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  • Diet and the Disease of Civilization by Adrienne Rose Bitar
  • Etta Madden
Adrienne Rose Bitar. Diet and the Disease of Civilization.
New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2018. 244 pp. Paper, $24.95, isbn 978-0-8235-8964-0.

The first chapter of Diet and the Disease of Civilization may be familiar to readers of Utopian Studies. An earlier version of it won Adrienne Rose Bitar the Society for Utopian Studies' Eugenio Battisti Award for the best essay [End Page 275] published in the society's journal in 2015. "The Paleo Diet and the American Weight Loss Utopia, 1975–2014" was among several in a special issue that featured essays and book reviews on utopian foodways.

The book chapter that emerged from that award-winning essay is even richer within the context of Bitar's engaging longer study. The project places caveman or "paleo" diets alongside what Bitar labels "devotional" or "Eden" diets, "primitive" or "precolonial" diets, and "detox" diets. Books on these types of diets, she asserts, provide lenses to understanding how Americans have defined who they are and how they should live. Through historical and literary analysis, Bitar demonstrates how diet books offer "myths and manifestos" and, as such, are "more like manuals to make the world a better place" than simply recipes for weight loss (4). Herein lies the book's utopian emphasis.

Bitar examined four hundred diet books published during the last one hundred years, as well as one private collection that consists of "hundreds of food diaries, inspiration cards, carbohydrate counters, and diet books collected by one woman over the course of her lifetime." The collector included several "before" photos of herself but never an "after" photo (5), Bitar explains, epitomizing the dream quality of American diet books. They imbue hopes as well as Lyman Tower Sargent's view of the dialectical cycle of utopianism inherent to humanity—to "hope, fail, and hope again" (34).

Although Bitar considers primarily twentieth- and twenty-first-century diet books, she begins with the presumption of a well-known myth with origins in American texts of previous centuries and some contemporary social realities. Recent diet books certainly have emerged from a social phenomenon—Americans are in the midst of an "obesity epidemic," marked by the U.S. surgeon general's "call to action" in 2000, but recognized by the public earlier, in the 1990s. But these books fall into a long-standing trajectory that builds from what Bitar calls "the foundational myth of American culture: that of the American Adam at the brink of history—competent, innocent, ready to remake the world anew" (149). Diet books provide the "powerful fiction that instructs . . . meal-by-meal, day-by-day." But they do so by "recount[ing] the narrative backbone of American culture—that familiar story of the Fall of Man and the fall of a once-blessed nation." Regardless of the outcomes of the diets—people inevitably fail, just as utopia can never be realized— "Americans are . . . ready to hope" (149). They will keep buying diet books and keep dreaming of a better life. [End Page 276]

Bitar builds her argument from the American studies scholar R. W. B. Lewis to explain that diet books, "like all good cultural touchstones, stand in for the bigger debate about history, salvation, nature, money, power, sin, hope, innocence, experience, time, and all the other ideas that make the world worth thinking about." She also draws from Clifford Geertz to underscore that "diet books . . . are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves" (6). Food scholars' names also emerge—Amy Bentley, Carol Counihan, and Sidney Mintz, for example—as do those in utopian studies. In addition to Sargent, Bitar builds from Ruth Levitas's focus on "educating desire" (34) and Louis Marin's emphasis on "utopic . . . bodies" in Rabelais's writing (35).

In the four chapters dedicated to each diet type, Bitar distinguishes one from the other three and provides its origins (based on its documentation in texts), statistics about sales, and facts about followers. Then because these books contain more language about ideals than they do meals and nutritional details, she turns to narrative analysis.

The quantitative and historical element interlarding...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2154-9648
Print ISSN
1045-991X
Pages
pp. 275-280
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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