—these are important, because they stuck around. In fact, they’re still around today.
TWILLEY: There’s another attitude—another way of thinking about avoiding food and eating less food that is still around today, that also comes from roughly that same time period.
FOXCROFT: The early Christian attitude towards the human body is… well, I find it quite problematic from a subjective point of view. I think it is problematic, because one had to police one’s body, inasmuch as you were you were encouraged to police your appetites. Effectively, that’s policing one’s orifices.
GRABER: In the very early centuries of Christianity, there were people called ascetics. Basically, they were fasting hermits. Louise writes about one named St. Anthony, and he and his fellow ascetics were glorified for their heroic abstinence and starved bodies. They were conquering their desires. They weren’t giving in to temptation.
TWILLEY: After all, gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins—and it’s the one that’s hardest to hide.
FOXCROFT: An overweight body is a sort of visible reminder of that particular sin.
TWILLEY: Early Christian leaders struggled very publicly with their eating. In fact, St. Augustine of Hippo—he’s one of the most influential early Christians—he wrote that he wrestled with his desire to eat and drink much more than he did with, say, sexual desire. In his writings, he said the problem was that eating is quote, “not an evil which I can decide once and for all to repudiate and never to embrace again, as I was able to do with fornication.”
GRABER: Sex may have been optional for these guys, but dinner wasn’t. And, just like in ancient Greece, women didn’t do too well in early Christian thought on gluttony. Women were thought to be weak and corrupt and particularly susceptible to temptation.
TWILLEY: And together with the early Greek ideals, these Christian overtones of sin, and morality, and temptation—they probably sound familiar too. Even if you’re not religious at all, these frameworks have proved remarkably long-lived in shaping the way we think about food and dieting.
LINDY WEST: You know, we associate fatness with laziness and gluttony.
GRABER: This is writer, comedian, and activist Lindy West in conversation year ago on “Feminism, Fat, and Fighting Trolls” at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne, Australia.
WEST: Intellectual inferiority, yeah, and it’s just sort of conventional wisdom that people are fat because they’re bad at being thin. They’re lazy and they just did a bad job at life and they love cake. And then it’s like, well, everyone loves cake, first of all.
TWILLEY: Yep, love cake. And hate that conflation of morality and fat.
GRABER: So the ancient Greeks and the ancient Christians kind of set up our relationship with avoiding food.
TWILLEY: But there’s one element of the modern diet formula that only really got defined a little later. I’m talking about the figure of the diet guru. So let’s skip forward to 1400s Venice to meet the author of the first best-selling diet book.
FOXCROFT: It was The Art of Living Long by a 15th century Venetian Italian merchant called Luigi Cornaro, and in fact this book is still in print. And he benefited because of the innovation of the printing press. So his book just went all across Europe.
GRABER: So much of success in life is timing. And Luigi hit it perfectly: a diet book, just as the printing press spread through Europe? How could he fail? But he didn’t write the book to get rich, he wrote it because of his own story.
FOXCROFT: He was an enormously fat, very wealthy man, but, because of his weight, suffered from a good deal of ill health.
TWILLEY: in fact, Luigi spent the first thirty-five years of his life eating and drinking, no holds barred. Until it was diet or die.
FOXCROFT: He fashioned his own diet in order to lose weight and become healthy, and he was a sort of probably one of the first low-carb, high-protein dieters. And also a precursor of the calorie restrictors.
GRABER: His diet plan was simple. Here’s his advice: He wanted you to eat no more than 12 ounces a day of food, divided among bread, soups, yolks of new-laid eggs, and meat.
TWILLEY: Washed down, of course, by 14 ounces of wine
FOXCROFT: And he, in fact, did live a long time. So he devised the diet when he was in his forties, he lived into his nineties, and some days he was just existing on half an egg yolk. So you know, I mean, it’s difficult now those to see quite how he managed to do that. But his book was enormously influential.
TWILLEY: And the template that Luigi invented—the person who was fat, had a crisis, managed to lose it all, and now is sharing their secrets—that should be ringing all sorts of bells. It’s always the story. For just one example, take Jenny Craig—yes, she was a real person—she developed her system when was trying to lose weight post-pregnancy.
JENNY CRAIG AD
TWILLEY: We just wanted an excuse to play that jingle, so you too could end up singing it all day. But really, Jenny and Luigi—they are diet guru siblings from another mother.
GRABER: So now you know the ancient roots of our dieting obsession, and we have a template for a diet guru. But who was actually doing the dieting? Who was heavier than some cultural ideal and wanted to get skinnier?
