Story: Body shape and dieting

Page 2. Changing attitudes to diet

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By the 1860s hundreds of thousands of British migrants were beginning to settle in New Zealand. The young and fit were encouraged to sail to the new land, but body shape was not yet a major concern. For most people ‘dieting’ was a synonym for eating.

That soon changed. In 1863 a British man called William Banting published Letter on corpulence, one of the first low-carbohydrate, low-sugar diets. Within a few months New Zealanders were talking about ‘banting’ (dieting), although it is not known how many went without bread, potatoes, beer, butter and sugar.

The fasting fad

For some people fasting was a vaudeville entertainment. Felix Tanner asked patrons to pay sixpence to watch him fast. In 1904 he lost almost 10 kilograms during a 21-day public fast in Whanganui.

Food and self-control

In the 1880s concerns about ‘excessive eating’1 and ‘training down the flesh’2 began to be raised in the press.

In 1907 ‘food faddists’ were described as ‘an absolute nuisance’ by one newspaper.3 The annoyance was in part due to the popularity of fasting. All around the country men and women were forsaking food. American doctor Edward Hooker Dewey was held responsible for this fad. In 1900 he published The no-breakfast plan and the fasting-cure, which contained accounts of those who had gone without food for up to 50 days and were said to have been cured of melancholia, dropsy (oedema) and obesity. The Wanganui Herald devoted an editorial to Dewey’s theories and the Whanganui region was soon the centre of fasting in New Zealand.

Many turned to fasting to reduce weight and improve their health. Lloyd Jones of Whanganui was a Dewey devotee, and often fasted for two, three, five, seven or 10 days. S. B. Clark went without food for 26 days and Mr Mowatt of Hunterville managed 24, while Henry Dobson lasted 47 days. Fasting also appealed to some women: a Whanganui woman fasted for 40 days and lost almost 10 kilograms.

Diet advice

Not surprisingly, at a time when people were getting heavier, dieting took on a new importance. Many of the dieting messages from the turn of the 20th century still sound familiar: limit the amount of food eaten, especially sugars and starches; take regular exercise; aim to lose weight gradually. Women were also advised to weigh themselves each week, something still advocated by weight-loss support organisation Weight Watchers.

Diet aids

Women who were not prepared to follow the advice in Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s 1893 book, The most artful dressmaker cannot make a thin woman of a fat one – exercise and dieting for the reduction of flesh, could buy Phytolacca tablets and juice at their local chemist. Made from Phytolacca berries, the remedy promised to make ‘stout people thin; no special dieting required’.4 Before the First World War there were products such as Marmola, a ‘find for fat folks’ that promised to reduce weight without the need for dietary change or exercise,5 and fads like paraffin. People took three tablespoons a day in the hope that it would reduce weight.

Between the wars

During the interwar years obesity was declared a ‘disease’, but people, especially women, were warned not to take dieting to extremes. Some adopted a low-sugar, low-carbohydrate diet, ate lean meat and plenty of fruit and vegetables and drank several glasses of water a day. When the All Blacks toured Britain in 1935 many of the players went without beer, pastry, potatoes and ‘sweets’ (cakes and puddings) in an attempt to reduce their weight. Other people ate only raw food that was grated, lived on boiled fish or milk, or restricted themselves to bread and butter. Those fads continued after the war.

  1. Auckland Star, 20 September 1879, p. 2. Back
  2. Bruce Herald, 21 March 1890, p. 6. Back
  3. Marlborough Express, 9 December 1907, p. 4. Back
  4. Star, 23 September 1896, p. 2. Back
  5. Otago Witness, 15 September 1909, p. 36. Back
How to cite this page:

Caroline Daley, 'Body shape and dieting - Changing attitudes to diet', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 1 October 2023)

Story by Caroline Daley, published 5 Sep 2013