Round and round we go

Times Staff Writer

Have you struggled repeatedly to lose weight, only to fail miserably or end up heavier than before? If so, look no further!

The secret to effortless weight loss lies with eating papayas, pineapples and watermelons in the correct sequence and combination.

It lies with apple cider vinegar, nature’s miracle fat-burner.

It lies with piling one’s plate with a pyramid of bacon but banishing all bread; with slashing fat, swimming in cabbage soup, eating like a caveman or carefully picking a diet that matches your blood type or astrological sign.


Dieting has consumed Americans for more than a century, even as the collective girth of our nation has increased and a steady stream of dieting books has rolled off the presses: Scarsdale, Beverly Hills, Zone, South Beach, and on and on. Like a circle in a spiral, diet fads have come and gone, then come back again -- sometimes with new frills and usually with more sophisticated marketing, but often barely changed.

The high-protein diet (currently incarnated as the Atkins diet) has risen phoenix-like from the ashes at least half a dozen times. Restricted-food diets have had endless reiterations, be they focused on lollipops, grapes, Brussels sprouts or beef.

And the importance of proper food combining has often been stressed: Proteins and carbohydrates should never be eaten together; melons should always be eaten alone; lamb chops should be paired with pineapples for powerful, pound-burning potency.

“It just goes around and around and around -- and we’re fatter than ever,” says Janet Polivy, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Toronto in Mississauga, Canada, who ruefully recalls chomping grapefruits and hard-boiled eggs herself as a teenager to try to lose weight.


Only recently have scientists begun trying to figure out which diets actually work. Low-carbohydrate, high-protein diets are receiving much of the attention, along with the low-fat diet espoused by such mainstream organizations as the American Heart Assn.

The need to determine the effectiveness of the diets has become more pressing as American obesity rates rise, and Type 2 diabetes -- once an obesity-associated disease of adulthood -- is increasingly being diagnosed in children.

There is no dark mystery behind the endless carousel of quick-fix solutions, experts say -- just a list of mundane causes.

Americans live in a land bursting with food, inside bodies biologically designed to pack on pounds in times of plenty and conserve energy in times of want (i.e., when we’re dieting). Weight gain has never been easier.

Dieting is hard. Obesity treatments usually yield only modest weight loss -- perhaps 5% of a person’s starting weight.

Keeping weight off is harder still. So it’s easy to see why there will always be an appetite for more books, more plans, more promises.

Some scientists even believe that the very act of repeated dieting contributes directly to a lifetime of weight problems, by molding the mind to be fixated with food.

It is far trickier to figure out how to stop the carousel.


“Every single time, people have felt, ‘Finally, this is the answer, this is the diet that’s going to solve the problem.’ And none ever do,” says James Hill, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver. “Now we’ve got the Atkins diet and the South Beach diet and everybody’s saying, ‘Finally, now we’re going to solve the problem.’ But I don’t think the Atkins and South Beach are any more of an ultimate answer to the obesity problem than was the grapefruit diet or the beer diet.”

Sporadic, documented cases of dieting stretch back 1,000 years or more. But in America, dieting only took off with a vengeance at the end of the 19th century.

The stage was set by the early 1800s. Americans were bolting their food in great quantities. (As a consequence of all this new nutrition they were several inches taller than Europeans. Foreigners were apt to exclaim at the size, frequency and speed of American meals; one Russian visitor likened Americans’ eating habits to those of sharks.)

Health reformers began railing against gluttony and the endless, immoral procession of pies, cakes and meats. They wrote treatises lashing out at Sunday lunches and groaning Thanksgiving tables.

Chief among these was the Rev. Sylvester Graham, creator of the famous Graham cracker. He preached that gluttony not only led to sinful sexual practices but also to such maladies as constipation and indigestion (or “dyspepsia,” as people then termed it). Americans flocked to water cures, mercury-based laxatives and Graham’s pure-food, brown-bread diet in order to settle their stomachs.

The goal of Graham’s earliest followers was not shedding pounds. In those days, plumper bodies were fashionable -- indeed, even a symbol of success. Businessmen proudly joined the Fat Men’s Club of Connecticut. “Thin girls” wrote tearful letters to the Ladies’ Home Journal for weight gain advice. Women would pad their clothing to look more like the well-rounded, 200-pound stage actress Lillian Russell.

