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Posts tagged ‘Atkins diet’

Human Beans

A few weeks ago, my friend Nafisa sent me a photograph of a banner outside a cafe in Linden in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs. In a particularly good demonstration of why punctuation helps to avoid horrific confusion, it advertises that it ‘now serves TIM NOAKES’—with ‘breakfasts and lunches’ in smaller script below.

In Linden, Johannesburg. Courtesy of Nafisa Essop Sheik.

In Linden, Johannesburg. Courtesy of Nafisa Essop Sheik.

Personally, I would prefer neither to eat Tim Noakes nor his high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet. This sign is interesting, though, because it still refers to a Noakes, rather than Banting, diet. In the past couple of months, restaurants all over South Africa have added Banting friendly meals to their menus, and I think it’s worth taking a closer look at Banting, his diet, and context. William Banting (1796-1878) was a prominent undertaker and funeral director whose family had long been responsible for organising the Royal Family’s funerals. He and what became known as ‘Bantingism’ rose to prominence in 1863 with the publication of A Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public. In it, he described how he shrunk from obesity to a ‘normal’ weight as a result of a miraculous diet. The aptly named Michelle Mouton explains:

After many vain attempts to find a doctor with a cure for corpulence, and after futile experiments with Turkish baths and the like, it is ironically diminished sight and hearing that incidentally lead Banting to his miracle. His ear surgeon suspects a constriction of the ear canals, Banting reports, and advises him to abstain from what Banting terms ‘human beans’—‘bread, butter, milk, sugar, beer, and potatoes’—so called because they are as harmful to older persons as are beans to horses.

The diet was so efficacious that Banting lost forty-six pounds in a year, and reported feeling healthier than ever before. So what did he eat?

For breakfast, I take four or five ounces of beef, mutton, kidneys, broiled fish, bacon, or cold meat of any kind except pork; a large cup of tea (without milk or sugar), a little biscuit, or one ounce of dry toast. For dinner, five or six ounces of any fish except salmon, any meat except pork, any vegetable except potato, once ounce of dry toast, fruit out of a pudding, any kind of poultry or game, and two or three glasses of good claret, sherry, or Madeira—champagne, port and beer forbidden. For tea, two or three ounces of fruit, a rusk or two, and a cup of tea without milk or sugar. For supper, three or four ounces of meat or fish, similar to dinner, with a glass or two of claret. For nightcap, if required, a tumbler of grog—(gin, whisky, or brandy, without sugar)—or a glass or two of claret or sherry.

Noakes-ites will note that Banting included some carbohydrates in his diet, and seemed to shun pork (if not bacon) and salmon, possibly on the grounds that they were too fatty. His injunction against sugar is mildly ridiculous considering the amount of fortified alcohol he drank. No wonder he enjoyed the diet so much—it gave him licence to remain in a permanent state of gentle tipsiness.

Much of Bantingism’s popularity was linked to the fact that it emerged during a period when diets, perceptions of physical and moral beauty, and ideas about health were undergoing rapid change. The wild success of his pamphlet in Britain, the United States, and elsewhere caused intense debate within a medical profession which was increasingly linking weight—Banting’s corpulence—to health. Urban living and industrialised food production reduced the price of food and altered eating patterns. For the middle classes, for instance, meals were now eaten three times a day, with dinner moving to the evening. At the same time, thinness was increasingly associated both with physical beauty and moral behaviour. This diet seemed to offer an easy way to achieve both ideals. Self-denial would result in a more moral, thinner person. Mouton writes:

Toward the end of 1864, George Eliot wrote to a friend, ‘I have seen people much changed by the Banting system. Mr A. [Anthony] Trollope is thinner by means of it, and is otherwise the better for the self-denial,’ she adds.

The diet also offered the new middle classes a way of navigating new food choices, in much the same way that their embrace of evangelical Christianity assisted them in finding a place for themselves within Britain’s class system. As Joyce L. Huff observes, Banting chose to write his pamphlet as a tract. Similar to other confessions of earnest Christians who had come to the light of God’s grace, Banting’s Letter traces the journey of a humble man—a sinner in a fat body—to the light and clarity of a high protein diet. He had achieved full mastery of both his body and his soul.

William Banting (from here), presumably after his diet.

William Banting (from here), presumably after his diet.

Enthusiasm for the diet petered out fairly quickly, but Banting’s writing has been resuscitated more recently by pro-protein evangelicals like Robert Atkins, Gary Taubes, and Noakes. Thinking about Banting’s diet in historical context draws attention to a few exceptionally important points:

Firstly, anxieties about diet occur in the midst of major social change. I don’t think that it’s any accident that Noakes has found an audience among South Africa’s middle classes: whose numbers are growing, but who are also feeling the impact of global recession. Diets—particularly strict diets—offer a sense of being in control and of group belonging in times of radical uncertainty.

Secondly, as a closer look at Banting’s day-to-day eating demonstrates, his diet and that advocated by Noakes are fairly different. In fact, I wonder if Banting lost weight simply because he was eating less food more generally, than as a result of his switch to greater quantities of protein. Noakes cites Banting and other eighteenth- and nineteenth-century high protein dieters to lend his writing greater validity. This is knowledge, he implies, that has been around for some time. All he’s done is to bring it to wider public knowledge. Yet it’s clear that what we define as high protein has changed over time. Noakes’s diet is a diet of the early twenty-first century.

