The "mayo grapefruit diet" (no connection to the Mayo Clinic), "the banana diet" and "the rice diet" are examples of the American public's willingness to self-prescribe for better health. Ultimately, wheat bran, because of its unique ability as a laxative, also became popular as a super-food.
Dr. Denis Burkitt, an Englishman, returned from a trip to Africa, where he had observed that Africans on fiber-rich diets were relatively free of diseases of the gastrointestinal tract. They seldom suffered from colon cancer, appendicitis, diverticulitis or hemorrhoids; even heart disease was rare.
Burkitt studied their environment and food consumption and found that they were vegetarians. Their diet consisted of high-fiber fruits and vegetables, cereal grains, protein from nuts and beans, and far less fat than was present in the typical American diet.
His work, along with Dr. David Ruben's "Save Your Life Diet" (1975), convinced many Americans that a high-fiber diet could be instrumental in reducing risk from certain diseases. Wheat bran in the 1970s replaced Graham's wheat flour of the 1900s as the panacea for gastrointestinal disease.
A report by George McGovern's 1977 Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs called for major modifications in American eating habits. Cutting back on fat was a top priority.
The committee published its recommendations as the first Dietary Goals for the United States. It suggested that Americans reduce consumption of cholesterol (a type of fat), saturated fat and sugar and eat more protective foods--especially fiber-rich fruits and vegetables.
Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cabbage were widely eaten because of their assumed ability to fight colon cancer. Carrots were praised for their beta carotene, another nutrient, research said, that had a role in cancer prevention.
By 1988, at least 10 government and volunteer health agencies had issued similar dietary recommendations in the hope of improving the health status of the nation. But as the number of groups making recommendations rose, so did consumer frustration. The advice to reduce fat was magnified, and soon, books on weight loss proliferated.
Dr. Robert Atkins started the "diet revolution" with his series of books of the same title in the early 1970s. He was followed by Nathan Pritikin and his "Permanent Weight Loss Manual" and "The Beverly Hills Diet" in 1981.
Among Atkins' therapeutic claims was that people could eat as much high-fat food as they could handle as long as carbohydrates--including fruits and vegetables--were not consumed. The basis for this theory was his discovery that a "fat-mobilizing hormone" would be secreted and would stimulate the body to burn its own stored fat. Health experts said this was sheer nonsense.
Then along came Pritikin, who advised consumers to cut their fat intake to a low 10%--even though most health organizations recommended 30% as a safe intake.
Such contradictory advice paved the way for the dangerous no-food-at-all mentality of the late 1980s. Liquid-protein and very-low- calorie diets--some as low as 400 calories per day--were extremely popular and equally dangerous.
In 1987, the California Dietetic Assn., published a booklet, "Popular Diets: How They Rate," to assist consumers in making eating-plan selections in the face of such silliness.
The organization reviewed 15 of the most celebrated regimens, including "Fit For Life," a diet based on food combinations; Judith Wurtman's "Carbohydrate Craver's Diet," designed to satisfy the hunger for sweets and starches; the "Fit or Fat Target Diet," which taught dieters how to design their own diets according to individual tastes and needs, and the "200 Calorie Diet," which advocated increasing activity to the equivalent of 200 calories along with a modest reduction in food intake to promote weight loss.
The CDA found that it could recommend only one of the diets, "The Setpoint Diet," by Dr. Gilbert A. Leveille. Four were conditionally recommended and the rest were not recommended. Leveille's methodology included a moderate reduction in calories to be provided by a variety of foods. Menus were supplied, based on five calorie-intake levels, and exercise was part of the program.
By the late 1980s, Americans' concern about their diets was expanded to include "heart health." Oat bran, a fiber-rich grain previously used to feed pigs and horses, was identified as a cholesterol-lowering agent. Supermarket shelves were soon flooded with that cereal. In the last year or so, however, research findings have raised significant questions about the ability of oat bran to lower cholesterol.
At about the same time, the television series "60 Minutes" featured a report with the National Resources Defense Council alleging that Alar, a substance used by growers to preserve red apples, caused cancer.