Diet Culture History: From Ancient Greece to Ozempic

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Weight Limit is a series that examines the rise of weight loss drugs like Wegovy and how they impact young people. In this installment, see the history of diet culture from Ancient Greece to Ozempic.

With a new year comes an opportunity to start fresh and, for some Americans, that means losing weight. According to a Forbes survey on new year’s resolutions, 48% of respondents reported they wanted to improve their fitness, 34% wanted to lose weight, and 32% wanted to improve their diet. Resolutions related to appearance and health outweighed several other wellness goals, such as spending time with loved ones (25%), improving work-life balance (7%), and meditating more regularly (5%).

In 2024, these resolutions have been bolstered by the emergence of quick weight loss drugs, like Ozempic, a drug intended for adults with Type 2 diabetes that has been harnessed for its weight loss side effects. Some celebrities have spoken openly about using Ozempic to lose weight and the drug has exploded in popularity among the public. On TikTok, #Ozempic has acquired 1.3 billion views and #OzempicWeightLoss is catching up with 429.6 million views. Shortages of the drug are expected throughout 2024.

Over the past few years, culture commentators have noticed a trend toward ultra-thinness among celebrities like Kim Kardashian right on the heels of the "slim-thick" era of the 2010s, when BBLs and waist trainers reigned. This itself comes after the super thin supermodel era of the 1990s, showing that weight and body size trends have always vacillated – and the history of dieting is rife with political, social and economic influences.

Dieting has existed for centuries, at least since Ancient Greece, where dieting emerged as a holistic approach to physical and mental health. But the conception of dieting as primarily a way to lose weight or change one’s body first appeared in the 19th century.

Historians trace the contemporary Western relationship between dieting and weight loss to 1863 when English writer William Banting authored “A Letter on Corpulence.” However, Banting didn’t have a background in health or medicine. His writing came from his own struggles with his weight. At age 64, Banting was 5’5” and weighed 202 pounds.

When he started to lose his hearing, Banting turned to surgeon William Harvey. Harvey had recently attended a lecture in Paris about the connection between the liver and diabetes, and had since been investigating how sugar, fats, and starches influenced the body. When a distressed Banting asked for solutions to weight loss, Harvey recommended that he cut out “bread, butter, milk, sugar, beer and potatoes and to live on mainly animal protein, fruit and non-starchy vegetables.” About nine months later, Banting had lost 35 pounds and his quality of life had significantly improved. He then self-published “A Letter on Corpulence” detailing his journey and gave copies away for free.

Banting’s published ideas primarily appealed to men who had traded work in the field for sedentary desk jobs, thanks to industrialization. These men feared that their bodies were becoming too soft and feminine, and weight loss became a way to reclaim their masculinity. Banting indeed targeted “A Letter on Corpulence” to the growing white male middle class, who prized self-control, education, and morality.

Further Reading/Listening

Maintenance Phase

The Body Is Not An Apology: The Power of Radical Self Love by Sonya Renee Taylor

Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia by Sabrina Strings

Hunger by Roxane Gay

On the other hand, the patriarchal society of the 1830s perceived women as emotional and lacking self-control, and therefore not built for the rigors of dieting. Beauty standards of the time also did not prioritize thinness; rather, plumpness was associated with traits like wealth, motherhood, and sexual aptitude.

It wasn’t until the 1890s when diet advice began appearing in American women’s magazines, when societal beauty standards around the female body were slowly shifting away from the dominant hourglass figure of the 19th century. The development of scientific racism, a “pseudoscientific” approach used to prove the supposed superiority of the white race, partially relied on anti-fatness. Black women were characterized by “presumed inability to control” their consumptions. Not only did this shame Black people and their bodies, but it also encouraged white women to begin dieting as a way to differentiate themselves from stereotypes of Black women. Body size became another battleground for racialized and gendered ideals, and the roaring twenties pushed dieting into the spotlight.

The “ideal” female body type continued to evolve in the early 20th century. By the 1920s, following World War I, social activities that had once been overseen in the home – like dating – became public. New technology like movies and radio meant that trends could spread nationally – such as the “flapper” look for women.

“Flappers” embraced a fiercely modern look, idealizing a thin, youthful, and flat-chested body type. They rejected rigid gender roles by wearing knee-length skirts (shockingly short for the time), cutting their hair, exposing skin, smoking in public, and attending jazz clubs. Suddenly, while plumpness had previously been associated with wealth and sexuality, thinness now reigned supreme. Only women who weren’t desperate for food had the privilege of restricting their consumption for aesthetics, so the line of thinking went.

As the demand for weight loss increased, so did the strategies to achieve this – like calorie counting, which had originated as a food rationing technique during World War I. In 1918, Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters, an American physician, popularized the concept of calorie counting for weight loss in her book, Diet & Health: With Key to the Calories. “In war time it is a crime to hoard food,” wrote Dr. Hunt Peters. “Yet there are hundreds of thousands of individuals all over America who are hoarding food…stored away in their own anatomy.” Dr. Peters’ work characterized fat people as unpatriotic threats to the future of the United States. This perception linked weight to behaviors and values, just as often happened with race, gender and class.

