The Diets That Died Off

Meg Favreau compares past and present:

Really, there are just two main differences I found between turn-of-the-[20th]century diet fads and modern diet fads. First of all, the goal of the old-timey diets was always the prevention and cure of disease. Sure, you can argue that’s also a goal of today’s diets, but come on — everybody really wants to be sliding into their skinny jeans. Turn-of-the-century diets were more life and death — remember, this was a time before antibiotics, when gout was a common ailment instead of an amusing old-timey reference, and an outbreak of cholera could kill over 10% of a local population. Hell, there were still literal cesspools attached to houses.

The second difference between the old diets and modern diets?

The recipes from the 1800s and early 1900s diet cookbooks I researched taste like hot cardboard (or, in the case of the “unfired” recipes, cold cardboard). Yes, on the surface, a text like 1854’s New Hydropathic Cook-book has similar principles to Michael Pollan – eat mostly plants; don’t bury your food in fat and sugar. But the book also preaches a complete abstinence from salt, vinegar, and lemon, aka “flavor.” [John Harvey] Kellogg had a similar philosophy — but John Harvey, my man, when you’re making a cracker whose two ingredients are grain and water, you need to put some damn salt in it.

Meanwhile, David Katz offers a stern warning that “we are missing the big picture when it comes to nutrition”:

Embracing the notion that we actually have to eat well, overall, and be active, to optimize our health suppresses magical thinking in ways we seem unwilling to sanction. So, instead, we continue to focus — as we have now for calamitous decades — on one food, nutrient, nutrient grouping, or ingredient at a time, all the while missing the big picture.

have written beforemore than once, about how egregiously misguided this is. It does nothing but play into the designs of Big Food, which is delighted to reshuffle their very short list of favorite cheap ingredients into new versions of junk and profit from our preoccupation du jour. If we fixate on cutting fat, we can have low-fat cookies. If we fixate on carbs, we can have low-carb brownies. If we fixate on fructose, we are privileged to trade not up but sideways to equally sugary but now “high-fructose corn syrup free” versions of the same rubbish. … If we fixate on gluten, we can have gluten-free junk. If grains are bad, there are innumerable ways to eat badly without them, just as there are with them. If meat is the enemy, there is a whole universe of variations on the theme of vegan junk food to explore.

This is not theoretical. We have been inventing new ways to eat badly for literal decades, with the profound ills of modern epidemiology to show for it. The suspended animation of common sense and an apparent unwillingness to learn from the follies of nutritional history consign us to repeat them again and again.

(Hat tip: 3QD)