The obsession with body fat is an interesting story. It didn’t begin a few generations ago but goes back centuries. But maybe that shouldn’t be surprising.
That was the colonial era when the diet was transformed by imperial trade of foreign foods. I might note that this included previously rare or never before seen varieties of fattening carbohydrates: sugar, potatoes, corn, rice, etc. The old feudal system was ending and entirely different forms of food production and diets were developing, especially for the then landless peasants. Hunting, gathering and grazing for the commoners definitely would have been on the decline for a while at that point, as the last of the commons had been privatized. The loss of access to wild game would take longer in the colonies, but eventually it happened everywhere.
The last stage of that shift overlapped with the beginnings of industrialization and agricultural improvements. In the 19th century, change in wheat surpluses and hence costs and prices. Agriculture boomed as fewer people were employed in it. There was also a sudden obsession with gender roles and social roles in general, such as the post-revolutionary expectation of the mother to make citizens out of her children. Bread-making, a once uncommon activity for Americans, became increasingly important to the normative identity of family life and the symbolic maintenance of the social order.
Regular consumption of wheat bread was once limited to the wealthy and that is how refined bread gained its moral association with the refined class. Only the wealthy could afford wheat prior to the 19th century, as prior to that the poor were forced to rely upon cheaper grains and grain substitutes at a time when bread was regularly adulterated with bark, sawdust, chalk, etc. Poverty breads, in the previous centuries, often were made with no grain at all.* For wheat and especially heavily refined white bread to become available to all walks of life meant an upsurge of the civilizing process. The obsession with middle class life took hold and so cookbooks were produced in large numbers.
In a growing reactionary impulse, there was a nostalgic tendency toward invented traditions. Bread took on new meanings that then were projected onto the past. It wasn’t acknowledged how radical was the industrial agriculture and industrial milling that made all of this possible. And the disconnection is demonstrated by the simultaneous promotion of the grain production of this industrial age and the complaint about how industrialized life was destroying all that was good. Bread, as a symbol, transcended these mere details.
With the aristocracy having been challenged during the Revolutionary Era the refinement of the refined class that once was admired had then become suspect. The ideology of whole foods began to emerge and had some strong proponents. But by the end of the 1800s, the ideal of refinement gained prominence again and prepared the way for the following century of ever greater industrialization of processed foods. Refinement represented progress. Only after more extensive refinement led to mass malnourishment, near the end of that century and heading into the next, did whole foods once again capture the public imagination.
Then we enter the true era of fat obsession, fat blaming, and dieting, endless dieting. Eat your whole grains, get your fiber, make sure you get enough servings of fruits, and veggies, and don’t forget to exercise. Calories in, calories out. Count your calories, count your carbs, count your steps. Count every last one of them. Still, the basic sides of the debate remain the same: fewer carbohydrates vs less meat, whole foods vs refined foods, barbaric lifestyle vs civilizing process, individual moral failure vs societal changes, etc. One theme that runs through dietary advice from the ancient world to the present is that there is a close link between physical health, mental health, and moral health — the latter erupting as moral panic and moral hygiene. But what stands about the modern era, beginning in the 1600s, is that it was observed that psychological problems were mostly seen among the well-to-do.
This was often blamed on luxury and sometimes on meat (a complaint often about animals raised unnaturally in confinement and probably fed grain, the early equivalent of concerns about factory farming; but also a complaint about the introduction of foreign spices and use of fancy sauces to make meat more appetizing), although there was beginning to be an awareness that a high-carb diet might be playing a role in that it was often noted that the morbidly obese ate lots of pastries, fruit pies, and such. The poor didn’t have much access to wheat and sugar before the 1800s, but the wealthy had plenty of such foods centuries earlier. Meat consumption didn’t change much during that era of colonial trade. What did change the most was availability of starchy and sugary foods, and the wealthy consumed them in great proportions. Meat had always been a desirable food going back to earliest hominid evolution. Modern agriculture and global trade, however, entirely transformed the human diet with the introduction of massive amounts of carbohydrates.
