Fat-Fighting Fads Through the Ages

PHOTO A weight loss ad from early 20th Century is shown.
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In his book, "Letter on Corpulence," William Banting describes his struggle with obesity and his successful weight loss with a version of the Atkins diet made popular in the '70s.

"The items from which I was advised to abstain as much as possible were: bread, butter, milk, sugar, beer and potatoes, which had been the main (and I thought, innocent) elements of my existence," Banting wrote.

The book was published in 1864.

The Library of Congress dug up Banting's book and a host of magazine advertisements from the 1940s and '50s in a joint effort with Weight Watchers to find lessons in past weight loss campaigns that can be used to address the ongoing obesity epidemic.

Roughly one-third of adult men and women in the U.S. are obese, according to a Jan. 14 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. And half of American adults are at risk for developing diabetes or pre-diabetes by 2020 if they don't lose weight.

"We certainly have a dual challenge going on here, in that we see the obesity numbers and then, after a lag of six years, we see an influx of type 2 diabetes," said Ann Albright, Ph.D., director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's diabetes translation division.

Albright joined a panel of experts, which included Karen Miller-Kovach, chief scientific officer at Weight Watchers International, at the Library of Congress in Washington Wednesday.

"Without understanding the history of weight loss, it's difficult to move forward," Miller-Kovach said.

Ads for "bile beans" and bath salts that could transform fat into "strength-giving blood and muscle" show companies have been marketing fad diets and bogus weight loss products for decades.

"We're always looking for a magic bullet," said Lisa Cimperman, a registered dietician at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland. "We don't want to do the work."

An ad for the Graybar Stimulator -- developed in the '20s and "a bargain in health" for only $59.50 -- shows people have always been willing to spend money on a quick fix.

"There's a perceived value. We think: 'If it's expensive, it must work,'" said Cimperman. "It's easier to spend money on a product than it is to go for a run."

Quick Fix for Weight Loss?

There's no quick fix for healthy, sustainable weight loss, Cimperman said. But there are easy ways to cut extra calories without living on grapefruit and spending hundreds on supplements.

"Start by eliminating liquid calories," Cimperman said, such as those in pop, juice and smoothies or the sugar and cream in coffee. Next, make sure that with every meal you include a source of fiber (like whole grains, fruits or vegetables) and a source of protein (like lean meat, low-fat dairy or beans). And finally, have a plan.

"If you can put a little planning into your daily food intake you'll be much more successful than if you're making decisions on the spot," Cimperman said.

Banting wrote: "Of all the parasites that affect humanity I do not know of, nor can I imagine, any more distressing than obesity."

"There's a 150-year history of weight loss," said Miller-Kovach. "I think the difference between then and now is that we have scientific evidence for successful weight loss that wasn't there 100 years ago. My hope is that, while aspiration and inspiration are important in starting a weight loss effort, people make informed choices in looking at their options."

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