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Health Zone: Diets through the decades; NUTRITION and diet advice is big business. Every day we are bombarded with images of "perfection" to aspire to. But this is by no means a recent fad. RACHEL MURPHY looks at the history of slimming.


OUR obsession with losing weight is not a modern phenomenon. It's one of the oldest rituals known to woman.

The word diet comes from the Greek word "diaita", meaning way of life - and that's what slimming has been to women all over the world for centuries.

Food writer Margaritte Patten says: "We have been slaves to diets throughout history.

"Desired shapes and sizes have changed with fashion, but women have always been weight conscious. It has never been a period when it has been in vogue to be too fat."

Early dieting was based on trial, error and folklore. Elizabethan ladies believed fennel and Indian rhubarb kept them thin by acting as laxatives.

Victorian ladies tightened their corsets to make them look thinner while the pressure on the stomach and ribcage suppressed their appetites - often making them faint. As a last resort, some ate tapeworms.

The concept of calories was explained by German physicist Julius Robert von Mayer in 1842. But it wasn't until the end of the 19th Century that foods were classified into carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Vitamins weren't identified until early in the 20th century.

Doctors and scientists began to take diet and nutrition seriously and by the 1920s the cult of slimming was established.

The desire to be slim was fuelled by Hollywood images of film goddesses such as Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, who ate less because the big screen added pounds to their frame. Bread and potatoes were seen as "stodge" and were the first to go.

This form of dieting was called "banting" after an American doctor who advocated it.

"People were crazy about everything American", says food historian Colin Spencer. "It was fashionable to follow the American lead and eat raw vegetables and salads.

"British people started eating grapefruit for breakfast. It helped women achieve the figure of the day - flat chests and no bottom."

Anorexia existed as far back as the 1920s. Flapper girls cultivated stick-thin arms and skinny bodies to show off their Charleston dresses.

Drug-taking was also a common way to lose weight among upper classes, and doctors would prescribe amphetamine-based drugs to speed up metabolisms. Cigarettes were shamelessly advertised as appetite suppressants.

Meanwhile, a bizarre collection of mechanical devices were in vogue. Women were clamped into a ring of huge metal rollers believing their fat could be rolled away.

Margaritte Patten says: "There was no serious dietary layout, and the trend towards eating fruit confused people.

"In the late 1930s there was a fashion for eating oranges, but some believed that as long as you ate oranges you could eat whatever else you liked and still lose weight."

During the Second World War, losing weight was very low on the public agenda. And most women worked harder and ate less due to rationing.

So in the 1950s people made up for lost time. It became the only period in the century when it was fashionable to be plump.

Marilyn Monroe, right, was the living proof, but millions of women became overweight. By 1957 curves were history again. Christian Dior launched his new range of "wasp waist" dresses with voluminous skirts that required a 22in waist.

Almost overnight the dieting industry boomed again, and has stayed that way ever since.

Here's a look at its highs and lows. We've awarded marks out of 10 for staying power.



The banana diet: When rationing ended, bananas became popular. The banana diet was a strict low-calorie diet that included a lot of salad. The bananas filled you up and reduced sugar cravings.

The oil diet: This faddy, word-of-mouth diet claimed that drinking a "miracle mixture" of sunflower and olive oil before a meal would metabolise food better. It just made dieters ill.

RDX pills: RDX "full-stomach" pills were made of starchy carbohydrates and fibre which expanded when you drank water. Their motto was "the fat just melts away". Of course it didn't.


Food combining: Diets based on separating proteins and carbs became popular during the 50s. Eaten together, protein and starch were said to take 13 hours to digest. This theory was put forward by William Hay in the 19th century. 7/10

Meal replacements: Metrecal, a complete, nutritionally-balanced milkshake meal in a can, was imported from the US. 8/10

Food writer Margaritte Patten says: "It was post-war, women would try anything and there was little understanding of basic nutrition. The Hay diet has been much criticised but it works for many as it's been updated ever since."



Amphetamines: It was common to take amphetamine-based slimming pills to speed up metabolism. Some were low-dosage and legally prescribed. Others, sold on the black market, made women buzz so much they led to nervous disorders.

The bread and butter diet: This short-lived fad involved living on calorie-controlled quantities of bread and butter and nothing else. It was often misunderstood. People thought you could eat unlimited quantities.

Ayds slimming tablets: Chewy, carbohydrate and fibre-loaded pills were used by dieters as they filled you up. But the awful taste made you crave sweet food.


