The Decade in Diets

by by Kat Stoeffel

The true sign a fad diet was born in the Aughts: the promise that it is not a fad diet. Almost all the diet books currently floating around Border’s begin with the same syllogistic appeal to the cabbage soup- and grapefruit-weary habitual dieter: “You’re tired of failing at fad diets. This is not a fad diet; it is a lifestyle. This lifestyle will work for you.” “Lifestyle” is the Aughts’ preferred euphemism for “diet.” A diet implies restriction, or subtraction, whereas lifestyles require accessories—licensed food journals, breakfast bars, shopping. The biggest fad diet of the Aughts, and the best example of the fad diet life cycle and its relationship to commerce, is the Atkins low-carb craze.
It would be impossible to have lived through the decade without knowing what low-carb means. Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution spent six years on the New York Times bestseller list. At its peak popularity in 2003, one in 11 Americans reported adhering to it, according to NPR’s Morning Edition. Menus in the chain restaurants that are the very purveyors of obesity added special symbols for Atkins- or South Beach-friendly items. New World Pasta (maker of Ronzoni) sought bankruptcy protection in 2003. Krispy Kreme had enjoyed booming growth after its initial public offering in 2000, but when the company failed to turn profit in 2004, it blamed Dr. Atkins. The same year, the Interstate Baking Company, manufacturers of Wonder Bread and Twinkies, filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy.
When Dr. Robert Atkins died in 2003 and was revealed to have had coronary artery disease, the number of low-carb devotees dropped to two percent of Americans. Sales at New World Pasta returned to pre-Atkins levels. By the time George Michael Bluth was promising to eat only the nuts at the family’s Frozen Banana Stand (“Let Them Eat Cake,” Arrested Development, 2004), Atkins had safely entered the realm of the ironic. In 2005, Atkins Nutritionals, the Atkins-owned company that sells low-carb bars and shakes, filed for bankruptcy.
Post-Atkins dieters found a way to clear their colons from all those animal products with the Master Cleanse. Invented in 1941 by Oregon logger and proto-hippie Stanley Burrough, the cleanse is a purgative ten-day liquid fast allowing only a home-made mixture of lemon juice, maple syrup, cayenne pepper that promises weight loss, mental clarity, and the flick of some internal reset switch. Burrough self-published “The Master Cleanser” booklet in 1971 and the diet quietly gained a following of masseuses, yoga instructors, and, soon after, their celebrity clientele. Beyoncé said she used the Master Cleanse before filming Dreamgirls, and radio personality Robin Quivers told CBS that she first heard of it from David Blaine and had since lost 70 pounds.
Notably absent from the celebrity sound bites are the cleanse’s socially crippling side effects (the Master Cleanse website recommends scheduling bathroom time into your day) and its inventor’s rotten history: in 1984 Burrough was convicted of a felony for practicing medicine without a license. Even though weight loss products make up a multibillion-dollar industry and the Master Cleanse is celebrity-endorsed, the Cleanse remains hippily free from the moral filth of capitalism. Burrough’s reasonably priced booklet ($6.50) has never cracked a bestsellers list and “Master Cleanse” isn’t trademarked.
Still, many have found ways to profit from the Master Cleanse. It ushered in a new trend of juice fasts or detoxes, which require high mark-up products with an inverse relationship between calories and price, including the Garden Greens Global Fruit 2-Day Juice Cleanse ($18.99), The Original Celebrity Juice Diet ($19.95), and Hollywood 48 Hour Miracle Diet ($77.70), upon which eager MDs slap their names in an unintentional homage to their tonic-shilling, pre-FDA forefathers. Other companies, like New York-based Blueprint Cleanse, offer home-delivery of their copyrighted juice blends, aptly relieving urban fasters of their disposable incomes and the need to summon the energy to seek out more juice.
Cleanses, too, saw their credibility eulogized on network television. When 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon returned for a new season of TGS, Jenna Maroney asked, “What are you doing? South Beach? Master Cleanse?” and a wrecked Kelly Kapoor, three days into in-Office Master Cleansing, confessed she had “ordered a bunch of bikinis online. Size 2. I’m gonna look awesome.”
The weight loss industry will always be able to make bank on the human vices of gluttony and vanity, but the late Aughts saw a new era in dieting—dieting not just for yourself, but for the planet. Michael Pollan takes most of the credit for this movement, beginning with 2006’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which describes the science fiction transformation of Iowa corn into a California McDonald’s chicken nuggets—and the environmental and health horrors in between—with lucid journalism and literary sensibility. His 2008 In Defense of Food offers a soothing, seven-word edict for avoiding the malady he uncovered in Dilemma: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” In Defense of Food stayed at the top of the Times nonfiction bestseller list for six weeks, but it doesn’t feel like the kind of dietary advice that will end up on an NBC sitcom.
Most revelatory, Pollan locates the source of the anxiety and misinformation on which the diet industry feeds, what he calls “nutritionism.” The scientific research on which fad diet regimes are built examines only one variable at a time. As a result, scientists publish (and journalists latch on to) findings that concern one individual nutrient (See graph). Assembling all these minute fragments into a definition of healthy eating is nearly impossible; it’s not hard to see where the low-carb-monounsaturated-G.I. hysteria comes from, nor what fertile ground it lays for marketers. If the Times reports on a study that Acai berries spike metabolism, the demand for Acai products will equally spike. Not only will dieters look for Acai berry juice, every beverage manufacturer will need an Acai extract to use as a diet-friendly selling point on labels. Even better, since no one nutrient is exclusive, the market is wide open. A single customer can simultaneously follow the green tea extract, the fish oil, and the Acai berry diet and buy all the attendant junk. Buying, or at least buying the hype, is the latest fad diet.
According to the Atlantic, the British Society of Gastroenterology reported that fad diets are contributing to Britain’s obesity. But perhaps America could have intuited this fact from one of its most visible female figures. Oprah Winfrey’s career-long battle with her weight has been a televised, often confessional representation of the yo-yo dieting trend—weight oscillates, but only as it climbs. Its latest manifestation: a 28-day vegan detox, supplemented by Acai berries. Oprah recently announced that she will be going off the air in 2011. One can only hope that the next decade will bring her, and us, the time to detoxify our relationship with our bodies, and our planet, from the force of consumerism.