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Definition: diet, to from Dictionary of Food: International Food and Cooking Terms from A to Z

To control the intake of food in general or of particular types of food usually with a view to losing weight but sometimes for other medical or health reasons, e.g. for coeliac disease and diabetes

Summary Article: DIETING
from Encyclopedia of Wellness

Dieting practices include various regimens and products that aim to reduce the amount of fat in the human body, specifically those that involve modifying one's intake of various types of food and calories. Since antiquity, physicians have recommended various kinds of diets for maintaining ideal body weight, but not until the 20th century did dieting become widespread and popular for all classes. Some of the most high-tech practices related to dieting and weight loss currently include medical surgeries and pharmaceutical supplements.

Origins of Modern Dieting

Thomas Venner's 1620 work Via Recta first used the term obesity and described it as a hazard of the genteel classes. He argued that a return to a balanced diet and an exercise regimen could cure individuals of their acquired “fleshiness.” In the 18th and 19th centuries, corpulence was the preferred term in writings on health, regarding it as a self-inflicted condition that resulted from overindulgence. Once a marker of wealth and status, by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the fat body became considered a symbol of excess and pathology. Dieting regimens placed the onus upon individuals to cure themselves.

One of the early mass diets was generated by the 1863 publication of William Banting's pamphlet A Letter on Corpulence Addressed to the Public, which sold thousands. In it, Banting describes obesity as the most distressing of all the “parasites that affect humanity” and argues that obesity and a proper diet are widely misunderstood. Banting detailed how he “cured” himself of his own excesses after trying, in vain, to reduce his weight through various forms of exercise, trying sea air and Turkish bathing, eating only light food, and consuming gallons of “psychic and liver potassae.” The only tactic that worked, he argued, was to reduce his consumption of starch and sugar. After Banting, the active participation in weight-loss regimes became a populist pastime. It was not until the beginning of the 20th century, however, that weight-loss strategies became widely available and practiced.

Currently in the West, the diet industry is enjoying a time of massive popularity given the current public health warnings about obesity and its various comorbidities (heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and many others). Weight-loss services, gyms, and prepared diet food companies are advertising in every available media format.

Rise of Fad Diets

Following the popularity of William Banting's diet regimen in the mid-19th century, a slew of radical diets promising quick weight loss appeared in the early 20th century. These new fad diets drew millions of adherents in Western societies in the wake of the shift in bodily aesthetics from corpulence to slimness in the late 19th century.

In 1917, Lulu Hunt Peters published Diet and Health, With Key to the Calories, which advocated a diet plan that limited one's intake to 1,200 calories per day. The influence of Peters's thesis has endured for nearly a century, with nutritionists continuing to prescribe diet plans between 1,200 and 1,500 calories per day for weight loss in obese patients. Calorie counting also continues to be the cornerstone of many popular diet regimens.

In the 1920s, cigarette companies began to address the increasing public concern with slenderness by promoting cigarettes as a means of suppressing the appetite and maintaining a good figure. The 1930s saw the emergence of the first marketed diet pills. These drugs contained dinitrophenol, a central ingredient in insecticides, dyes, and explosives. However, research conducted by doctors at the time also found that the chemical had the ability to raise one's metabolism, thus enabling one to burn calories more easily. By the mid-1930s, thousands of U.S. dieters had tried dinitrophenol. However, following numerous cases of blindness and some deaths, the drug was banned.

In addition to diet aids such as tobacco and pills, food combinations became the focus of diet fads into the 1930s. The Hay diet, developed by William Hay, encouraged dieters to separate foods at mealtimes, suggesting that's one's body could not cope with numerous combinations of foods simultaneously. The Hay diet encourages followers to eat meat, dairy, bread, potatoes, and fruit at separate meals, in combination with the administering of enemas several times weekly.

