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A brief history of dieting through the decades

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Meat and three veg, High Carb, Low Carb, Keto, Paleo, Vegan, Plant-based—every year it seems as there’s a new fad diet promising weight loss.

But what actually is a sensible and sustainable diet?

Food is fundamental. Not only is it necessary to keep us alive, but we eat to celebrate, commiserate and everything in between. It’s no surprise then, that over the past 100 years—since the very first vitamin was isolated and nutritional science was born—that we’ve been investigating how nutrition affects our health and how we can lose weight.

Manipulating our food intake to improve our health, lifestyle or aesthetics is as old as the ancient Greeks; however, it was in the 19th century that fad diets were first adopted, and they’ve been part of Western popular culture ever since.

So what are ‘fad diets’? They are weight loss plans or programs that promise quick weight loss and dramatic results with little effort. The majority are not based on scientific evidence, but rather promote the benefits of ritualistic and sacrificial eating relying on the testimony of their followers to market and sell.

Although fad diets have taken different forms over the years, they all still have the same characteristics: they all claim that you can experience fast weight loss, while still including your favourite, high-calorie foods.

They also typically claim that their method is superior to others. They frequently restrict ‘allowed foods’ down to a small list, which is not nutritionally balanced and often missing whole food groups. The final ingredient of a successful fad diet is a ‘miracle’ food or supplement that needs to be consumed regularly or in large doses to ‘aid in fat burning’.

Over time, our culture has become more and more obsessed with losing weight—so much so, that at any one time there are 2.3 million Australians on a diet. This isn’t a new thing, we’ve been ‘dieting’ as a culture for about 200 years!

A brief history of dieting, through the decades

Let’s take a wander through fad diets over time

1890 Water and vinegar diet. Mmm, sounds satisfying. Not.

1920 Grapefruit diet. Eat a grapefruit at every meal. See above.

1929 Cigarette diet. Called the ‘Reach for a Lucky’ campaign, tobacco company Lucky Strike promoted their cigarettes to women to reduce sweets consumption that “made you fat”, as nicotine suppresses appetite. *Insert stunned face emoji*

1950 Cabbage soup diet. If you loved cabbage, you lost weight because cabbage has a low energy density. If not, you lost weight because it was disgusting and you couldn’t eat it.

1963 Weight Watchers was founded. I’m dubbing it the grandfather of the modern weight loss industry.

1970 Sleeping Beauty diet. It was based on sedation and sleeping more through the day. I kid you not.

1975 Paleo diet. The original Paleo book was published all the way back then.

1977 SlimFast. The shake diet was born. There are now oodles of companies selling shake-based weight loss.

1985 Fit for Life diet. This diet has rules around the macronutrients and something about not being able to have carbs paired with protein. Huh?

1992 Atkins diet. Dr Atkins published his first book. It was based on a high-protein, low-carb diet and became a household name in the ‘90s.

1995 Zone diet. This program has all kinds of rules around the balance of carbs, fats and protein.

2002 Paleo diet (again). A new book hits the shelves and popular culture was never the same.

2010 Instagram. Food iPhoneography begins. Enter the ‘influencer’ and ‘clean eating’.

2011 HCG diet. Involves homeopathic drops of a pregnancy hormone under your tongue, combined with eating only 500-800 calories per day. Hmm, is it the drops or the calorie restriction working here?

2012 Hello Fresh. The meal box delivery service begins. It may have taken some years to hit Canberra, but it has changed the cooking habits of a generation.

2014 Paleo diet (again). Paleo Pete (chef Pete Evans) published his debut book, caused lots of controversy that got him incredible PR and made a killing in dollars.

2015 Keto diet. A high fat, very low carb diet, it was originally used to manage epilepsy and dates back to the 1920s. It takes the low carb diet to a whole new level.

2016 Plant-based diets. Vegetarian and veganism is on the rise, and more and more Australians start ditching animal products.

2019 Gut health. The link between the gut and the rest of the body starts hitting popular culture, with more and more people trying fermented foods and probiotics, and restricting certain foods in the name of the microbiome.

It’s been one hell of a 200 years! The trouble is, we’re none the wiser. We still have unrealistic expectations of weight loss.

So what on earth should we do…?

The American Institute of Medicine defines successful weight loss as a 5 percent reduction in body weight sustained for a minimum of 12 months. On average, however, overweight adults set a weight loss goal of a 30 percent reduction in body weight—and, in my experience, they want it yesterday.

For the majority of people, this is neither achievable nor maintainable. These unrealistic goals make us susceptible to the fad diet of the day that promises fast results, with minimal effort. They are enticed by the lure of a quick fix, rather than the sensible-but-perhaps-less-sexy approaches informed by science.

We still think that there is ONE perfect way to eat to lose weight. There isn’t.

Science has shown us time and time again that consistent adherence to a calorie deficit, combined with high diet quality equals weight loss. The problem is, further research shows that only 20 percent of dieters actually do this—and if they do—they don’t do it for long enough.

So, the problem is not that a well-balanced, sensible diet with a calorie deficit doesn’t work, it’s that people don’t stick to one. They go from one extreme to the other. They live on cabbage soup or grapefruits, cut out all carbs or drink shakes before bingeing on all the food they’ve denied themselves for weeks on end.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

2020 is as good a time as any to ditch fad diets and start to making healthy food choices that you can realistically and sustainably stick to—for the rest of your life!

This article originally appeared in Magazine: Time (AW2020), available to read free online.

Read it here.

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