TWILLEY: For most of history, it was the elites.
FOXCROFT: So sugar was a really quite expensive luxury in 17th-century Britain.
TWILLEY: In other words, you pretty much had to be rich to even get fat, for most of European history.
GRABER: But then the middle class and the poor, they also gained weight as the food environment changed, as their living situation changed.
FOXCROFT: Effectively, 19th-century Britain, we had fast foods, we had fish and chips and we had—and, in America, refined breads, white flours, sugars. But it becomes much more prevalent, so there’s much more sugar on the market, there’s much more refined flour on the market. There are more processed foods coming online, and there is just more food and more availability. People move into the cities. You know, the whole food environment changes. You can’t walk down the street now anywhere without passing several fast food shops. So obviously our bodies have reflected that availability.
TWILLEY: And that shift in food environment and availability changed who this emerging diet industry was targeting. Once upon a time, it was princesses and their ladies-in-waiting who needed special regimes, now it was the arriviste middle classes.
GRABER: But the point is there’s now a huge, huge market for all those doctors and gurus who want to sell you a way to get thin. The audience is there.
FOXCROFT: And it’s only when the medical profession really takes off in the 19th century and when the media takes off at the same time, so print magazines and newspapers and photography, then that’s when our diet industry as we know it—that’s when that really begins.
TWILLEY: There was another technological piece to the diet boom. In the late 1800s, scales started being made for people.
FOXCROFT: People used to weigh themselves on agricultural scales. Byron did, and Beau Brummel in early 19th-century Britain.
TWILLEY: But now in the late 1800s, you no longer needed to find a farm scale to figure out how much you weighed.
GRABER: You could find new people scales in railway stations, shops and restaurants, hotels and movie theaters and banks. It only cost a penny to find out how much you weighed, and those scales brought in millions of dollars.
FOXCROFT: The public ones, initially speak-your-weight ones—I don’t know if you remember hearing about those? Of course, they quite soon went quiet because one doesn’t really want to advertise one’s weight necessarily, you know, on the train station or wherever.
TWILLEY: Even if you keep the number to yourself, there’s nothing quite like being able to quantify things for making you measure yourself against others and compare your current self to your past self. Or to your idealized future self.
GRABER: Before, you might have looked enviously at someone else’s waistline. But now you have a number. And that’s really powerful.
TWILLEY: So the stage is now set for one of the first mega-diet stars. You may not have heard of him, but, in the late 1800s, William Banting was so famous that his name became the word for dieting. Literally, you weren’t dieting, you were banting.
FOXCROFT: And it turns up say in Agatha Christie novels. There’s one where a particular person could not have committed the murder, because he was banting, so he was not there at the dinner where somebody was poisoned.
GRABER: Banting was first an undertaker to London’s wealthy. As an adult, he became fatter and fatter. Nothing he tried worked. One diet even made him break out with boils and two enormous carbuncles.
TWILLEY: Which are mega-boils, basically.
GRABER: Banting had been admitted to the hospital twenty times. He tried swimming and walking and taking the spa waters and some random fads at the time like drinking, quote, “gallons of physic and liquor potasse.”
TWILLEY: And still, by the time he was 65, he had only managed to lose 6 pounds total. And he was frustrated. He wrote that he couldn’t tie his own shoelaces—he couldn’t, quote, “attend to the little offices humanity requires.” He just didn’t want to be that size anymore.
GRABER: So Banting made up a diet, and it worked for him. And then he sold it to everyone else.
FOXCROFT: He came in for great criticism from the medical profession for daring to produce a diet, a best-selling diet. Because the medical profession at that point, of course, is it’s a marketplace. And so they want this particular part of the industry for themselves because, as we know, it’s hugely profitable and still is.
TWILLEY: Banting’s daily diet started with alkaline water—hello, 2017’s most stupid fad—and then moved on to breakfast: 5 ounces of meat, ideally beef, mutton, kidneys, or bacon. Lunch was more meat, dinner was even more meat, and if you needed it, at night you could have some cooked unsweetened fruit and a tumbler of grog.
GRABER: This type of diet might sound a little familiar, with the exception of grog.
FOXCROFT: Banting was a low-carb, high-protein diet. That one seems to have run and run and of course, you know, you get in the 20th century and you’ve got Atkins and then Dukan.
GRABER: Yes, Banting was the original Atkins. But then there’s the real Atkins.
FOXCROFT: Yeah, Atkins was a physician and very, very overweight. He suffered a heart attack and he devised his diet. Of course, it was incredibly successful.
