Calories & Corsets: A History of Dieting over 2000 Years, by Louise Foxcroft, Profile Books, RRP£14.99, 320 pages
Dieting is big business. With as much as a third of the world’s population overweight – and many more believing themselves to be – the weight-loss industry is worth $40bn a year in the US alone.
Our depressing modern obsession is put into 2,000-year context in Calories & Corsets, a pop history of dieting by science writer Louise Foxcroft. Her previous book dealt with a history of the menopause, so she’s on familiar ground here in talking about overwhelmingly female insecurities.
In fact, my “key takeaway” (to use a phrase a dieter never would) is that much of the modern history of dieting has been a lot of bossy guff talked by men and sucked up, overwhelmingly, by gullible women desperate to improve themselves. It could be a depressing tale, but in Foxcroft’s deft hands it’s fascinating.
The author admits she’s no expert when it comes to the dismal experience of dieting. “I’ve never seriously attempted a diet,” she cheerfully concedes, before going on to outline the aim of the book, which is “to put to rest the notion that there is a magical dieting ‘something’ that stands out from all the fads and fashions, and which has THIS WORKS stamped all over it.”
Foxcroft does this admirably, and with wit. This short volume would be a wise investment for anyone tempted to sign up to the (screamingly fashionable) high-protein diet of Dr Dukan, or to the (previously hip, now less so) regime of the low-carb king Dr Atkins. Foxcroft puts these fads, and many others, in their proper historical context. There is nothing new in the world of dieting.
Back in Ancient Greece, Hippocrates noticed that “the underlying principles of health were food and exercise, or work, and that a high food intake meant that a lot of hard work was needed for it to be properly assimilated ... ‘Man,’ he wrote, ‘cannot live healthily on food without a certain amount of exercise.’ ” The top Greek tip for fitness was walking, an activity that’s very much in vogue in 2012. (Some of the other ancient prescriptions for health are less likely to find modern favour – they include induced vomiting, lukewarm baths and abstinence from sexual intercourse.)
What stayed with me, however, was the tale of William Banting, undertaker to fashionable Victorian Londoners, who lost 46lbs in a year and then wrote up his success story. His diet, Foxcroft tells us, was “at heart, a long-term, protein-rich, high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet plan”. And so successful was he that “I am Banting” became a by-word for dieting, as late as the 1920s.
Long before Atkins, Banting was teaching us to shun carbs. Now Banting has been forgotten and the world has moved on to Dr Dukan and his steaks. Enjoy them while you can; pretty soon a new diet guru will come along and we’ll all follow him (it will be a him) towards the promised land of thin thighs.
Isabel Berwick is the FT’s associate Life & Arts editor