Earlier this year, I was planning to write a post called “How I Lost 5 Pounds for My College Reunion on a 1918 Diet.” Well…that goal, modest though it was, was not achieved. But then last month my friend Emily* invited me to participate in a group diet contest on DietBet. (She invited all of her Facebook friends, so I didn’t take it personally.) I jumped at this opportunity to regain the silhouette of youth.
I had just the diet in mind, from this article in the March 1918 issue of the Ladies’ Home Journal by Eugene Lyman Fisk, M.D., who was the medical director of the Life Extension Institute and the co-author, with Yale professor Irving Fisher, of the bestselling 1915 book How to Live.**
I expected 1918 dieting wisdom to be dubious, but Dr. Fisk, like fellow nutrition doc Harvey Wiley of Good Housekeeping, turns out to be pretty sensible.***
Dr. Fisk starts out by saying that
At age 25, Miss Blank, an average young woman, fully grown, 5 foot 4 inches in height, weighs 128 pounds; at 40 she weighs 138 pounds; at 50, 144 pounds. This gain over age 25 is practically all fat, and its distribution has sadly changed Miss Blank’s silhouette.
I’ll spare you the TMI and leave it that the reaction of this 5’4” over-50 upon reading this was “No wonder I feel so at home in 1918!”
Dr. Fisk counsels against trying to lose weight through exercise. To the extent that we stout (Dr. Fisk doesn’t pull any punches) 40+ women do exercise, it should consist of walking, gentle hill climbing, and a few setting-up exercises. Substituting easy yoga for the setting-up exercises, this is exactly my routine!
Some recent gentle hill climbing in Cape Town
But, really, it’s all about the food. Starting with….
On my otherwise ill-fated pre-reunion diet, I did make a permanent switch from my previous granola, banana, and tea breakfast to the one outlined by Dr. Fisk. With maybe a LITTLE more butter than he recommends, but I don’t take milk or sugar in my tea or use butter to scramble my eggs, so it cancels out, right? And it’s worked—I find myself more energetic in the mornings, and less likely to snack before lunch.
Breakfast, with a rusk instead of toast
After much experimenting, I’ve come up with a great recipe for microwaved scrambled eggs. Here it is:
MARY GRACE’S 30-20-10 MICROWAVE SCRAMBLED EGGS
Break two eggs into a small bowl or teacup. Add salt and pepper as desired. Cook eggs in microwave without stirring for 30 seconds. Stir, then return to the microwave and cook for 20 seconds. Scramble, then cook for an additional 10 seconds or more as needed.
Here I’ve followed Dr. Lyman’s plan more loosely, but I’ve kept to the basic spirit of something vegetable-y, something bread-y, and some fruit. Here’s a recent literal interpretation
and a 21st century variation, featuring homemade tabbouleh and (not-homemade) hummus.
Dinner is your basic protein-starch-vegetable combo. Sometimes I cook a chicken breast in a foil pack at 350F for half an hour with whatever I happen to have around (typical ingredients are lemon, kale, garlic, aniseeds, and red pepper flakes). Lately I’ve been cooking frozen boneless chicken breasts**** in a pan with root vegetables and rosemary, which comes out way better than you’d expect. I’ve been eating a lot of grilled hake as well.
A recent dinner
Dr. Fisk is a big defender of potatoes, saying that
There is no tragedy in a fat woman***** eating a potato; the tragedy lies in the big pat of butter that is often melted in it, more than equal in fuel value to the whole potato.
My last name notwithstanding, I’m not much of a potatoes person, so I usually substitute couscous or rice or root vegetables as a starch at dinner. And I skip the stewed fruits for dessert. Virtuous, huh?
So How Am I Doing?
DietBet works like this: if you don’t lose 4% of your body weight during the competition period, your ante is divided among the people who do. With just eight days of the one-month contest to go, I’m only halfway there, so I need to step it up if I want to keep my money.
Although not to the extremes described in Maria Thompson Daviess’ 1912 novel The Melting of Molly, which was the very first book I read for this project. The gist, in case you missed it: Molly, a 160-pound 25-year-old widow, goes on a crash diet when she learns that her high school sweetheart, who’s in the Foreign Service, is coming back to town and wants to see her in the blue muslin dress she wore back when she had a 20-inch waist. Here’s the diet, as prescribed by her doctor neighbor:
Breakfast—one slice of dry toast, one egg, fruit and a tablespoonful of baked cereal, small cup of coffee, no sugar, no cream.
Dinner–one small lean chop, slice of toast, spinach, green beans and lettuce salad. No dessert or sweet.
Supper—slice of toast and an apple.
“Why the apple?” Molly mourns. “Why supper at all?”
Molly, busted with a jar of jam by the doctor
But I’m not going to do that! Crash diets are unhealthy! Besides, who has the discipline?******
I’ll stick with Dr. Fisk. Whose diet is, as I said, pretty sensible. The one thing that strikes a modern reader as odd is the tolerance for carbs. This isn’t surprising, since I can well remember a time—up to the 1990s—when no one cared about carbs, it was all about fat. Still, it’s strange seeing even poor starving Molly allowed three slices of (butterless) toast a day. Dr. Fisk does emphasize the importance of cutting down on starches, fats, and sugars, but he still allows, along with the potato at dinner, a piece of toast at breakfast and bread or a roll at lunch. (He stipulates that the roll should be made of rye, bran, or graham flour, but this isn’t only a nutrition thing—there was a huge wartime drive for wheat conservation, led by food czar Herbert Hoover.) Bread and potatoes, I guess, were such an important part of the 1918 diet that cutting back any further than this was inconceivable.
In happier times
I’ve followed my 1918 diet fairly closely, with just a few slip-ups here and there. I’m eating more lean proteins and vegetables and I’ve cut out Indian take-out, a former weekly staple. When I go out, I have grilled fish with vegetables. I rarely feel hungry or have cravings.
On the other hand, I don’t have high hopes of meeting my DietBet goal. I’m not too worried, though. For one thing, the entertainment value of our WhatsApp chat group is worth the money I put up. And, while it’s good to have a jump-start, healthy eating isn’t a one-month affair. If I just keep at it, I will—maybe not this month but eventually—regain the silhouette of youth.
Wish me luck!
The silhouette of youth, wasted in a drop-waist dress
UPDATE 10/18/2018: I did it!!!
*Whose blog you should check out! She writes about dinner parties and travel and decor and the NYU Writers in Paris program, where we met, and, a favorite topic of mine, how hideous embassy furniture is.
**Of course, when you see that someone was the director of the Life Extension Institute, your first question is how old he was when he died. Answer: 64. He died suddenly in 1931 on a trip to Dresden, where he had gone to visit the Museum of Hygiene. How to Live had an introduction by William H. Taft. And this is now the most irony-packed footnote of My Year in 1918.
***Not just about dieting. He was also a strong opponent of tobacco. Unfortunately, like so many otherwise admirable people of 1918, he was a—and if you’re a regular reader, you’ll be able to recite this along with me—horrible eugenicist.
****This is legit—the USDA says so. You just have to cook it longer.
*****I told you he doesn’t pull any punches.
******Well, Molly did. But, unlike me, she had a houseful of servants under orders to keep food away from her.