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Robin Friedman : author and journalist

Food for Thought

Diets past and present

By Robin Friedman | Fall Special Advertising Section of
New Jersey Jewish News | September 7, 2006

Don’t hate me because I’m a size 0.

I work hard at it. Honestly. Running, spinach salads, skim milk, and Lean Cuisines. I even resort to soy burgers (ugh!) when necessary.

Besides, I now work in an office where dieting is not possible.

An estimated 50 million of us will start diets this year, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — that’s more people than watched AMERICAN IDOL — and about 8 million of us will enroll in structured weight-loss programs by a half-dozen or so well-known national companies. But while some of us will succeed in taking the weight off, very few of us — perhaps 5 percent — will keep it off.

Why is it so hard to lose weight?

Some researchers think we simply find it hard to believe, in this age of medical miracles, that an effortless weight-loss method doesn’t exist. We invest our hopes — and our money! — in all manner of pills, potions, and programs that hold the promise of a thinner future. But, these same researchers say, the only proven way to lose weight is:

Reduce the number of calories you eat.

Increase the number of calories you burn.

Losing weight — and keeping it off — requires long-term changes in daily eating and exercise habits.

Which is hard. Much harder than just typing it here.

But only a modest reduction of 500 calories per day will make a substantial dieting dent.

What I wonder about, as I force myself to absolutely not touch the luscious banana cream pie recommended by THE STAR-LEDGER’s Munchmobile that a thoughtful co-worker — thanks a lot! — brought in, is the history of weight loss.

Is dieting ancient? Or is it a modern invention of our fast-food-chain-on-every-corner, 24-hour-drive-thru, couch-potato culture?

Well, apparently, the ancients had a major head start on us, because, for one, they didn’t have chocolate.

Holy Hershey! A world without magic beans?

While chocolate was enjoyed by the Aztec and Mayan cultures of the New World, Europe stayed cocoa-free until Spanish conquistadores introduced it there. Likewise, tomatoes and corn weren’t “discovered” by Europeans until Christopher Columbus’ voyages.

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine investigated the tooth wear profiles of two species of ancient humans — now there’s a fun job! — and found our cave-dwelling cousins subsisted on “tough foods” like nuts, seeds, leaves, and possibly meat.

Which definitely puts things in perspective. A food pyramid consisting entirely of nuts, seeds, leaves, and meat. No wonder there was no Weight Watchers coming to a cave near you.

In ancient Greece, sugar and bread were no-no’s, according to THE PHILOSOPHER’S KITCHEN: RECIPES FROM ANCIENT GREECE AND ROME FOR THE MODERN COOK. Greek Olympians ate meat-only diets — an Atkins ancestor? — and dried figs. Funny, the Atkins diet was virtually unknown 35 years ago, but it seems the ancient Greeks followed it.

For those dining in ancient Rome, meals centered around cereal, oil, and wine. The Romans loved wine, which they drank spiced and heated. But the Romans generally ate only one large meal a day. Breakfast was a light meal, often nothing more than a piece of bread, lunch was the main meal at midday, and a small supper followed in the evening. Food was eaten with the fingers.

I guess some things don’t change much. Especially at college fraternities.

So where does all this time-traveling leave us? Well, back to the future, naturally. Here are tips to help you with your 21st-century dieting:

Losing weight is not effortless, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. Avoid quick-fix schemes and complex regimens in favor of a few modest changes in your daily routine.

And, remember, at least your world contains chocolate.