Someone in my house was always on a diet when I was growing up. Sometimes it was my older and younger sisters who followed various diets, and sometimes it was my older and younger brothers. My dad—an anesthesiologist who struggled with his weight—believed in burning more calories than you eat.
My mom, the former nurse, was a chronic dieter throughout her life, from the Scarsdale, South Beach, and Atkins diets to the Cabbage Soup and Grapefruit ones. She was one of the very early adopters of the original Weight Watchers. More often than not, she was on the Pall-Mall-cigarette-and-black-coffee diet.
“I didn’t want to be like my mother, Nanna, with her hanging stomach,” my mom would later say. She started smoking as a teenager to control her weight and inhaled for more than 70 years. We all got the not especially subtle message.
I was the middle child and on a diet for half of my youth. I know all the euphemisms. Chubby. Heavy boned. Overweight (or is it under-height?). The most feared was the dreaded obese, uttered by our terrifying family pediatrician who expressed apocalyptic opinions about my weight.
Fueled by shame, Catholic guilt over failed willpower, and sublimated anger, I was well on my way to the vibrant dysfunctional relationship with food that has inspired my best writing over the years.
I was a great student, but I got a lot more positive feedback when I lost 10 pounds than when I got straight As—even if it was the same 10 pounds I’d lost (and gained) repeatedly.
They called me “Fatso.” Under the moniker “Fitchburg Fats,” I penned a high school editorial against overweight prejudice. In college, I became “Big John.” Eventually that became simply “Big.” I learned to wear all black clothes because, as Mom said, “It’s slenderizing.”
One summer, I lived on tomatoes, cottage cheese, grapefruit, hardboiled eggs, and burger patties. I tried low calorie, high protein, heavy on the broth, apple cider vinegar, and artificial sweeteners from saccharin to stevia. I wanted to be a loser.
My fatness was blamed on my Sicilian heritage or my Austrian parentage. Now, with genetic testing, I blame it on my Jewish heritage too. Mostly, I blame it on bad messaging.
When my mother moved out of our family home, I grabbed a stack of diet-related pamphlets and cookbooks, some now dating back 70 years. I started flipping through them recently and was stunned by the absolutely idiotic—if not dangerous advice and language that now would be labeled offensive, patronizing, and misogynistic.
Simply Because They Eat Too Much
The oldest of the pamphlets includes some of the most truthful tips. “Overweight and Underweight” (1950) by MetLife takes a matter-of-fact approach: “Overweight people are apt to develop diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure … die younger …are poor surgical risks, and have less resistance to infection.”
The volume offered some decent advice including: “Never eat when emotionally upset or overtired. Relax or rest first.”
Reducing Without Tears
The pamphlet promises we can learn “how to eat as much as you want and lose weight” without falling into the usual diet despair: “If you follow the rules, you will not be hungry, or depressed, or irritable, or weak for one minute during your reducing program.”
“The rules” largely center around the word no. One page is a laundry list of excluded foods including no jam, raisins, soft drinks, candy, macaroni, cakes, pies, white bread, grits, corn, potatoes, drippings, lard, bacon, cheese, chocolate, fatty ham, ice cream, beer, wine, or whiskey.
According to the pamphlet, you must confess your sins. “Keep a record of the times you forgot and took sugar in coffee, just one bite of French pastry, just one cocktail.… Write all the forbidden foods you take in the Out of Bounds column.”
Allowed snacks ranged from bouillon, carrot sticks, and lemonade sweetened with saccharin to tomato juice, cantaloupe, and black coffee. Two appetite-supressing recipes are boiled beef heart and broiled smoked tongue.
The Reducing Cook Book and Diet Guide, published in 1951, offers some good news: “No longer is overweight just a subject for condescending humor. Today, practically everybody knows that [being] overweight threatens health and longevity.”
Three-Day Slimming with Pleasure Plan
“If you’ve been hitting the calories a little too hard, you’ll be surprised how peppy and energetic a three-day rest from heavy meals will make you,” offers 1952’s “Best Diets from Good Housekeeping.”
The paperback book warns that exercise is not the answer to being overweight: “There is only one way to proper poundage: The quick way, the simple way, in fact, the only practical way to attain a pretty weight, and stay there, is to control your diet. So, don’t think you can play a few more sets of tennis, or do 50 bends a day, and take off fat…. To take off just one pound, you must walk about 36 miles or wash clothes on a washboard for 28 hours.”
