Diet dreams are splashed across magazine covers and blare from the TV, offering tips and tricks, that will, readers and viewers are promised, make weight loss easy and fast. Diet books making similar claims can be found at the top of the best-seller list without fail, every January. But where does this obsession with losing weight to reach some kind of idealized body type come from? How long have gurus and doctors alike made millions from the West’s preoccupation with the “d” word, and why do strange fads such as chewing each bite hundreds of times stick around for centuries? This episode, we explore the history of diets, before asking a scientist: Does anything actually work?
Nobody knows exactly how long humans have elevated a particular physical ideal as the standard, with anyone who who weighs more considered “over.” But we do know where and when the word “diet” was invented: ancient Greece. In its original context, diaita wasn’t solely focused on eating certain foods to achieve weight loss—it was meant to represent an entire way of life, encompassing food, drink, lifestyle, and exercise. With the exception of running naked and regular vomiting, ancient Greek diet recommendations still sound like pretty sensible advice. “They didn’t get everything right,” Louise Foxcroft, the author of Calories and Corsets: A History of Dieting Over 2,000 Years, told Gastropod, “but they did know that a healthy mind and a healthy body made for a healthy society.”