As the century bore on, the interest in weight loss grew. A succession of figures proffered their sure-fire solutions with confidence and authority.

British undertaker William Banting instructed his many adherents to abandon starch and fat for lean meat and a daily dose of alcohol.


Dr. Edward Hooker Dewey proclaimed the answer to weight loss was his “No Breakfast Plan.” He noted that “Mrs. P.,” a 220-pound farmer’s wife, had shed 45 pounds on his regimen.

Businessman Horace Fletcher vowed that the real answer lay with slow and thorough chewing. His followers masticated each mouthful 50 times (or as long as six minutes for especially fibrous vegetables) and spurred one another on with the rousing slow-chew anthem: “I choose to chew because I wish to do / The sort of thing that nature had in view.”

Then came the explosive sea change. Dieting became a widespread national preoccupation -- and no one knows quite why, says historian Peter N. Stearns, provost and professor of history at George Mason University and author of the scholarly book “Fat History” (New York University Press, 1997).

“You could say that, well, people started getting increasingly concerned about dieting right around the time they should have,” he says. Food was abundant. Public transportation and sedentary jobs were on the rise.

Yet there is little evidence to suggest people were getting much fatter at that time, he adds.

Fashion played its part in the dieting phenomenon. Corsets became unstylish, and natural slenderness gained ascendance. The life insurance industry contributed too. Early actuarial tables revealed that fat people, on average, lived shorter lives than slimmer people.

In addition, distaste for obesity had slowly, and inexplicably, been growing, and a list of derogatory words had been invented to describe it: “porky” in the 1860s, “jumbo” in the 1880s, “butterball” in the 1890s.

By 1903, plumpness was so out of favor that the Fat Men’s Club of Connecticut shut its doors forever.

By World War I, being fat was deemed more than unattractive; it was downright unpatriotic.

The carousel was picking up speed.

As the years rolled on, new products and discoveries sharpened America’s focus on body weight and shaped the recommendations of diet mavens. Weight monitoring became central in the 1920s, with the rise of Health-O-Meter and Detecto private bathroom scales.

Studies on the calorie content of foods were smoothly incorporated into a long succession of books, starting with the 1918 blockbuster bestseller “Diet and Health With a Key to the Calories,” by Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters, who counseled her adherents to worship their kitchen scales and forever forget about “slices” of bread, and think only of calories of bread.

If the past century’s diet themes appear surprisingly repetitive, there are good -- even rational -- reasons why.

Any diet that limits calorie intake, by whatever means, will help promote weight loss, provided someone sticks to that diet.

Any diet that forces people to eat limited types of foodstuffs is likely to make them eat less, because human appetites thrive on variety. We can engulf astounding quantities of food, lickety-split, at a buffet. A body can bear only so many lamb chops and pineapples.

Any diet that focuses primarily on limiting food intake, as most diets do, is likely to work better than one centered on exercise.

“It’s a matter of magnitude,” says Hill. “You could reduce your energy intake easily by 1,000 calories a day. You couldn’t do 1,000 a day with exercise.”

There are also reasons why low-carbohydrate, high-protein diets have repeatedly sprung to the fore, although they aren’t the reasons originally espoused: Doctors at one time believed that proteins could not be converted into fat. (Not true!)

Protein is satiating; it satisfies the appetite -- hence the long-standing popularity of such diets (although that could decline if mad cow hysteria takes hold). Eating a lot of protein can lead to water loss, because the body flushes out the waste left over from protein digestion in the form of urine.

Also, some scientists think avoiding carbohydrates can help curb the appetite, because this practice avoids spikes in insulin and crashes in blood sugar that may get people feeling hungrier sooner.

In other words, while some fad diets are silly and others nutritionally inadequate and downright irresponsible, a lot of them could work, nutrition scientists say. But there is no reason to proclaim one vastly superior or possessed of any magical power -- especially given the dearth of proper, scientific tests of diets.

“If you lined up all the diets in the world in a multimillion-dollar clinical trial and fired the starting gun, and lots of people started each of these diets, my prediction is early on there might be some separation, with some of these diets showing bigger weight loss than others,” says Kelly Brownell, director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders in New Haven, Conn. “But in the long term, they’d probably work the same overall.”

Thus obesity researchers say that part of the key to successful weight loss lies with individuals picking diets they are most likely to stick with.

