Summary: As the title suggests, The Hundred Year Diet covers the history of dieting in America from about World War I to the present day, with much of the message being “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” In parallel, of course, it also covers the history of weight during that time, changes in the Met Life charts and in the weights of Americans throughout the last century. Here the message is that the US has been declared too fat since at least the 1950s, even when the data didn’t support that claim. Now that the numbers of overweight and obese Americans really is high, we don’t seem to have learned much in all those years of what to do about a real obesity epidemic.
Thoughts: Much of what I’ve read about the obesity epidemic takes a short view of the history of diet and overeating, starting about 1980. The Hundred Year Diet by Susan Yager surprised me by showing how much of the blame goes back much earlier than that. It’s not like we all woke up one morning in the 1980s and got fat. The factors were building for a century or more. So, it’s no wonder that many of the explanations of the current obesity epidemic are unsatisfying — they are too simple.
The fight between the low-fat and low-carb camps that I illustrated a few weeks ago with quotes from Gary Taubes and The Healthy Librarian (Weekend Cooking: The Weight of the Nation) has been going on for a very long time as well. I was familiar with some of the doctors and practitioners who advocated one approach or the other. I was less familiar with how the sugar and meat industries weighed in on the matter, putting barriers in the way of discovering facts or clouding the picture that went out to the public.
My favorite quote explained how diet fads work in America:
They all contain the same basic ingredients: hyperbole, pandering to hope, warnings to ignore the medical establishment (because it’s made up of jealous and narrow-minded people), and punishment for the sin of gluttony. No matter how strange the plan, the dieter experiences immediate success from eating what is essentially an extremely low-calorie starvation diet, resulting in a satisfied consumer who spreads the gospel to book-buying friends and family….With enough publicity and word of mouth, the diet becomes a trend. Soon, however, it will seem monotonous and dull and impossible to stick with and the dieter will “cheat,” and then “cheat” again. Weight is quickly regained–often more than was lost to begin with–and the guilty bloated dieter tries another diet. (pp. 153, 154)
I like reading diet books because they are so hopeful and so convincing and so inspiring. I lost weight, however, following essentially this advice that Yager added at the end of an entertaining description of the Atkins versus Pritikin wars that started in 1979:
That reasonable and happy medium–a diet of whole foods, deliciously prepared, a little bit of sugar and fat included–wasn’t anywhere on the bestseller lists. Nor was anyone suggesting that maybe both fat and sugar were the problem, and that you didn’t have to pick your poison by choosing between them, you just needed to reduce your intake of both. (p. 132, 133)
Appeal: The Hundred Year Diet by Susan Yager is a book for those of us interested in the societal trends that have built the U.S. food and diet industries and created the eating environment that we endure today.
Challenges: This is book 11 of 19 that I intend to read in 2012 for the Foodies Read 2 Challenge.
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