It’s the season of resolutions and many people are turning to diets to kick off the new year. In “Diet and the Disease of Civilization,” Adrienne Rose Bitar defines “success” differently: What if diet books work like literature?
Instead of evaluating diets by their ability to promote weight loss, Bitar reads them as powerful stories. She discovered that these seemingly mundane diet books reinvent history, measuring the success or failure of civilization by the health of body and body politic. Bitar, a postdoctoral associate in the Department of History at Cornell University, explores the myths and manifestos offered by four of the most popular diets today: the Paleo diet, the Eden diet, the pre-colonial diet and the detox diet.
Each of the four diets offers a similar “fall of man” narrative, remembering an original, innocent world and mourning the descent of the human race into modern disease, writes Bitar. “Paleo diets mourn our buried caveman past; devotional diets remember God’s grace; primitive diets lament a paradise corrupted by colonialism; detoxification diets grieve for a virgin land now sullied by industry.”
Bitar found that the practical details of the diet plans took up an average of only 20 percent of the content of the hundreds of books she surveyed. The vast majority of the books were occupied with testimonials, autobiographical reflection and food philosophies, demonstrating how diet books are deeply embedded in the debate of who we are and how we should live, according to Bitar. They invite readers on a quest for “infinite perfectability” and peddle hope for a better world.
Today, diet books fly off the shelves by promoting a “healthy lifestyle” and prescribing an even more comprehensive worldview about the proper way to live. At its most extreme, many compulsive dieters now suffer from “orthorexia,” a new disorder identified by the American Psychiatric Association as “a pathological obsession with proper nutrition” and with “clean or healthy foods.”
Although diets have always situated weight loss and health within narratives of lofty and positive change, Bitar notes, “today’s food movement upholds even grander goals – environmental, ethical, patriotic, national, moral – by relying on the higher sensibilities of the dieter. Instead of a lesson in calories and carbohydrates, this new food movement appeals to the softer stuff that makes us human beings: our experience of pleasure and our desire to do good.”