Fad diets change how society approaches health, Stanford graduate student writes in dissertation

Jan. 18, 2016, 11:02 p.m.

Fad diets reveal a societal obsession with pre-modern times, according to new research by Stanford doctoral candidate Adrienne Rose Johnson. Her dissertation, “Diet and the Disease of Civilization, 1975-2008,” argues that diet books tend to idealize pre-colonial or caveman times and garble society’s approach to public health.

“We have to consider how to approach disease in the 21st century as not embedded in these myths of human progress,” Johnson said in a Stanford News article.

For instance, Johnson notes how the diet book “The Paleolithic Prescription presents the caveman lifestyle as the ideal way to live. Women in the Stone Age appear lithe and happy, entwined in “closeness and interdependence…talking, arguing, laughing, playing,” said Johnson. She argues that this narrative, which is mostly unconnected to weight loss, is common across diet books.

(Courtesy of Stanford News)
(Courtesy of Stanford News)

“This is the argument that’s been around since Darwin, that the caveman is our natural self, and to conduct ourselves in a godly or natural way, a way conducive to our biology, we have to revert to his way of life,” she said.

Johnson’s research in the Modern Thought and Literature Program combined study of modern disease with analysis of diet books that have been popularized in the last 40 years. She also interviewed people involved in the weight-loss industry, including a weight-loss camp and health society. Since diet books are not typically considered academic material, Johnson searched for books through the Internet, garage sales and friends, focusing on fads she could map onto social or political beliefs.

Far from regarding diet books as trivial, Johnson notes their enormous influence in daily life and culture regarding food. According to her dissertation, diet books also reveal strong beliefs of how to achieve self-discipline and a “better life.”

“They reflect what people believe, and these beliefs are not insignificant,” she said. “They’re screenplays by which we live our lives and actually influence the day-to-day decisions that many people live out.”

These beliefs affect the way that contemporary society approaches public health, both in treatment, aid and policy, argues Johnson. She found that medical journals often do not recommend modern treatments for diabetes and heart disease, but actually follow the same advice of diet books: a return to pre-colonial times. But in many places with high rates of disease, environmental factors — a lack of arable land, for instance — make this tactic unreasonable.

In understanding diet books and the weight loss industry, Johnson hopes to change the perception that disease and modernity are inextricably linked.

“Diet books are stories about where we come from, who we are now and where we should go,” Johnson said. “They’re whole worldviews about health, human history and the future of the species. You can’t get bigger than that.”


Contact Fiona Kelliher at fionak ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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