The late '80s was the heyday of the medically supervised VLC (very low calorie) liquid diets. "People lost a lot of weight fast," says Frances Berg, founder of the Healthy Weight Journal and adjunct professor of the University of North Dakota School of Medicine. "All of them have gained it back now. And I know of two deaths in our own state."
In the early '90s, the anti-diet movement gained momentum, with leaders forming support groups nationwide to help people stop depriving themselves and get back to their hunger signals. The backlash intensified as some people sued commercial weight-loss centers and others spoke out, calling fat a feminist issue. Others took up the cause of size acceptance.
In the midst of all this, medical experts came straight out and said it: Diets don't work. Why? Because when you cut calories, you trick the body into starvation mode, lowering your metabolism, while increasing your appetite and obsession with food.
Nevertheless, by 1993 we were back on track. "Let there be Lite," ushered in the new era.
Dietary fat was Public Enemy No. 1, according to the Calorie Control Council, as four out of five Americans consumed low-cal, sugar-free and/or reduced-fat food and beverages. And only last year a survey done by the Food Marketing Institute showed that concern about fat content reached a historical high: 65% of shoppers considered it important, more than four times as many as in 1987.
Yet, even as we speak, lite is getting old, to be replaced by fake fat. With olestra, phen-fen and leptin leaping off the headlines, we've got a whole new dieting dialect--and dialectic.
"We've had sugar substitutes and we didn't become any thinner or eat any less sugar," says Larry Linder, executive editor of the Tufts University Diet & Nutrition Letter. "Why would it be any different with fat substitutes?"
And when it comes to the fat hormone, don't hold your breath; it'll be years, if ever, before they can monkey around with your DNA or give you a skinny shot.
So what have we learned?
A whopping one-third of the adult population is obese--20% above desirable body weight--according to the National Center for Health Statistics. And millions of others keep dieting and losing, like a broken record, trying to get within calling distance of a visible rib.
If dieting turns out to be a case of the "emperor's new clothes," perhaps we can exit the illusion by understanding how it serves to cover our deeper needs as a culture. The fear of losing self-control in the face of abundance is an obvious call--and spurts of furious dieting did occur in the fat years following World Wars I and II, echoing a concern by society at large not to go soft amid the plenty.
Perhaps, as some argue compellingly, the whole Kate Moss mystique fronts a more insidious intent--that dieting is a cunning control switch levied by a patriarchal society to keep women diminished, not to mention, distracted from more powerful pursuits.
But, if that's the case, unfortunately men today have succumbed to the downsizing trend: According to data from the CDC, 19% of them are eating fewer calories and exercising more to lose weight.
Seid suggests that as women in the 1920s and 1960s suddenly gained new sexual freedoms, they may have grasped onto dieting as a handrail for balance--an instinctual reigning in of the animal appetites, as in, "at least I can control my eating." She goes on to point out that those two slender-crazed periods, as well as the 1830s, were all characterized by political and social turmoil, an emphasis on youth and redefinition of women's roles.
Today, too, we have our share of chaos as we gallop anonymously through cyberspace at record pace, knocking conventions over willy-nilly in the home stretch to the next millennium. Perhaps, dieting serves as a bridle, helping us feel like were still in the saddle; the scale and caliper standing in for other measures of self-worth that have fallen by the wayside.
"We live in a very secular society," Seid says. "Dieting is one thing you at least can hang yourself onto. We don't do it just to live longer and look better; it gives meaning and it gives structure."
And so we keep doing it.
"My recommendation is that you try and find a healthy weight rather than a beauty ideal, make reasonable changes in your diet and live with what comes," says obesity researcher Kelly Brownell, a professor of psychology at Yale University. "There's a clear link between weight variability and poor health.
"But if there's one thing I see in the future," he says, "it's diet fads."