TWILLEY: Like Banting, the Atkins diet tells you to avoid carbs and eat basically all the protein you want. And, like Banting, after Atkins lost all his own weight by going on a low-carb diet, he published his regime, in 1972, as Dr. Atkins Diet Revolution.
GRABER: Remember how big a deal Luigi Cornaro was? Atkins was like the Cornaro of the 20th century. He sold tens of millions of copies. In 2003 and 2004, Louise says that nearly one out of every eleven North Americans was on the Atkins diet.
TWILLEY: Hot on Atkins’ heels was a French doctor, Pierre Dukan.
FOXCROFT: I mean he’s been struck off the French medical register now, but he suggested docking the academic marks of French schoolgirls, did they not achieve a certain weight. You know, I find him deeply misogynist and humiliating in the way that he has written his diets, the way that he thinks of women’s bodies.
TWILLEY: Charming. Misogyny aside, Dukan is essentially another version of Atkins, which is another version of Banting—this high-protein, super-low-carb regime that promises to be easy to follow and really work.
SUSAN ROBERTS: They work for short-term weight loss. Sure.
GRABER: Susan Roberts is a nutrition scientist at Tufts University.
TWILLEY: Here’s the science behind how these high-protein, low-carb diets work. It’s called ketogenesis.
ROBERTS: The ketogenic diet is so low in carbs that your body ends up kind of cannibalizing protein molecules, for example, to get the glucose that your brain needs.
GRABER: Usually your body uses carbs to fuel your brain. But if there are no carbs around, your brain still needs food, so your body breaks down fat and converts them into substances called ketones. Your brain can use these instead.
TWILLEY: The theory is that it’s a lot more inefficient to fuel your body and your brain this way, so you end up losing weight.
ROBERTS: I would say that that weight loss isn’t as good as it seems, because the high-protein, low-carb diet causes a huge amount of water loss from the body. So people in the beginning may lose a huge amount of weight. And it looks amazing. But nobody can keep up those really restrictive diets and it’s not fat loss, it’s water loss primarily.
GRABER: And the fact that these super-low-carb diets are really restrictive? That’s another reason Susan thinks people lose weight at the beginning.
ROBERTS: Which is that you cut out so many of the things that you would like to eat. There’s not much left. And so it gets more boring. And that also makes it easier to control your hunger.
TWILLEY: OK, so the initial awesome weight loss also includes a lot of water, you don’t keep the weight off, and… there are other downsides too.
GRABER: First of all, Susan says that by cutting out entire food groups like whole grains, people risk missing out on really important nutrients in their diets.
TWILLEY: Not to mention that common side effects of ketogenesis also include constipation, bad breath, and terrible sleep.
GRABER: Plus, long-term it could lead to kidney and liver issues and in extreme cases it can even damage your heart muscles. But this particular fad diet doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon. It’s got some serious staying power.
TWILLEY: That hasn’t stopped people coming up with other, totally insane fad diets, both in the past and today. And if you can get a celebrity to endorse them, so much the better. We’ve got all the fads and all the celebrities after the break, plus Susan returns to tell us whether anything actually works.
GRABER: So far, we have learned that avoiding food is hard and that…
FOXCROFT: There’s nothing new under the sun. Everything is repackaged.
TWILLEY: But because avoiding food is hard, a big chunk of Louise’s book on the history of dieting is about trying to lose weight without actually having to cut down on food. One of my favorites is Sylvia of Hollywood, who was one of the first fitness gurus to the stars, back in the 1920s. Sylvia specialized in fat-reducing massage.
FOXCROFT: So she would pummel them and, as she said, squeeze the fat out of their bodies like mashed potatoes through a colander.
GRABER: Euch. Gross. I have to say I wrote “eww” or “ouch” a lot while I was reading this book. Like this example: people were shocked with electrodes to help them to lose weight.
TWILLEY: Yep. They were held in place on a chair with sandbags and the electric current was apparently strong enough to make them leap from the chair, even so. The doctor behind this regime claimed that a one-hour electrocution session was the equivalent of a ten-mile run in a heavy sweater. I actually would do the ten-mile run.
GRABER: As we say frequently on this show—don’t try it at home. Another one I’d avoid: rubber corsets that were supposed to reduce your belly fat literally by rubbing it away with friction.
TWILLEY: The actual result, of course, was just some rather painful and sweaty chafing.
GRABER: But we are a show about food, not about supposed obesity-zapping rubber belts.
TWILLEY: And the truth is, even when you’re trying to avoid food, on a diet, food still plays a starring role. In fact, in fad diets, all sorts of random foods get their moment in the sun.