If You Can Cut Out Just 50 Calories
“Tempting Low-Calorie Recipes” (1956) turns to “science” to provide answers. The Cream of Celery Soup recipe includes “½ teaspoon monosodium glutamate.” In fact, flavor-enhancing MSG appears in multiple recipes, including a lamb kabob and the always-popular jellied veal loaf. Many recipes such as Harvard beets call for saccharin, a substance that would be declared carcinogenic a decade later.
Why Be Fat When It’s So Easy to Slenderize?
“The Slenderizer Unit System Calorie Counter” (1958) proudly proclaims that it “recommends no starvation diets, no steam baths, or tiresome exercises—nor any other unpleasant experiences.”
However, it does recognize one reality: “Realize that it’s impossible to reduce your weight and at the same time freely indulge in alcoholic beverages.”
The Slenderizer includes calorie counts for a lot of foods most folks no longer consume such as Liederkranz cheese (100), gum drops (25), creamed chicken (150), chopped chipped beef (300), ladyfingers (25), fried ham (250), and banana custard (100).
Men Never Get Chatty with Gals who Are Fatty
The dieting artifact that made me cringe the most was “The Fat Boy’s Calorie Guide,” published in 1958. It is a treasure trove of antique insults. It offers wisdom like “Men never get chatty with gals who are fatty” and bad advice, as in: “To lose one pound, you have to take 370 steam baths.”
Under the heading “The Fat Boy’s Bartender,” the pamphlet reminds readers that “one jigger of Scotch has less calories than a glass of prune juice.”
Look at a Pound of Lard
“For many and many a year, people have been inventing doodads to shake the fat off us, or to roll it off, or knead it away, or cook it out of our systems, or sweat it away,” notes the 1962 Edition Diet Handbook.
The book discourages excess eating by contemplating pig fat: “In a pound of excess human weight, there are about 3,500 calories. Look at a pound of lard. It contains about 4,100 calories.”
One of the book’s 320-calorie lunches gives you 3 ounces liverwurst, 6 leaves lettuce, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, and 1 cup skim milk. However, it includes a warning: “Notice whether a too-light lunch leaves you faint in mid-afternoon.”
You Can’t Eat Cigarettes
Under the heading of “Cigarettes and Your Appetite,” the Weight Losers Cookbook & Diet Guide (1967) offers dieters a low-cal option: “You can’t eat cigarettes, but in a pinch, they can serve as food until something better comes along. By smoking you can dull the pangs of hunger until you hardly knew you had an appetite … If you hold a cigarette in your fingers you can’t hold a chocolate.”
To be fair, the pamphlet notes that there is no evidence that smoking is a desirable health habit, and considerable evidence that it isn’t.
The paperback’s attitude toward women—the main target of all these volumes—is typical of the times. It recommends exercise but warns ladies to avoid certain suggestive motions: “[Avoid] the hip-rolling act.…This posture is vulgar as the lady throws herself about like a Grade-B-Movie-Trollop-on-the-Prowl, until people fear she will become disjointed.”
Avoiding the Sleeping Beauty Diet
However, despite how little they knew about nutrition and metabolism at the time, much of the advice remains true today. Seeing these diet pamphlets and books after all these years was like getting my 23&Me report and finding out my family is screwier than I ever imagined. Frankly, I’m amazed my relationship with food is not even more messed up than it is.
I live near Boulder, an area swarming with profoundly trim and fit adults (from age 20 to 90) who fast-walk past me on the trails and outswim me at the rec center. I think I thought living here—instead of say, Green Bay, would inspire me, and maybe it has.
At least I’ve avoided the worst diet idea I’ve ever heard. The “Sleeping Beauty Diet,” an approach reportedly favored by Elvis Presley, pairs sedation with starvation. Dieters knock themselves out with sleeping pills and, since they’re asleep, they can’t eat.
I still need to lose 25 (or 50 or 75) pounds, and I may well let them go for all the best reasons. I looked into the keto, Paleo, and Whole30 diets, and decided that a modified Mediterranean diet works best. I make small incremental changes I can maintain while supplanting Camembert, pie, and French fries with nonedible forms of joy. I’m a work in progress.