150 years of America’s obsession with dieting fads, charted

August 13, 2014
August 13, 2014

Since late July, data-loving journalists have been having fun charting the rise and fall of various topics in American conversation via a new online tool from the New York Times. Using Chronicle, which can measure how frequently any given word or phrase has appeared in America’s most famous paper since 1850, writers at the Times and elsewhere have analyzed changing patterns in language around immigration, sex and gender, and more.

Yesterday, the economics reporter Neil Irwin examined how the Times’ archives reflect the rise and fall of popular foods in the US, starting with fried calamari, which appeared in the paper for the first time in 1975 and “peaked” in 1996, when 56 articles mentioned it. Irwin used the “fried calamari index” to evaluate the rise and fall of other food trends (hummus, goat cheese, kale, ramen) over the years.

Quartz used the Chronicle tool to look at food trends on a macro scale–diet trends, in other words. It’s possible to pinpoint exactly when the New York Times first used the phrase “gluten free” (1978) and to see that the number of articles mentioning that phrase in 2014 was triple the number in 2010. (Note: In Chronicle, the search results ignore punctuation in the search terms, so querying “gluten free” appears to also catch the hyphenated “gluten-free,” for example.) By clicking on the relevant line in the Chronicle tool, one can find all the published articles referencing the phrase in a given year.

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The chart above represents a succession of diet trends from 1990 to today: first fat was the enemy, then carbohydrates were, and now gluten is the most controversial substance in America’s ongoing nutrition hysterics.

Some of the references can be misleading: For example, “sugar free” appeared in 34 Times articles in 1894, but those references had nothing to do with dieting. Almost all were about taxes and tariffs on sugar, with “sugar free” appearing in sentences such as “…the cost price of the raw sugar (free of duty)…”

The company Weight Watchers and the approach to dieting it promotes has been mentioned no fewer than ten times per year since 1969. Here are links to the 60 related articles from 2012. And here’s how the company stacks up against other weight-loss focused brands:

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Fletcherism, named for Horace Fletcher and emphasizing extremely thorough chewing of food, was mentioned in eight articles in 1907. Eight may not sound like a lot, but the Times published far fewer stories in 1907 than it does today, so percentage-wise, Fletcherism received more attention in 1907 than the Paleo diet received in 2012.

The Atkins diet outdoes them both, with 53 mentions in 1973, the year after Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution was published (though many of the mentions were simply listings on the NYT bestseller list), and 64 mentions in 2003 (Robert Atkins published his second book, Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution, in 2002).

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To keep in mind when using the Chronicle tool to compare today’s diet trends to those of the past: more has been written about food, nutrition, and dieting in America in the past 25 years than in the entire century before.

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