FOXCROFT: There are so many that there are almost as many different fad diets as there are foods. And, of course, now you have dieting to your blood group. You know, anything that you can possibly sell a diet on, it’s been sold on.
GRABER: There was the milk diet. The milk-and-banana diet. The lemon juice diet. The seaweed diet.
MARGARET CHO: I went on one diet, my last diet I ever went on. I ate only persimmons for six months and…
TWILLEY: Yes, this is Margaret Cho and the persimmon diet. She went on it so that you don’t have to.
CHO: I just had trusted in, you know, these images for so long that, you know, I just bought into what the media was telling us about what women should look like. And they don’t tell you in the diet books that this food plan might make you SHIT YOUR PANTS!
GRABER: That sounds like… just what would happen with eating nothing but persimmons. But, like everything else in dieting, these types of fad diets are not a new phenomenon. At all.
TWILLEY: The fabulously named Gayelord Hauser came up with dozens of fad diets single-handedly in the 1920s: the mending diet, the vitality diet, the sulfur-rich cosmetic diet that advocated lots of onions and broccoli, and even the zig-zag diet.
GRABER: Gayelord Hauser was diet doctor to the stars. He was Greta Garbo’s lover, among others. She took his weight-loss advice, as did Cary Grant and Mae West and Ingrid Bergman. They listened when Gayelord said that fat was a crime. And so all of the millions of people who watched movies and saw all the weight-obsessed, svelte stars—they bought that message, too.
TWILLEY: So many of these fads diets sound so ridiculous, they are so ridiculous—so ridiculous they end up being parodied by the awesome Amy Schumer.
AMY SCHUMER SKETCH
TWILLEY: Ridiculous, but no more insane than all the zillions of real fad diets. The one that was popular when I was in school—this is before Instagram, I’m afraid—was chewing every bite 100 times before swallowing it. We used to sit around the cafeteria table like a herd of cows chewing the cud.
GRABER: This diet even has a name, and it started nearly a century before you and your friends, Nicky, gnawed away at your school lunch.
FOXCROFT: It was the brainchild of a chap called Horace Fletcher, and he exhorted everybody to chew their food and count the number of chews as it were and count how long you chew for. So a shallot, for example, you would chew seven hundred times.
TWILLEY: That’s not even possible.
FOXCROFT: It seems almost unbelievable. So you chew and chew and chew. You time yourselves chewing. Whole dinner parties were enjoyed—I use that word humorously—whole dinner parties were enjoyed by chewing food. Then you swallow all the goodness—this is what Fletcher says— you swallow all the goodness and you spit out the fiber.
TWILLEY: I am here to tell you that Fletcherizing kind of works, because you eat so slowly that you just can’t eat as much.
GRABER: It sounds really gross and boring, though.
TWILLEY: Oh yeah. I mean, I think I lasted for one meal.
FOXCROFT: I mean obviously all the food is cold by the point by the time that you get to it. and you don’t eat as much because you spent so long chewing it. So I think actually that’s where it comes to. But governments took it up because they thought it was very good for looking after their poor and needy, because you used less food. They tried to impose it on—this is American governments and British governments—they tried to impose it on the military because it cut down on the rations. Of course, you know, everybody’s really hungry, so it didn’t work and it didn’t last.
TWILLEY: Fletcher himself was an interesting guy. He went away to sea on a whaling ship at the age of 15.
FOXCROFT: He’d worked in the printing press. He’d been a pirate. He worked with the Japanese Opera. And it was when he lighted on this diet idea that his career he really took off.
GRABER: Like many people, Fletcher found that diet advice was really the way to make a big buck. Fast.
FOXCROFT: But Fletcher was called the sort of medical icon of our age by The Lancet for example, which is a British medical journal. It was thought of as being really revolutionary. Henry James was a Fletcherite. He chewed his food for some five years before he gave it up because he said it made him sick to his stomach.
TWILLEY: John D. Rockefeller and Franz Kafka, astonishingly enough, were also keen Fletcherites.
FOXCROFT: So all through society they were using it and Fletcher also said that it had another good side-effect, which was that you only had to defecate once every two weeks. Mainly because you’re not taking anything in except the liquid. And he carried a little sample around in a box to show everybody, a little two-ounce pieces of his poo, and he said it smelt like warm biscuits.
TWILLEY: Again, dear listeners, please do not try this at home.
GRABER: You will have no friends left. But Fletcher’s influence lives on.
FOXCROFT: And, of cours,e now there are plenty of diets nowadays which will exhort you to do exactly that—you know, chew properly, take your time.
