Fat-Fighting Fads Through the Ages

Library of Congress digs up fat-fighting fads through the ages.

ByABC News
January 20, 2011, 8:16 AM

Jan. 20, 2011— -- 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."