carbgrrl · 14 Mar 2009

If they’d called it fecula, I wouldn’t have eaten it

Nutrition-wise, I reached my impressionable teenage years at an unfortunate time in history.

As a kid, I remember going to coffee shops with my parents in the early 1970’s and sometimes ordering a standard “diet plate”: a naked hamburger, some tomato slices, and a scoop of cottage cheese — because, as everyone knew, bread made you fat.

Then, somewhere around 7th or 8th grade (that would be the mid-70’s), my schoolmates and I were taught all about calories and the dreaded grams of dietary fat, which had nine calories versus the paltry four of protein and carbohydrates. The lesson came with a homework exercise to keep a food diary. I became a habitual calorie counter and at least an aspiring dietary-fat-avoider that day, destructive habits that persisted for more than thirty years.

The war against dietary fat has raged in much of Western society since around that time. For my part, I tried Susan Powter‘s very-low-fat eating; the “baked, not fried” mantra; the new food pyramid (versus the old “four food groups”); Snackwell’s fat-free cookies; and on and on. I tried it all and felt extremely virtuous, if not downright superior, and I lost not a pound. Most perniciously, in 1994-5 I tried an approach called Overcoming Overeating out of sheer desperation — and added 40 pounds to my already overweight frame.

Eventually I’ll discuss here some of the backstory behind this “war on dietary fat”. For now, I just want to convince you that controlled-carb approaches like Atkins (which itself debuted in 1972) aren’t crackpot; not only are they entirely consistent with that old diet plate, they’re pretty much how dieting used to be done since at least the 19th century.

In GCBC, Gary Taubes catalogues the medically prescribed reducing diets of the 1940’s and 50’s, in which — contrary to today’s thoughtless mantra about undistinguished “fruits and vegetables” being good for you — the percentage of carbohydrates by weight indicated whether even some veggies were okay or verboten:

When physicians from the Stanford University School of Medicine described the diet they prescribed for obesity in 1943, it was effectively identical to … Harvard Medical School … in 1948, at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago in 1950, and at Cornell Medical School and New York Hospital in 1952. …. [On these diets,] potatoes … were known as 20-pcercent vegetables. Green peas and artichokes are 15-percent vegetables. …[and so on]… These weight-loss diets allowed only 5-percent vegetables…” [GCBC, Ch. 19, p. 313-4]

And he notes (bracketed explanation his):

Until the 1970s and the beginning of the obesity epidemic, carbohydrates were widely, if not universally, considered fattening. The dietary cause of obesity, as Brillat Savarin suggested in 1825, appeared to be “the floury and feculent [i.e. starchy] substances which man makes the prime ingredients of his daily nourishment” and this “fecula produces its effects sooner and more surely in conjunction with sugar.” [GCBC, Anchor ed. afterword, p. 461]

Honestly, if only they’d used the word fecula in that class — four calories per gram or no — I wouldn’t have touched the stuff.