GRABER: So many of these diets spread through society because famous people like Greta Garbo and Franz Kafka took them up. Today, you might hear from Oprah about her struggles with weight loss.
TWILLEY: On Good Morning America, because female celebrities’ weight is national freaking news apparently
GOOD MORNING AMERICA SEGMENT
GRABER: So do we, Oprah, as anyone who heard our sourdough episode knows. But in Louise’s book, one of my favorite stories was one of the first dieting celebrities who lived in the early 1800s. The poet Lord Byron.
TWILLEY: Yes, he is more famous for such immortal lines as “She walks in beauty, like the night.” But his real life’s struggle was not with the words on the page but rather with his weight.
FOXCROFT: Oh gosh yes, he did struggle. And we know this because he weighed himself regularly on the agricultural scales outside Berry Brothers Rudd, who are wine merchants in St. James’s in London, and they still have the records. And his weight would go from nine stone, next time he came he’d be 11, then he’d be back to 9, up to 13, back to 11. He yo-yo’d in weight quite dramatically.
GRABER: For those of you who, like me, are not familiar with stones, I’ll translate for you. First he was 154 pounds, then he’d be down to 126, then up to 182, back to 154. Like Louise said, these are pretty dramatic swings.
FOXCROFT: When he was at Cambridge, he was at Cambridge University, he wore extra layers of clothing and played quite a lot of cricket in order to hopefully sweat the weight off. He had various diets that he put himself on, one of which was drinking vinegar and mashing potatoes in vinegar. Little bit of wine here and there, biscuits and soda. But then he would also binge eat as well.
GRABER: Byron was one of the founding and most important voices of the Romantic movement. You know, pale lads, full of longing. Quiet walks in dark woods. Tragic maidens. And so Byron felt like he really needed to look the part. But he had a, quote, “morbid propensity to fatten.”
FOXCROFT: And that idea of the sort of thin, pale, ethereal poets is not quite the truth, actually. But he was very influential because he was arguably one of the first celebrities, as it were—obviously extremely well known. Mad, bad, dangerous to know—and was still having an enormous influence on the young later in the 19th century. And there were a lot of physicians saying, you know, exhorting the young to move away from drinking vinegar and eating rice in order to be thin and pale. So he was generally held up as to blame for a lot of ill-health amongst young people.
TWILLEY: So now, when you hear a Kardashian talking about their diet, just think—they’re only following in the footsteps of Lord Byron!
GRABER: A lot of these celebrities and gurus, they didn’t have any real science behind their recommendations. But, over the course of the past hundred years, scientists have been trying to figure out what actually does work.
TWILLEY: One approach has been to look at what healthy populations eat, and copy that.
FOXCROFT: We are all quite familiar with Mediterranean diet, aren’t we, sort of fruit, vegetables, and olive oil and fish.
GRABER: The Mediterranean diet was the brainchild of Ancel Keys. If you’re a longtime Gastropod listener, you’ve heard of him before. He was in our butter episode because he thought butter was evil. He starred in our olive oil episode because he invented the Mediterranean diet.
TWILLEY: Ancel Keys basically did a big study looking at what made the difference between countries where people had more heart attacks versus countries where people had fewer. And he noticed that people who ate a lot of saturated fats—the Americans and the Finns in his study—they had way more heart attacks. And the people who ate fresh fruit and vegetables, lots of olive oil, pasta—the people from Mediterranean countries—they had way lower cholesterol and fewer heart attacks.
GRABER: There were some problems with his methods and his analysis. But, overall, this has seemed to pan out as a fairly healthy approach to eating. Fresh fruit and veggies, fish, some whole grains, olive oil—pretty good.
TWILLEY: But Ancel Keys’ contribution to dieting did not end with recommending what to eat. He was also the first to really scientifically look at what happens when you avoid food. In 1946, he ran a famous study known as the Minnesota Starvation Experiment.
GRABER: In his experiment, thirty-six healthy young guys first ate normally, and then they were basically starved—not to death, of course—but they ate only two meals a day for three months, maybe cabbage turnips and a half glass of milk, or rye bread and some beans. Then they went through a rehab phase. The experiment was meant to help scientists figure out how to treat people who were liberated from Europe after World War II.
TWILLEY: But what it actually revealed was the psychology of dieting and how being hungry really messes up your relationship with food. During the starvation phase, the men in the experiment would spend hours and hours talking about food, daydreaming about huge meals. They were allowed to watch films as entertainment, but they found they only could concentrate on the scenes where the actors were eating. Some dropped out, but the ones that stuck through it—many of them remained obsessed with food for long after the study ended. At a reunion decades later, many of them confessed they were never without a candy bar in their pockets.
