Dinner is being served. Young women with beautiful, clear complexions, bright eyes, and abundant good health are waiting on "invalids" seated at long wooden tables. This scenario has the potential for communal dining at its best— convivial conversation and laughter turning casual acquaintances into friends— but if it weren't for the sounds of eating, the opulent dining hall would be silent. Talk is difficult because everyone is chewing profusely, at least 100 times before swallowing each mouthful, and then meticulously jotting down the portion size and weight for every food choice made. This eating is serious business, and joyless. What must be accomplished is explained clearly: "Cut calories to one-half of normal number until loss of flesh has been secured," and "Fletcherize," which means gnashing all food to a liquid pulp before swallowing it.
This part is essential— banners proclaiming FLETCHERIZE! hang at either end of the room. John D. Rockefeller Jr. might be carefully masticating and calculating at one of these tables, or Thomas Alva Edison, or Henry Ford— powerful men who are usually in complete control of everyone they come in contact with. Here, they are only in control of their own bodies and souls. A few women are dining as well, like the famous dancer Ruth St. Denis and the wife of author Upton Sinclair. There is no need to be concerned about any flirtation; the diners are far too busy worrying about what to choose from the menu. Will it be fruit soup or navy bean, nuttolene fricassee or roast of protose, lettuce salad or potato, graham crackers or Passover bread, sliced bananas or assorted nuts? The year is 1909, and it's dinnertime at the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan, the largest and most luxurious facility of its kind in the world. The richest and most powerful American women — and men — are on a diet. Bodies and souls are the business of "the San," as its wealthy patrons affectionately call it. Its director, John Harvey Kellogg, MD, is a short, stocky, and charismatic man— surgeon, inventor, vegetarian, and devout Seventh-Day Adventist. He is a philanthropist, but also an astute capitalist who can spot a moneymaking trend when he sees one. He is certain that helping people get rid of a few extra pounds can be a profitable business, and if he can proselytize at the same time, well, that's even better.
Gained a Few Pounds? Bant!
Middle-and upper-class Americans became interested in losing weight in the 1880s, lured by a pamphlet self-published 20 years earlier by an obese Englishman named William Banting that first achieved great popularity in the United Kingdom. Recommended by physicians who thought the tactics it urged were a better choice than taking a little cocaine before meals to curb the appetite (a popular trick), Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public was America's first diet book. It was a high-protein, low-calorie, low-fat, modified carbohydrate plan.
Banting, an affluent coffin maker in his sixties, was 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighed 202 pounds when he entered the Soho Square, London, office of aural surgeon Dr. William Harvey. It was a struggle for him to tie his shoes or walk up a flight of stairs, and his hearing was seriously impaired. Banting had already visited numerous physicians but had no luck. Harvey had been researching the effects of obesity on disease and believed that weight reduction would restore hearing and cure rheumatism and gout as well. He instructed his new patient, Mr. Banting, to follow his diet plan carefully.
This plan was so successful that Banting lost 35 pounds in 38 weeks. His hearing was restored, and with his "personal appearance greatly improved" and "all symptoms of indigestion vanished," he felt obligated to share Dr. Harvey's knowledge with the world. At his own expense he wrote, published, and distributed pamphlets describing Harvey's miraculous diet.
This diet required abstinence from "starch and saccharine matter" and included a short list of prohibited foods: bread, butter, milk, sugar, beer, and potatoes. On the Harvey-Banting diet, you eliminated the bread and the butter. Banting wrote that these foods had been "the main elements in my subsistence." His meals were now quite different, consisting of lean meats or fish, biscuits, dry toast, vegetables, fruits, tea without milk or sugar, and copious quantities of "good claret, sherry, or Madeira." He was also allowed a nightcap of one or two glasses of claret or, if preferred, a tumbler of gin. Breakfast consisted of 4 or 5 ounces of lean meat, tea, and 1 ounce of dry toast, which Banting recommended be softened in "a tablespoon of spirit."
