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The diet industry is all about exploitation and profit

Louise Foxcroft, author of ‘Calories and Corsets’ Profile Press ISBN:9781846684258 £14.99 lectures at Life Science Centre, Newcastle 29th January 6pm. £2 payable on the door. Reserve seat via website

Ever thought dieting, weight obsession, ridicule and guilt were a modern phenomenon? Historian Dr Louise Foxcroft follows society’s concerns of gluttony over 2,000 years from the Ancient Greeks to the modern Dukan diet and charts our obsession with the so called perfect body and image in her latest book Calories and Corsets which has been ‘Highly Commended’ in the Popular Medicine category at the BMA Medical Book Awards in September 2012.

Observing how we have viewed the very fat and indeed the very thin through the centuries makes for fascinating reading and Louise charts in meticulous and amusing detail the notions and methods that have dealt with the largely regarded sinful act of gluttony.

Louise explains that generations of us have fallen prey to get- thin-fast methods, many unscrupulous, many based on fear of ridicule, and mostly downright dangerous. Religion has certainly played its part in the guilt of enjoying ones food and the woeful neglect of our God- given human form and the illnesses one is expected to endure are as excessive as the appetites described.

We read that gluttony was identified in the sixth century by Pope Gregory the Great as having several forms: eating too much food (nimis) or eating wildly (forente) and even being too picky (studiose) as Louise charts the work of many well known dieticians from history whose work is still being used as the basis of the modern dieting industry and through which we can see the formulae behind the Atkins and the Dukan. Celebrity culture has also been hugely influential whether dieters themselves like Lord Byron who starved and binged or those that followed celebrity dieticians; Greta Garbo was the lover and muse of 1940’s Hollywood diet king ‘Dr’ Hauser and was the living ‘embodiment’ of his ‘work’.

Louise recognises that diets are based on principles first expressed in Ancient Greece that being ‘too fat or too thin was therefore seen as a sure sign of an unhealthy body, an imbalance of its essential ‘humours’ (black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm)’.

She writes with authority and wit on vomiting, enemas, purges and potions, the invention of the calorie, the ‘discovery’ of the hormone imbalance, the realisation that emotion has a direct link to our eating habits, how the arrival of sugar in the mid 1500’s changed our palates… in a nutshell, the myths, anxieties, and 'anti-fat cures' that have driven an ever expanding dieting industry which we are all prepared to follow in droves and pay for the privilege.

Many methods were popular but largely ineffective notes Louise and it is amusing to us today to read of the Boston Bon-Contour electrically charged contraption obesity belt of 1892; the scores of women rolling on the floor in loose clothing to break down fats, and the method of chewing until ‘food was liquid and all trace of taste had disappeared’ - a slimming ‘idea’ made popular by a Horace Fletcher known as The Great Masticator. It is also with some relief that we hear that cigarettes and chewing gum containing appetite suppressants (rather alarmingly, using the same as constituents of laughing gas) are no longer available.

In describing the work of a Dr William Wadd, Surgeon Extraordinary to the King (circa 1800) who published ‘Remarks on Corpulence or Obesity Considered as a Disease’, Louise observes that Wadd had in turn taken note of the writings of 17th century physiologist Giovanni Boirelli who advised chewing tobacco, imbibing a vinegar of squills and eating a bar of soap on a nightly basis as well as drinking plenty of fennel water. His observations led to his personal recommendations which included eating bread made from bran, lots of vegetables, little protein, and no alcohol….sounds very modern? Maybe not, when we learn also from Louise that he recommended taking digitalis, sprinkling the body with hot sand, having very little sleep, reading aloud and taking sea voyages!

Published early this year (Jan 2012 Profile Press ISBN:9781846684258 £14.99) ‘Calories and Corsets’ has generated many favourable reviews including ‘A compelling history of mankind’s peculiar and often perverse relationship with dieting…like a grown up version of Horrible Histories…her style is pacy and she has a wonderfully light touch,’ said The Times and ‘This fascinating look at fat, fads and fashion is not just hugely readable but hugely relevant….there’s no doubting the book’s intellectual nutritional value’ Time Out.

In conclusion, Louise reveals a trend over the centuries to which we, as a society still remain naïve and susceptible to “The once very fat person who devises a diet which is startlingly successful and goes on to market it to the rest of the world with books, plans, foods and colourful endorsements…. We can’t, and shouldn’t,” she says “remove the story of diets from the story of health, but we can do something about the weight of judgement and the smear of sin and temptation. The truth is that today’s quick–fix fad dieting is never going to work. We must think again, and radically, about gratification.”

“What we need to do is return to the ancient Greek philosophy of diaita (from which our word diet derives – describing a way of life rather than a narrow weight loss regime), bring it up to date for twenty-first-century living, and remember Cornado’s* sixteenth century ‘first rule’: that we must regain control and cease to be slaves to passions which turn out to be no more than delusions,” she says.

Notes to editors:

Luigi Cornaro, a Venetian merchant and author of ‘The Art of Living Long’ – the most successful diet book still in print over 450 years after it was first published in Padua in 1558.
Louise Foxcroft is available for interview

Louise has a PhD in the history of medicine from the University of Cambridge. Her book, Hot Flushes, Cold Science (Granta, 2008) was the winner of the Longman-History Today Prize, 2009. She has written for The Guardian and the London Review of Books and has been a Non-Alcoholic Trustee on the General Service Board of Alcoholics Anonymous, working on AA literature and archive materials 2005-2010 and acts in a supervisory capacity for Cambridge University.

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