It’s strange that right from the beginning of the modern era there were those pushing for a vegetarian diet, not many but their voices were being heard for the first time. Or maybe it wasn’t so strange. Prior to the modern era, a vegetarian diet so far north in Europe would have been impossible. It was only the elite promoting vegetarianism as only they could afford a vegetarian diet year round, in buying expensive plant-based foods that were often shipped in from far away. Although plant foods were expensive at the time, they were available to those who had plenty of money. But during the Middle Ages and earlier, vegetarianism for the most part was not an option for anyone since the food items required of such a diet simply weren’t available enough to sustain life, certainly not in places like England or Germany.
There is another side to this bring us back to the obsession with fat. It was only with the gradual increase of grain production that cattle could be fed grain, not only as additional feed in the winter but year round. This is also what allowed the possibility of confining animals, rather than grazing them on fields. Grain surpluses weren’t consistent until the 19th century, but even before that grain production had been increasing. There were slow improvements in agriculture over the centuries. The rich could afford meat from grain-fed animals much earlier than the rest of the population and it was highly sought after. That is because such meat is extremely fatty creating those beautiful marbled steaks, pork chops, etc (such fattiness, by the way, is a sign of metabolic syndrome in both animals and humans). Fat couldn’t have been a focus of debate prior to grain-fattened animals became common.
So, there is a reason that both wheat bread and fatty meat gained immense symbolic potency at the same time. Similarly, it was during this same era that vegetables became more common and gardens likewise became symbols of wealth, abundance, and the good life. Only the rich could afford to maintain large gardens because of the difficulty involved and immense time-consuming work required (see The Jane Austen Diet by Bryan Kozlowski**; also about the American diet before the 20th century, see The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz that I quote in Malnourished Americans). They represented the changed diet of modern civilization. They were either indicators of progress or decline, depending on one’s perspective. Prior to modernity, a diet had consisted to a much greater degree of foods that were gathered, hunted, trapped, and fished.
The shift from one source of food to another changed the diet and so changed the debate about diet. There suddenly were more options of foods available as choices to argue about. Diet as a concept was being more fully formulated. Rather than being something inherited according to the traditional constraints of local food systems and food customs, assuming one had the wealth, one could pick from a variety of possible diets. Even to this day, the obsession about dieting carries a taint of class privilege. It is, as they say, a first world problem. But what is fascinating is how this way of thinking took hold in the 1600s and 1700s. There was a modern revolution in dietary thought in the generations before modern political revolution. The old order was falling apart and sometimes actively being dismantled. This created much anxiety and it forced the individual into a state of uncertainty. Old wisdom no longer could be relied upon.
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*Rather than bread, the food that was most associated with the laboring class was fish, a food the wealthy avoided. Think about how lobster and clams used to be poverty foods. In Galenic theory of humoral physiology, fish is considered cold and wet, hard to digest and weakening. This same humoral category of food also included fruits and vegetables. This might be why, even to this day, many vegetarians and vegans will make an exception for fish, in seeing it as different than ‘meat’. This is an old ideological bias because ‘meat’ was believed to have the complete opposite effect of being hot and dry, easy to digest and invigorating. This is the reason for why meat but not fish was often banned during religious fasts and festivals.
As an interesting side note, the supposed cooling effect of fish was a reason for not eating it during the cold times of the year. Fish is one of the highest sources of vitamin A. Another source is by way of the precursor of beta-carotene found in vegetables. That these two types of food are considered of the same variety according to Galenic thought is interesting. Cold weather is one of the factors that can disrupt the body’s ability to convert beta-carotene into usable vitamin A. The idea of humors mixes this up slightly, but it maybe points to understanding there was something important to be understood. Eating more meat, rather than vegetables, in winter is a wise practice in a traditional society that can’t supplement such nutrients. Vitamin A is key for maintaining a strong immune system and handling stress (True Vitamin A For Health And Happiness).
By the way, it was during the 19th century that a discussion finally arose about vegetarianism. The question was about whether life and health could be sustained with vegetables. Then again, those involved were probably still being influenced by Galenic thought. By vegetarianism, they likely meant a more general plant-based diet that excluded ‘meat’ but not necessarily fish. The context of the debate was the religious abstinence of Lent, during which fish was allowed. So, maybe the fundamental argument was more about the possibility of long-term survival solely on moist, cooling foods. Whatever the exact point of contention, it was the first time in the modern Western world where a plant-based diet (be it vegan, vegetarian, or pescetarian-style Mediterranean diet) was considered seriously.
