Calories and Corsets: A History of Diets and Dieting Over 2000 Years Louise Foxcroft

Profile Books, pp.240, £14.99

Britain has the worst obesity rates in Europe, with one in four adults now clinically obese. A friend who works in orthopaedic surgery tells me that at least 80 per cent of knee replacements are, effectively, self-induced: caused by patients being overweight. Same with hips. Another friend, a consultant, had a complaint lodged against him for describing a 17-year-old girl who weighed almost 20 stone as morbidly obese, on the grounds that it hurt her feelings. Type 2 Diabetes and heart disease are burgeoning. What can be done?

According to Calories and Corsets, dieting is not the answer. ‘If you wish to grow thinner diminish your dinner’, announced Punch in 1869. The rhyme was a jokey response to the diet craze then sweeping the land, devised by William Banting. His system was so popular that his name became a verb, still to be be found in the pages of P. G. Wodehouse. Like Atkins and latterly Dukan, Banting promoted weight loss by means of a drastic reduction in carbohydrates. Since eliminating any major food group cannot but make you lose weight, such programmes continue to enjoy considerable success, as well as making fortunes for their devisers. The trouble is that, long-term, they don’t work. No diet does. Louise Foxcroft’s authoritative history is unequivocal on this point. Ninety-five per cent of dieters regain weight when they stop.

The history of dieting is a history of mistakes. Victorians went in for corsets, Vietnam-era Americans for amphetamines. The Romans took emetics. Saints starved themselves. At one point it was believed that increased respiration could cause weight loss. Brillat-Savarin in the late 18th century advised moderation, particularly of what we now know as carbs, while maintaining that ‘A dinner without cheese is like a pretty woman with only one eye’. Some Christians continue to invoke their saviour: ‘With Jesus you can’t lose — all you can do is Lose!’

Inline sub2


Louise Foxcroft mentions these fads, but oddly omits others, such as the Victorians self-infestation with tape-worms or the current market in fitness DVDs. She is oddly coy about the actual sums of money generated by the diet industry and barely mentions the gym, surely as lucrative (and often as quickly abandoned) as dieting itself. Nor does she examine the influence of fashion or pornography on our perception of bodies, although she does touch on celebrity as role-model. Her main focus is on dietary restrictions.

The tone of such a history is important, requiring something between the flippant and the scholarly. Foxcroft occasionally suffers from sounding right-on, without actually making a point. So it is that she mentions that body-image can cause ‘issues around sex’, and uses ‘impact’ as a verb. She seems unaware that Swift’s A Modest Proposal is a work of satire. She mentions the work of anthropologist Mary Douglas, then adds:

Eating habits have social and moral components and reveal all sorts of messages about human needs, about the separation of spirit and flesh, about the physical functions of ingestion, excretion and corruption, and the guarding of orifices.

What sort of messages?

Louise Foxcroft has researched her subject with great dedication and skill. There is an impressive bibliography. Interesting nuggets abound: that Thomas Aquinas was immensely fat, that obese people are singled out for opprobrium in times of economic depression or war, that woman are more likely to over-eat when they’re in a bad mood.There are plenty of good stories and she is good on Lord Byron: ‘He was both greedy and fastidious, a difficult combination’. She quotes from his Ravenna diary: ‘Lieutenant E. just arrived from Faenza. Invited him to dine with me tomorrow. Did not invite him today, because there was a small turbot, which I wanted to eat all myself. Ate it.’

As to losing weight, there is hope. Join a slimmer’s group, enjoy everything in moderation, be more active. Just don’t diet.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, Diet, Food, Non-fiction