In part one of a two-part article, Dr Mary Ellen Chatwin examines the basis of many modern weight-loss diets, the sociocultural issues relating to dieting, and how the diets of different cultures affect health.
The basis of many modern weight-loss diets
The first diet ever published was entitled ‘Letter on Corpulence Addressed to the Public’ and appeared in 1863. It was written in England by William Banting, an enormously overweight undertaker (and coffin-maker to the Duke of Wellington). When he was in his 30s, he first asked his surgeon for advice. He wanted to lose the weight that kept him from living a normal life. However, through the years he came to realize doctors tended to prescribe vague remedies and more exercise - which in turn made him more hungry, causing Banting to overeat again.
By the time he was in his 60s, Mr Banting had tried everything the doctors ordered, including 20 stays in hospital. "I could not stoop to tie my shoes, so to speak, nor to attend to the little offices humanity requires without considerable pain and difficulty which only the corpulent can understand, I have been compelled to go downstairs slowly backward to save the jar of increased weight on the knee and ankle joints and have been obliged to puff and blow over every slight exertion, particularly that of going upstairs."
Finally, Mr. Banting - 202 pounds and only 5 ft 5in tall - met a renowned surgeon, Dr William Harvey, who had begun working on the new area of treating diabetes, with French colleagues. After some unsuccessful trials, the doctor pinpointed the causes of obesity in Banting’s diet. He was told to give up bread, butter, milk, sugar, beer and potatoes. Banting was alarmed, sure that he wouldn’t survive without these ‘staples’ of the 19th century British diet. However, by the end of the first year he had lost over 45 pounds and 12 inches from his waist. His success was stunning and he became so famous that the word for ‘dieting’ in England was often termed ‘banting’. The term is still used in Sweden today. His low-carbohydrate diet was composed of other common English foods, including meat, and would now perhaps be called a ‘high-protein’ diet.
This became the basis of many modern diets. Banting died at 81, believing strongly that his loss of weight and changes in diet were the reasons for his long survival. This is the starting point for our brief discussion of the ensuing ‘slimming diets’ that have emerged in the decades since Banting’s discovery.
Sociocultural ‘obstacles’ to dieting
The British Social Anthropologist, Mary Douglas, is still seen as one of the ‘ancestors’ of the study of ‘foodways’ and the sociocultural rules that dictate how we eat. She determined that food, in Western societies, was often taken in the context of ‘a proper meal’ and the notion was further developed by British scholars. The ‘proper meal’ in Britain is understood often as the main meal of the day, structured - so to speak - by how it is prepared, and by rules taken for granted in each family. These rules include the eating ‘event’ - plates, techniques, flavours combined, sequence of dishes eaten (e.g. dessert at the end, not the beginning).
Traditional family structures and slimming diets
Anthropologists are interested in the social relationships around foodways—a person doesn’t just sit down with just ‘anybody’ to eat. Also, those who cooked and prepared the food are part of this structured process. What are the table manners agreed upon within each family or group? The ideal British ‘proper meal’ a decade ago would have been prepared from fresh ingredients (meat, potatoes, vegetables and gravy) and served hot. It would have been ideally seen as a family occasion, prepared by the woman-wife-mother for her husband and children and eaten by the whole family. Ideally, again, family members eat together around a table making pleasant conversation. The ‘proper meal’ symbolizes the ‘proper family’ - without conflict and enjoying each other’s company - and showing the generational and gender hierarchy. The woman would be the principle ‘servant’ who often bows to the whims of husband and family that dictate the contents and preparation of the meal.
Abandoning slimming diets for family reasons
It’s easy to understand how someone who goes on a diet in such a social context strains the ‘proper family’ structure. A teen or the father - even the mother herself - might decide to diet but they very often find themselves strongly solicited to eat ‘as usual’, almost as if dieting is a betrayal to the survival of the ‘family’.
Cognitive psychologist Judith Beck (Diet for Life 2010) devotes several sections to the issue of food refusal at special occasions (even her daughter’s wedding cake) and especially within the family. For example, if you are a mother, ‘ask your family members to help prepare, serve and clean up’. Indeed, it takes no less than family re-organisation in some cases. ‘If you’re tempted to nibble as you store leftovers, ask family members to plate their food and then store the leftovers before you eat.’ How many tasks can be reasonably re-learned by all the others in the family? It’s easy to understand why many diets are abandoned ‘for family reasons’.
Dieting and society pressures
Socially, it’s hard to ‘just say no’ to food in many contexts - professional events, celebrations, even the Sunday dinner - keep up the pressure. Dieting is also knee-deep in moral and class judgments: We often hear cheap fast-food vilified when higher calorie Starbucks drinks are rarely blamed for poor nutrition. If the neighbour watches too much TV he’s a couch potato, getting fat; but if our child sits around reading or studying we don’t accuse them of laziness that leads to obesity.
Culture and diet
The effect of different cultural diets on health
Slimming and - especially - remaining slim in our culture can be extremely challenging. The same foods that make us fat are the same foods that cause heart disease and diabetes and cancer - the diseases associated with obesity. These foods were absent from human diets during the 2.5 million years of evolution leading up to the agricultural ‘revolution’ about 10,000 years ago. We’re poorly adapted to dealing with refined foods such as easily digestible starches, refined carbs like white flour and sugars. When we remove these foods from our diets, we get healthier. Insulin levels come down and with them a host of metabolic disturbances normalise.
Culturally, no ethnic group or country is immune to disease today. Diets vary widely throughout the world; India has one of the largest populations of vegetarians in the world, and they also have high rates of heart disease and diabetes. Conversely, the French consume high volumes of fat (yes even saturated fat), and the Inuit of Arctic regions and the Masai of Africa get most of their caloric intake from animal protein and fat, and yet they all have low rates of heart disease and diabetes.
In 1906, Dr. Vilhjalmur Stefansson, a young Harvard anthropology teacher later became famous for crossing the Arctic alone and living off the land with the Eskimos. For years, he thrived on a diet of fish and meat, with virtually no vegetables, and came to believe the high protein approach to eating was the healthiest for humans. Yet as a non-medical practitioner, his writings on the subject were ignored.
Later, he and a colleague were the objects of a supervised study on a high-protein ‘deprivation’ diet for a year: They only ate one kg of meat per day: 79% fat, 19% protein, 2% carbs; they remained perfectly healthy with only a slight weight loss and improved blood pressure, no vitamin or mineral deficiencies. The issue of calcium was especially notable; they consumed just a quarter of the calcium usually found in mixed diets, and the acidity of the meat supposedly depletes calcium!