Diet Books as Utopian Manifestos: A Conversation with Adrienne Rose Bitar

I moved across country this summer, a process that necessitated packing and unpacking all of my books, including titles other academics might find odd: dozens of cookbooks (like my microwave cookbooks!) and a number of diet books (yes, some for men). Luckily, Adrienne Rose Bitar, a postdoctoral associate in history at Cornell University, can relate to my collection of weight loss texts. She surveyed four hundred U.S. diet books for her recent monograph, Diet and the Disease of Civilization. Focusing on four diets and their associated locations—Paleo (the cave), Eden (the Garden), precolonial (“primitive” paradise), and detox (preindustrial world)—Bitar demonstrates how each diet depends on the same “Fall of Man” story, which she asserts forms “the narrative backbone of our national consciousness.”1. I recently had the chance to chat with Adrienne, one dieting scholar to another.

Emily: I want to start, somewhat strangely, at the end of your book. I appreciate how you defend studying diet books because they “do more than reflect or reveal food politics” as they “are the stories that people live by, eat with, believe in, and act on” (161). What drew you to research diet books?

Adrienne: I was first drawn to diet books because they were so enormously popular, but kept with them because they were profound. Looking at the numbers, the average American reads something like four books a year but the Atkins series sold twenty-three million copies, and South Beach another ten million. Even obscure, self-published e-books regularly sell in the tens of thousands.

Adrienne Rose Johnson (Bitar) at Cornell University

But numbers weren’t enough, and I began to think of diet books both like literary fiction and self-help, reading them as myth, manual, and manifesto. They provide rich material for the imagination alongside practical plans to achieve a better body and, I believe, a better self and improved world.

Emily: As you discuss, researching diet books is both a fascination and a challenge, in that archives typically don’t collect them. Heck, even public community libraries routinely purge them. I wrote once about the life cycle of diet books: how they can circulate from bestseller lists to dusty bookshelves to eventual banishment and recycling at used bookstores, garage sales, and beyond. How did you go about creating an archive for this project? And can you please tell us more about the Craigslist want ad that led to you acquiring a woman’s lifetime collection of diet books and other ephemera?!

Adrienne: It was challenging, but I found archives that included diet books even if it wasn’t their primary focus. The Marion Nestle food studies collection at NYU and Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe were great, as well as Michigan State’s Feeding America digitized collection of mostly 19th-century cookbooks and ephemera.

But the world of diet texts changes faster than archives can collect materials. I especially wanted ephemera and obscure texts. Diet books have a very democratic authorship. I read beyond WorldCat by going to e-books on Amazon and Google Books and, when possible, requested print copies through Stanford interlibrary loan. Archive.org was indispensable — they have over 4,000 full-text diet books stretching all the way back to the 1910s.

But I needed to envision the back-and-forth of active readership and suspected that journaling, assessments, and questionnaires would be invaluable. So I put an ad on Craigslist and found myself handing over $100 for four big cardboard boxes in an A&W parking lot. The books were in bad shape but spanned decades of one woman’s lifetime of dieting. She had local Marin County authors as well as hits like Barry Sears’ The Zone and Adele Davis’ Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit.

The collection surprised me: she had two identical copies of Low-Fat Living: Skillpower, not Willpower (1996) and another two of Eat and Grow Slender (1975). She had the 1948 Eat and Reduce but also a 2007 copy of South Beach. She had folded in grocery store receipts, letters, surveys, and “before” pictures. In a weird kind of irony, some rats or other critters had gotten into the books and many had animal gnaw marks.

Diet and the Disese of Civilization by Adrienne Rose Bitar. (Amazon)

Emily: You make the provocative argument that many (and maybe all) diet books tell the same story about modernity and decline. Given that central similarity, what are the distinctions you see between the four diets you analyze? And were there other categorical diets you came across in studying your corpus of 400 texts that didn’t make it into your project?

Adrienne: The Fall of Man thread was pervasive but not ubiquitous. One big exception was the indefinite life extension books, like The Immortal Diet: How You Live One Day After Forever (2017). The immortality diets praise technology and the future triumph of culture over nature, verging into bionic man territory. Technological optimism is largely absent in the four diets I analyze, which mostly venerate a lost, more natural past.