Food fads and diet aids and supplements came together in the 1960s with a diet plan devised by Herman Taller. Taller rejected the importance of counting calories and instead insisted that a high-protein diet could be enjoyed without consequence, provided dieters supplemented their food intake with a pill (invented by Taller) that contained polyunsaturated vegetable oil. Taller published his diet plan in the book Calories Don't Count, which sold more than 2 million copies.

In the 1970s, food fads continued, with the grapefruit diet (also known as the Hollywood diet) enjoying widespread appeal among women seeking rapid weight loss. The diet promised a loss of 10 pounds in two weeks and involved variants from eating half a grapefruit prior to each meal (with no more than a mere 800 calories consumed daily) to simply drinking grapefruit juice and eating the fruit for 18 days. The diet was condemned as dangerous and hazardous to the health of dieters, and yet it continued to be popular, and it is still promoted as an effective crash diet.

Beginning in the 1970s, anticarbohydrate fad diets promised to be the new and ultimate weight-loss solution. The best known and most enduring of these diets was the Atkins diet (known formally as the Atkins Nutritional Approach), developed by Robert Atkins (1930–2003) in 1972. Atkins devised the diet to address his own weight problem; it is based on a commitment to a high-protein, low-carbohydrate daily food intake. Thousands of patients sought treatment from Atkins, and in the early years of the 21st century, the Atkins diet continued to be one of the most popular fad diets, with celebrity adherents endorsing its effectiveness and ensuring its ongoing influence.

Numerous other fad diets emerged in the latter part of the 20th century, many concerned with finding a fine balance or ratio for food intake. One such popular diet is the Zone diet, devised by Barry Sears (1947–), which is concerned primarily with achieving optimal hormone balance, particularly insulin levels. Sears suggests that a particular intake ratio of protein to carbohydrate affects a harmony in one's hormone levels, thus triggering weight loss.

One of the more recent fad diets developed in Miami, Florida, by Arthur Agatson is the South Beach diet. This plan designates “good carbs” and “good fats” and positions these as the cornerstones of the diet plan for weight loss and cardiac health. Agatson draws on evidence that suggests that refined (“bad”) carbohydrates are absorbed by the body too rapidly, affecting insulin's ability to metabolize fats and sugars. Similarly, he insists on the link between “bad fats” and cardiovascular disease.

In the last few decades, diet fads have been propelled by the endorsements of celebrities who have allegedly had weight-loss successes with particular food regimens. In light of this, the term fad diet has come to be replaced more commonly with “celebrity diet—a variety of which are routinely offered in women's magazines.

Weight-Loss Companies

Jenny Craig, an American woman, cofounded her highly successful weight-loss company of the same name in 1983 following weight gain after pregnancy. Craig pioneered a prepackaged food diet program that became one of the most well known weight-loss solutions in the West. The Jenny Craig plan consists of more than 500 weight-loss centers as well as an extensive line of packaged foods. The core of the Jenny Craig diet program (and of many other similar organizations) is the diet plan: usually a menu grid of seven days, prescribing foods to be eaten at breakfast, lunch, and dinner (with snacks) that is limited to between 1,200 and 1,500 calories daily, depending on one's starting weight.

Actress Sara Rue, on left, Jenny Craig CEO Patti Larchet, and actor Jason Alexander pose for a photo at Jenny Craig's New Year's weight-loss resolution “check-in” at the SLS Hotel Beverly Hills in California on February 3, 2010. Alexander signed on as a Jenny Craig spokesman in 2010. (AP/Wide World Photos)

Many weight-loss companies provide services, including weekly consultations or meetings in order for the client to be weighed in and to provide social support for weight loss. Between weekly meetings, many plans insist that one record one's daily eating and activity patterns as well as any difficulties or food challenges one may face. This is often known as a food diary, in which one must detail precisely what is eaten at each meal, at each snack time, the size of portions, the times at which one eats, and so on.

What marks the diet strategy of Jenny Craig and similar weight-loss organizations, such as Weight Watchers, is total vigilance. Weight-loss organizations generally advocate highly regulated food intake. Ironically, food does not become a secondary concern for the fat body, but instead eating is brought to the fore and is scrutinized more intensely than ever before. Weighing out portions of meat, learning what constitutes a fat or bread exchange, and careful negotiation of dining out with friends makes eating a matter of constant surveillance.

