Dieting: Battle of the bulge

Fad diets are nothing new – people have been following them for two millennia. A look back on 20 centuries of bingeing, purging, snake oil and strange ideas

Want to shift some pounds this January? You could scrupulously avoid sugar, starches, beer and butter. Leave off champagne, puddings and pastries. Or you could run every morning, followed by a good scrub down and a meal of something filling but fat-free. Because as night follows day, so the season of festive feasting must be followed by a diet or detox to get rid of the paunches and fleshbelts we had so much fun putting on.

But the regimes above aren't cribbed from the pages of the latest diet tome and are not the gospel according to Madonna's new personal trainer. They're taken from, respectively, a pamphlet published in 1863 by William Banting, as shining a star in the world of dieting then as Dr Robert Atkins was in the 20th century, and the writings of the Greek physician Galen, a follower of Hippocrates, who was helping people achieve bikini bodies in 2BC – 2,000 years before the bikini was invented.

We've been trying, collectively, to lose weight for more than two millennia, as medical historian Louise Foxcroft explains in her new book, Calories and Corsets: A History of Dieting over 2,000 Years. Foxcroft fixed on the topic of weight-loss schemes after speaking to a friend who's a medic. "She said that whenever she gives talks, as soon as she mentions diet drugs, everybody in the audience perks up. I thought that was so interesting, so I decided to see if I could use the history of dieting to throw light on the assumptions we make about our health."

And what Foxcroft found was 20 sorry centuries of bingeing, purging, snake oil and strange ideas about what we look like and why. While the Greeks had a sensible approach to fat-fighting ("the Greek word diatia, from which our word "diet" derives, described a whole way of life... an all-round mental and physical way to health"), the early Christians were rather more conflicted about excess flesh. As Foxcroft explains, "the heroic abstinence and starved bodies of early ascetics such as the third-century Saint Anthony were often the subject of exaggerated glorification". No doubt their constant prayer ran something along the lines of "nothing tastes as good as God feels".

One of the first regimes to tackle weight loss for its own sake (to achieve an "ideal body" free from "undue thinness and fatness") was an 11th-century plan created by Avicenna, a Persian physician and philosopher, who advised the fat to eat only bulky food with little nutrition in it, and to get it out of the body as quickly as possible using exercise and laxatives. As Calories and Corsets makes clear, when it comes to dieting, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Equally, the first modern "bestseller" was a 15th-century work, De honesta voluptate et valetudine by Bartolomeo Sacchi (Il Platina), which brought collected recipes to bring pleasure (voluptate) and health (valetudine) to its readers. Diet books have been money-spinners ever since.

But according to Foxcroft, people really got a taste for dieting during the 19th century. "People dieted mainly for health reasons and then in the mid-19th century it tips over into dieting more for aesthetic reasons. It's to do with people moving into urban environments, having access to different and more refined foods and the explosion of the media," she says. Ideas about body shape also underwent big changes from, she says. "Corsetry has been going for hundreds of years but in the Victorian age the corsets and the bustles really defined the sexes quite spectacularly." A generation later, there was a backlash against this womanly silhouette and a move towards more boyish figures. "After the First World War there just weren't any boys about and the girls begin to look like boys, with breast binding and dresses that fall from the hip."

The reasons for this physical metamorphosis and the fad diets – books such as Why Be Fat? and cigarette advertising that reinforced the message that smoking made women slim – that came in its wake are surprising. "Body shape and what we see as the ideal is far more linked to economics and whether we're in a time of war and peace than we might imagine," Foxcroft says. "During the First and Second World Wars, if you were overweight it counted against you because it looked as though you were taking more of the rations than you should have done. Then in times of austerity, and I suppose arguably that's having an effect now, there's a great deal being said about obesity. It's like a pendulum."

But Foxcroft is unconvinced by the quick-fix promises of many a diet regime. "Fad diets are little better than useless. They do the biggest business and arguably the greatest harm. Dieters can lose 5 to 10 per cent of their weight, but the weight almost always comes back." So why do we keep on trying? "The process is like falling in love," she says. "It provokes the same feelings. You are yearning for something. Food is the immediate desire and thinness the more remote but possibly achievable goal. You dwell obsessively on the object of your love." She advocates the unglamorous approach of eating less and moving more, focusing on healthy foods, fewer carbs and the odd biscuit.

So what does the future bring? Meals in the form of pills? Diet drugs for breakfast, lunch and supper? "I think there'll be a backlash against plastic surgery and diet drugs. From the first 'apronectomy' in the 1890s, it's become a norm, but the pendulum will swing back again, and I think it has to."

Other than learning about the things humans will do to be slim – taking digitalis, eating just the yolk of the egg as your entire daily repast – what has Foxcroft taken away from her time studying the history of diets? "I did think that actually I would be a lot better off if I wrote a diet book! I know how to do it now. You just need certain phases, a good back story, a celebrity to endorse it and bingo! Set up a website and off you go." However, she has used her forces for good and laid bare the barminess of fad diets. She does wish one thing, though. "That we could make the idea of moderation sexy. You really don't have to go from one extreme to the other."

Could next year's health bestseller be The Moderation Plan? I'd like to think so, but the past 2,000 years show that it doesn't look likely.

Calories and Corsets (£14.99, Profile Books) is published on Thursday

Voices
For the Love of God (2007) The diamond-encrusted skull that divided the art world failed to sell for
its $100m asking price. It was eventually bought by a consortium
which included the artist himself.
voicesYou can shove it, Mr Webb – I'll be having fun until the day I die, says Janet Street-Porter
News
peopleOrlando Bloom the pin-up hero is making a fresh start
Voices
Actor Zac Efron
voicesTopless men? It's as bad as Page 3, says Howard Jacobson
Extras
indybestFake it with 10 best self-tanners
VIDEO
Sport
Peter Moores was criticised for failing to handle top players when he last led the England team
sportFive years after being sacked from the job, Peter Moores to be named a cricket coach
Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
News
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
Sport
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sportThe city’s fight for justice after Hillsborough is embodied in Steven Gerrard, who's poised to lead his club to a remarkable triumph
News
The energy drink MosKa was banned for containing a heavy dose of the popular erectile dysfunction Levitra
news
Environment
People are buying increasing numbers of plants such as lavender to aid the insects
environmentGardeners rally round the endangered bumblebee
News
Ida Beate Loken has been living at the foot of a mountain since May
newsNorwegian gives up home comforts for a cave
Extras
indybest10 best gardening gloves
Sport
Australia's Dylan Tombides competes for the ball with Adal Matar of Kuwait during the AFC U-22 Championship Group C match in January
sportDylan Tombides was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2011
Arts & Entertainment
tvIt might all be getting a bit much, but this is still the some of the finest TV ever made, says Grace Dent
News
Posted at the end of March, this tweeted photo was a week off the end of their Broadway shows
people
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Apprentice IT Technician

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

    1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

    £153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

    1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

    Sales Associate Apprentice

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

    Day In a Page

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit