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150 years of battling the bulge

How America became a nation of dieters

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December 25th, 2012

With the arrival of a new year and all those pesky resolutions, millions of people are officially starting their diet this month. Some will slurp down bowls of cabbage soup. Others will feast on kale and carrot smoothies. Others will purchase Hungry Girl to the Max or Wheat Belly, two popular new diet books. And, of course, January is the busy season at gyms and diet support companies like Weight Watchers. We have become a nation of dieters. Between the books, the supplements, the ongoing nutrition counseling, and the special pre-packaged foods, dieting has become a $65 billion per year industry.

Early weight loss measures

The desire to slim down is nothing new. Back in 1863, a rotund English coffin maker named William Banting penned what is widely believed to be the first modern diet book,Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public. Banting s creed was based on his own experience of shedding 35 pounds in 38 weeks, and his high-protein, low-carbohydrate plan was surprisingly consistent with many of today s most popular weight loss programs, most notably the Atkins Diet. Of course, not every early weight loss remedy was as effective as Banting s. Take for example, La Parle Obesity Soap. A 1903 advertisement promised the soap would positively reduce fat without dieting or gymnastics. Absolutely harmless, never fails to reduce flesh when directions are followed. A bar of La Parle soap cost a hefty $1 per bar (which is roughly equivalent to $23 today), testament to the fact that Americans have always been willing to pay a premium to reduce their girth. In 1908, the American insurance industry culled its data and released the first tables of average height and weight. Eight years later, the USDA published its first dietary guidelines. And in 1943, Americans could see how they ranked when the first ideal height and weight tables were published. The publication of each new data set increased both awareness and concern about weight and body image.

Birth of the commercial weight loss industry

The commercial weight loss industry was growing rapidly by the early 50s, said Dr. Ellen Granberg, associate professor at Clemson University speaking at a Library of Congress symposium. It was also the time when it became popular to market foods on the basis of their low calorie content. Metrecal, a protein shake, was the first meal replacement beverage. To satisfy those who preferred solid food, Figurines, a meal replacement bar, soon followed. By the 1960s, sales of meal replacement products reached $40 million. The 1950s also gave us diet soda. The first was No Cal, a sugar-free ginger ale, introduced in 1952. It was developed for diabetics, but its sweet taste appealed to dieters who couldn t get enough of the drink. No Cal s manufacturer, Kirsch Bottling, capitalized on the drink s appeal to dieters by using Hollywood starlets like Kim Novak in its ads. Other brands followed, including Diet Rite (1958), Tab (1963), and Fresca (1966). The next big development in the weight loss industry occurred in the early 1960s when groups like Overeaters Anonymous and Weight Watchers became popular. Before the advent of weight loss support groups, the average person had very little access to diet help that they thought of as being both trustworthy and affordable, says Granberg. Weight loss support groups, being inexpensive, were innovative for [people] because they offered the opportunity to connect with and learn from other people who were trying to lose weight.

Fads and follies

In the late 20th century, the word fad often preceded the word diet. Every month there was a new book with a new gimmick promising weight loss. There was the Cookie Diet, the Zone Diet, and the Scarsdale Medical Diet. Some, like the Atkins Diet, have stood the test of time. Others, like the lemonade diet, haven t. Drugs have also been used to help people shed unwanted pounds, often with disastrous results. Back in the 1930s, an amphetamine called Benzedrine became the weight loss drug of choice. It was both addictive and lethal, but it remained on the market until the FDA banned it in 1979. Another diet drug, Fen-Phen, was widely used in the 1990s until studies revealed that it contributed to valvular heart disease and it too was taken off the market. Despite the fact that an estimated 108 million Americans are currently on diets, obesity has never been more prevalent. Still, there is reason to hope. As Granberg puts it, When we look at today s dieting infrastructure, it can be easy to focus on what it doesn t do or the progress that we haven t yet made; but if we consider the state of our scientific and cultural knowledge as it existed in the 1800s, then the ways in which we ve made some important progress become more salient. For me, that s important because it suggests that we re not yet where we want to be, but we have made some measurable advances and we should continue to do so in the future. michele.harris@erickson.com

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