These ideas have been inherited by us, even though the philosophical justifications no longer make sense to us. This is seen in the debate that continues over red meat in particular and meat in general, specifically in terms of the originally Galenic assertion of its heat and dryness building up the ‘blood’ (High vs Low Protein). It’s funny that dietary debates remain obsessed over red meat (along with the related issue of cows and their farts), even though actual consumption of red meat has declined over the past century. As with bread, the symbolic value of red meat has maybe even gained greater importance. Similarly, as I mentioned above, the uncertain categorization of fish remains hazy. I know a vegan who doesn’t eat ‘meat’ but does eat fish. When I noted how odd that was, a vegetarian I was talking to thought it made perfect sense. This is Galenic thought without the Galenic theory that at least made it a rational position, but the ideological bias remains in spite of those adhering to it being unable to explain why they hold that bias. It amuses me.
Ideologies are powerful systems. They are mind viruses that can survive and mutate across centuries and sometimes millennia. Most of the time, their origins are lost to history. But sometimes we are able to trace them and it makes for strange material to study.
See: “Fish in Renaissance Dietary Theory” by Ken Albala from Fish: Food from the Waters ed. by Harlan Walker, and Food and Faith in Christian Culture ed. by Ken Albala and Trudy Eden. Also, read text below, such as the discussion of vegetarianism.
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(Both texts below are from collections that are freely available on Google Books and possibly elsewhere.)
The Fat of the Land: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cooking 2002
ed. by Harlan Walker
“The Apparition of Fat in Western Nutritional Theory”
by Ken Albala
Naturally dietary systems of the past had different goals in mind when framing their recommendations. They had different conceptions of the good, and at some point in history that came to include not being fat. Body size then became an official concern for dietary writers. Whether the original impetus for this change was a matter of fashion, spirituality or has its roots in a different approach to science is impossible to say with any degree of precision. But this paper will argue that nutritional science itself as reformulated in the 17th century was largely to blame for the introduction of fat into the discourse about how health should be defined. […] Obesity is a pathological state according to modern nutritional science. But it was not always so.
When and why fat became a medical issue has been a topic of concern among contemporary scholars. Some studies, such as Peter N. Sterns’ Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West, place the origin of our modern obsession in the late 19th century when the rise of nutritional science and health movements lead by figures like John Harvey Kellogg, hand in hand with modern advertising and Gibson Girls, swept away the Victorian preference for fulsome figures. As a form of social protest, those who could afford to, much as in the 60s, idealized the slim androgynous figure we associate with flappers. Others push the origin further back into the early 19th century, in the age of Muscular Christianity and Sylvester Graham. But clearly the obsession is earlier than this. In the 18th century the 448 pound physician George Cheyne and his miracle dieting had people flocking to try out the latest ‘cures.’ It was at the same time that dissertations on the topic of obesity became popular, and clearly the medical profession had classified this as a treatable condition. And readers had already been trained to monitor and police their own bodies for signs of impending corpulence. The roots of this fear and guilt must lie somewhere in the previous century as nutritional science was still groping its way through a myriad of chemical and mechanical theories attempting to quantify health and nutrition with empirical research.
The 17th century is also the ideal place to look if only because the earlier system of humoral physiology is almost totally devoid of a concept of fat as a sickness. […]
For all authors in the Galenic tradition it appears that fat was seen as a natural consequence of a complexion tending to the cold and moist, something which could be corrected, but not considered an illness that demanded serious attention. And socially there does not seem to have been any specific stigma attached to fat if Rubens’ taste in flesh is any measure.