This was a new way of living for Banting. He lost weight, of course, but not because of any special diet. He was consuming fewer calories. He continued to follow the diet and write about his progress in subsequent pamphlets. These became so popular that he had to charge a small purchase price to cover his publishing costs, though he donated all of his profits to charity.
As the desire to "reduce" began to sweep the Western world, Banting's book was translated into German. It was well received and became a fashionable alternative to a diet being offered by German physician Wilhelm Ebstein. Banting's plan restricted fatty meats and butter, while Ebstein— a regular 19th-century Robert Atkins— believed that only carbohydrates from sugar and starch turned into fat, while the fat in foods (including bacon) actually made pounds disappear. The Ebstein diet was translated into English and sold to the American market.
Both plans were far from spartan, as calories had not yet been identified and were therefore of no concern. Harvey, Banting, and Ebstein were simply attempting to reduce the consumption of foods that heavier people were thought to eat a lot of. In Harvey's case, they were the foods that his patient, Banting, had previously subsisted on. In other words, these were weight-loss plans based on observation rather than evidence.
Though Ebstein's plan may have been the more appealing one to the average dieter since it allowed butter and other fatty foods, it was Banting who became the star. He had been first on the diet scene; he wasn't foreign; and, unlike Ebstein, who restricted alcohol consumption to three glasses of "light wine" a day, Banting allowed and even encouraged the consumption of most types of alcohol. The word "banting" became the popular term for dieting for the next 50 years.
No Banting at the San
Dr. Kellogg's patients adhered to a much stricter regimen. A Seventh-Day Adventist, he incorporated into it the religion's rigid dietary restrictions— no meat, condiments, leavened bread, alcohol, or caffeine. Like many other intellectuals, social reformers, and religious fundamentalists of the time, Kellogg believed optimal health could only be achieved with a vegetarian and ascetic approach to diet, along with some exercise. For this latter endeavor he used "water cures," vibrating chairs, and roller contraptions of his own design to get the job done. However, he had no evidence that any of it would result in weight loss, which, as a scientist, concerned him.
Soon all of that would change. At the turn of the century, chemists discovered a way to measure the amount of energy, or "calories," in food.
It became evident that if you ate more "energy" than required to maintain your current weight, you gained pounds, whereas if you ate less, you lost them. This was an amazing and wonderful revelation to Dr. Kellogg. It was so easy— all you needed was self-control.
The San served up a balanced and healthy if painfully boring choice of foods, because Kellogg believed that meat, spicy foods, cheese, coffee, tea, and alcohol resulted in uncontrollable sexual impulses as well as gastrointestinal problems. Breads were "unfermented" because yeast breads, which had to be sensuously kneaded before they tripled in bulk as if impregnated, were far too sexy. "Wine" was also unfermented; in other words, it was grape juice. "Roasts" were nut- and grain-based concoctions resembling what we might today call "meat substitutes." "Coffee" was brewed from cereal grains, not coffee beans. If visiting journalists or other non-patients requested meats or condiments, they would be accommodated, but they had to sit at the Sinner's Table.
Food and religion, food and science, food and business, food and pretense, food and sin— the legacy of John Harvey Kellogg and other 19thcentury social reformers, religious fanatics, and industrialists is still with us when we eat dinner today. Banting and Ebstein are also at the table, their weight-loss schemes transformed and multiplied into methods they could never have imagined.
Today sitting down to a meal of fresh, wholesome foods simply prepared and enjoying every mouthful doesn't seem possible. Inextricably entangled with commerce, technology, and fear, it has become difficult for many Americans to recognize and appreciate good food. We are confused. We flit from one loopy, illogical diet to the next. We feel guilty; we binge and we purge. And we've become just about the fattest people on Earth.
The purpose of this book is not to explore every weight-loss method devised in the last 100 years, which would become repetitive and probably take at least another century to compile. Instead, this book will concentrate on the most influential people, products, companies, and plans that circumvented what should have been a simple and easy gift in a country where food is mercifully plentiful and varied— and has the capacity to nourish its citizens safely and well.