Diets and Dieting: A Cultural Encyclopedia

Diets and Dieting: A Cultural Encyclopedia

Diets and Dieting: A Cultural Encyclopedia

Diets and Dieting: A Cultural Encyclopedia


Diets and dieting have concerned - and sometimes obsessed - human societies for centuries. The dieters' regime is about many things, among them the control of weight and the body, the politics of beauty, discipline and even self-harm, personal and societal demands for improved health, spiritual harmony with the universe, and ethical codes of existence. In this innovative reference work that spans many periods and cultures, the acclaimed cultural and medical historian Sander L. Gilman lays out the history of diets and dieting in a fascinating series of articles.


Some Weighty Thoughts on Dieting and Epidemics

In July 2004, the then-American Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson announced that Medicare was abandoning a long-held policy that said obesity was not a disease, opening the way for the Government to pay for a whole range of possible treatments. Soon after Thompson’s decision, a cartoon by Dick Locher of Tribune Media Services appeared. A portly little boy having read the newspaper with the headline “Obesity Now Considered a Disease” announces into the telephone, “Hello, Principal’s office? This is Tommy Frobish … I won’t be in school today, I got a disease.”

We know what type of disease Tommy Frobish had. As early as 1987, the media began to evoke the specter of a forthcoming epidemic of obesity: “Childhood obesity is epidemic in the United States,” stated Dr. William H. Dietz Jr. of New England Medical Center. The World Health Organization declared obesity the new “global epidemic” in 1998. By 2004, headlines such as “Obesity Epidemic Raises Risk of Children Developing Diabetes” grabbed (and continue to grab) the attention of readers. Scientists at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in February 2002 had already warned the Government that obesity was now a “global epidemic”—no longer confined to Western, industrialized societies. This reflected a growing consensus in the 1990s that obesity (not smoking) was going to be the major public health issue of the new millennium.

Parallel to the seemingly unstoppable spread of this new epidemic was the development of new, radical cures: Would it be surgical (stomach stapling), genetic (the “ob [esity]-gene”) or would it be the old, tried and true “cure” of dieting? In the twenty-first century, dieting has come to mean the control of the intake of nutrients and the use of parallel interventions such as exercise, psychological therapy, surgery, or pharmaceuticals to control (increase or decrease) body weight, strength, health, and/ or shape. From the mid-nineteenth century to today, medical specialists and lay practitioners have tried to claim too fat or too thin people (however defined) as their patients. Fat and thinness is truly in the eye of the beholder. Each age, culture, and tradition defines unacceptable weight for itself: Yet, all do have a point beyond which excess or inadequate weight is unacceptable—unhealthy, ugly, or corrupt. Today, we call this “morbid obesity or anorexia,” and both are always seen as an issue of health. Thus, dieting today may also limit the intake of foods, such as salt or transfats, that are labeled unhealthy.

Yet health, as we well know, is a code word for a positive range of qualities that any given society wishes to see in its citizens: From beauty to loyalty to responsibility to fecundity (and the list marches on). Thus, today, the very . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.