The undertaker who gave us all a morbid fear of eating fat

Fleshy hips and heaving bosoms used to be revered. So where did it all go wrong?

D is for diet. Since time immemorial, man has sought to improve himself. Or – to be more accurate – woman has sought to improve herself.  In 3000 BC China, a mixture of beeswax, gelatin, gum and egg white was used to stain upper-class fingernails gold and silver. The ancient Egyptians bathed in milk and applied anti-ageing formulas made of honey and castor oil; in Rome, rosewater and olive oil was a popular face cream. Jezebel, the Old Testament queen, wore eyeshadow. In thirteenth century Italy, aristocratic women used red lipstick. Elizabeth I dyed her skin white with lead to achieve the desired pale complexion (a concoction which many copied, resulting in poisoning). But it is only fairly recently that slenderness has been a mark of beauty, and it has spawned its own subsection of the health-cosmetics industry: the diet.

Think back to sculptures of the rape of the Sabines: the fingers of the abductors press into dimpled thighs. Draped Greek dress covers all manner of lumps and bumps, but Aphrodite et al still have discernibly fleshy hips and heaving bosoms. Botticelli’s Venus and Primavera sing of fertility with their plump arms and rounded calves. Even Cranach the Elder’s sinewy women have little pot bellies. Rubens celebrates fecund, curvy forms like no one else: his odalisques are Amazonian, glorious and alluring – even with cellulite.  Fat meant wealth, and wealth meant everything.

So where did it all go wrong? We can point the blame at an undertaker, William Banting. Although moderation has been recommended for health since Hippocrates, Banting invented the first popular diet. His 1863 pamphlet Letter on Corpulence gave details of his own health regime: four meals a day, composed of vegetables, meat and fruit. Sugar, butter, starch and beer were banned. And if that sounds familiar, it is because this remains the basis for most modern diets. In its day, the practice was so popular that Banting’s name became a byword for weight loss; indeed even now, some old-fashioned women can be heard asking ‘do you Bant?’

With the end of the First World War came the vogue for calorie counting: 1918’s Diet and Health: With Key to the Calories was the first diet-book bestseller. This, at least, was penned by a doctor – one Lulu Hunt Peters – even if strict calorie-controlled diets have waned in popularity in the century since. Curious, since calorie restriction is – of course – the only actual way to lose weight. Come the 1970s, a fresh solution to being overweight was coined: the Atkins. This notorious plan, based on a high fat / low carbohydrate balance, reigned supreme for many years – despite its side-effects of sour breath and wan skin.

These days dieters are more likely to crunch on a carrot than a steak. The new wave of dieticians (who call themselves health experts, nutritionists or gurus) advocate ‘clean’ eating: as much as you want, so long as it’s good for you. They preach a doctrine of ‘back to nature’ eating, the ‘caveman’ or ‘Paleo’ method. Never mind that our prehistoric ancestors wouldn’t recognise quinoa or an avocado if it hit them in the face. There will always be those who slavishly follow these fads. As for the rest of us: eat, drink and be merry.


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