FOXCROFT: We all know that psychology is deeply important in diet and their relation to foods and dieting. The Minnesota experiment did highlight that.
GRABER: Most diets of course aren’t as extreme as this starvation diet. But the point is, scientists now understand that strong feelings of being hungry and deprived for extended periods of time? This does have an impact on your mental health and your relationship with food, short-term and long-term.
FOXCROFT: It does change you and I. And that’s one of my chief criticisms of the dieting industry, because, on the whole, the dieting industry does not acknowledge that and it will just encourage dieters to try the next one, try this one, try that one—knowing that they’ve captured you as it were.
TWILLEY: Before she started writing Calories and Corsets, Louise had never actually been on a diet. She thought she’d better try one, given she was writing a book on the topic. So she tried Atkins.
FOXCROFT: And I quickly became very obsessed with it and I don’t consider myself to be an obsessive person. I started to lose weight—over the first three days my weight dropped. I thought, oh, this is really good. This is excellent. But then, after about the third day, I began to plateau. And then I’m thinking, okay, I’ll weigh myself when I get up, before I get dressed. I’ll weigh myself once I’m dressed and I’ve had breakfast. I’ll weigh myself after I’ve got undressed to go to bed. I’m thinking what can I eat? When can I eat it? How much of it can I eat? And the worst one was: What’s everybody else eating and why don’t they just go and eat somewhere else? It was—it just completely took over. I was really quite shocked by that notion of how what you’re eating and how it’s affecting your body can completely overwhelm you.
GRABER: That’s one way that food and mental health are intertwined. But it’s not the only one. A lot of things about our relationship to food are complicated. We don’t just eat because we’re hungry. And we don’t choose particular foods just because they’ll satisfy our physical needs. There’s an emotional element to eating, too.
TWILLEY: At roughly the same time that Ancel Keys was revealing just how much dieting can mess with your head, a woman called Esther Manz was using psychology to help people lose weight.
GRABER: Esther adopted the group approach from Alcoholics Anonymous. She created the first national diet group in 1952. It was called TOPS—Take Off Pounds Sensibly.
FOXCROFT: There were quite a few different groups. Most of them have quite good acronyms.
TWILLEY: Like SIRENS—Slenderness Is Right Endeavors Never Stop. There was also Inches Anonymous, Thick ‘N Tired, and Shrinking Violets.
GRABER: After all these creative names, the one that really lasted doesn’t seem quite as sparkly and catchy. Yep, Weight Watchers.
WEIGHT WATCHERS AD
TWILLEY: Weight Watchers was founded in 1963, and it’s still going strong today.
FOXCROFT: That idea of the talking cure, I think, and the group support is a really good way to go.
GRABER: Weight Watchers relies on the idea that what you put in your body isn’t the only thing that matters. It’s also really important to have a strong, regular support system to help keep you going. But, for some, the Weight Watchers model doesn’t feel so supportive. Like Lindy West—she told the Food Psych podcast about going to Weight Watchers with her mom.
LINDY WEST: And it must have been in high school And I just found it mortifying. You know, I was the youngest person there. And you do this public weigh-in, like, you all stand in line and get weighed, and it just felt so pathologizing.
TWILLEY: In terms of what works, though, there is some evidence for Weight Watchers.
ROBERTS: I mean something like Weight Watchers, it’s been around for ages. Weight Watchers has spent a fair bit of money paying for clinical trials to check out the results. And, you know, multiple different trials have shown—I mean, you don’t lose very much weight on Weight Watchers. But the trials all kind of get fairly consistent results.
TWILLEY: This is Susan Roberts again. And she recently was part of a panel of experts that ranked forty popular diets in order of effectiveness. These rankings were commissioned and published by U.S. News and World Report, and alongside Susan there were a bunch of dieticians, cardiologists, epidemiologists, diabetic counselors, weight loss consultants—all sorts.
ROBERTS: So I was there to bring the science, I think. You know, I’m a career nutrition scientist. I’ve been doing research on obesity for more than 25 years. And I saw my main role is kind of saying, OK, well, where’s the evidence? Because you can tell people anything you like to eat and call it a diet. But if there isn’t any evidence behind it then, you know, how much is that really worth?
GRABER: And that was the point of this whole exercise—to figure out what actually works. Susan and the other dozens of experts evaluated all the diets on lots of different criteria—
ROBERTS: Short-term weight loss, long-term weight loss, health, and things like that. I mean, one diet might be very healthy for example. But there’s zero evidence that it’s going to be useful for weight loss. Another diet might produce faster weight loss and there’s a research study to show that or something but there’s very little health data.
TWILLEY: When all the rankings of all the experts were added up, the bottom of the list was filled with diets like the Biggest Loser Diet, the Engine 2 Diet, the Paleo and Whole30 Diets, the Acid Alkaline Diet, and, of course, our old friends, Dukan and Atkins. Some of these diets got their low score because there just wasn’t any scientific evidence showing they worked,
ROBERTS: That was my criteria. If there was nothing out there, I said in my comments: there’s nothing out there. I scored them badly. And then some of the diets, you know, you wonder how healthy they are. So that would be another negative.
GRABER: For example, take the Paleo diet. Some studies did show some moderate weight loss. But the experts were concerned that it’s not nutritionally complete, because it cuts out major food groups.
ROBERTS: And I don’t think anybody should be trying diets that have, you know, acute or short-term dangers, because you’ve only got one body. And if you trash it, you still have to live with it.
TWILLEY: Susan explained that some diets did well on one category but horribly in another. SlimFast, the meal replacement system—that did reasonably well on short-term weight loss, but its scores were really low for long-term weight loss or nutritional value. And Susan is definitely one of the SlimFast haters.
ROBERTS: I love the fact that Slimfast is lower. I think just giving people like cans and bars and things is such a non-solution really.
GRABER: So those are the low-ranked diets, but what were the winners? Well, overall, the Mediterranean diet was on top, and it tied with something called the DASH diet, the Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension. The foods in these two systems are fairly similar. You can eat lots of fruits and vegetables and some meats and whole grains, and so on.
ROBERTS: I have very mixed feelings about that because on the one hand, you know, a conventional Mediterranean diet is pretty healthy, based on everything we know. But it’s also a really kind of flexible term that I think almost anybody can say, oh, yeah, I eat a Mediterranean diet. But what do they actually eat? So, you know, we’re all buying into Mediterranean principles but I don’t think many people have a very good idea of truly what that is.
TWILLEY: That quibble aside though, Susan pretty much agreed with the final rankings. But she still wasn’t happy.
ROBERTS: I think the depressing thing is that—you know, they can rank them. But even if you look at the top score in each category, they’re so dismal. I mean the big message for me is research scientists like me have to do better to provide people with better programs that are easier. I thought it was a pretty depressing report overall.
TWILLEY: Susan’s point is, even the diets at the top of the list, they generally only result in a few pounds of sustained weight loss, on average.
ROBERTS: The trouble is most things don’t work very well. I mean, we’ve got an endless number of papers to show that there’s a lot of dropouts. The average results are not very good. It’s only the really exceptional, really determined person that does well.
GRABER: Susan is one of the scientists trying to coming up with a solution. She’s developed something relatively new at Tufts called the iDiet, and she says so far research shows that it’s something people can stick with long-term and lose weight. It’ll be evaluated by U.S. News and World Report in their update of this ranking next year.
TWILLEY: Susan really cares about the fact that most diets don’t work.
ROBERTS: I was the fattest child in my school. I was 50 pounds heavier 25 years ago than I am today. This is a problem I really want to help people solve. And I think that people should be not giving up because, you know, you get diabetes, you get hypertension, you get all kinds of things with obesity. So if you don’t feel good about your weight, don’t give up.
TWILLEY: This whole episode, we keep coming back to what’s wrong with diets. And that is because there’s is a lot wrong with them, and especially with the pressure people feel to go on them. Some of these diets are just really unhealthy, too. But I think it is important, like Susan says, to be clear that people can lose weight and keep it off successfully. It’s rare, but it’s possible.
GRABER: In nearly all cases it takes changing what and how you eat, kind of forever. It takes finding something that really works for you and sticking with it. I also do want to point out that there are genetic differences in who gains weight and who can more easily lose it and keep it off. There are genetic differences in body shapes, too.
TWILLEY: And, as you’ll know if you listened to our calorie episode a couple of years ago, there is still a lot we don’t know about differences in how we each individually turn different foods into energy.
GRABER: But people keep trying to tell us that they’ve found a new and exciting answer. We might have failed before, but this diet—this one will work.
ROBERTS: That’s why you get all of these diets which kind of risk people’s health, are extraordinarily hard to do—because people are trying, grasping for solutions beyond the tried-and-tested thing, which is always going to be hard.