Gender and Dieting

Although both men and women are overweight, overwhelmingly, the target audience for modern advertising about diets and food intake regulation is women. Some feminists have argued that dieting amounts to a form of disciplining women's bodies to conform to the pressures of normative beauty ideals that are highly gendered. Others have linked the Western obsession with dieting to eating disorders.

Feminist theorist Susan Bordo looks at the phenomenon of dieting and the endlessly fraught relationship women have with food in her best-selling book Unbearable Weight. She argues that society insists this relationship must be stringently managed; that the image of a woman surrendering herself to delicious food with abandon is taboo. Bordo argues that there is a moral panic about excessive desire in contemporary Western societies. To allow desires to run unchecked connotes a modern understanding of addiction. All women are supposed to have a desire for food, beset by a number of anxieties about her intake, and, as Bordo highlights, many advertising campaigns generate food anxieties.

Analyzing advertisers’ manipulation of the problem of weight watching for the contemporary woman, Bordo argues that diet food advertising targets women's anxieties by proposing guilt-free solutions to their desire for food and hunger for satisfaction. Bordo explores the current trope of control used in food advertisements, which suggests that women are constantly battling their desire for food. Words such as mastery and control feature prominently now in advertisements targeting women.

Dieting, Control, and Loss of Pleasure

Dale Atrens has argued that food has replaced sex as the leading source of guilt in our society. His work The Power of Pleasure is a rebuttal of the ascetic restraint and self-denial of the dieting culture. Atrens argues that in following constant and massive trends such as low-fat, low-salt, high-protein, and low-carbohydrate diets, we are endangering our health rather than improving it. Atrens exposes a “new Puritanism” in dieting culture that suggests that ill health results from unbridled passions and is therefore a symptom of moral weakness. In this logic, fat people are victims of their own “sins.” Atrens notes that the eating practices of our everyday lives have taken on an almost religious significance. One's status as a “believer” or an “infidel” is to be found in the condition of one's body.

Many alternative modes of eating have been posited in order to redress the problems with dieting, particularly where they affect women's sense of self and lived experiences. One such model is proposed by psychotherapist Susie Orbach in her landmark text Fat Is a Feminist Issue. Orbach's central theory is that fat women eat compulsively to stay fat, in order to create a sexual buffer between themselves and a repressive patriarchal society. The conception that fat surrounds a female body as a kind of armor to protect against one's sexuality, or the exploitation of it, is central.

Orbach posits that women are taught from a very young age that women's bodies are coveted as sexual commodities, that they must be aesthetically pleasing in order to fulfill feminine roles (Orbach, 1984, p. 20). The role of women is a sexualized one, and female participation in society is regulated by the attractiveness of women's bodies and what they can offer. Fat emerges as a barrier to a fulfillment of traditional female sexual roles that are upheld by a continuing maintenance of the body (Orbach, 1984, p. 43). In response to diet practices and a weight-loss culture, Orbach urges women to be more accepting of their bodies. Rather than promoting diets as a response to excess weight, Orbach suggests the need to reconnect to one's body and appetite, to eat only when hungry, and to reject the notion of dieting.

Critics of Orbach have argued that her thesis automatically links fatness to compulsive overeating. Some women argue that their weight is caused by genetic or physiological issues or that it resulted from pregnancy and childbearing.

A Global Epidemic of Obesity

Despite the long history of diet regimens and the immense expansion of the weight-loss industry in Western countries (and its opponents such as Orbach), the World Health Organization has declared that the world (but with particular emphasis on the West) is in the grip of an obesity epidemic. Studies have confirmed that the number of people now considered clinically (and often morbidly) obese has risen steadily and accounts for the dramatic increases in rates of heart disease, diabetes, and other obesity-related illnesses. Given this, obesity has begun to be reconceptualized within medical discourses as a disease rather than as an effect of the absence of individual moral fortitude and self-control.

