A lot of us Americans feel guilty about what we eat. And at any given time, about half of us are desperately dieting. So recently - noticing some shrinkage in my obviously defective slacks - I decided to lose some weight and explore some diets, among the thousands out there. Along the way, I learned just how bizarre some of those diet alternatives are. Here's my quick weight loss lesson.

We Americans haven't always worried about weight loss. About a century ago, the real "American Beauty" - the Golden Girl of the Gay 1890s - was Broadway actress and singer Lillian Russell, a curvaceous star who carried as much as 186 pounds on her five-foot-six frame - making her the equivalent of about one-and-a-half Gwyneth Paltrows.

Lillian never considered casting carbohydrates or sipping on herbal potions like today's slender stars. No, she enthusiastically engorged ten-course dinners with her boyfriend - the corpulent Diamond Jim Brady. And she was known to grab some custard pie while hurrying to catch a train to her next performance.

Yet, admirers were so enthralled by Russell's porcelain complexion, the elegant symmetry of her face, and her golden tresses that they hardly noticed the fleshiness of her arms or the generous expanse of her hips - an oversight that many modern maidens might devoutly desire.

Today, however, a performer with Russell's plump physique would most likely look to liposuction or gastric stapling or tummy tucks as miraculous cure-alls for corpulence.

So the question now is - what in the world so drastically changed our attitudes about our bodies and launched our fixation about skinniness?

It certainly wasn't the ancient Egyptians - who loved fat women (gemeizas) - or ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, the father of medicine. Around 400 B.C., he recommended that "those desiring to lose weight should perform hard work before food. They should take their meals after exertion and while still panting from fatigue. They should eat only once a day and take no baths and sleep on a hard bed and walk naked as long as possible."

Like countless weight loss gurus to follow, Hippocrates didn't really know what he was talking about. And not too many Greeks seemed to follow his advice.

During the Middle Ages, the nobility who sought to slash their girth often pursued peculiar procedures. Probably too portly to propel his horse, robust William the Conqueror (of 1066 A.D. fame) confined himself to bed and consumed huge quantities of alcoholic beverages. Didn't work.

By the nineteenth century, some health zealots began to surface, as common folks - blessed by a better food supply and a market economy - started to accumulate a little surplus flesh. So William Graham (of cracker fame) preached about the evils of gluttony and recommended meatless, sugar free diets of grains, vegetables, and water. Didn't work.

A chubby London undertaker, who had trouble tying his shoes, recommended meat, fish, veggies, and six glasses of wine a day. Mortician William Banting (5'2" and 200 lbs.) urged his friends to "undertake" a low-carb, high protein diet, eliminating sugar, starch, root vegetables and pork. Didn't work. Diet guru Horace Fletcher (1890) insisted that we could chew our way to fitness, chewing each mouthful 32 times. Didn't work.

Cereal innovator and health guru John Harvey Kellogg argued that vegetarianism and his own invented cereals would bring perfect weight and health. His Battle Creek sanitarium featured weird weight loss plans like the all-grape diet and the four-times-a-day milk enema solution. Didn't work.

Lulu Peters (1918) gave us the first best-selling weight loss manual, "Diet and Health," which preached directly to women, urging them to count calories to lose weight and find happiness. It was sound advice for some, though the negative, self-loathing beliefs that were part of her system helped spawn subsequent harmful excesses - from anorexia to risky drugs to dangerous, dicey endeavors to curb appetite.

So here we are - still ever-anxious eaters, jumping from one fad diet (South Beach, Scarsdale, Beverly Hills, "The Zone Plan," Atkins, or Dr. George Harrop's skim milk and bananas diet) to another in a scramble to lose weight and gain health. We've tried 'em all, while remaining robust.

So I'm still wondering what to try next. Really desperate, I could seek succor from that powerful prophet of pulchritude - the plastic surgeon. Perhaps I could try an all-cabbage soup, all-grapefruit, or all-apple-vinegar diet. Or maybe I could just endeavor to exercise more, eat less, or use smaller utensils.

Reach columnist Robert Brake, whose suggestion for the perfect diet-cookbook title is "I'll Start on Monday," at oobear@centurytel.net.

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