Diets and Dieting

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DIETS AND DIETING. Although "diet" most broadly refers to the intake of food, "dieting" more commonly implies the manipulation of food and/or dietary supplements to achieve a particular end—for example, weight loss, athletic endurance, disease prevention/ mitigation, or religious compliance. The modification of diet for religious purposes can be traced to the earliest tribal cultures and to Judeo-Christian traditions given in the Torah and Bible. The importance of diet in maintaining health and ameliorating illness also dates to antiquity, at least to the fifth-century b.c. Greek physician, Hippocrates.

Whatever their origins, American diet fads have a unique history rooted in popular appeal that has incorporated at one time or another virtually all aspects described above. The first widespread "diet" came from a Presbyterian minister, Sylvester Graham (1794–1851),who in the 1830s and 1840s blended diet and lifestyle into a moralistic campaign against excess of all kinds. A vegetarian, Graham was opposed to alcohol and to what he called "rich foods." His followers, the "Grahamites," found advocates in the revivalist Charles Finney, Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, and Mormon founder Joseph Smith. Establishing America's first health food store in New York City, the Grahamites featured their natural whole grain brown flour (later produced commercially as the "graham cracker") as preferable to white, refined flour.

Graham's influence was far reaching and formed the basis for later American health food and dieting regimens such as those promoted by John Harvey Kellogg (1852–1943), who with his brother William created the now-famous corn flake as the dietary centerpiece of his health resort in Battle Creek, Michigan, and Horace Fletcher (1849–1919), called the "Great Masticator," who advocated chewing food to a liquid consistency. All of these early-twentieth-century diet crazes were based more on conviction than on science.

Sounder concepts of dieting developed with the emergence of scientific medicine toward the end of the nineteenth century. One of the most significant works in the emergence of scientific diet therapy was the publication of W. O. Atwater and Charles Dayton Woods's The Chemical Composition of American Food Materials in 1896. The real revolution, however, came from Casimir Funk (1884–1967), a Polish-born naturalized citizen. His seminal paper on vitamins as a prevention and cure for a whole range of dietary deficiency diseases in 1912 set the stage for true nutritional science. With the emergence of the trained dietician during World War I (1914–1918) and the increased understanding of the nutritional aspects of diet during the 1930s and 1940s, diet therapy and dieting were finally placed on a more scientific footing.

While health professionals recognize a number of dietary patterns amenable to good health, faddish diets and quick-fix weight loss plans abound in the popular media. As of 2002, there were some 2,000 weight loss books in print, part of a nearly $40 billion industry boosted also by the popularity of the ergogenic diets designed to give athletes a competitive edge. Some have a scientific basis; others are useless or even dangerous; all are best pursued under the advice of a trained health care professional.


Applegate, Elizabeth A., and Louis E. Grivetti. "Search for the Competitive Edge: A History of Dietary Fads and Supplements." Journal of Nutrition 127, Supplement (1997): 869S–873S.

Christen, A. G., and J. A. Christen. "Horace Fletcher (1849–1919): 'The Great Masticator'." Journal of the History of Dentistry 45, no. 3 (1997): 95–100.

Haubrich, William S. "Sylvester Graham: Partly Right, Mostly for the Wrong Reasons." Journal of Medical Biography 6 (November 1998): 240–243.

Levenstein, Harvey. Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

———. "The Perils of Abundance: Food, Health, and Morality in American History." In Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present. Edited by Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. A comprehensive resource.

Ohlson, Margaret A. "Diet Therapy in the U.S. in the Past 200 Years." Journal of the American Dietetic Association 69 (November 1976): 490–497.

Michael A.Flannery

See alsoHealth Food Industry ; Nutrition and Vitamins ; Obesity ; Self-Help Movement ; Vegetarianism .