It also lies with lowering expectations and not trying to diet down to unrealistic, belly-baring Britney thinness.

Even more important is figuring out how to sustain weight loss long term, since most people who lose weight eventually gain it back. Perhaps, says Hill, they can tap the secrets of those who have succeeded in maintaining their new weights.

Most experts are convinced that stopping the long, mad procession of diet books will require a slew of changes: health insurance coverage for weight loss programs, more scientific studies of different diets, altered attitudes toward norms of weight and attempts to clean up an environment that is awash in high-calorie snacks and drinks and encouragements to sample them often and plentifully.

Brownell, for one, would like to see diet gurus required to put their data where their mouth is before they can make florid claims in bestselling books.

Dr. David Heber, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at UCLA, believes today’s nutrition labels -- with many servings crammed into a single bag of chips and an unrealistically liberal percent of daily nutritional values -- are encouraging people to overeat. “People are confused when they read food labels: There’s this mythical 2,000-calories-a-day person,” he says.

Some doubt the tide of diet books can ever be stemmed. Optimistic researchers may predict a world in which the carousel of glitzy promises is replaced with sound, sober, rational advice that those who wish to lose or maintain their weight will obediently follow.

But others see shelves crammed with the white-toothed smiles of new diet gurus, and glossy reincarnations of tired old classics.

“Diets promise a quick fix,” says the University of Toronto’s Polivy. “People would rather have a quick fix. Wouldn’t you want something fast and easy rather than long and arduous?”

Tomorrow, she says, “we’ll see variants of the diets we see today -- with a new name and new sponsor.”




William the Conqueror tries a liquid diet for weight loss, taking to his bed and consuming nothing but alcohol.

1600s to early 1700

Scotsman Dr. George Cheyne, author of popular books “An Essay of Health and Long Life” and “The English Malady,” uses liquids of a different stripe, writing that a milk diet renders him “lank, fleet and nimble.”


The Romantic poet Lord Byron drenches his food in vinegar to lose weight, dropping his heft from 194 pounds to less than 130.


America’s the Rev. Sylvester Graham, nicknamed “Dr. Sawdust,” rails against the sin of gluttony, which he says leads to lust, indigestion and the rearing of unhealthy children. Graham’s answer: a spartan diet of coarse, yeast-free brown bread (including the famous Graham cracker), vegetables and water.


* Rise of the low-carbohydrate diet. London undertaker William Banting loses 50 pounds on a high-protein regimen that consists of lean meat, dry toast, soft-boiled eggs and vegetables. His 1864 book “Letter on Corpulence” becomes a bestseller; by 1880s “banting” is America’s foremost weight-loss strategy.

* Another high-protein proponent, Dr. James Salisbury, promotes a diet of hot water and minced meat patties (the famous Salisbury steak) for improved health and weight loss.


Dr. John Harvey Kellogg becomes staff physician of the Battle Creek Sanatorium in Michigan. A leading diet guru, he crusades over the years for vegetarianism, pure foods, slow chewing, calorie counting, colon cleansing and individualized diets. He invents granola and toasted flakes.

Late 1800s

Milk diets, earlier prescribed for indigestion and weight gain, become popular for weight loss.


Dr. Edward Hooker Dewey promotes a moderate fast, the “no-breakfast plan,” as a weight-loss strategy. Other doctors widely recommend limiting alcohol and substituting carbohydrates with proteins.


The slow-chewing movement is founded by businessman Horace Fletcher. After he is denied life insurance because of his weight, Fletcher drops 40 pounds through a strategy of chewing each mouthful of food to liquid before swallowing it. “Fletcherism” takes off, rah-rahed by diet guru Kellogg, who invents a slow-chewing song for his patients.

1910 onward

Food scales, developed for diabetics, and calories become central to diet plans. “Without scales, no cure,” writes Viennese doctor and food scale inventor Gustave Gaertner, author of “Reducing Weight Comfortably.”


Calorie counting enters the stage. Dieters gobble up the bestseller “Diet and Health With a Key to the Calories” by Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters, the “best-known and best-loved woman physician in America.” Peters’ diet kicks off with a fast, then transitions to Fletcherism and calorie-counting, with a 1,200-calorie daily limit. It is a lifelong prescription.


Very-low-calorie diets of 600 to 750 calories daily are introduced by doctors for severely obese patients.


