The story of America, as told through diet books

“The South Beach Diet” sold 23 million diet books. Dr. Atkins sold another 15 million. Even lesser-known diet books like Christian best-sellers “The Maker’s Diet” regularly sell millions of copies.

This isn’t a new trend. The 1918 diet book “Diet and Health: With Key to the Calories” sold two million copies by 1940 and was published in more than 55 editions. Combined, just these few series could fill every shelf in the Library of Congress and still have a copy left over for every American public library.

Why do we find the stories told by diet books so persuasive? What is it about this near-impossible quest that’s seduced reader after reader over the last century?

Diet books provide the narrative key – not only to our 20th century Western obsession with weight loss, but our culture as a whole. If culture, as anthropologist Clifford Geertz once put it, is made up of the “stories we tell ourselves about ourselves,” then diet books are troves of these stories, at once wildly democratic and deeply intimate.

I’ve spent the last five years reading hundreds of diet books. As I explain in my upcoming book, “Diet and the Disease of Civilization,” diet books and nutritional advice offer needed insights into the philosophical debate in America about who we are and how we should live.

The disease of civilization

In an echo of Genesis, diet books recount an earlier, Edenic paradise of health. They narrate our fall from grace, then exhort dieters to reform their lifestyles and return to that earlier ideal. They pathologize the relationship between human health and modernity by insisting that we should return to a more “natural” lifestyle.

Take the paleo diet. This diet holds up an original Paleolithic paradise as an ideal world, characterized by social equality, effortless health and natural beauty. Today’s world looks grim by comparison.

The paleo diet implies that agriculture brought about mankind’s fall from grace, ripping Paleolithic peoples from their state of nature and introducing civil society and all of its many problems. It promises its three million American followers a chance to recover some of that original world.

‘Expulsion from the Garden of Eden’ by Thomas Cole depicts the edge between Paradise and a hostile world ravaged by civilization. Museum of Fine Arts in Boston

Devotional diets offer the most obvious example of a fallen society. Christian weight loss plans like the Eden Diet fold the spirit into the larger claim of the diet genre on the whole: namely, that Americans today are fat, sick and sad because our world is out of whack. These books suggest that Western civilization denies human nature and that disease is the inevitable cost of modern life.

All of these stories combine to create a powerful critique of modernity. Our Puritan forefathers decried Americans for failures of spirit. Our diet gurus today rage that our bodies are ill and our willpower weak. Both insist that only individual reform – of spirit or of body – would rescue the health of the body politic.

The ‘toxins’ of modern life

In an elegant story of a pure, preindustrial world, detox diets push for a cleaner body and a cleaner environment.

Published since the 1980s, detox diets blame pollution, contamination and the general toxicity of modern life for the rise of obesity and other noncommunicable diseases. These diets include food addiction in the broader drug and alcohol addiction framework.