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The Diet Years : Sure, it's a $35-billion industry, but you can't call it 'new.' Take a trip with us through the long and storied history of calorie counting.

February 01, 1996|LIZ BRODY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This is the time of year when tempers run a little testy.

After all, this is peak dieting season, when even the mathematically challenged are known to perform great feats of caloric carry-over right there in the grocery aisles, hoping desperately to slip into something a little more comfortable--or rather, something more comfortably little.

Let's see, for one slice of apple pie you could chew--click, click, click--78 pieces of sugarless gum.

Dieting is as American as that apple pie--which now, of course, comes low-fat.

One out of four adults is doing it, according to the Calorie Control Council.

And we're teaching our children well. A survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that more than two-thirds of high school girls in some states were trying to lose weight.

And we are spending heavily to lose. The diet business will rake in almost $35 billion this year, projects John LaRosa, president of Marketdata Enterprises in Valley Stream, N.Y., who says, "The big money in the industry is for cosmetic weight loss of 10 to 20 pounds."

Business is booming, in part, because diets, like brakes, seem to wear out. Most of us know as we crash and burn in January that by March our resolve will be road kill.

Dieting is so ingrained, just the thought of going on one makes some people binge, says registered dietitian and clinical social worker Ellyn Satter, who explains that after 17 unsuccessful rounds, the pain of food deprivation eventually creates a conditioned response.

On a most basic level, dieting has played a certain drumbeat through the decades. Twisted as it's become, there may be something comforting in the sheer monotony and repetitiveness of it all.

"Dieting is highly ritualistic," says Hillel Schwartz, author of "Never Satisfied" (the Free Press, 1986), "and it's hard to shake once you get to be a part of it. The incessant counting of calories, the counting of pounds. . . . You're also initiated into a group with a secret code. You can start a conversation with a total stranger about the commiseration of losing weight because you've got a shared language."

And so we keep doing it.

*

The seeds of eating disorders go way back to the vomitories of ancient Rome and the holy anorexic saints of the Middle Ages. In neither case, however, was the goal beauty or slenderness. The Romans wanted more room to stuff down their banquets; the young saints starved themselves in the name of God.

But move ahead to the 16th century, where Schwartz finds two guys from Italy setting the dynamic of dieting in motion. The first was a nobleman by the name of Luigi Cornaro with gout and stomach problems who started consuming only 12 ounces of food and 14 ounces of drink each day. He became a new man and dashed off treatises on the benefits of dietary restriction.

The other was Santorio Santorio, a physician who fashioned a scale from a hanging chair and took to weighing himself religiously.

The first American dieters showed up in the 1830s. These food-conscious folks were followers of the Rev. Sylvester Graham, who preached a bleak regimen of whole grains, vegetables and water. Even if they were more concerned with avoiding the sinful gluttony bred by civilization than with reducing their belt lines, they surely helped stitch the seam that would wed dieting and morality together in the national psyche for years to come.

Meanwhile, according to Roberta Pollack Seid, author of "Never Too Thin" (Prentice Hall, 1989), the Romantic era ushered in a new slender heroine--the delicate damsel so ethereal she fainted, not unlike the lithe ballerina, who went on pointe for the first time to glide and flutter weightlessly.

Diets started appearing on backs of cookbooks and in popular literature. And, eventually, everyone was "banting"--that is, slimming on a menu of lean meat, dry toast, soft-boiled eggs and green vegetables, drummed up by a London undertaker named William Banting in the 1860s.

By the turn of the century, a new body image--the lean machine--was taking form in the dust swirls of Kitty Hawk. With so many innovations in technology, one's figure was to be as efficient, economical, balanced and sleek as a Wright brothers airplane. So it was that "Fletcherizing"--or machine-style chewing became the rage.

"You have no idea how much real nutriment you can get into your system in five minutes if you are industrious with your munching and cheerful about it," wrote the great masticator himself, Horace Fletcher, in 1913.

The first real slenderness craze roared in during the 1920s with the ever-so-fabulous cigarette-shaped flapper. Under the reign of this serpentine femme fatale appeared two dieting icons that would ultimately reduce the relationship between food and flesh to a eat-by-numbers game.

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