Modern dieting was first popularized by an undertaker named William Banting in 1863. In his best selling pamplet “A letter on Corpulence” he took advice his physician gave him (cut butter, sugar, bread, beer), popularized it and created the first diet craze and like Dr. Atkins, named it after himself. Before then, according to Banting, dieting was focused primarily as a treatment for diabetes, or as a training regimen for fighters. William Banting not only kicked off a trend, but an industry— there’s over 56,000 books on dieting on Amazon.com. Atkins, Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig aren’t just hobby organizations, they’re big businesses.
Government got in the game of dealing with food just a year prior to Banting’s Banting. President Lincoln launched the Department and Agriculture and the Bureau of Chemistry which would later become today’s modern Food and Drug administration. Since the 1990 passage of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 we’ve gotten standardized nutritional labels on all the food that we consume— an empowering and pervasive open dataset that we can use to make more intelligent food decisions. What’s interesting though is, despite the nutritional labels and the diet books and Jenny Craigs on every block, we’re still getting fat. According to the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, our obesity rate is ever increasing.
What’s the problem?
I think it’s overconsumption of a different kind. Because there’s so much information available about food, we’re unable to make any intelligent decisions. The food industry used this to its favor. In the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act the government made a trade with industry. The companies agreed to put nutritional labeling on the boxes in exchange they got to make health claims on the food boxes. What you end up with is a Fruit Loops box with a industry manufactured stamp of approval saying it’s good for you. The bar one must jump over in order to make a rational food choice was raised, not lowered.
People like Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle know this and recently they’ve made intelligent recommendations on how to choose food. But ultimately that’s treating a symptom, and not the cause. I’m arguing that obesity isn’t caused simply by cheap access to food, but in part by an abundance of cheap and often misleading information about food. I say information obesity can cause actual obesity.
I first started thinking about an information diet about 10 years ago when I was researching the history of television. The inventor of the television, Philo Farnsworth, is often attributed with saying of his invention:
“There’s nothing on it worthwhile, and we’re not going to watch it in this household, and I don’t want it in your intellectual diet.”
While we don’t have nutritional data for information — and likely don’t want a government regulatory agency telling us what kind of information is good for us and what kind of information is bad for us, just as Banting was able to come up with a diet that made sense with the aid of a smart physician a century and a half before the nutritional food labels hit, maybe it is possible to come up with an information diet that keeps your mind lean, nimble, and healthy. And like food, it has something to do with how much you consume, but also what you consume.