On any given day, more than 100 million Americans are dieting, an eating behavior that I’ve been researching in one way or another for nearly a decade. To provide insight into why many Americans struggle to lose weight despite a deep-seated desire to do so, I’ve explored the language used in a variety of diet food advertisements and in two of the best selling low carbohydrate diet books of all time: Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution (1992) and The South Beach Diet (2003).
I explore the Atkins and South Beach diets not only because of the dramatic changes they require in eating habits, which were so widely adopted — according to Opinion Dynamics, at the peak of the “low carb craze” in early 2004, over 35 million Americans drastically altered their eating habits in an effort to lose weight, banishing bread and embracing butter — but also because of the significant legacy they have left on the American foodscape.
In Bite Me: Food and Popular Culture, Fabio Parasecoli deconstructed the Atkins diet, showing how it defines an ideal human form; while, Amy Bentley explored the gendered uptake of Atkins and how it reinforces masculine food ideologies. I became interested in diet literature when Amazon.com celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2005 by listing its top 25 “Hall of Fame” authors — and alongside best selling fiction authors J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown, and Steven King stood Robert Atkins, author of The Atkins Diet, and Arthur Agatston, author of The South Beach Diet. Intrigued, I set out to explore the pervasiveness of diet literature in American culture.
That exploration eventually became my undergraduate honors thesis, advised by Dr. Julia Ehrhardt. I presented a short section of my overall thesis at the 2012 annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Food and Society. What follows is an even shorter section from that presentation.
While diet literature manipulates consumers in a variety of ways, the language of diet books demonizes food, drawing stark divisions between guilt and pleasure, as well as good and bad concerning the moral state of food and the consumer who eats it. By the way that they write about food, diet book authors complicate dieters’ relationship with food, maintain weight dissatisfaction, and perpetuate the cycle of dieting.
In Dr. Akins’ Diet Revolution, Atkins uses guilt to motivate dieters to lose weight. He urges readers to visualize themselves after achieving weight loss and no longer “feeling guilty when you break promises you’ve made to yourself” (5). He attacks readers with accusatory second person phrases, such as “Do you have an inexplicable obsession with food?” or “Do you constantly crave sweets, pasta, bread and other high-carbohydrate foods?” (35-38). He further encourages guilt, warning readers that the American weight “horror story” is a direct result of individually accountable actions and a sugar-obsessed culture (48).
Although Dr. Agatston, author of The South Beach Diet, does not utilize as much guilt-soaked rhetoric as Atkins, each chapter ends with a segment entitled “My South Beach Diet,” where the personal accounts of South Beach devotees supply the messages of guilt that the words of Atkins supply directly. For example, Katie A. states that on the diet she “never feels like she’s missing a thing,” but admits that she has not “had a piece of bread in two years. Not a grain of rice, either” (59). Judy H. admits that even in the last phase of the diet, she misses bread and “would kill to sit down and eat Italian bread with some butter…but I won’t…because…I can’t control myself with that stuff” (83), speaking like a recovering alcoholic or drug addict.
Although Agatston does not state that abstinence is a cornerstone of the diet, he places these anecdotes at the end of each chapter; each one tells the story of a once obese dieter who forever gave up foods that he or she loved in order to be thin. Perhaps the saddest account comes from Judith W., who after losing thirty pounds in six months and keeping it off for three years, admits, “I don’t trust carbs” (90).
Judith’s learned aversion to carbohydrates stems from the food anxiety that many dieters experience, which embodies the dichotomy between good and bad foods, which is repeatedly reinforced in the rhetoric of diet books. For example, Atkins demonizes foods by describing the “perils of sugar,” repeatedly referring to sugar as “poison,” and individuals who enjoy sugar as “carbohydrate addicted” (212).
Like Atkins, Agatston demonizes foodin The South Beach Diet, conditioning dieters to fear carbohydrates. Agatston describes a cheeseburger, French fries, and a Coke as “the pinnacle of American cuisine” and in the same breath, a “lethal…trinity” (48, 49). He draws strict divisions between the “virtuous vegetable” and the “decadent treat” (63). Similarly, he refers to the breadbasket as “the most treacherous part of any restaurant meal” and refers to Italian restaurants as “dangerous” (86, 87).
The most disturbing South Beach story comes from a man who lost 50 pounds on the diet, only to regain the weight. Agatston introduces the story saying, “To protect the guilty, though, I won’t name the dieter” (104). Shunned to anonymity for his dieting sins, this man’s story encapsulates the significant failure rate of weight loss diets (perhaps as high as 95 to 98 percent). Atkins and South Beach received much attention for the number of copies sold, as well as for the scientifically questionable methods they use to help patients lose weight (Crowe 2005: 235). Few have criticized however, the way guilt is used to promote these diets and how harmful such tactics are to dieters’ relationship not only with food, but also with themselves.
Furthermore, the recommendation to use an eating disorder as a method for managing weight is especially harmful. Both the Atkins and South Beach diets were authored by physicians, but are structured to eternally continue a bulimic cycle of eating. Although Atkins warns of the dangers of yo-yo dieting, he also encourages dieters to return to the highly restrictive induction phase if obsessive food cravings re-emerge later in maintenance phase. Agatston also tells South Beach dieters that one can “fall off the wagon…and easily backtrack to Phase 1” (105), where weight loss is the quickest and greatest.
For whatever reason a dieter is attempting to lose weight, these diets do not establish positive long-term eating behaviors. Instead, they offer bulimia as a means of weight maintenance.
- Agatston, Arthur. The South Beach Diet. Rodale: New York. 2003.
- Atkins, Robert C. Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution. Mr. Evans and Company: New York. 1992.
- Bentley, Amy. “Men on Atkins: Dieting, Meat, and Masculinity.” In The Atkins Diet and Philosophy, eds. Lisa Heldke, et al, (Chicago and La Salle, IL: Open Court Press, 2005): 185-195.
- Crowe. T.C. “Safety of low-carbohydrate diets.” Obesity Reviews. Volume 6, Issue 3, 235-245. August 2005.
- Fritsch, Jane. 1999. “95% Regain Lost Weight. Or Do They?” New York Times. May 25.
- Opinion Dynamics Corporation. “What Happened to the Low-Carb Craze?” August 2005. Retrieved Nov 4, 2010.
- Parasecoli, Fabio. 2008. Bite Me: Food in Popular Culture. New York: Berg.