* Dr. William Howard Hay promotes a food-combining diet. His “medical millennium” plan (which also called for daily enemas and slow chewing) holds that correct body pH is key and, to achieve it, dieters must not combine starches, fruits and proteins in the same meal.

* The very-low-calorie Hollywood 18-day diet allows 585 calories daily, mostly grapefruit, with oranges, eggs and melba toast.

* The era sees the lamb chop and pineapple diets, two of a dizzying array of food-limiting regimens.


Dr. Stoll’s Diet Aid meal substitute slimming powder goes on sale in beauty parlors.


Very-low-calorie diets of 400 calories daily are used by doctors for severely obese patients.


Take Off Pounds Sensibly (TOPS), the first national group-dieting organization, is formed by Esther Manz in Milwaukee, with prescriptions of calories, scales, food diaries and mutual support.


Reducer’s Cookbook, the first dieter’s cookbook from commercial publishers, is published.


* National advertising promotes Mead Johnson’s diet formula Metrecal; its success spawns a host of imitators.

* Dieting support groups expand; Overeaters Anonymous is founded.


* Bestselling “Calories Don’t Count” by Herman Taller espouses a high-fat, high-protein, low-carb diet. Taller is eventually found guilty of mail fraud for selling worthless safflower capsules.

* Dr. Irwin Stillman publishes “The Doctor’s Quick Weight Loss Diet,” a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet rich in meat and cheese. Stillman believes proteins take more energy for the body to digest.


Weight Watchers is formed.


Era of alcohol-friendly low-carb regimens sees publication of “The Drinking Man’s Diet” by Gardner Jameson and Elliott Williams, and Sidney Petrie’s “Martinis and Whipped Cream.”


“Diet Revolution” by Robert Atkins advocates plenty of meat and fat; carbohydrates are banned.


Astronaut’s diet, which mimics studies being done on liquid meals for astronauts, is espoused.


“The Last Chance Diet” by osteopath Robert Linn relies on a mixture of fasting and liquid-protein drinks made from animal tendons and hides. Fifty-eight deaths are eventually associated with these and similar diet drinks, which lack essential nutrients.


Herman Tarnower publishes the high-protein Scarsdale diet, 700 calories daily. He is killed by his lover in 1980.


Very-low-fat diets burst onto the stage with the publication of Nathan Pritikin’s “Pritikin Program for Diet & Exercise.”


* Diet counselor and avid dieter Judy Mazel publishes “The Beverly Hills Diet,” a fruit-heavy food-

combining regimen. Mazel claims that no weight will be gained if foods are properly digested with the help of abundant quantities of pineapples, mangoes and papayas consumed on a rotating schedule.

* The Cambridge diet, run by Jack Feather and endorsed by a Cambridge University doctor, peddles very-low-calorie liquid-protein drinks sold through a pyramid scheme. Thirty people die of heart attacks before the nutritionally inadequate drinks are banned.


Jenny Craig weight-loss company is formed.


Atkins publishes a new book espousing his low-carb, high-fat, high-protein approach, “Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution.”


Low-fat diets reemerge: “Eat More, Weigh Less” by Dean Ornish is a low-fat vegetarian diet.


Low-carb, high-protein diets return with the publication of Barry Sears’ “The Zone,” which soon shares the stage with a host of other low-carb books, including “Sugar Busters!,” “Protein Power” and “The Carbohydrate Addict’s Diet.”


Mazel’s “The New Beverly Hills Diet” is a revised version of the old fruit-rich favorite.


One of many resurfacings of Lord Byron’s strategy, “Lose Weight With Apple Vinegar” claims that vinegar consumption burns body fat.


Atkins publishes a revised version of his book. His high-protein, low-carb diet has grown steadily more popular.


“The South Beach Diet” is published by Miami doctor Arthur Agatston; the moderate diet falls midway between the low-fat, high-carb recommendations of mainstream nutritionists and the low-carb, high-protein Atkins diet.


Sources: “Never Satisfied,” by Hillel Schwartz; “Losing It,” by Laura Fraser; “Fat History,” by Peter Stearns; UCLA Center for Human Nutrition; Times staff research.

Studio photographs of food and tape measure by Eric Boyd Los Angeles Times; photo illustrations by Kirk Christ Los Angeles Times.