The issue of fat really only emerges among authors who have abandoned, in part or totally, the system of humoral physiology. This seems to have something to do with both the new attempts to quantify nutrition, first and most famously by Santorio Santorio9 and also among those who began to see digestion and nutrition as chemical reactions which when gone awry cast fatty deposits throughout the body. It was only then that fat came to be considered a kind of sickness to be treated with therapy.10
The earliest indications that fat was beginning to be seen as a medical problem are found in the work of the first dietary writer who systematically weighed himself. Although Santorio does not seem to have been anxious about being overweight himself, he did consistently define health as the maintenance of body weight. Expanding on the rather vague concept of insensible perspiration used by Galenic authors, Santorio sought to precisely measure the amount of food he consumed each day compared to the amount excreted in ‘sensible’ evacuations. […] Still, fat was not a matter of eating too much. ‘He who eats more than he can digest, is nourished less than he ought to be, and [becomes] consequently emaciated.’12 More importantly, fat was a sign of a system in disarray. […]
Food was not in fact the only factor Santorio or his followers took into account though. As before, the amount of exercise one gets, baths, air quality, even emotions could alter the metabolic rate. But now, the effect of all these could be precisely calculated. […]
At the same time that these mechanistic conceptions of nutrition became mainstream, a chemical understanding of how food is broken down by means of acids and alkalis also came to be accepted by the medical profession. These ideas ultimately harked back to Paracelsus writing in the 16th century but were elaborated upon by 17th century writers […] It is clear that by the early 18th century fat could be seen as a physiological defect that could be corrected by heating the body to facilitate digestive fermentation and the passage of insensible perspiration. […] Although the theories themselves are obviously nothing like our own, we are much closer to the idea of fat as a medical condition. […]
Where Cheyne departs from conventional medical opinion, is in his recommendation of a cooked vegetable diet to counter the affects of a disordered system, which he admits is rooted in his own ‘experience and observation on my own crazy carcase and the infirmities of others I have treated’ rather than on any theoretical foundation.
The controversy over whether vegetables could be considered a proper diet, not only for the sick or overgrown but for healthy individuals, was of great concern in the 18th century. Nicholas Andry in his Traité des alimens de caresme offered an extended diatribe against the very notion that vegetables could sustain life, a question of particular importance in Catholic France where Lenten restriction were still in force, at least officially. […] According to current medical theory, vegetables could not be suitable for weight loss, despite the successful results of the empirics. […]
It is clear that authors had a number of potentially conflicting theoretical models to draw from and both mechanical and chemical explanations could be used to explain why fat accumulates in the body. Yet with entirely different conceptual tools, these authors arrived at dietary goals surprisingly like our own, and equally as contentious. The ultimate goals now became avoiding disease and fat, and living a long life. While it would be difficult to prove that these dietary authors had any major impact beyond the wealthy elites and professionals who read their works, it is clear that a concern over fat was firmly in place by the mid 18th century, and appears to have its roots in a new conception of physiology which not only paid close attention to body weight as an index of health, but increasingly saw fat as a medical condition.
Food and Morality: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2007
ed. by Susan R. Friedland
“Moral Fiber: Bread in Nineteenth-Century America”
by Mark McWilliams
From Sarah Josepha Hale, who claimed, ‘the more perfect the bread, the more perfect the lady’ to Sylvester Graham, who insisted, ‘the wife, the mother only’ has the ‘moral sensibility’ required to bake good bread for her family, bread often became a gendered moral marker in nineteenth-century American culture.1 Of course, what Hale and Graham considered ‘good’ bread differed dramatically, and exactly what constituted ‘good’ bread was much contested. Amidst technological change that made white flour more widely available and home cooking more predictable, bread, described in increasingly explicit moral terms, became the leading symbol of a housewife’s care for her family.
Americans were hardly the first to ascribe moral meaning to their daily bread. As Bernard Dupaigne writes, ‘since time immemorial [bread] has attended the great events of various human communities: monsoon or grape harvest bread, the blessed bread of Catholics or the unleavened bread of Passover, or the fasting-break bread of Ramadan. There is no bread that does not, somewhere in the world, celebrate an agricultural or religious holiday, enrich a family event, or commemorate the dead.’2 With such varied symbolic resonance, bread seems easily filled with new meanings.
In America (as later in France),3 bread became a revolutionary symbol. To the early English colonists’ dismay, European wheat did not adapt well to the North American climate; the shift to corn as the primary grain was perhaps the most important dietary adaptation made by the colonists. Wheat remained too expensive for common consumption well into the nineteenth century. […]
By the end of the Revolution, then, bread was already charged with moral meaning in the young United States. In the nineteenth century, this meaning shifted in response to agricultural improvements that made wheat more widely available, technological change that made bread easier to make consistently, and, perhaps most important, social change that made good bread the primary symbol of a housewife’s care for her family. In effect, bread suffered a kind of identity crisis that paralleled the national identity crisis of Jacksonian America. As Americans thought seriously about who they were in this new nation, about how they should act and even how they should eat, bread’s symbolic meaning – and bread itself– changed.
