The story of America, as told through diet books

(The Conversation is an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts.)

Adrienne Rose Bitar, Cornell University

(THE CONVERSATION) “The South Beach Diet” sold 23 million diet books. Dr. Atkins sold another 15 million. Even lesser-known diet books like Christian best-sellers “The Maker’s Diet” regularly sell millions of copies.

This isn’t a new trend. The 1918 diet book “Diet and Health: With Key to the Calories” sold two million copies by 1940 and was published in more than 55 editions. Combined, just these few series could fill every shelf in the Library of Congress and still have a copy left over for every American public library.

Why do we find the stories told by diet books so persuasive? What is it about this near-impossible quest that’s seduced reader after reader over the last century?

Diet books provide the narrative key – not only to our 20th century Western obsession with weight loss, but our culture as a whole. If culture, as anthropologist Clifford Geertz once put it, is made up of the “stories we tell ourselves about ourselves,” then diet books are troves of these stories, at once wildly democratic and deeply intimate.

I’ve spent the last five years reading hundreds of diet books. As I explain in my upcoming book, “Diet and the Disease of Civilization,” diet books and nutritional advice offer needed insights into the philosophical debate in America about who we are and how we should live.


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