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Round and round we go

Americans have long been fixated on losing weight, flocking to any regimen promising quick and dramatic results. And diet gurus have been ready to oblige. A brief stroll through the history of dieting reveals that themes such as high-protein diets, liquid diets and single-food diets crop up again and again.

December 29, 2003|Rosie Mestel | Times Staff Writer

Have you struggled repeatedly to lose weight, only to fail miserably or end up heavier than before? If so, look no further!

The secret to effortless weight loss lies with eating papayas, pineapples and watermelons in the correct sequence and combination.

It lies with apple cider vinegar, nature's miracle fat-burner.

It lies with piling one's plate with a pyramid of bacon but banishing all bread; with slashing fat, swimming in cabbage soup, eating like a caveman or carefully picking a diet that matches your blood type or astrological sign.

Dieting has consumed Americans for more than a century, even as the collective girth of our nation has increased and a steady stream of dieting books has rolled off the presses: Scarsdale, Beverly Hills, Zone, South Beach, and on and on. Like a circle in a spiral, diet fads have come and gone, then come back again -- sometimes with new frills and usually with more sophisticated marketing, but often barely changed.

The high-protein diet (currently incarnated as the Atkins diet) has risen phoenix-like from the ashes at least half a dozen times. Restricted-food diets have had endless reiterations, be they focused on lollipops, grapes, Brussels sprouts or beef.

And the importance of proper food combining has often been stressed: Proteins and carbohydrates should never be eaten together; melons should always be eaten alone; lamb chops should be paired with pineapples for powerful, pound-burning potency.

"It just goes around and around and around -- and we're fatter than ever," says Janet Polivy, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Toronto in Mississauga, Canada, who ruefully recalls chomping grapefruits and hard-boiled eggs herself as a teenager to try to lose weight.

Only recently have scientists begun trying to figure out which diets actually work. Low-carbohydrate, high-protein diets are receiving much of the attention, along with the low-fat diet espoused by such mainstream organizations as the American Heart Assn.

The need to determine the effectiveness of the diets has become more pressing as American obesity rates rise, and Type 2 diabetes -- once an obesity-associated disease of adulthood -- is increasingly being diagnosed in children.

There is no dark mystery behind the endless carousel of quick-fix solutions, experts say -- just a list of mundane causes.

Americans live in a land bursting with food, inside bodies biologically designed to pack on pounds in times of plenty and conserve energy in times of want (i.e., when we're dieting). Weight gain has never been easier.

Dieting is hard. Obesity treatments usually yield only modest weight loss -- perhaps 5% of a person's starting weight.

Keeping weight off is harder still. So it's easy to see why there will always be an appetite for more books, more plans, more promises.

Some scientists even believe that the very act of repeated dieting contributes directly to a lifetime of weight problems, by molding the mind to be fixated with food.

It is far trickier to figure out how to stop the carousel.

"Every single time, people have felt, 'Finally, this is the answer, this is the diet that's going to solve the problem.' And none ever do," says James Hill, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver. "Now we've got the Atkins diet and the South Beach diet and everybody's saying, 'Finally, now we're going to solve the problem.' But I don't think the Atkins and South Beach are any more of an ultimate answer to the obesity problem than was the grapefruit diet or the beer diet."

Sporadic, documented cases of dieting stretch back 1,000 years or more. But in America, dieting only took off with a vengeance at the end of the 19th century.

The stage was set by the early 1800s. Americans were bolting their food in great quantities. (As a consequence of all this new nutrition they were several inches taller than Europeans. Foreigners were apt to exclaim at the size, frequency and speed of American meals; one Russian visitor likened Americans' eating habits to those of sharks.)

Health reformers began railing against gluttony and the endless, immoral procession of pies, cakes and meats. They wrote treatises lashing out at Sunday lunches and groaning Thanksgiving tables.

Chief among these was the Rev. Sylvester Graham, creator of the famous Graham cracker. He preached that gluttony not only led to sinful sexual practices but also to such maladies as constipation and indigestion (or "dyspepsia," as people then termed it). Americans flocked to water cures, mercury-based laxatives and Graham's pure-food, brown-bread diet in order to settle their stomachs.

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