Sunday, February 27, 2005


My Big Fat List Price

Yesterday's Times of London has an intriguing review of Christopher Forth and Ana Carden-Coyne's Cultures of the Abdomen: Diet Digestion and Fat in the Modern World:

One hundred and fifty years ago an undertaker called William Banting wrote a bestselling weight-loss pamphlet recommending a diet of meat, small amounts of fruit and lashings of claret..... But credit, if that is the right word, for our modern attitude to fat and weight should go to Edward Smith, a more obscure contemporary of Banting, who was an inspector for the Poor Law Board. He was one of the first to apply the economic approach to dieting — energy in should be less than energy out.... to ensure that workhouse inhabitants had the smallest possible amount of fat on their bodies, and so detailed calculations were made to show how much fat was consumed by different sorts of work. Six hours on the treadmill, for instance, would use up 1lb.

The wonderful irony is that this system, designed to keep society’s poorest just on this side of starvation, meshed perfectly with middle-class ideas about the link between efficiency and health... the science of calorie-counting was born, along with insurance charts showing the ideal height-weight ratio, albeit applied rather less rigorously than in the workhouse.

I've had a longstanding fascination with Banting and the Atkins-like low-carb diet fad he set off in the 1860s -- his pamphlet circulated in other languages and kept reappearing in reprints for decades. But I hadn't realized the oddly... well, Dickensian roots of the dieting culture that he helped begin. Unfortunately, I won't be finding out any time soon, since Palgrave Macmillan is selling this 300-odd page book for $59.95...

What on earth justifies a price like that? Does it come with a steak dinner?

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