The search for a scale model


Diets: Scientists and faddists have squabbled for more than a hundred years -- and continue to do so -- over what foods to eat and which to avoid.

July 15, 2002|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

Before the Atkins New Diet Revolution, before The Zone, before the Pritikin Program, there was Letter on Corpulence.

Its author was William Banting, a 5-foot-5 former London undertaker who at 200 pounds was too tubby to tie his own shoes. But after stripping sugar and starch from his diet -- and finding he shed 50 pounds as a result -- Banting did what many men with a fat-to-fit plan have subsequently done: He penned a diet book.

Published in 1864, Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public advocated lean meat, vegetables, dry toast and soft-boiled eggs -- topped off with a toddy for good measure. Considered the granddaddy of low-carbohydrate diets, the book went on to sell more than 100,000 copies, becoming so influential on both sides of the Atlantic that adherents boasted not of dieting but of "banting" their pounds away.

It may have been the first recorded diet craze but certainly not the last. Despite a century of progress in unraveling the scientific mysteries of food and its effects on the body, the question of what to eat is far from settled -- as evidenced by this month's dust-up over carbohydrate-rich diets. If history is any guide, dueling diets and scientific squabbles will continue for years to come.

"Many aspects of our current response to food were foreshadowed one hundred years ago," writes Michelle Stacey in Consumed: Why Americans Love, Hate, and Fear Food. "We've traveled this road before." For centuries, humans were blissfully ignorant of the nutritional content of their food. A hunk of bread or tallowy beef was considered roughly interchangeable. Dietary advice usually centered on how much and not what to eat. In 1860, the Ladies Home Magazine, for example, recommended meal portions ranging from 20 ounces for women to 36 ounces for prizefighters.

Then Wilbur Olin Atwater came along.

Long before Weight Watchers, the Connecticut chemist at Wesleyan University preached the virtues of counting calories, and cataloged the nutrient composition of foods in the 1890s. A few decades earlier, in the 1840s, German chemist Justus von Liebig reported that food was made of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals and other substances. (Liebig would also be remembered as one of the first scientists to align himself with the fast-growing food industry, lending his name to Liebig's Infant Food and Liebig's Meat Extract.)

In 1894 Atwater persuaded the U.S. Department of Agriculture to give him $10,000 to build a "respiration calorimeter" -- a sealed metal chamber in which human test subjects were given various foods to eat.

As fresh air was pumped in, Atwater measured the breath and "excreta" coming out. The measurements became the foundation for nutrition charts and food labels used by the USDA.

But Atwater's influence extended beyond the lab, because the reform-minded chemist was not shy about making diet recommendations to the American public based on what he knew -- or thought he knew -- about diet and nutrition.

In magazine articles and government pamphlets, Atwater railed against excessive consumption of fats, starches and sugars -- often imbuing these recommendations with a moral tone implying that certain foods were good or bad. "How much harm is done to health by our one-sided and excessive diet, no one can say," he wrote.

Atwater and his followers also criticized the importance Americans placed on the taste of food as opposed to its nutritional content, notes historian Harvey A. Levenstein, author of Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet. "Their attitude was, `The worst thing to follow is taste, because your taste will always mislead you,'" he says.

Many of our current attitudes about diet and nutrition were forged in this era. And moral judgments persist at the table: "A piece of steak becomes a concession to gluttony, one of the seven sins, and grilled fish a sign of uprightness," writes Stacey in Consumed.

As knowledge of foods grew, so did the number of fad diets. Vegetarians, who had formed their first national association in 1850, were subdividing into fruitarians, nutarians and lacto-ovarians, those who consumed milk and eggs.

Others swore by the Salisbury diet, developed by 19th-century nutritionist J.H. Salisbury. This regimen consisted solely of lean, partially cooked ground beefsteak and hot water. Raw foodists refused anything cooked. A group dubbing itself the "no-breakfast" club advocated fasting until lunch.

Then there was Horace Fletcher, a man known as the "Great Masticator" or the "chew-chew man," for his single-minded devotion to the single-minded act of chewing.

Fletcher had been a wealthy, 217-pound businessman who, at 40, couldn't persuade any life insurance companies to sell him a policy. His response was a diet, described in his book The AB-Z of Our Nutrition, written in 1903, in which Fletcher took chewing to a new level.

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