The diet industry exploded after World War II. This was due, in part, to advancements in food and advertising technology as well as increasing social, economic, and political pressures to conform to ideal standards of citizenship, femininity, and the nuclear family. At the time, the ideal American woman, as portrayed by pop culture, happily married a man, had children, and managed the suburban home. The image of the ideal American family relied on an idealized aesthetic of domesticity. Thus, housewives were particularly vulnerable to the diet industry, which often pushed new and more harmful tactics.

American women began using new methods to diet, advanced by advertisers. For example, amphetamines, like Benzedrine, which were originally used by soldiers to treat combat stress reaction (now known as PTSD), were increasingly marketed to women as diet pills. In 1967, one study found that patients at weight loss clinics spent $120 million on diet pills alone. Fad diets, including the grapefruit diet and the cabbage soup diet, also represented the desire for an easy dieting fix.

In addition, brick and mortar dieting facilities began cropping up in the 1940s and 1950s. These facilities, often called reducing salons, had “reducing machines” designed to shape and slim one’s body. One of the most famous diet programs in the U.S., Weight Watchers (now known as WW), began in Jean Nidetch’s living room in 1962 and launched the “before and after” photo phenomenon. Weight Watchers shifted dieting from a fad to a lifestyle change. Other programs, including NutriSystem (founded in 1972), followed suit.

During the 1960s in the U.S., widespread political and social shifts took place – from the Civil Rights Movement to Second Wave Feminism and anti-Vietnam war protests. Amid this rejection of the status quo, the fat acceptance and fat liberation movements took root, addressing the social, political, and economic systems that create barriers for fat people. Fat liberationists contested anti-fat bias in employment and organized events such as the Fat-In in Central Park.

Fat Black women formed the cornerstone of these movements. Margaret K. Bass wrote “On Being a Fat Black Girl in a Fat-Hating Culture” (2011) to reflect on her experience growing up in the 1950s and 1960s: “No one prepared me for living life as a fat person.” Her account of harassment, bullying, and pressure to lose weight describes the struggles of living as a fat Black girl living in an anti-fat world. Johnnie Tillmon, a social welfare activist, wrote, “I’m a woman. I’m a Black woman. I’m a poor woman. I’m a fat woman. I’m a middle-aged woman. And I’m on welfare. In this country, if you’re any one of those things you count less as a human being. If you’re all those things, you don’t count at all. Except as a statistic.”

Despite the growing fat acceptance movements, dieting pressures grew in the 1970s and 80s. Exercise classes became increasingly popular for individuals hoping to slim down. American actress Jane Fonda starred in an at-home workout video that sold 17 million copies between 1982 and 1985. At the same time, diet foods became increasingly popular for American consumers. Lean Cuisine (created in 1981) and Diet Coke (created in 1982) offered low-fat, low-sugar, and low-calorie options. The accessibility of exercise options and diet foods made it much easier for the average American to participate in diet culture.

In the 1990s and 2000s, an era of tabloids, paparazzi walks, and reality television provided Americans with myriad ways to observe, admire, and imitate the bodies of thin women. The “waif” and “heroin chic” aesthetics, popularized by British model Kate Moss, encouraged an androgynous and emaciated body as the beauty ideal. The hypervisibility of celebrities like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears opened up conversation about the size of these women’s bodies. While these conversations certainly increased pressures to conform to a thin body type, this media landscape also increased awareness about eating disorders, particularly anorexia and bulimia.

As some Americans became dissatisfied with pressures to diet and lose weight, they sought out new ways of viewing their bodies. Body positivity and body neutrality have grown in popularity over recent years. Additionally, fat studies scholars have begun questioning the efficacy of some measures of health, such as the use of the Body Mass Index (BMI). Recently, fat activists won a major victory when New York Mayor Eric Adams banned discrimination based on weight in May 2023.

Critics state that fat liberation movements are promoting unhealthy behaviors. In response, activists encourage people to understand anti-fatness as a system of oppression that negatively impacts one’s physical, mental, and social well-being. While the pendulum is swinging back towards ideal thinness with the rise of Ozempic and other weight loss medications, fat liberationists are still working to de-stigmatize fatness and work towards a more equitable and just society for people of all body types.

This article was produced with Made By Us, a coalition of more than 200 history museums working to connect with today's youth.

Read the rest of the series here:

Teens Are Taking Wegovy, and Experts Wonder What That Means for Mental Health

Ozempic Is Highlighting How We Link Our Worth to Our Body Size

Nearly 1 in 10 Teenagers Have Turned to Pills for Weight Loss, Research Shows

We Don't Always Know What's In Those Cheaper Ozempic “Dupes”

Young People Are Struggling to Get Ozempic for Diabetes Because of the Drug's Popularity

Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue