In Mad Pursuit of the Perfect Diet : Or, Why We’re So Weight-Conscious but ‘Never Satisfied’

Times Staff Writer

The “Last Chance Rotating Dalescars Diet”:

Breakfast: One bowl of corn flakes (milk optional)


One pound of chopped, minced beef with two pints of water and lemon juice (lemon juice optional)


One bowl of oatmeal porridge


One bowl of beans, any way you like ‘em

Midmorning snack: One graham cracker

Lunch: Same as breakfast

Dinner: Same as lunch

Note: A glass of diluted vinegar may be drunk between meals.

Bon appetit

Not a real diet, you say. Well, it’s frighteningly close to ones Americans have tried over the past 150 years and will continue to try, frustrated by the contradictory messages of a modern capitalist society: Eat that lean cuisine, buy that Big Mac, go for the burn and look like a string bean, but please remember there are starving children in the world, too.


The “American ambivalence about abundance and how we want to have everything . . . yet must control everything and not be swamped by it does fit the desire to diet,” says Hillel Schwartz, author of “Never Satisfied: A Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies and Fat” (Free Press, $19.95).

‘Culture of Slimming’

“When a society is urged to eat much, eat often, eat sweetly and be slender, fat people are thoroughly victimized,” says Schwartz. The “culture of slimming,” he argues, “is the modern expression of an industrial society confused by its own desires and therefore never satisfied.”

It wasn’t always so.

Since the 1830s, Americans have been concerned about their diets, but it was to control dyspepsia. Indigestion was the burning issue, not fat, says Schwartz, a 38-year-old historian with a doctorate from Yale who has never dieted in his life, doesn’t need to and has a ready, robust laugh--the kind you’d expect from a fat person. “But when we think dieting now, we think about weight loss.”

We can thank wars, in great part, for that, he says.

“Ever since the Civil War (men have) been weighed and measured, and about 10% of them in any war have been excluded because they were either overweight or underweight,” Schwartz says. As a result, an ideal was established that men had to measure themselves against.

On the home front, war meant rationing. People became “more aware of the nutritive values of foods because they were not able to have free choice,” Schwartz explains. And though it’s hard to imagine that calories weren’t always counted, they weren’t. No one knew what an empty calorie was before 1890. And adding them up “did not become part of American society until World War I, when Herbert Hoover was calorie counting” and thought everybody else should.

Wars also provide a great laboratory for experimentation, says the author. Starvation experiments led to the establishment of “maximal and minimal levels of nutrition for active people in combat,” as well as for those at home on rations.

Drugs get tested, too. “World War II and the Korean War,” says Schwartz, “contributed amphetamines to our arsenal of diet drugs.”

And if you’re surprised to read that diets and wars are connected, wait till you hear about diets and the end of the world. Schwartz has a theory: “Dieters are like people who expect the end of the world and a new world to begin, because what they want from a diet is not just loss of weight, they want a new life. They want the world to smile upon them. They want romance to come into their lives again. . . . They want success. And a diet itself, if it only gives you a weight loss and nothing else and you’re still miserable, is a failure. So what happens is there is a curious correlation between people who expect the world to end and a new one to come and dieters who expect a weight loss and a new world. And they’re both normally disappointed.”

Wouldn’t you think, by now, dieters would know that?

“Wouldn’t you think people who expect the end of the world would know that?” he rejoins.

History proves failure deters neither.

Rationalizations Abound

When the world doesn’t end as some people expect, says Schwartz, “they do not simply go away and say ‘Ooops, I made a mistake.’ They find a way to figure out what it is that went wrong. Maybe they weren’t faithful enough. Maybe they just did not pick the right moment and the world’s going to end next year. . . . Maybe the world did come to an end but no one noticed. This was the Jehovah’s Witness’ answer in 1917. The world came to an end up there,” he says, pointing to the sky. “There was a whole shift of allegiances and alliances--up there.”

The failed dieter rationalizes similarly.

“They were not faithful to the diet,” Schwartz says. “This was not the right diet for them; it’s fine for other people but their metabolism just won’t work with this. If only they’d stuck with this diet a little longer.”

The quest for the ultimate diet has been long, Schwartz writes.

