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Annals Of Weight-Loss Gimmicks: From Bile Beans To Obesity Soap

Mostly for the exercise, I ambled over to the Library of Congress Wednesday for a panel discussion on obesity and weight loss in modern times.

The event was sponsored by Weight Watchers, and a couple of the company's people spoke, but some of the most interesting bits seemed to me to be the historical perspectives on weight and weight loss.

For starters, take a look the slideshow we put together of some nutty approaches to losing weight — or concealing that you haven't. Poster-size copies of many of the images were featured at the Library of Congress. From Bile Beans, which promised to "disperse unwanted fat" and "purify and enrich the blood," to a record that was supposed to train you to dislike fattening food.

As the ads attest and Clemson University sociologist Ellen Granberg said in a presentation, "Interest in dieting and concerns about weight" surfaced a lot earlier than many of us ever would have imagined.

Early in the 20th century, the rise of labor-saving devices, advances in nutrition and a lessening of risks from infectious disease combined to influence people's views on weight and diet, she said. It was a lot easier to be plump, but it wasn't seen as desirable.

The library also put on display a bunch of diet books, including one popular in the 1860s. A brisk seller in its day, the Letter On Corpulence, Addressed To The Public by Englishman William Banting offers his first-hand advice for losing weight.

Way back in August 1862, the 5-foot-5-inch Banting weighed 202 pounds. A retired businessman, Banting had been overweight for quite a while and had tried various remedies of the day. He eventually settled on a daily menu that bears some resemblance to the high-protein, low-carb diets many people favor today. He drank a lot more than the modern diets allow, though. Even then he shunned beer for wine.

Banting begins, timelessly:

Of all the parasites that affect humanity I do not know of, nor can I imagine, any more distressing than that of Obesity, and, having just emerged from a very long probation in this affliction, I am desirous of circulating my humble knowledge and experience for the benefit of my fellow man....

After recounting approaches that failed him, he provides a diet plan, starting on page 18, that finally did the trick. After a little more than a year, he dropped 46 pounds. And his regimen even included a nightcap!

Here is the Banting diet:

For breakfast, I take four or five ounces of beef, mutton, kidneys, broiled fish, bacon, or cold meat of any kind except pork; a large cup of tea (without milk or sugar), a little biscuit, or one ounce of dry toast.

For dinner, Five or six ounces of any fish except salmon, any meat except pork, any vegetable except potato, one ounce of dry toast, fruit out of a pudding, any kind of poultry or game, and two or three glasses of good claret, sherry, or Madeira — Champagne, Port and Beer forbidden.

For tea, Two or three ounces of fruit, a rusk or two, and a cup of tea without milli or sugar.

For supper, Three or four ounces of meat or fish, similar to dinner, with a glass or two of claret.

For nightcap, if required, A tumbler of grog — (gin, whisky, or brandy, without sugar) — or a glass or two of claret or sherry.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Hensley edits stories about health, biomedical research and pharmaceuticals for NPR's Science desk. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has led the desk's reporting on the development of vaccines against the coronavirus.