HERE’S THE SKINNY ON FESTIVE FLAB AND FOOLISH FADS
Good morning, dear readers, and a very happy new year to you all! You may (or may not) have noticed the new title for this column. Call me reckless but I thought, new year, new me! A change is as good as a hologram! A rolling stone gathers no seaweed! Or something like that..
What I’m trying to say is that the start of a new year is when we quit things, join gyms and make all sorts of promises to ourselves under the guise of self-improvement, so dust off your Fitbit® and shake the weevils from your powdered kale, we’re going to begin 2019 with the most common New Year’s resolution of all: FAD DIETS. To begin our wellness journey we’re gonna go back. A long, LONG way back …
3rd Century BC – 1500 CE
All the way back to the ancient Greeks and that hotbed of philosophy, astrology and nude wrestling, when over-indulgence was perceived as a sign of corruption. As a counter to vice and temptation, the physician Hippocrates suggested hard work, slow running, sea-water enemas (yah) and walking naked (like you do). Known as diatia, the word referred more to a way of living than specific foods, or as we would say today, healthy mind, healthy body. Zip forward a few hundred years and with the Roman Empire came decadence, greed and gluttony. Unfortunately the first millenia of the Common Era started badly for the Romans; they had finally done away with that Jesus fellow but, like a bad hangover on New Year’s Day, Christianity and its endlessly boring diet of loaves, fishes and piety just wouldn’t go away. The earliest liquid diet is attributed to William the Conqueror. Born in 1028, the King was fit for most of his life until his metabolism stalled and he became so immensely fat he couldn’t mount his horse, so embarked on a health kick consisting exclusively of alcohol. Inexplicably, it worked, and before long Will was back in the saddle. That is until 1087 when, imbibed with both a sense of irony and his most recent ‘meal’, he tumbled from said horse and died.
1501 – 1900
The second half of the second millenium brought a noticeable preoccupation with health and physique. The Art of Living Long, arguably the worlds’ first self help book, was published in 1558; that same year an Italian nobleman named Luigi Cornaro embarked on a daily diet of half a litre of wine and just 350gm of food. As he was 102 when he finally popped his clogs (the average life expectancy in Europe at the time was around 45 years) you might say it worked. Then the Renaissance happened. Painted portraits were the Instagram of the 1600s and personal appearance was paramount among the well-heeled. By 1820 celebrity poet and man about town Lord Byron was supping on apple cider vinegar with a dash of raw potato (‘gram that be-yatches) in a bid to keep his waistline in check and his Romantic fanboys drooling.
The Church wanted in on the act, and in the 1830s Presbyterian minister Sylvester Graham created a high fibre, alcohol free diet in a bid to control ‘unwanted sexual urges’. Though he never specified what these urges were, or indeed whether they were his or someone else’s, they were obviously sinful enough that even mild spices were banned lest they inflame some unholy clusterlust. In 1864 an obese undertaker named William Banting developed the very first low-carb diet, ditching sweets and potatoes altogether for meat, fish and veggies. He dropped 20kg in less than 12 months and published the diet as Letter on Corpulance where it became so popular that the phrase “I am banting” was synonymous with dieting well into the 1920s.
