My mother and I just returned from a very quick weekend trip to my hometown in Tennessee (Union City) to see my Grandmother and visit my father’s gravesite in nearby Ridgely. I’ve always credited my grandmother for teaching me to read when I was still very young. She, herself, was an elementary school teacher many years ago and it was always a priority of hers to know that all of her grandchildren were proficient readers. To this day, I love devouring books.
On this particular trip, I was perusing her bookshelves and came across an old book called “The New Way To Eat and Get Slim”. It was originally released in 1941 and written by one Donald G. Cooley. The edition she had was the 7th one which had been reprinted in 1945.
Diet books, regardless of when they were released, fascinate me. Like many things in the world of health, it is always interesting to see what concepts have held up over time and which things have since changed due to the ever evolving nature of science.
While I don’t make a habit of doing “book reports” on this blog, I found the book of particular interest on more than a few fronts. Bear in mind, that we’re talking about dieting the way it was spoken of 80 years ago. When you hear the adage ‘there is nothing new under the sun”, it is books like this one that remind you just how true that actually is.
Let’s start with most of what I felt Cooley did right in the book.
For one, there was a great explanation of calories and, what we now call macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats and protein). He explains the importance of all of them and how getting “slim” is just a matter of reducing calories, or in his words, being on a “reducing diet”.
He also reminds the reader that while exercise is important for the physique, aesthetics and cardiovascular function, it is not the most efficient way to burn calories, thereby putting the focus back on controlling intake for more effective weight loss.
Cooley notes that for those who think their weekend hike burned a fair amount of calories, it likely didn’t burn anywhere near what they think it did and it would be prudent not to eat those calories back into the equation as a reward for good effort.
There is mention that the reader needs to be mindful of added fats, processed sweets, and foods low in nutritive value. He also talks about alcohol and gives an interesting breakdown of what certain drinks look like in total calories compared to their food counterparts.
Within the context of alcohol is the understanding that the body has a preference to work on filtering alcohol out of the system before it focuses on burning fat. While he doesn’t suggest one should be a teetotaler to lose weight, he does encourage limiting alcohol on a “reducing diet”.
Somewhat surprisingly, Cooley took one page in the book to comment that even though the reader might think their thyroid is keeping them from losing weight, a visit to the doctor will most likely show that it isn’t so. He then reinforces his belief that a sub-maintenance (low calorie) diet will still do what’s necessary. To be honest, I assumed that just because people thought that now didn’t mean they had the same feelings in 1940…
More than once, I found myself nodding my head in agreement not just with the recommendations in the book but with how little things have actually changed in the nutrition world over 80 years.
So, what does his diet actually look like?
Well, that’s where it gets a little bit more interesting.
Cooley lays out a blueprint for a 10-Day Miracle Diet in the book. The focus of the diet is primarily lean proteins, vegetables, a “vitamin cocktail”, water, black coffee and clear tea. Total caloric intake on his Miracle Diet would be well south of 1000 calories a day.
After the 10-Day plan is another set of food plans which wisely allows the reader to swap proteins for proteins or vegetables for vegetables in order to allow some flexibility and these meal plans sit at phases of 1000 calories per day, 1250 calories and 1500 calories depending on your respective starting point.
He reminds the reader of the thermogenic effect of protein and is so adamant of the nutrient’s importance that he suggests no fewer than 400 calories of every day coming from protein (100g for those of you counting).
When you look at the breakdowns of his meal plans, what you frequently see if a macronutrient breakdown of approximately 50% protein, 40% fat and approximately 10% carb. For those of you wondering, this is not an early incarnation of the keto diet. However, it is absolutely a low carb diet during the “reducing” phases.
Of the book’s 200+ pages, Cooley spends at least 60 pages discussing the importance of vitamins and minerals in the diet. He talks about not only the ones you should be most aware of, but the foods needed in the diet to help you achieve those levels. While some of the claims may be somewhat far-fetched, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t encourage a varied, whole foods approach to balancing your diet for better health.
So, where does he go wrong?
It’s interesting to note that fat shaming was definitely a thing in the 1940s and not just something that magically appeared with the rise in social media. Cooley makes the claim that a slimmer person is healthier, more envied, has a better libido and is essentially the talk of the town. He uses the words fat, pudgy and portly liberally throughout the book. I’m not entirely sure how Mr. Cooley might have felt about the Health At Every Size movement (despite some inherent issues within the movement itself).
It’s also important to note that due to the timeline of when the book was written, smoking had not yet been proven to be as detrimental to one’s heath as we know it is now. As such, when smoking cigarettes is mentioned, it’s not outright discouraged as a reason to improve one’s health.
In addition, scurvy was still a problem in the 40s and Cooley references it several times when he is speaking on the importance of vitamins and minerals in the diet.
Another thing I found troubling was that despite his mostly correct understanding of “calories in”, Cooley attempted to make a claim in reference to how many calories we actually expend in a day. Granted, this was the 1940s and I don’t know that people were quite as sedentary then as they are now.
If you were going to take his advice to heart, I would suggest not following the guidelines of how many calories you actually burn in a day. They seem to be grossly inaccurate. As with anything in the diet world, take what you read with a grain of salt and don’t accept everything as truth simply because it made the written page.
While he does reference many nutritional studies such as ones that came from Yale and the Mayo Clinic, science does continue to evolve and life in 2020 is not exactly the same as it was in 1941. What does remain the same is that your control over what you put in your mouth is paramount to your weight loss success. We could argue over the right balance of macronutrients but you’d likely not find a person on this planet who wouldn’t lose weight on his 10-Day Miracle Diet or even his comparatively more balanced 1000 calorie or 1250 calorie diet plans (assuming you can follow them).
Simplified further: eat lean proteins, get a variety of vegetables and fruits in your diet, drink water, black coffee and clear tea, reduce processed sugars and extra fats, reduce alcohol and move more. Contrary to the title of the book and the article, there are no new ways to eat and get slim. What might have been considered new back then is certainly not the case any longer. It’s the basics of most sound nutrition plans and if they worked 80 years ago, there’s a damn good chance they still work now.
P.S. You probably don’t need to do the 10-Day Miracle Diet anyway.
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