Far from being a modern phenomenon, an obsession with what we eat has a long and convoluted history. But will it ever end?
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Our obsession with diets is nothing new. Although not all early diets would have met with approval today—one writer of the Middle Ages declared fresh egg yolks, eight slices of bread and half a bottle of wine to be the key—they were at least motivated by a desire to live long and healthy lives.
But as the centuries rolled by, there was a pressure to look good too. Eating soap was suggested for its laxative effects, and Lord Byron’s followers drank vinegar to stay slim.
Dr Louise Foxcroft, author of Calories and Corsets: A History of Dieting says, “The real tipping point for dieting came with the arrival of newspapers and magazines. It was the mass media that created the diet culture we see today.”
In the last half century, we’ve been offered a multitude of ways to lose weight, yet obesity has escalated from one in 100 of us to more than a quarter.
Andrew Hill, professor of medical psychology at the University of Leeds, says, “None of these diets have inherently magical properties. They share in offering someone a strategy for energy intake reduction. But the environmental and biological forces that lead to eating and lack of energy expenditure are often too strong… In reality, it’s simply an unfair fight.”
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Images of super-thin models were on every magazine cover, and very low energy diets of under 1,000 calories a day were the fashion.
According to the British Nutrition Foundation, crash diets such as these can trigger a change in our bodies called ketosis that may suppress appetite and give us a weight-loss boost (even the NHS recommends them for the morbidly obese).
These diets can be dangerous however. They cause the body to break down muscle, lowering metabolism so you gain weight later.
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A new era of healthy living had been heralded by the arrival of aerobics, lycra and low-fat dieting. Offering more to eat, their focus was on getting less than ten percent of calories from fat.
This was partly because scientists were discovering strong links between saturated fat and heart disease. However, a flipside quickly emerged. Slimmers felt less full and fat was often replaced by sugar.
Last October, research concluded that over a year, people on low-carb diets lost around two pounds more than those on low-fat diets. However the study really showed that both diets work—it just depends what sort of dieting you “enjoy”.
Naveed Sattar, professor of metabolic medicine at the University of Glasgow, says:
“You cannot change your diet overnight as your taste buds are used to certain things, such as sugar. It’s like a supertanker—you have to slow down carefully before you can stop and start to reverse. It takes time.”
Perhaps key to all this is evidence that, when we don’t follow a set diet plan, we don’t seem to know what we’re eating.
Professor Buttris, director of the British Nutrition Foundation, says pivotal research shows a third of our diet should be starchy carbohydrates. “This must include 30g a day of fibre to protect bowel health—a new recommendation from government scientists of which many people are completely unaware,” she warns.
Fruit and veg should make up another third.
The final third is divided into three. Meat, fish, eggs and beans should make up 12 per cent of our diet—often far less than a single portion of steak. Dairy products should make up 15 percent of our daily intake.
Sugary, fatty snacks are probably our biggest problem and should take up eight per cent of our diet—including new government sugar advice to consume no more than six teaspoons a day. Currently, a fifth of what we eat is high in fat and sugar.
And if you want to lose weight? Most scientists advise nothing more complex than cutting calorie intake across these food groups by 500kcal a day to lose 1–2 pounds per week.
So in this complicated world of ideal body shapes, fad diets and tempting treats, will we ever reach the point where dieting doesn’t exist?
“Being only mildly overweight isn’t disadvantageous for health as long as dietary choices are sensible and there’s regular engagement in physical activity,” says Professor Hill. “We have body-shape stereotypes for both women and men that are out of the natural range.”
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