Slimming aids: Widely advertised in magazines and newspapers. The Daily Mirror carried ads for the artificial sweetener Saxin and the meal replacement drink Biskca. Plenty of modern versions are around today. 6/10

Weight Watchers: The slimming club arrived in the UK from America in 1967. By 1970 half a million Britons had joined up. 9/10

Margaritte Patten says: "The 1960s was an era of experimentation. Every woman wanted to be like the androgynous Twiggy and was willing to try any products that would help. The slimming aids that were around then were the forerunners of many products still available today."



Chocolate Sego diet pudding: This 250 calorie meal replacement pudding arrived from the US with the slogan "If you've got a spoon, have we got a diet for you." The meal replacement idea is still big business, but dieters soon realised you didn't need to buy a special pudding.

Digestion theories: Members of Weight Watchers believed green beans would take longer to digest if they were sliced lengthways instead of across. Eating tomatoes was banned in the morning, as it was thought an enzyme in tomatoes slowed down your metabolism. These were just myths.


The Beverley Hills Diet: This advocated eating a portion of pineapple before every meal to break down the fat. But even though the theory was disproved, the diet is followed today because it advocates a low calorie diet. 2/10

Margaritte Patten says: "In the 1970s, knowledge of basic nutrition was still limited, so there was a tendency to believe there might be some miracle formula out there. As in every decade, the only people who really lost weight were the ones who reduced their calorie intake. The pineapple diet worked for some, but probably more by luck than judgment."



The grapefruit diet: A low calorie eating plan that encouraged you to eat grapefruit for breakfast and as a snack during the day to suppress appetite. Women reported eating dozens of grapefruit a day and some said their mouths burned from all the citric acid.

The egg diet: Dieters ate up to 18 eggs a day believing they would fill them up, boost metabolism and help shed pounds. Some became constipated.


The champagne diet: Yuppie slimmers could "diet" on champagne and caviar as long as they counted the calories. It was supposedly "slimming without tears" - if the cost didn't make them cry. 3/10

The 'F' plan diet: This high-fibre diet focused on making the body work better rather than calories. Still a top seller, linked to preventing bowel cancer. 10/10

The Rosemary Conley Hip and Thigh Diet: A "sensible" diet which advocated following low calorie menus and exercise routines. Still very popular. 8/10

Slimfast: Replacing two meals a day with a nutritious milkshake is still a best-selling diet formula. 9/10

Margaritte Patten says: "These diets really do have staying power. With the help of the F Plan we worked out that fibre was good, not bad, and eating fewer calories was the only certain way to shed the pounds."



The Cabbage Soup Diet: Although invented in the 80s, the Cabbage Soup Diet was popularised by Joanna Lumley a decade later. It is based on eating cabbage soup and low fat, high-fibre foods. It gives rapid, short-term weight loss as well as a detox.

The Vitaline diet: You can eat every 15 minutes, provided it is healthy. Vitaline was slammed for pandering to bad habits.


The Cambridge Diet: This meal replacement diet from the US includes high-protein, low-fat soups, meal bars and shakes. A consultant will provide productsa nd keep tabs on your progress. 8/10

The Atkins Diet: This high-protein diet is popular with stars including Jennifer Aniston and Geri Halliwell, right. Very low in carbohydrates, it involves eating meals full of lean meat and fish and cutting out bread and potatoes. Critics claim the "unbalanced" diet stops food digesting properly and gives you bad breath, acne and constipation. 5/10

Margaritte Patten says: "We decided fat was the big baddie, not carbohydrate. The Atkins diet seems to work, despite the side effects."


Jenni Rivett's Jenergy plan: This concentrates on keeping the metabolism working well with muscle and strength training, plus healthy eating to lose weight. It teaches you to eat regularly, choose foods that increase your metabolic rate and avoid saturated fats and sugars. There are no specific recipes to follow - it is all about educating you for life. 9/10

The Zone Diet: This focuses on balancing protein, carbohydrate and fat intake. It also educates you on how certain foods affect hormonal balance. For $40 a day Americans can have three zone meals and two snacks delivered to their door. Madonna and Demi Moore have both used it. 7/10

Slimming supplements: Fat magnets, fat metabolisers, herbal diet pills and stick-on patches to control cravings have all become popular. They claim to suck fat out of food, speed up the metabolism with so-called "thermogenic" herbs and overwhelm our senses with sweet smells that put us off eating. Despite a few clinical trials that seemed to prove their worth, dieticians say they only really work when combined with a low-calorie eating plan plus exercise. 2/10

Margaritte Patten says: "We are better educated than ever before about dieting and people don't tend to fall for false promises any more. Exercise has become an intrinsic part of keeping slim these days. Regimes that encourage exercise as well as reducing calorie intake are likely to be the ones with staying power."
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Nov 15, 2001
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