To Diet For

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CBS
In the days before the annual feast, here's some food for thought:

Last year alone, Americans collectively spent about $60 billion to lose weight, with predictable results.

"I've probably been on every single diet imaginable," said Susan Sussman, "and in my lifetime, probably have gained and lost 25 separate people."

Some of the women in Rochelle Rice's yoga class have battled excess weight for years.

"Looking back at the history of diets, is there anything that's worked?" asked Tracy Smith.

"No, nothing works in terms of dieting," said Rice.

And while it might seem cruel to talk about weight loss this close to Thanksgiving, in this country, dieting is also a time-honored tradition.

Dieting in America began before the turn of the 20th century, when the average adult weighed roughly 25 pounds less than today.

"Americans have been trying to lose weight since about the 1880s, but it didn't really catch on and become very much the thing to do until 1917," said author Susan Yager.

Her book, "The Hundred Year Diet," is a history of American weight loss schemes - like Dr. Horace Fletcher's idea that people could get thin by vigorously chewing their food, as seen in the 1994 film, "The Road to Wellville."

"The thing was, you had to chew your food at least 100 times before you could swallow it," Sid Yager. "And if you chew your food for that long, you are going to eat less. You're going to get tired of it!"

And even if that diet failed, back then it was OK to be a bit more . . . substantial.

"If you were a woman, you were considered to be fertile and sexy if you had some weight on you," said Yager. "if you were a man, you were considered to be affluent, good husband material. But in 1917, everything changed, because America went to war."

During World War I, Americans were urged to save every scrap of food - and, Yager says, heavy people were looked upon as traitors.

"It was really considered to be a terrible thing to have too much weight, because you were keeping those pounds away from our troops overseas who needed the calories," said Yager.

During Prohibition, there was the Nicotine Diet: Ads appeared touting cigarettes as a logical alternative to eating.

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"Here, women want to be slim, and they want to wear these tight-fitting clothes, and they are allowed to smoke in public," said Yager.

"It made sense - reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet!"

Even in the depths of the Depression, the diet craze continued . . . for those who could actually afford food.

Among the crazy diets of the day, like the Hollywood 18-Day Diet. "This was 585 calories only a day," said Yager." "And I can only think that things had to be spinning so out-of-control in the '30s, that it was good to take control of something, even if it was just what you had for lunch."

It wasn't until well after World War II that dieting became an industry.

"Weight loss, in fact, really became in the '60s a solution looking for a problem," said Yager. "People started to realize there's a lot of money to be made in getting people to try to lose weight."

In the 1960s dieters could replace an entire meal by opening a can of Metrecal.

"It was, oh, it was huge," said Yager. "I mean, restaurants would have liquid lunches - you know, Metrecal and a shot of bourbon."

And Metrecal was, originally, baby formula.

What followed was an avalanche that continues to this day: Diet plans, books, foods, and fitness gurus. Among them . . . a formerly obese kid from New Orleans named Richard Simmons.

"I'm proud to say that I never put anything, my name on anything, unless it's what I really believed in my heart," Simmon said. "But there's a lot of people out there - there is a sucker born every minute."

Simmons' formula: Eat less food and keep moving.

Simmons described diets sold over the Internet as a lot of promises and snake oil.

"What percentage of diets through history would you say is snake oil?" asked Smith.

"I would say that 95 percent are not based on moving and nutrition," he replied. "I think most of them are quick fixes."

The "eat less, move more" method might not be the fastest way to lose weight, but Susan Yager says it might be the best.

Her advice: If people just eat a little bit better, it would make a gigantic difference.

But that's something nobody wants to hear.

"It's so much easier to reach for the latest bestseller and try that for a week," said Smith.

"It doesn't make any sense," said Yager. "But I suppose it does make sense, because it's something to believe in."

And that's something to consider in this season of temptation. Pile on the veggies. Easy on the fats. Scale back. And make this next chapter in your
own diet history one for the books.

For more info:
Rochelle Rice's In Fitness and In Health Class
"The Hundred Year Diet" by Susan Yager
The Paleo Diet
Science Behind the Paleo Diet
Gallagher's Steakhouse
Richard Simmons
More Info From Those Who Believe Diets Don't Work