Nature is the world’s most capacious term, and each diet constructs a different and often contradictory vision of “natural man.” First on the imaginary chronology of human health, Paleo remembers a peaceful, healthy caveman past corrupted by permanent settlement and agriculture. Eden remembers a holy life before the Fall while Pacific Islands [precolonial] diets position natural man before colonialism and global trade. Finally, detox points to a not-distant past before industrialization dirtied our food and environment.

Emily: Your chapter on detox diets might be my favorite. What do these diets tell us about American (food) culture over the last few decades?

Adrienne: In really unexpected ways, detox united new ideas about environmentalism and toxic pollution with older concerns about beauty, weight, and health starting in the 80s. Detox diets show how the individual is completely inextricable from the larger environment — and conceptualizes an almost vengeful, polluted environment that is retaliating and hurting human health.

Detox also speaks to a larger anti-establishment attitude at the core of the alternative food movement over the last 15 years or so. Detox not only protests proven toxins like the mercury in tuna fish or the BPA in frying pans, but rails on “frankenfoods” and the “medical-industrial-nutrition” complex.

Early on, detox helped introduce the toxic food environment – a concept that moves beyond personal responsibility but rather points to larger political structures and business practices that encourage overeating and obesity.

Emily: You completed your PhD in 2016, and your book was published in January this year, an impressive turnaround! May I selfishly ask (for all of us working on our first books) your tips for successfully publishing a dissertation, and so quickly?

Adrienne: First, I had a lot of support from my committee and my advisor, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, who is prolific and a terrific writer. Rutgers was also great and moved quickly.

I also have the simple explanation that I love to write and forced myself to produce words on paper. Stanford has this cruel but brilliant program called Dissertation Boot Camp that locks grad students into a room for six hours a day for two weeks, with plenty of wonderful snacks, espresso, and complete silence. I got a lot done during my five or six boot camps.

Practically, I conceptualized the dissertation as a book first – and knew in advance what segments would get cut. I chopped out maybe 50% of the original draft. I also moved through final edits quickly by reading the entire book out loud and playing the recording back as I checked every single word. It took something like 30 hours, but gave me complete confidence that the manuscript was ready to typeset.

Still I have a lot of regret for rushing it. I didn’t engage with so much relevant scholarship that would have nuanced and strengthened the book. I wish I had taken the time and initiative to carefully read Food, Culture & Society and Food Studies syllabi. I regret that.

Emily: You end your book musing, “Maybe, just maybe, the tender hope of the diet book is proof of our willingness to do good and believe in the stories worth believing in” (161). A lot of diet scholars (myself included) read diet texts with less optimism. Could you tell us more about how you came to this message of hope?

Adrienne: I had to set aside the questions about good or bad, effective or ineffective to read the books at face value. I could have dismissed the texts because many are bad for women and have unpleasant backstories. Most are also hopeless at helping people lose weight. But I could accept that ugliness while still appreciating the books as stories and respecting them for the profound impact they had on real people’s lives. Also, diet books changed markedly around the late 90s and many now respect body diversity, offer real advice, and are deeply empathetic about weight discrimination.

The Eden diets most intensely imparted the hopefulness – I remember the poem at the end of one self-published e-book that told readers to look in a full-length mirror and be assured that: “You’re not a failure; even though you’re overweight, deep inside you’re a beautiful person waiting to come out, and the world can’t wait to see such beauty God has given us.”

To me, that is the essence of hope: the image of a dieter, looking in the full-length mirror and trusting they are made, beautifully, in God’s image and infinitely powerful to change their health and the health of their church, community, and country.

Notes

  1. Adrienne Rose Bitar, Diet and the Disease of Civilization. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2018), 161. Return to text.

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2 Comments

Hillary

Fascinating ideas about the larger meaning of diet programs, especially the toxins as, perhaps disgust, with the capitalistic structures that control our food supply. That resonates with me personally. I haven’t heard about Eden diets, so that did not land for me. But thank you for sharing such interesting work.

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