Dieting has consumed Americans for more than a century, even as the collective girth of the 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.

Sporadic, documented cases of dieting stretch back 1,000 years or more. But in America, dieting took off with a vengeance only 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.

The goal of Graham's earliest followers was not shedding pounds. In those days, plumper bodies were fashionable -- indeed, even a symbol of success. Businessmen proudly joined the Fat Men's Club of Connecticut. "Thin girls" wrote tearful letters to the Ladies' Home Journal for weight gain advice.

Then came the explosive sea change. Dieting became a widespread national preoccupation -- and no one knows quite why, says historian Peter N. Stearns, provost and professor of history at George Mason University and author of Fat History (New York University Press, 1997).

"You could say that, well, people started getting increasingly concerned about dieting right around the time they should have," he says. Food was abundant. Sedentary jobs were on the rise.

By World War I, being fat was deemed more than unattractive; it was downright unpatriotic.

Most experts are convinced that stopping the long, mad procession of diet books will require a slew of changes: health insurance coverage for weight loss programs, more scientific studies of different diets, altered attitudes toward norms of weight and attempts to clean up an environment that is awash in high-calorie snacks and drinks.

In the meantime, take a look at the history, and wonder at how it repeats.



+ Maybe they worked, maybe they didn't; but with good intentions.

* What were they thinking?

+ 1087: William the Conqueror tries a liquid diet for weight loss, taking to his bed and consuming nothing but alcohol.

+ 1600s to early 1700s: Scotsman Dr. George Cheyne, author of popular books "An Essay of Health and Long Life" and "The English Malady," uses liquids of a different stripe, writing that a milk diet renders him "lank, fleet and nimble."

+ 1811: The Romantic poet Lord Byron drenches his food in vinegar to lose weight, dropping his heft from 194 pounds to less than 130.

+ 1830s: America's Rev. Sylvester Graham rails against the sin of gluttony, which he says leads to lust, indigestion and the rearing of unhealthy children. Graham's answer: a spartan diet of coarse, yeast-free brown bread (including the famous Graham cracker), vegetables and water.


* 1844: Oliver Halsted's patented Exercising Machine consists of a pair of mechanical horses that march in circles, aimed at relieving the rider's dyspepsia.

+ 1860s: Rise of the low-carb diet. London undertaker William Banting loses 50 pounds on a high-protein regimen that consists of lean meat, dry toast, soft-boiled eggs and vegetables. Another high-protein proponent, Dr. James Salisbury, promotes a diet of hot water and minced meat patties (the famous Salisbury steak).

+ 1876: Dr. John Harvey Kellogg becomes staff physician of the Battle Creek Sanatorium in Michigan. A leading diet guru, he crusades over the years for vegetarianism, pure foods, slow chewing, calorie counting, colon cleansing and individualized diets. He invents granola and toasted flakes.

* 1892: George Burwell's Boston bon-contour obesity belt delivers zaps of electricity to the belly.

+ 1898: The slow-chewing movement is founded by businessman Horace Fletcher. After he is denied life insurance because of his weight, Fletcher drops 40 pounds through a strategy of chewing each mouthful of food to liquid before swallowing it.

* 1900: Dr. Jean Alban Bergonie's "passive ergotherapy" chair applies electricity to clients' muscles, contracting them 100 times a minute.


* 1905: The "La Grecque Corset" promised not only to shape the hips and belly but to permanently slenderize the wearer.

+ 1910 onward: Food scales, developed for diabetics, and calories become central to diet plans.

* 1910: Phytoline weight-loss tablets contain arsenic, strychnine, caffeine and pokeberries, which act as a laxative.

+ 1914: Gardner Reducing Machines pummel the user between two rollers, delivering a supposed fat-shedding massage.

+ 1918: Calorie counting enters the stage. A 1,200-calorie daily limit is the general rule.

* 1920s: Lucky Strike promotes its cigarettes as diet aids: "Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet."


+ 1928: Diets of 600 to 750 calories daily are introduced by doctors for severely obese patients.

+ 1932: Dr. Stoll's Diet Aid meal-substitute slimming powder goes on sale in beauty parlors.

* 1935: An estimated 100,000 Americans try diet pills containing dinitrophenol, a chemical used in the manufacture of explosives.

+ 1943: Diet guru Marion White, author of "Diet Without Despair," advised use of mineral oil as a fat source in meals.

+ 1948: Take Off Pounds Sensibly (TOPS), the first national group-dieting organization, is formed by Esther Manz in Milwaukee.

+ 1950: "Reducer's Cookbook," the first dieter's cookbook from commercial publishers, is published.


+ 1960: Dieting support groups expand; Overeaters Anonymous is founded. ... Metrecal liquid diet takes off.

+ 1961: Dr. Irwin Stillman publishes "The Doctor's Quick Weight Loss Diet," a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet rich in meat and cheese.

+ 1961-63: Weight Watchers is formed.

+ 1970s: Astronaut's diet, which mimics studies being done on liquid meals for astronauts, is espoused.

+ 1972: "Diet Revolution" by Robert Atkins advocates plenty of meat and fat; carbohydrates are discouraged.

+ 1979: Very-low-fat diets burst onto the stage with the publication of Nathan Pritikin's "Pritikin Program for Diet & Exercise."


+ 1998: A resurfacing of Lord Byron's strategy, "Lose Weight With Apple Vinegar," claims that vinegar consumption burns body fat.

+ 1999: Atkins publishes a revised version of his book. His high-protein, low-carb diet has grown steadily more popular.

Sources: "Never Satisfied," by Hillel Schwartz; "Fat History," by Peter N. Stearns; "Losing It," by Laura Fraser; UCLA Center for Human Nutrition; Los Angeles Times staff research. Photos courtesy Midwest Dairy Association; NASA