It all started with the publication of a bestselling diet book. Before long, Americans were gleefully downing T-bones and piling on the eggs and vegetables -- and somehow losing weight anyway. The book’s author and his eponymous diet were attacked repeatedly by doctors who warned that the low-starch approach was unhealthy over the long term.
We refer, of course, to the Banting diet. If you don’t remember that one, perhaps it’s because you were born after 1864, when British mortician William Banting published his hugely popular “Letter on Corpulence” and launched the high-protein, low-carb (even if they didn’t call it that) diet craze.
Fast-forward a little more than a century to 1972, when the late Dr. Robert Atkins published “Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution” and used his modern variation of Banting’s approach to build a dieting empire. Atkins was followed by Barry Sears, creator of the Zone diet, and Dr. Arthur Agatston, creator of the South Beach diet, and all of them were preceded by many other low-carb devotees besides Banting, such as Dr. Blake Donaldson, who published a treatise on the benefits of Inuit meat-only diets in 1929.
Which goes to show that fad diets, like unwanted inches, seldom go away forever.
The Atkins diet’s fall from favor was demonstrated with Sunday’s bankruptcy filing by Atkins Nutritionals Inc. It wasn’t a surprise. The company, which was behind perhaps the most popular diet in U.S. history, brought about menu changes at restaurants across the country and spawned a host of new businesses catering to its adherents, while its name was cursed by the likes of Krispy Kreme and the makers of other carb-laden treats. But surveys have shown for more than a year that consumers were losing interest in low-carb diets, and the market for Atkins-inspired products has tanked.
The Atkins diet works. So do a host of other fad diets that have emerged over the last century and a half that, like Banting’s, restrict one type of food in favor of another. People crave variety; when the type of food we can eat is restricted, we don’t feel like eating as much, so we cut calories and lose weight. But then we start to pine for those forbidden fruits (or fudge, or French bread) and we fall off the diet, and the fat cells flock home and lie around like freshmen in June. Studies have shown that most people who try low-carb diets don’t stick to them.
Here’s where we’re supposed to come to the obvious conclusion that people should stop looking for a painless, effortless way to lose weight and just accept that the only way to do it is by eating less and exercising more. But who wants to hear that? Banting and Atkins had far more popular messages, and when memories have faded, somebody else will come up with another bestseller flogging the same approach.