Before there was Dr. Atkins, there was William Banting. He invented the low-carb diet of 1863. Even then Americans were trying out advice that urged fish, mutton or "any meat except pork" for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Our obsession with weight and how to lose it dates back at least 150 years. And while now we say "overweight" instead of "corpulent" — and obesity has become epidemic — what hasn't changed is the quest for an easy fix.
"We grossly, grossly underestimate" the difficulty of changing behaviors that fuel obesity, says Clemson University sociologist Ellen Granberg, after examining archives at the Library of Congress.
As the government prepares to update U.S. dietary guidelines next week, the Library of Congress culled its archives and, with Weight Watchers International, gathered experts recently to discuss weight loss history.
Granberg thinks it's important to show "we're not dealing with some brand-new, scary phenomenon we've never dealt with before."
While obesity has surged in the past few decades, we first changed into a nation of on-again, off-again dieters around the end of the 19th century, Granberg says.
Before then, people figured a little extra weight might help withstand infectious diseases that vaccines and antibiotics later would tame. It also was a sign of prosperity. But the emergence of trolleys, cars and other machinery in the late 19th century scaled back the number of calories people once burned, Granberg explains. Increasing prosperity meant easier access to food.
"An excess of flesh is to be looked upon as one of the most objectionable forms of disease," the Philadelphia Cookbook declared in 1900. Low-cal cookbooks hadn't arrived yet; the calorie wasn't quite in vogue.
By 1903, La Parle obesity soap that "never fails to reduce flesh" was selling at a pricey $1 a bar. The Louisenbad Reduction Salt pledged to "wash away your fat." Soon came an exercise machine, the Graybar Stimulator, to jiggle the pounds. Bile Beans promoted a laxative approach.
The government's first advice to balance proteins, carbohydrates and fat came in 1894. A few years later, life insurance companies reported that being overweight raised the risk of death. In 1916, the Department of Agriculture came up with the five food groups. Around World War II, charts showing ideal weight for height emerged, surprisingly close to what today is considered a healthy body mass index.
Yet fast-forward and two-thirds of Americans today are either overweight or obese, and childhood obesity has tripled in the past three decades.
More and more, specialists question how our society and culture fuel overeating.
Negotiating a weight-loss menu for a family is a minefield that affects how people feel about themselves and their loved ones, adds Granberg, who began studying the sociology of obesity after losing 120 pounds herself.
"If what you need is a nutritionally sound, healthful weight-loss plan, you can get 100 of them," she says. "That we have figured out in the last 100 years. It's how to do all this other stuff that I think is the real challenge."