Take James Salisbury, the man who gave his name to a steak so that we might live better. He sought a food that could be eaten exclusively, every day, and still maintain perfect health.

First he tried beans. But his subjects “just couldn’t take those beans after about 30 days,” says Schwartz.

Then he tried oatmeal porridge--for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

And finally, says Schwartz, “he came up with three pounds of chopped, minced beef a day per person"--Salisbury steak--and six pints of hot water with lemon juice.

Throw all that in with the corn flakes the Kellogg brothers created in 1893, another nutritionist’s ideal, and you’ve got yourself a nice little “casserole” Schwartz says. And you could wash it all down with that long-time appetite suppressant, vinegar.

Of course none of this would be necessary in the fat utopia Schwartz imagines in his book: “Fat women would not live in the future conditional, suspended between what they are and who they will be when they are finally thin. Fat women would not have to invent fantasy selves a quarter their bulk and four times as lovely.”

Dancers and Dieting

Schwartz, a trained modern dancer as well as an academician, says he has been interested in theories about the body and how it moves for a long time. But it was ballet dancers, those who often follow extreme diets in an attempt to be lean yet strong, who triggered his interest in the history of dieting.

“Dieting deals with our fantasies about the body and our feeling about moving with the body,” Schwartz says, seated in his living room in a mobile trailer park in Encinitas.

Modern notions about the ideal form in America are reflected in our technological creations since the end of the last century, he explains.

“Americans with their assembly lines and their airplanes and their Ferris wheels and their movies, all of which came between 1890 and 1910, were particularly prone to a change” in the aesthetics of bodily movement. He defines that change as “flowing . . . free . . . powerful and serial--a progression like a movie frame, so that the faster you go, the more it seems flowing and continuous.”

Today, the ideal body approaches weightlessness, says Schwartz, a man who prefers chicken over red meat, fish over fowl and keeps a large container of chocolate muffins in his refrigerator. Americans are told they can have “energy without volume.” And that can be dangerous.

Schwartz quotes a San Francisco-area study of 9-year-olds, 40% of whom were on diets, and not because their parents told them to. “They’re doing it having absorbed something from the culture.”

Children Stunt Their Growth

In the 1970s, studies showed that most girls (the majority of dieters are female) didn’t start dieting until they were 13, says Schwartz. The drop in age is frightening because “there are cases where kids have been found to have stunted their growth” while imitating their parents’ restriction of calories. This trend, he says, is the greatest indictment against the culture of slimming.

But there are other problems, he says, including the acceptance of fake foods.

You can eat all the frozen yogurt or Tofutti you like instead of real ice cream, “but all told, the more you accept imitation foods and the more you deal with foods in terms of flavor and calories, rather than in terms of how they fit into your social fabric or your family, the more you are avoiding those central issues which become the horns of the dilemma upon which the dieter is stuck.”

Horn one: Having to choose between bad-tasting foods that are good and good-tasting foods that are bad, which is what most people are conditioned to think, he says.

Horn two: Wavering between “a desire to use food as a substitute, according to the psychological theory, and a desire to exclude food entirely from being a category of love or desire,” Schwartz says.

“So one of the most cogent of all of the arguments against dieting in the past has been that it’s essentially not allowing a society to maintain sociability through food.” If you allow a stranger to eat at your table, you establish a bond, he explains. “Dieting . . . has made that impossible. It’s made food a point of argument, a place for contesting, rather than a place for bringing people together.”

Fat Utopia No Closer

With 150 years of diets that ultimately don’t work behind us, is anything approaching a fat utopia near?

No, but another diet probably is, says Schwartz. Look for trace minerals, “the next fad diet.”

“There are going to be trace mineral diets because minerals present us with the image of strength. They’re trace, which means they’re light--you don’t have to have very much of them. . . . You know you need them. You don’t know why you need them. The physiology and the biochemistry of it is completely beyond most of us. . . .

“And since we don’t know how many trace minerals we actually require, there’s this little anxiety that keeps appearing: Do we need them, too? Do we need molybdenum (a metallic chemical element used in alloys)? Maybe there’s some molybdenum I’m missing,” he says with a hefty laugh. “That anxiety contributes to our desire to go on with that diet. So I think that’s very likely the next candidate.”