However, the moral aspersions cast on people deemed as fat persist in the popular imagination. Morality and medicine are thus irrevocably intertwined in discourses about obesity, and a panic has emerged about the disease of obesity and how best to treat it, given the relative failure of a range of dieting practices. In response to the moral panic engendered in and through medical discourses and Western public health directives, drastic (and mainly irreversible) surgical techniques and interventions into the obese body have been developed and have grown in popularity as last-resort options for those deemed obese. These procedures are known as bariatric or weight-loss surgeries, and while they vary in specific surgical techniques, all share a common premise: to alter the shape, size, or function of a patient's stomach to force a regulation and reduction of one's food intake.

Bariatric Surgery

In the past decade, surgery has become a significant weight-loss practice for people who have been determined to be obese, especially for those deemed morbidly obese (or have a body mass index [BMI] of 40 or higher). Various bariatric procedures involve creating malabsorption (interfering with the body's ability to absorb nutrients that are ingested) or restriction (severely limiting the amount of food a person eats to the point of feeling full). Gastric bypass involves dividing the patient's stomach into two sections, consisting of a smaller upper pouch and a larger lower section. A section of the patient's intestine is rerouted to the smaller upper pouch, thereby bypassing the larger stomach section (and the volume of food it can potentially hold). While this is clearly major surgery, what is appealing about bariatric surgeries is the fact that they are most often undertaken via laparoscopy, or “keyhole surgery.” This means that, rather than one long incision, a series of very small incisions are made, and tools are inserted (one of these a camera) to conduct the procedure and minimize invasiveness and patient recovery times.

Bariatric surgery has a number of variant procedures, including laparoscopic gastric band, which is reversible. The gastric band (of which there are a number of types) is a silicone structure that encircles the stomach, creating a small upper pouch and larger lower pouch. The band has on its inner surface an adjustable balloon that can be filled with saline to increase a patient's restriction or deflated to allow greater food intake (for example, during pregnancy). Gastric banding has become increasingly popular, given that it has fewer risks than radical bypass surgery, and a patient's food intake can be adjusted after surgery simply via local anesthetic.

The result of bariatric surgery is to radically limit the amount of food a patient can ingest, thereby reducing the calories absorbed by the body, or to decrease the amount of nutrients absorbed by food that is ingested, or both. The result is rapid and dramatic weight loss. It should be noted that patients are routinely screened for eligibility for this procedure prior to undergoing surgery, but the baseline BMI varies according to whether a patient is clinically diagnosed as being morbidly obese or whether a patient is obese with associated comorbidities (having a BMI between 35 and 40).

The increased popularity of bariatric surgeries over the last decade demonstrates the fact that these procedures have come to be regarded as another option for those wishing to lose weight. Weight loss is popularly understood as a task that is defined by deprivation, hardship, and work: rigidly monitoring one's food intake and exercise is required in any diet, and is often not a pleasurable or enjoyable experience. Because of this dominant way of imagining the project of weight loss, bariatric surgical interventions are simultaneously appealing to those who have undertaken numerous diets previously and are regarded by others as radical procedures deployed by those who have failed in previous attempts to lose weight. Weight-loss surgeries have been conceptualized by many as a quick-fix option and a way out of living in a fat body in a culture that abhors excess flesh. These processes are linked to cultural understandings about morality.

See also Atkins, Robert C.; Bariatric Surgery; Calories; Fats; Weight Watchers.

  • Atrens, Dale. The Power of Pleasure. Duffy and Snellgrove Sydney Australia, 2000.
  • Bordo, Susan. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. University of California Press Berkeley, 1993.
  • Chernin, Kim. The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness. Harper Perennial New York, 1994.
  • Orbach, Susie. Fat Is a Feminist Issue. Arrow Books London, 1978.
  • Samantha Murray
    Copyright 2012 by Sharon Zoumbaris

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