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Drink, Chew, Sleep

Libi Astaire

A survey of weight-loss strategies throughout the ages, shows that in the search for that elusive quick-and-easy diet, it’s often common sense that gets shed — not pounds

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

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When English undertaker William Banting wrote his book, Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public, in 1863, he probably had no idea that he had invented what was to become a multimillion dollar industry: the diet book

S he sits upon her pedestal, slim and serene, the very image of vibrant good health. The only problem is that the statue of Ancient Egypt’s Queen Hatshepsut is just that — an idealized image of the powerful and successful ruler as a young woman. By the time she passed away in her early fifties, she suffered from a variety of ailments, including what we now know as diabetes and rotten teeth. She was also obese.

You won’t find any images of Hatshepsut as she looked in the last years of her life. Nor will you find examples of other seriously overweight ancient Egyptian rulers in Egyptian art. That’s because the artists had a tool better than Photoshop: They simply ignored reality and instead painted or sculpted a pharaoh-pleasing fantasy.

While that might work for art, it didn’t help people fit into their clothes or feel good, and so the search for the perfect diet began. Ancient physicians often got the basic concepts right. But perhaps not surprisingly, in the battle between the promise of a quick fix and advice that required discipline and moderation, it was the fast-and-easy weight-loss program that usually won, no matter how weird the diet sounded.

Conquering Calories

We tend to think of dieting as primarily a women’s issue, but the historical record shows that losing weight was a man’s concern too.

When William the Conqueror became so stout that he could no longer ride his favorite horse, he retired to his bed and embarked upon a liquid diet — the first such diet in recorded history. The Conqueror’s beverage of choice was red wine, which, incidentally, scientists later discovered does have fat-cell-blocking properties.

We don’t know how long he remained on the diet, but that same year, 1087, he was once again able to go riding. Unfortunately, he died soon thereafter — not from malnutrition or drunkenness, but from a riding accident on the battlefield.

Along with the wacky diets there were serious methods that have been successful, such as Weight Watchers, which was founded in 1963 by Jean Nidetch, a Jewish woman who described herself as an “overweight housewife obsessed with cookies”

Seven centuries later, English physician George Cheyne became so fed up with his excess weight that he exchanged his diet of rich food and drink for a meatless menu of milk and vegetables. The diet worked for him, and in 1724 he decided to publicize his findings. In “An Essay of Health and Long Life,” Cheyne advised supplementing meals consisting of abundant vegetables with plenty of exercise and fresh air.

Vegetarianism might be a healthy choice, but it didn’t have lasting appeal for the many Englishmen who loved their roast beef too much to give it up. Excess weight was therefore still a problem in the early 1800s, when in England an ethereal appearance was a must. Since Regency-era poets were supposed to look as sensitive as their verse, the naturally chubby Lord Byron, one of the most famous poets of the era, embarked on a lifelong battle with weight gain while he was still a young man — and became the first celebrity dieter. (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 575)

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