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January 3, 2011
Volume 89, Number 1
p. 40

17th-century Weight Loss, Bread Phobia, Boozy Footbaths

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Sarah Everts/C&EN
Old-fangled diet: Sanctorius’ dining table contraption.

After a few too many indulgences this holiday season, you might join the throngs of people grimly resolving to trim their waistlines in 2011. But before you decide on a SHAPE-CHANGING SCHEME, consider some weight-loss strategies from the past.

The 17th-century Croatian physician Sanctorius Sanctorius built complex dining room contraptions to help himself control food intake. Sanctorius believed that in order to be healthy, people needed to perfectly balance ingestion and excretion, so he weighed himself religiously—after sleeping, eating, exercise, and sex—explained Lucia Dacome at the History of Science Society’s annual meeting last November in Montreal. Dacome is a science historian at the University of Toronto.

To achieve a perfect equilibrium between intake and discharge, Sanctorius devised a dining chair that hung from a giant scale and was balanced by a weight corresponding to how much food he wanted to eat. As Sanctorius ingested food and slowly increased his weight, the dining chair inched away from the table. By the time he achieved his ideal intake, the chair had moved him out of reach, indicating that mealtime was over.

These machines became popular with some European scientists, who also remodeled their dining rooms to accommodate the weight-control program. If such a strategy appeals to you, consider a visit to Museo Galileo, in Florence, Italy, where one of Sanctorius’ contraptions is on display—although traveling to Tuscany rarely inspires people to limit their caloric intake.

Bread: It’s gonna getcha.

Cutting down on pasta and other carbohydrates is a pretty standard strategy for losing a couple of unwanted pounds, but few people know that long before the Atkins diet became a fad and gluten intolerance a common malaise, the U.S. had a widespread FEAR OF BREAD. In the upcoming book with the working title “White Bread: The History of a Dream” (to be published in 2012 by Beacon Press), food historian Aaron Bobrow-Strain describes wheat anxiety through the ages, including the era of “amylophobia,” as industry magazines such as Baking Technology called the 1920s craze.

This antibread movement had a vocal, leopard-suit-wearing mascot: Bernarr Macfadden, a photogenic strongman (go to bernarrmacfadden.com for a website devoted to him) who called white bread “the staff of death,” Bobrow-Strain says. The strongman was joined by the likes of dieticians and political lobbyists, such as Eva Osgood of the League of Women Voters, who once warned that “giving [too much] white bread to children will cause blindness before they are six,” Bobrow-Strain notes.

In those days, bread was also accused of causing anemia, cancer, diabetes, criminal delinquency, tuberculosis, polyneuritis, neurasthenia, gout, rheumatism, liver disease, kidney failure, over-stimulated nervous systems, and acidosis, Bobrow-Strain says. “Constipation, an obvious example, rarely made the list, although one [writer] for a Chicago newspaper denounced white bread as a feminine plot ‘to choke the insides of men with starch paste,’ ” he adds.

If that description doesn’t successfully discourage you from eating that baguette, LIMITING ALCOHOL INTAKE is another time-honored weight-reduction option. But for those seeking a way to get the buzz without the boozy calories, a recent British Medical Journal article may disappoint (DOI: 10.1136/bmj.c6812). Three 30-something researchers led by Peter Lommer Kristensen of the Hillerød Hospital, in Denmark, set out to “determine the validity of the Danish urban myth that it is possible to get drunk by submerging feet in alcohol.” After monitoring their blood-alcohol levels, the team members write that their “feet are impenetrable to the alcohol component of vodka.”

Sarah Everts wrote this week's column. Please send comments and suggestions to newscripts@acs.org.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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