Revealed: how the Georgians taught us to diet 300 years ago

It’s that time of year again, when we vow to ditch the sugar, take out a gym membership, and follow religiously the latest weight loss guides. But while you might assume dieting to be a modern phenomenon, new research suggests it originates in an earlier century.

George IV showing his self-indulgence - Universal History Archive/Getty Images

It’s that time of year again, when we vow to ditch the sugar, take out a gym membership, and follow religiously the latest weight loss guides. But while you might assume dieting to be a modern phenomenon, new research suggests it originates in an earlier century.

As early as the 18th century, diet doctors began to recommend strict, low fat meals, and newspapers featured adverts for tonic and diet pills.

Research carried out by Dr Corinna Wagner from the University of Exeter reveals how the perceived decadence of the Georgian period gave way to a more moderate and austere approach adopted by the Victorians.

In her new book, Pathological Bodies, Wagner demonstrates that by the mid-Victorian period, fighting fat had become a pastime for a large part of the population. Attitudes towards over-indulgence, obesity and body shape were hotly debated, and there developed a pressure to demonstrate self-restraint.

A greater emphasis was placed on the value of self-discipline – to be fat was to be immoral, irresponsible, and out of control.

Wagner told History Extra: “We associate the Georgians with being pleasure-seeking, and enjoying a lot of booze. Gout was almost a badge of honour – a sign you could eat and relax; that you had a ‘lust for life’.

“But a turning point came when a certain Scottish physician named George Cheyne decided to go on a diet. This was something people just did not do at the time.

“He cut out alcohol and even meat, and lost a huge amount of weight (from 32 stone to a ‘normal’ size). He published news of his weight loss success in a 1740 book called The Natural Method of Cureing [sic] the Diseases of the Body, and the Disorders of the Mind.

“He saw an opportunity to make money, so snapped up wealthy clients and showed them how to lose weight. He was, in effect, the first modern diet doctor.

“Due largely to his influence, there emerged a fashion for ‘diet doctors’ among the well-to-do.

“Newspapers started featuring adverts for tonic and even diet pills, and suddenly weight loss became fashionable.”

Wagner told History Extra that this change in attitude resulted from medical advances and political turmoil.

“An emphasis on health emerged at the same time as the radicalisation of the working class and the French Revolution across the channel.

“Diet was linked with Britain’s role as a world force – people began to worry about whether Britain could maintain its empire and global power.

“It was a time of social anxiety, and in response, people pointed to individuals and said ‘you are part of the problem’.”

This attitude was also used to political ends, Wagner explained. For example, King George IV’s extravagant lifestyle led to vitriolic public condemnation. His obesity became the focus of press and public ridicule.

“His weight was seen as a sign of his unfitness to rule, and politicians agitated for a transfer of power from the monarchy to government,” said Wagner.

“George IV was known to consume Persian and French delicacies, and his political enemies exploited that to incredible ends. It inspired an emphasis on British food such as roast beef and beer.

“George IV was used as a cautionary tale to eat local food. There developed the idea that you should be supporting your local community, and that it was bad to be dependent on foreign countries such as China or India.

“By the Victorian era, there were important medical advances in the area of obesity – and along with it, an emphasis in seeing into the body. Anatomy and dissection showed us the body’s physiology and functions.

“As a result, Victorian diet doctors like Thomas King Chambers, author of a book entitled Corpulence, prescribed strict regimens such as sea-biscuit for breakfast, and boiled macaroni and a piece of lean meat for dinner.

“There was also an interest in reading the body and face, and linking physical appearance to personal values. The Victorians were keenly interested in the idea that external features were linked to internal emotions, personality and intelligence.

“As today, demonstrating bodily self management was central to demonstrating status and social position, as well as values like self-respect and responsibility.

“Today, for example, being fat and on benefits is seen to indicate that you are selfish and irresponsible. Partially, we owe that perception to the Victorians.

“In Victorian society, individuals felt a pressure to demonstrate that they were not just consuming, but contributing. It’s amazing how that remains the same today.

“Then, as now, a fat body was a sign of a failing nation and community.”

To find out more about Pathological Bodies, click here.

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