American agricultural production exploded, although the proportion of the population working on farms declined. James Trager notes that even before the McCormick reaper first sold in large numbers as farmers struggled to replace workers leaving for the 1849 Gold Rush, the average time required to produce a bushel of wheat declined 22 per cent from 1831 to 1840.7 Dramatic improvements in efficiency led to larger yields; for example, wheat production more than doubled between 1840 and 1860. Such increases in wheat production, combined with better milling procedures, made white flour finally available in quantities sufficient for white bread to become more than a luxury good.8
Even as wheat became easier to find for many Americans, bread remained notoriously difficult to make, or at least to make well. Lydia Maria Child, a baker’s daughter who became one of America’s leading writers, emphasizes what must have been the intensely frustrating difficulty of learning to cook in the era before predictable heat sources, standardized measurements, and consistent ingredients.9 […]
Unlike Hale, who implies that learning to bake better can be a kind of self improvement, this passage works more as dire warning to those not yet making the proper daily bread. Though bread becomes the main distinction between the civilized and the savage, Beecher turns quickly, and reassuringly, to the science of her day: ‘By lightness is meant simply that in order to facilitate digestion the particles are to be separated from each other by little holes or air-cells; and all the different methods of making light bread are neither more nor less than the formation of bread with these air cells’ (170). She then carefully describes how to produce the desired lightness in bread, instructions which must have been welcome to the young housewife now fully convinced of her bread’s moral importance.
The path for Beecher, Hale, and others had been prepared by Sylvester Graham, although he is little mentioned in their work.14 In his campaign to improve bread, Graham’s rhetoric ‘romanticized the life of the traditional household’ in ways that ‘unknowingly helped prepare women to find a new role as guardians of domestic virtue,’ as Stephen Nissenbaum notes.15 Bread was only one aspect of Graham’s program to educate Americans on what he called ‘the Science of Human Life.’ Believing on the one hand, unlike many at the time, that overstimulation caused debility and, on the other, that industrialization and commercialization were debasing modern life, Graham proposed a lifestyle based around a strict controls on diet and sexuality.16 While Graham promoted a range of activities from vegetarianism to temperance, his emphasis on good bread was most influential. […]
And yet modern conditions make such bread difficult to produce. Each stage of the process is corrupted, according to Graham. Rather than grow wheat in ‘a pure virgin soil’ required for the best grain, farmers employ fields ‘exhausted by tillage, and debauched by the means which man uses to enrich and stimulate it.’ As Nissenbaum notes, the ‘conscious sexual connotations’ of Graham’s language here is typical of his larger system, but the language also begins to point to the moral dimensions of good bread (6).
Similarly loaded language marks Graham’s condemnation of bakery bread. Graham echoed the common complaints about adulteration by commercial bakers. But he added a unique twist: even the best bakery bread was doubly flawed. The flour itself was inferior because it was over-processed, according to Graham: the ‘superfine flour’ required for white bread ‘is always far less wholesome, in any and every situation of life, than that which is made of wheaten meal which contains all the natural properties of the grain.’ […]
As Nissenbaum argues, pointing to this passage, Graham’s claims invoke ‘the vision of a domestic idyll, of a mother nursing her family with bread and affection’ (8). Such a vision clearly anticipates the emphasis on cookery as measure of a woman’s social worth in the domestic rhetoric that came so to characterize the mid-nineteenth century.
Such language increasingly linking cookery with morality emphasized the virtue not of the food itself but rather of the cooks preparing it. This linkage reached read ers not only through the explosion of cookbooks and domestic manuals but also through the growing numbers of sentimental novels. Indeed, this linkage provided a tremendously useful trope for authors seeking a shorthand to define their fictional characters. And that trope, in turn, helped expand the popularity of interpreting cookery in moral terms. […]
After the Civil War, domestic rhetoric evolved away from its roots in the wholesome foods of the nation’s past toward the ever-more refined cuisine of the Gilded Age. Graham’s refusal to evolve in this direction – his system was based entirely in a nostalgic struggle against modernity, against refinement – may well be a large part of why his work was quickly left behind even by those for whom it had paved the way.
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Here is another text I came across. It’s not free, but it seems like a good survey worth buying.