Home » Diet culture throughout history
To understand the origins of diet culture, it’s important to first establish what is actually meant by the term “diet culture”.
Diet culture can be understood as a system of socially constructed and conditioned beliefs that thinness is synonymous with health and associated with a sense of moral virtue. It often offers a culturally prescribed body shape – an ideal that preaches an ever-shrinking, “skinny”, and sickly form, often only attainable through restriction and deprivation.
This system advocates weight loss as a method of attaining a higher health-status and sense of virtuosity, and consequently oppresses those who do not meet this thin-ideal. Certain foods and food groups are elevated, while others are demonised.
Diet culture can be traced back to as early as Ancient Greek times, where moderation and regulation of food intake was promoted to attain “calmness”. It also represented a marker of supreme self-control – one of the highest virtues in Ancient Greece1.
Within Ancient Greek society, controlling food intake was utilized as a means for the individual to attain not only health, but an ‘aesthetically pleasing’ body. A healthy body was, within this historical context, a balanced body.
Following the establishment of Christendom, many early Christians came to regard the body as the enemy of the soul. Founders such as St. Anthony, St. Augustine, the early Desert Fathers, St. Jerome, and St. Basil would engage in excruciatingly long fasts and self-deprivation as a means to attain communion with God and purify the body2.
This act, known as anorexia mirabilis or ‘holy anorexia’, could be understood as the basis for modern day diet culture’s association between virtuosity and dietary choices and the apparent morality of food (i.e. “good foods” vs. “bad foods”).
The idea of living in a larger body as being a sign of immorality and a lack of self-discipline persists in today’s culture.
However, in modern times this takes the form of self-proclaimed fitness gurus judging how “good” or “bad” clients have been based on how vigorously they’ve exercised, and how consistently they’ve stuck to a diet of plain chicken, broccoli, and rice.
Despite the cultural revolution sweeping across the world in the 1500s, the idea of obesity and depravity persisted across society, with perceived gluttony still regarded as sinful.
In fact, Venetian nobleman Luigi Cornaro published the first diet book, Discourses on the Sober Life: The Art of Living Long, which was heavily celebrated at the time.
Cornaro began an extremely strict and restrictive diet from his 30s onwards, after previously indulging in a life of excess. It is even reported that he only ate approximately 100g of food per day, with the overall goal of attaining longevity3.
Subsequently, several other diet-related books were published throughout the 1500- 1700s. Therefore, Cornaro’s book, among many others, paved the way for 19th century dietary practices and the emergence of modern-day diet culture.
Throughout the mid to late 1800s, the ideal frame for both men and women was thin and determined to be romantic in a sickly way.
Clothing became very form fitting across both sexes – women were laced into bone-crushingly tight corsets, while men were trussed up in breaches, resulting in radical diets to try and maintain this silhouette.
For example, famous poet Lord Byron’s vinegar diet, in which he’d drink vinegar several times a day with water (does it remind you of the apple cider vinegar diet of today at all?). Several Victorian women were reported to have died from imitating their romantic idol4.
Around 1850, the idea of “Victorian Anorexia” developed, where women would undergo self-imposed starvation to look as thin and frail as possible. As a result, it was during this period that the first real diet-retreats, calorie counting books and low-carb diets were produced and promoted to the masses as a means of weight-management.
This concept has even perpetuated throughout more recent years, with diet culture of the 1990s romanticising a ‘heroin chic’ physique, an extremely slender and feeble body type.
Fast forward to 2022: we’ve heard of, read about, tried (and probably ‘failed’ at) the Cabbage Soup diet, or the Grapefruit diet, Intermittent Fasting, the One-day diet, the Atkins, the MIND diet, the Russian Air Force diet, going Paleo, detox diets, the magic-bullet diets, keto, the 5:2 diet4, and many other flawed, quick-fix dietary protocols.
However, all these fad diets require some form of restriction, deprivation, and the demonisation of one or more food groups.
This dieting mindset is extremely toxic and harmful, especially when it is being advertised to an increasingly young audience.
Diet culture has been further amplified by advancements in technology over recent years, with apps such as MyFitnessPal to keep track of your activity levels and micromanage your calorie intake. It enables you to set yourself goals founded on a conditioned ideal, one that society has ingrained into us as being the ultimate achievement.
We can constantly engage in this endless cycle of self-surveillance digitally, in culmination with the little stomach pinches, prods, and body checks. However, it is vital to remember that weight loss is not the panacea to all mental and physical ailments.
If we are to learn anything from history, it is that unrealistic body goals are always going to be unattainable, and that diets fundamentally do not work. If they truly did, why would we have been stuck in this timeline of ever-changing diet culture since the 9th century BC?
In a society fuelled by diet culture, there will always be a new goal or fad with the same harmful, unsatisfactory result – eroded trust with your body, slowed metabolism and inadequate nutrition, among many others.
Instead, re-direct all that wasted energy into believing in yourself instead: choose to believe that you are more than just a body or a number on a scale.
You always have the option to lead a life beyond the confines of counting calories and pondering portions.
If you’re ready to reclaim your body, dismantle diet culture, and practice a more intuitive approach to eating, email us today at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We’d love to help you nurture and build a healthier relationship with food and your body. This is your birthright.
EHL Team x
1 Yanis, T (2009), ‘The historical origins of the basic concepts of health promotion and education: the role of ancient Greek philosophy and medicine’, Health Promotion International, 24(2), pp.185-192. doi: https://doi.org/10.1093/heapro/dap006
2 Griggin, J and Berry, E.M (2003), ‘A modern day holy anorexia? Religious language in advertising and anorexia nervosa in the West, European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 57, pp. 43-51.
3 Le Conteur, D and Simpron, S (2018), ‘90th Anniversary Commentary: Caloric Restriction Effects on Aging’, The Journal of Nutrition, 148(10), pp. 1656 – 1659. doi: https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/nxy146
4 Foxcroft, Louise (2011) Calories and Corsets: A History of Dieting over 2000 Years, Londone: Pinecroft Books.
Embody Health London champions food freedom, positive body image, mental health and emotional wellbeing through a uniquely blended scientific and holistic approach. The EHL team specialises in treating chronic dieting and eating disorders by coaching clients to build confidence and reduce anxiety around their eating habits and food choices.
Stay up to date with Embody Health London and get our fortnightly newsletter jampacked with freebies, resources and exclusive offers you won’t want to miss!