A sociologist offers a short history of dieting

If you partake of any advertisements in any media form, you will inevitably hear pitches for different kinds of diets. Eat less carbs! Count your points! Take this pill! Get this exercise machine! These sorts of diet pitches are not just a recent phenomenon; a sociologist suggests our ideas about dieting stretch back several hundred years.

Thin has been in much longer than most of us realize, says Ellen Granberg, an assistant professor of sociology at Clemson who studies the history of weight loss…

Moderating the experts will be David Kirchhoff, president and CEO of Weight Watchers International. His organization is just about 50 years old, but Granberg says the very first documented “weight watcher” was an Italian guy in the early 17th century who took notes about his caloric intake and weighed himself daily on a crude scale.

Diet and exercise really took off in the mid-19th century in Europe and migrated over to the U.S. by the 1890s. Why then? Granberg suspects it has to do with the introduction of commercially developed food. And early health gurus, including Sylvester Graham (of eponymous cracker fame), were worried from the get-go about adulterated products.

What Granberg finds most surprising is that modern diets look a lot like the first ones. People were eating low-carb in the 19th century, way before Atkins came along. Sweets were shunned. Just about the only slimming method you won’t hear about today is the suggestion that you smoke cigarettes.

To Granberg, this history proves weight loss has never been easy — and it may never be. “The idea that there is a single, perfect plan is a very old idea. People were thinking about this in the 1600s,” she says. “But it’s always difficult and frustrating. It’s not the fault of the individuals struggling.”

It is interesting to note that the rise of diets in the 1800s seems linked to particular products, such as Graham crackers or corn flakes, that their makers deemed healthy. I wonder if this sociologist could comment on  how much ideas about dieting are tied to capitalism and making money.

And for those who dieted in past histories, which segments of the population were interested in this? Was it a widespread movement or did this come later with the rise of mass media?