The Great American See-Food Diet

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When healthcare professionals publish articles about childhood obesity, online commentaries sometimes throw back a strange knee-jerk response. Every now and then, an indignant parent will exclaim, “No child should be on a diet!”

There seems to be a definition problem. Fact is, everybody is on a diet, all the time. “Diet” is a neutral word for the customary fare an animal usually eats. When we talk about a raccoon’s diet, it’s not that the raccoon makes menu choices with weight loss in mind. Whatever raccoons happen to eat and drink, that’s their diet.

This joke doesn’t work in print, because it depends on two words sounding the same, but you’ve heard it:

I’m on the sea-food diet — when I see food, I eat it.

Actually, it’s not much of a joke. A lot of people are on the see-food diet. A person can un-ironically partake of the chocolate-covered bacon diet. Whatever you eat, that’s your diet.

An artist who wishes to remain anonymous contributes this:

I’m on the creative rationalization diet. Here are some of my favorite excuses —

If the food is on sale, it has fewer calories.
If it’s free, it doesn’t have any calories.
Leftovers have fewer calories — they kind of drain away while the stuff is in the refrigerator.
If I eat standing up, it doesn’t count.

When the word “diet” is used to mean a specifically designed eating program or regimen, with a certain aim in mind, another word is paired with it. Liquid diet, cardiac diet, diabetes diet, low-fat diet, soft diet — they all have meanings and purposes. So does a diet intended to cause weight loss, and it would help limit the confusion if people would be clear about it, if that’s what they mean. Call it a reducing diet or a slimming diet, or weight-loss diet.

So, the title of the article under discussion is, “150 years of dieting fads and still no quick fix.”

Lauran Neergaard, a medical writer for the Associated Press, indicates that the first diet guru to catch the attention of the American people was a Brit, one William Banting, the author of a pamphlet titled “Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public.” Corpulence is what they used to call obesity, and to avoid it, Banting advocated eating plenty of meat. He attributed his own 50-pound weight loss to shunning potatoes, bread, butter, sugar, milk, and beer.

Neergaard quotes the Philadelphia Cookbook, published in 1900, as saying:

An excess of flesh is to be looked upon as one of the most objectionable forms of disease.

The reporter also mentions various quick-fix, magic-bullet, wishful-thinking weight-loss aids that were peddled in the early 1900s, like soap and bath salts that promised to melt away the pounds. They are probably still sold today, along with such modern aids as the bath brush that is said to break up globs of subcutaneous fat, to be carried away by the bloodstream.

Neergaard spoke with Ellen Granberg, a sociologist from Clemson University, who has researched the history of fad diets in the United States, going back about 150 years. Granberg recounted how real nutrition science was born, around the time that the USDA delineated the five food groups. Later, because of the World War II, large groups of men were physically examined and their statistics were recorded. This led to the development of ideal weight-to-height ratio charts that closely match the more modern research on the optimal body mass index.

Granberg has this to say about reducing diets:

If what you need is a nutritionally sound, healthful weight-loss plan, you can get 100 of them. That, we have figured out in the last 100 years. It’s how to do all this other stuff that I think is the real challenge.

What other stuff? For one thing, why have those 100 weight-loss plans resulted in an obesity epidemic? Are all reducing diets futile, or would we all now be even more overweight without them? Self-help groups like Weight Watchers and Overeaters Anonymous have been around since the 1970s. Are those organizations ultimately useless? Or would the obesity epidemic be unimaginably worse if they didn’t exist?

What is going on in the American society and culture that drives the ever-increasing appetites and self-destructive behavior of its members? Granberg says health professionals grossly underestimate the difficulty of changing people’s behavior.

Dr. Pretlow also believes that nutritional information and good intentions are not enough to get the job done, and that such hard-to-change behavior is not difficult to explain when it is viewed through the psychological food dependence-addiction lens and plainly seen as food addiction.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “150 years of dieting fads and still no quick fix,”, 01/28/11
Image by JD Hancock, used under its Creative Commons license.

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