Thirdly, as the short lived initial enthusiasm for Bantingism suggests, this diet is no more successful than other diets at causing weight loss. Put another way, while eating a high protein diet will cause initial, dramatic weight loss—partly through dehydration—those who follow diets which encourage greater exercise and generally lower calorie intake lose the same amount of weight over a longer period of time. This has been demonstrated by study after study. More worryingly, we have no idea what the longterm health implications of high protein diets may be.

Connected to this, Noakes argues that it is largely industry—Big Food—which has been behind efforts to discredit high fat diets. Although Banting was ridiculed by some doctors during the 1860s, this was at a time when medical professionals jostled with quacks for recognition, and did not occupy the same position of authority that they have since the mid-twentieth century. Doctors could not band together to suppress this kind of information. Moreover, food companies were in their infancy. Clearly, people chose to relinquish the diet for a range of other reasons.

Finally, this—as Banting’s contemporaries pointed out—is a diet for the wealthy, and for a planet with unlimited resources. It is out of reach for the vast majority of people who are obese, most of whom are poor. We know that intensive livestock farming has a devastating impact on the environment. Addressing poverty and rethinking agriculture offer the best means of improving the health of the world’s population and of mitigating climate change. Not eating more animal protein.

Further Reading

Sander L. Gilman, Fat: A Cultural History of Obesity (Cambridge: Polity, 2008).

Joyce L. Huff, ‘A “Horror of Corpulence”: Interrogating Bantingism and Mid-Nineteenth-Century Fat Phobia,’ in Bodies out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression, eds. Jana Evans Braziel and Kathleen LeBresco (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), pp. 39-59.

Michelle Mouton, ‘“Doing Banting”: High-Protein Diets in the Victorian Period and Now,’ Studies in Popular Culture, vol. 24, no. 1 (Oct. 2001), pp. 17-32.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Ladyfood

Like all fashions, food fads are by their nature transient. The Atkins diet enjoyed a mercifully brief vogue during the early 2000s; and in 1997 Britain’s supply of cranberries was totally depleted when Delia Smith cooked with them in that year’s Christmas special for her television series. (Something similar happened when Nigella Lawson professed a weakness for frozen peas. Truly, the British are mad.)

Inevitably, after a surge in popularity, these diets or ingredients are either dropped or supplanted by new fashions, or incorporated into our diets to such an extent that we wonder why we were ever so mad about them in the first place (I think of sundried tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, smoked paprika….). It’s not often, though, that people declare themselves ‘sick’ of a particular product – or ask that there be a ‘backlash’ against it. But this has happened, and also fairly recently.

In the past fortnight or so I’ve read a range of articles calling for an end to…cupcakes. Yes, this most mini member of the cake family seems to be facing a kind of culinary doom. But why? What could be so appalling about a dab of Victoria sponge topped with either royal icing, or a blob of butter cream? They were the first cakes my sister and I baked on our own, and I made some last week for an indoor birthday picnic.

Valentine Warner writes in this month’s Delicious:

My assistant brought a pretty blue tin into work the other day and sweetly said, ‘This is for you.’ I prized open the lid and had to disguise my flaring nostrils. Cupcake alert! Feeling the need to be polite, I reached in gingerly, wondering why I feel so unkind towards this fancy spongy hell-spawn.

In the recent tenth anniversary edition of Observer Food Monthly, an article lists the top ten food trends of the past decade. Among its five worst are supermarket vegetable boxes (a genuinely daft idea, I agree) and cupcakes. Why? Because ‘these twee treats have had their day.’ Are cupcakes really as bad as genetically modified food – another of the Observer’s five worst food trends since 2001?

I think that it’s worth thinking about the vehemence of the anti-cupcake lobby. Food, as I have noted before, represents considerably more than simply nourishment. We attach a range of assumptions, prejudices, and meanings to food. These change over time and vary according to context, but remain a potent influence over how – and what – we eat. Importantly, they also shape our identities: food contributes to the construction of national, social, racial, and gendered identities. Cupcakes aren’t simply cupcakes. They are more than sponge cake and icing.

Cupcakes were not always fashionable. Warner writes:

Cupcakes aren’t exactly new. Most of us ate a paddling pool full of them between the ages of five and 10. They were party cakes whose function was twofold: half to be eaten and half to be smeared over the car on the way home.

I know exactly what he means. When I was a little girl in Paarl in the late 1980s and early 90s, cupcakes – or fairy cakes as we tended to call them – were birthday party food. They were dyed pink and lilac to go with our fairy dresses and decorated liberally with hundreds and thousands, glace cherries, silver balls, and whatever else we found in the baking cupboard. Woeker en Woel, Paarl’s biggest tuisnywerheid (a cooperative selling food, needlework, and other things made by women at home) used to sell them in batches of twelve in beer boxes. They were iced in green and pink and I remember them as being enormous – about the same size as flat, brown mushrooms. By no stretch of the imagination could these be considered elegant.

The rise of the cupcake began during the late 90s, and many pin this to the opening of the Magnolia Bakery in New York City in 1996. The Bakery sells individual, beautifully-decorated cupcakes alongside its more usual selection of cakes and pastries. Of course, other bakeries may well have been doing this for decades, but what makes Magnolia different is that it is in Manhattan, and that it is fashionable. The ascendancy of the cupcake was confirmed in 1998 when a couple of episodes of the then wildly popular HBO series Sex and the City depicted Carrie and her friends scoffing cupcakes in the Bakery.

Adre Meyer's Cupcakes at the Hope Street Market in Cape Town

Since then, macaroons, pies, and whoopie pies have been dubbed the ‘new cupcake’, but to little effect. Even with the apparent current backlash, cupcakes appear still to sustain a baking industry: there are legions of recipe books (even Martha Stewart deigned to write one), blogs, websites, market stalls, bakeries, and cafes dedicated solely to cupcakes. This is also a global fashion which spread quickly from the eastern seaboard of the United States to the rest of the world.

In Britain, the cupcake was popularised by Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess (2000). Unlike other food writers, she acknowledges that their appeal is based on a nostalgia for childhood. She notes: ‘At about the same time I started getting into top cupcake and fairy-cake mode, ostensibly for children, I noticed that the people who really seemed to get excited by them were the children’s parents. I think it’s not till you hit 30 that nostalgia is even a remotely comforting option.’

In contrast, the Telegraph’s Xanthe Clay writes, in all seriousness, that her favourite cupcake decoration is ‘summer berries whose freshness cuts the sugary icing. Perched atop each cupcake like a Philip Treacy hat, they’re as exuberant as Carrie’s wardrobe and they taste fabulous.’ This is food – almost literally – as fashion. Valentine Warner adds:

I think it’s the re-branding of this childish treat that gets me so cross. Or perhaps it’s not the cupcakes that annoy me but, rather, their west London devotees climbing into huge urban four-wheel-drives holding wee shiny boxes crammed with mouse-sized cakelets.

Cupcakes are associated with women. They’re girly. They’re ladyfood. And this isn’t inherently problematic. In fact, some contemporary feminists argue – rightly – that the labelling of cooking, baking, knitting, needlework, and other ‘feminine’ pursuits as being silly, frivolous, or demeaning is sexist. They point out that all over the world, suffragettes embroidered banners and other protest material, and held tea parties and cake sales to raise funds for the campaign for women’s right to vote.

I’m not, of course, accusing Valentine Warner of misogyny – although I do feel that some of the anti-cupcake movement is informed by a dislike of things associated with women – and I think his point that cupcakes are simply glorified children’s food is important. Cupcakes are marketed to women on the grounds that these little treats are dainty, pink, and pretty – like women (or, rather, girls, or ladies). They are safe for slim, demure ladies to eat: they contain fewer calories than a wedge of cake, and they’re easy to pick at with a (mini) cake fork. When Warner describes the cupcakes as ‘mouse-sized’, he could as easily be referring to the women who buy them.

Like cupcakes, this gendering of food isn’t anything new. As I noted a few weeks ago, some Victorian doctors advised that women, children, and invalids be fed carbohydrate-heavy, bland food to ensure that their delicate systems remained calm: too much red meat, fruit, or spice would upset them and cause them to behave inappropriately.

What concerns me is that we’re still associating children’s food with a particular kind of childlike femininity. Why are cupcakes marketed so successfully to well-off, educated middle-class women? (And cupcakes are often exorbitantly expensive so it’s only well-off women who can afford them.) In a nasty irony, when Sex and the City depicts Carrie eating cupcakes it isn’t to emphasise her healthy attitude towards food (that we should eat everything in moderation), but, rather, to indicate that even when she does eat cake, it’s small, childlike, and entirely unthreatening (as she is).

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Judith Flanders, The Victorian House (London: Harper Perennial, 2003).

Nigella Lawson, How to be a Domestic Goddess (London: Chatto and Windus, [2000] 2003).

Valentine Warner, ‘Valentine’s Notebook,’ Delicious, May 2011, p. 49.

Other sources:

Sander L. Gilman, Fat: A Cultural History of Obesity (Cambridge: Polity, 2008).

Harvey A. Levenstein, ‘Scientists, Pseudoscientists, and Faddists’ and ‘Too Rich and Too Thin?’, in Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 86-97, 194-211.

Susie Orbach, ‘Interpreting Starvation,’ in Consuming Passions: Food in the Age of Anxiety, eds. Sian Griffiths and Jennifer Wallace (Manchester: Mandolin, 1998), pp. 133-139.

Kerry Segrave, Obesity in America, 1850-1939: A History of Social Attitudes and Treatment (Jefferson, NC,: McFarlane, 2008).

Peter N. Stearns, Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West (New York: New York University Press, 1997).

Doris Wit, ‘“How Mama Started to Get Large”: Eating Disorders, Foetal Rights, and Black Female Appetite,’ in Black Hunger: Food and the Politics of US Identity (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 183-210.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.