A diet is for life

Feeling a bit on the porky side post-Christmas? Thought of taking that new wonderdrug that friends s

With the possible exception of the credulity of the bald-headed man in the field of hair-growers, there is nowhere to be found such simple trustfulness in the veracity of printer's ink as that possessed by the obese within the realm of fat cures.

Arthur J Cramp, 1928

If, like more than half of all Britons, you are on a New Year diet, stop reading now. According to a study by the American Psychological Association, after two years of effort, 66 per cent of slimmers weigh more than when they started - in a nation that spends $40bn a year trying to shed pounds. What hope is there for us amateurs across the pond?

We might increase our chances of success by adopting the long view afforded by Louise Foxcroft's new history, Calories and Corsets (Profile Books) - for, as the 18th-century doctor Thomas Beddoes (reportedly as plump as a feather bed) remarked: "No process in human life is so common than sinning against the stomach and repenting shortly afterwards." Foxcroft's fascinating survey of 2,000 years of self-denial and snake oil puts paid to any idea that obesity is a modern phenomenon. There was no room for flab in the ancient Greek cult of physical perfection. (Hippocrates's insistence that overweight people take long walks in the nude is one of his less rational prescriptions.)

Gluttony, alas, is a visible sin that has always attracted disapproval. In the 6th century, Pope Gregory identified five varieties, including eating with "unbecoming eagerness" and the seeking out of delicacies for the purpose of gratifying "the vile palate".

Overweight people are one of the last groups it is acceptable to stereotype as "stupid" - or, as one 1930s "obesity expert" let rip, "disgusting, pathological and degenerate". The wisely anonymous author of Advice to Stout People (1883) declared that the only way to deal with the problem was to "make obesity penal . . . The police would be justified in arresting the oleaginous pedestrians, slapping them into scales at the nearest police station, and if they exceed a certain . . . weight, at once procure their summary imprisonment, without the option of a fine." No wonder the plump, in desperation, turn to quick fixes to shed extra pounds.

It's always been more tempting to subject oneself to a massage ("to crush the subcutaneous fat lobules") or invest in a fat-burning lip balm or a bar of flab-dissolving soap than to deny oneself a slice of Christmas cake. And who wouldn't want to believe in the Fat Whisperer of west Hollywood, who claims that she can sweet-talk fat cells into packing their bags?

Drugs don't work

Aspiring flappers popped arsenic and strychnine-laden pills and binged on laxative chewing gum in pursuit of a fashionably boyish silhouette. The drugs available today might be safer, but they don't seem to be much more effective. According to the Lancet, those on the wonderpill Orlistat shed 3.9kg a year on average; a recent study of Weight Watchers members found they lost nearly one and a half times that in just 12 weeks.

But sadly, anything that promises to "reduce stoutness in a marvellous degree without any alteration in diet" is, as the Edwardian doctor C Stanford Read observed, too good to be true, and faddish eating, though effective temporarily, fares little better in the long term. Milk camps, cabbage soup diets and grapefruit plans will all drive you back into the arms of that cream cake. The successes in Calories and Corsets share one thing: the recognition that a diet is for life. As Foxcroft points out, the Greek diaita, from which our word derives, describes a way of living, rather than "a narrow weight-loss regime". Dukan devotees, take note.

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 09 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Forget Obama