TWILLEY: And there’s always someone ready to sell that new solution to them. There is a huge market that is hungry for better ways to avoid food.
FOXCROFT: I think that the diet industry has exploited that enormously because there’s huge amounts of money to be made. It’s all based on making us feel bad and then try to sell us stuff that makes us feel better.
TWILLEY: In America, something like $40 billion a year is spent on slimming.
GRABER: And most of the marketing is directed at women. It’s back to the ancient Greeks and Christians. Women still bear the brunt of society telling us what we’re supposed to look like, and we buy into it. It’s nearly impossible not to. I look at all those women on the screens and in magazines and I can’t help but feel like I’ll never measure up.
TWILLEY: This pressure, of course, is tied into a much larger issue of women not having control over our bodies or a voice in society.
GRABER: This has been true in law, in economics, in politics, in religion—men controlled women’s lives. And their bodies.
TWILLEY: Historically, that’s the case, and even today, things are far from perfect.
FOXCROFT: Generally we have been as pathological, as weaker, as less intelligent, you know—all those things that we know we are not now. But all those things take a very long time to work through. And it’s obvious to us now that we are still working through it and still attempting to redress the imbalance that exists in society. In terms of diets and in terms of vilification for body shape, it’s just all too familiar to us.
TWILLEY: Even when men have been the targets of diet advice, the tone is noticeably different. Again, throughout history and still today.
FOXCROFT: When they’re trying to sell to men they use the idea of efficiency and strength and manliness. Because, obviously, you would only be doing this to be more efficient and more manly in your work life. For women, it’s to do with vanity, and they tend to humiliate women. So they’re sort of bolstering men at the same time as they are humiliating women.
GRABER: Part of this, of course, is tied to how societies promote ideal body shapes. And that changes over time. And, of course, it changes within different groups and cultures, too. But the dominant image in the West is based on a white woman. Sometimes this idealized woman should be Rubens-esque, sometimes she should have a tiny waist and big boobs, sometimes she should be flat-chested and boyish. Today, there’s a kind of toned ideal. But even toned—sure, that sounds like the focus is on health and athleticism, not body shape—but few women can live up to that perfect standard. I love all sorts of exercise, but I promise you I will never in my life have a flat stomach. Never have, never will. But that hasn’t stopped me from wanting it.
TWILLEY: And you are not alone. Studies show—and I feel like I know this anecdotally too—pretty much every other woman is either on a diet or thinking about a diet or worried about their weight.
SUSIE ORBACH: We’ve got 6-year-olds feeling terrible about their bodies. We’ve got 50-year-olds. We’ve got 75-year-olds who’ve never actually felt comfortable in their bodies and who spend a lot of time trying to create something that will be acceptable in the world. No matter that they look great. Their internal experience is one of, I’ve got to perfect this, I’ve got to change this, there’s something wrong with me. And although it can sound like a really trivial preoccupation it’s really stealing the childhoods of our children and it means that young women are paying a hell of a price for being out in the world because there’s constant preoccupation.
GRABER: Susie Orbach is the author of Fat is a Feminist Issue. She’s a major voice on this topic. And she has been since before I was born. In that clip, she was speaking to The Guardian.
TWILLEY: And her point is, as a whole, we spend way too much time, energy, and money worrying about losing weight and depriving ourselves of food or hating ourselves for eating it.
GRABER: Yes, there are significant benefits to proper nutrition and getting the right kind of exercise and amount of sleep for your body. As Susan Roberts said, we each only have one body, and it’s a good idea to look after it. And there can be specific health problems associated with obesity .
TWILLEY: There’s obviously also a lot of factors in play with gaining unwanted weight—economics, emotions, addiction, health issues, stress, the food environment— nd most of these things are complicated and not necessarily within our individual control.
GRABER: There is no simple answer. But, we do hope that people listening will realize that nothing about our obsession with dieting is new. And that maybe we’d be better off not obsessing.
FOXCROFT: Because it’s just sort of an annual cycle of here we go again and here we go again. And I think as individuals we really have to sort it out for ourselves and then we can the eschew the diet industry as it stands.
TWILLEY: Thanks this episode to Louise Foxcroft, author of Calories and Corsets: A History of Dieting Over 2,000 Years, and to Susan Roberts, Tufts University professor and inventor of the iDiet.
GRABER: We have links to Louise’s book, Susan’s diet, and the U.S. News and World Report rankings online at Gastropod.com. And a huge thanks also to our fabulous volunteer, Ari Lebowitz.
GRABER: We’ll be back in two weeks with one of our favorite food groups: pasta!