1901 – 1950
Dieting in the twentieth century kicked off with a choice: puritan Horace Fletcher’s assertion that chewing every morsel of food 100 times would reduce your calorie intake, or popping a pill that (allegedly) contained a fat-munching tapeworm. Meanwhile, in 1903 US President William Taft publicly announced his intention to get trim after getting stuck in a White House bathtub. Between 1914 and 1918 WWI sufficiently distracted dieters to prevent the development any new fads, unless of course you count rationing which, to be fair, did slim down the lower classes considerably. At the conclusion of the Great War, just as everyone was dusting themselves off and saying things like “Thank goodness we won’t have to experience THAT again during our lifetimes!”, Dr Luly Hunt Peters quietly published a book called Diet & Health: With Key to the Calories. By the 1920s it had become a phenomenon, instructing millions of women in the US to limit their calorie intake to no more than 1200 per day. (To paraphrase a popular 1990s supermodel, we actually can’t get out of bed for less than 2000 a day.)This was timely advice as it coincided with the flapper movement; women threw off the shackles of pre-war repression and drank, smoked and danced. Slim, boyish figures were the style and appetite suppression became a marketable commodity. Pills, gums and laxatives hit the shelves, often containing noxious nasties like arsenic and strychnine, but even those couldn’t match the popularity of cigarettes. A 1925 campaign for the Lucky Strike brand encouraged ladies to ‘Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet’. Why settle for cancer when you can fat-shame as well? The Grapefruit Diet, also known as the Hollywood Diet, became all the rage in the 1930s thanks to movie studio celebrity endorsement and the completely false claim that the fruit contained fat-burning chemicals. It was closely followed by the ‘Cleanse’ in the early 1940s, which promoted consuming large quantities of one thing (lemon juice, celery juice) and almost nothing of other things (vitamins, nutrients, solids) in order to rid the body of toxins despite having organs whose primary function is to do exactly that.
1951 – 1980
We’re getting to the business end now and the emergence of ‘quick fix’ fads. In 1950 the Cabbage Soup diet promised results within a week, but actually did more for long-term flatulence than long-term weight loss. For those who couldn’t be arsed going it alone or even making their own salads, Jan Nidetch, a self-confessed overweight housewife with a cookie habit, launched Weight Watchers in 1963 and in doing so set the template for current home delivery services like Hello Fresh. Hot on her heels was the godfather of modern dieting, Doctor Robert Atkins, who launched his high protein, low carb Diet Revolution in 1972.The Last Chance Diet, launched in 1976, was a low-calorie liquid of pureed animal bits. Referred to as a ‘meat smoothie’, it was quietly withdrawn after a number of enthusiasts died.
1981 – 2000
If the catchphrase ‘No pain, No gain’ sounds familiar, it’s because Jane Fonda launched it with her first exercise video and some truly spectacular leg warmers in 1982. Liquid diets staged a comeback, and in 1988 Oprah, the patron saint of yoyo dieting, walked onstage in a pair of size 10 jeans pulling a wagon of fat to represent the 30kg she lost after four months off solid food. (She later denounced the diet and explained that it was the worst assault on her metabolism she had ever made.) Old mate Dr Atkins, perhaps realising that fashion is cyclical, released a revised edition of Diet Revolution in 1992. Jennifer Aniston bought a copy and would have broken the Internet if everyone wasn’t still on dial up.
2001 – 2018
The new millenium kicked off with the first inkling that Gwyneth Paltrow is not from this planet as she popularised the macrobiotic movement and the belief that you need to be wealthy to be well. Diets like the Dukan became quick fix popular by targeting ‘water weight’, which is pretty much what jockeys shed sitting in the sauna between races. By the end of the first decade, we looked to a new way of slimming.
Superfoods! Is there anything they can’t do? Kale! Quinoa! Pepitas! (Actually they’re just pumpkin seeds, but pepitas sound so healthy don’t they?) I’d go on… Keto, Hello Fresh, the 5:2 Starvation Diet, the cult of Crossfit, the inexplicably enduring popularity and slow blinking (YouTube it) of Paleo Pete, but at the end of the day we’re on a hamster wheel of self improvement. SO.
2019 – The Happy New Year Diet
Instead of trying to cleanse, detox, suppress, slim or fast, why not just go the basics of what any nutritionist (i.e. actual experts in the fields of health and wellbeing) will tell you? Instead of ordering pizza, make your own using pitas from your local shop and herbs from your garden. If you fancy a curry but aren’t allowed rice, teach yourself to make cauliflower rice. If you don’t like cauliflower, teach yourself to appreciate cauliflower. And then start working on your relationship with zucchini. And above all, don’t worry about how you look, because the peeps eating your pizza love you. And the zucchini also loves you…And on that note, here’s to a happy and healthy 2019, chin chin everyone.