December 1, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College


On Wednesday 16th January, Alanna Orpen went to see the historian, writer and broadcaster, Dr. Louise Foxcroft, talk about her research on the history of dieting at the Wellcome Collection.  Here she tells us what she learnt…

Lord Byron; acclaimed English poet, influential literary figure and leading personality of the Romantic Period. But the first celebrity diet icon? This is a fact many of us would not attribute to the famous romanticist. Thanks to research by the historian, Dr Louise Foxcroft, we can now be enlightened of the shocking and surprising habits of our past ancestors and the dangerous lengths they took to slim down.

Lord Byron was a considerably vain character, who was renowned for his personal beauty. His cultural influence kicked off public obsession with weight. The impressionable youths of the day wanted to achieve his fashionably thin and pale look and so followed the same low carbohydrate diet, restricting themselves to white rice and vinegar. This was deeply concerning and the medical professionals labelled Byron as a terrible and dangerous role model.

In the 19th century, another celebratory icon took to the limelight. The beautiful Elisabeth von Wittelsbach, known as Sissi, was a public figure who had to cope with the constant critical gaze of the media. She adopted a fanatic diet and exercise regime; she could be seen rigorously training on gymnastic rings in her own private travelling gym. A fan of laxatives, her diet primarily consisted of milk, oranges and broth. She starved herself as an act of punishment if her waist measurement was more than 19 ½ inches.

Throughout the ages diet doctors have been highly sought after. The Pope, the Scottish philosopher David Hume and the English writer Samuel Johnson are only a few amongst the many distinguished clients who desired professional advice to keep their weight in order. Horace Fletcher, an American health enthusiast of the Victorian Era and a medical entrepreneur of the age, was a renowned and influential 20th Century nutritionist. Nicknamed ‘The Great Masticator’, his answer to slimming was to chew each morsel of food for an innumerable count – once giving advice to chew a shallot 700 times before swallowing! His methods certainly prevented over-eating, so an intrigued government put this diet doctor’s approach to the test, much to the dissatisfaction of the army. The rationed diet led to disgruntlement in the ranks.

Dr Foxcroft revealed the outrageous facts of the toxic, carcinogenic and deadly ingredients that were present in a range of diet pills to hit the market. In the 18th century, diet powders contained everything from arsenic and strychnine to washing powder. Then, in the 20th century, the Edwardians were great devotees of swallowing tape worm pills. A popular weight loss strategy that required no effort and meant one could still consume whatever one wanted. Smoking was later advertised as the perfect aid to achieve a slim physique, who needs to eat when you could have a cigarette!

In our modern society we face the constant bombardment of new diets, health regimes, workout trends, revolutionary surgical treatments and promising diet pills. Desperate to attain bodily perfection, we seek quick-fix answers to our prayers. Our obsession with weight seems to be a 21st Century phenomenon, however, we have struggled with our weight issues for millennia, dating back to the ancient Greeks and the Romans. Absurd technologies have been created to supposedly aid our weight loss efforts, such as the recent invention of the vibrating fork, which vibrates when we eat too quickly. (A foolhardy idea in my opinion, but only time will tell whether this will be a successful slimming product.)

The Greeks and Romans considered diet a long-term process. They followed a policy of moderation, a good balance of eating, exercising and sleep. They were very knowledgeable about the diet obtained from empirical observations of overweight men suffering from unhealthy hearts. Funnily enough, 2000 years later, science supports these ancient methods. Today, doctors and nutritionist inform us that a balanced, moderate diet and regular exercise is the healthiest way to live our lives, yet, we seem reluctant to believe this. I am wondering whether this will ever change, as we seem incapable of learning. How many millennia will it take before we finally realise that there are no quick fixes?

FURTHER READNG: Dr Foxcroft is the author of Calories and Corsets: A history of dieting over two thousand years.

IMAGE: a.drian, flickr.