The F-Plan Diet

The F-Plan Diet by Audrey Eyton (1982)

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There’s nothing more dated that yesterday’s health fad. One moment the vogue may be for Royal Bee Jelly, the next for Transcendental Meditation or one-nostril-breathing. Audrey Eyton made her mark of the self-help scene because she launched one of these passing fashions. She was an entrepreneur who first made her mark as a highly successful journalist. In her time as beauty editor of Woman magazine she kept a firm finger on the public pulse and soon spotted that dieting had become a pre-eminent concern of many of her readers. So, with the help of a business partner, she launched the highly successful Slimming magazine, which was the world’s first journal dedicated specifically to dieting and girth control. While researching this topic she came across the pioneering work of Dr Denis Burkitt, a leading member of Britain’s Medical Research Council. He’d carried out epidemiological research in Africa which suggested that many of the chronic diseases of western civilization – constipation, diverticulitis, bowel cancer, coronary disease, obesity and type-2 diabetes – were the result on eating a diet lacking in roughage. He postulated that the rarity of these maladies among African tribesmen resulted from their reliance on diets rich in fruit and vegetables which carry a high proportion of indigestible vegetable fibres. This deficiency could be overcome, Burkitt suggested, if only people in the developed world would supplement their daily diet with just two tablespoonfuls of bran, or five ounces of wholemeal bread. All this was explained in Taking the Rough with the Smooth (1976), a book written by his colleague Dr Andrew Taylor. This caused quite a stir in the medical profession but its thesis, which was initially  ridiculed by some GPs, was eventually upheld by the Royal College of Physicians, which published a report saying: ‘It seems likely that a diet in which sugars and starches are taken in natural fibre-rich form would contribute to the control of obesity by encouraging satiety at a lower level of energy intake, and to a lesser extent by increasing the amount of potential energy lost in the faeces.’

This public announcement was the stimulus that Eyton needed. She took Burkitt’s ideas en bloc and dressed them up for the general public. To avoid causing offence, she censored all mention of distasteful things like faeces, guts and bowel motions. To gain the unconditional trust of her readers, she also eliminated all the qualifying ifs and buts normally found in medical texts. The regime she offered was infallible. Anyone following her instructions would ‘Find slimming easier than ever before, because your diet will be considerably more satisfying and filling than any diet you have ever followed.’ In the opening pages of her book she also promised them that they’d ‘Lose weight more quickly than ever before, because a larger proportion of the calories you consume will remain undigested’. On the basis of these pledges, coupled with extensive coverage in Slimming magazine, a catchy title, and serialization in the Daily Express, the book took the nation by storm and sold over two million copies worldwide in the next few years. But its success was short lived, and copies can now be bought on the internet for just 70p. Its rapid demise was because its claims were exaggerated, its methodology flawed and its instructions far too complex to follow.

In essence her approach was far from novel, for it was no more than a standard calorie-controlled diet dolled up

in a new guise. Anyone following the F-Plan regime had to exist on about 1,200 calories a day, which in many cases would represent half their normal energy intake. They also had to eat a fixed amount of fibre every day. Burkitt suggested that this much needed dietary change could be made by the addition of bran flakes and wholemeal bread, which is a simple instruction to follow. But Eyton gave her followers the task of eating 40-50 grams of fibre every day, which is more than twice the level suggested by government health authorities. This amount they were expected to calculate using intricate tables provided in the book, which spread over nine pages. Despite these onerous conditions, such was her campaigning zeal that she had no difficulty developing a faithful following. As she told one interviewer, a successful leader must ‘have guts, passion and vigour, and a very positive attitude and not be afraid to speak out.’  Those qualities she possessed in full measure, like all other successful health gurus. The moment the book had left the best seller list Eyton moved on and gave further proof of her entrepreneurial talents by founding one of Britain’s largest chain of slimming clubs and launching Ragdale Hall Health Farm. But she never publicly made any mention of the debt she owed to Dr Denis Burkitt, apart from one unkind reference in her book to a ‘ very eminent medical researcher’ who grows excited when he lectures to his medical colleagues and shows them slides of the glistening stools of rural Africans which he describes as ‘beautiful’.

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Steve Samuel has spent his life meeting the public’s need for high quality food. In 1988 he was elected to be the national president of the catering industry’s professional body which is now known as the Institute of Hospitality. We are exceedingly grateful to him for agreeing to provide his expert opinion of Audrey Eyton’s book.

The F- Plan Diet by Audrey Eyton (1982)

If a criteria for the success of a self-help book is that it has been read by a large number of people then the F-Plan Diet surely qualifies with 54 re-prints within 4 years of its publication.   However no more volumes have been published since then although second hand copies can still be purchased on e bay.

The book was based on the pioneering work of Dr. Dennis Burkitt a leading member of Britain’s Medical Research Council and was published in a book he wrote with Dr. Andrew Taylor. The validity of their work was upheld by the Royal College of Physicians so there is little doubt that this dietary book extolling the consumption of high fibre foods has a solid foundation.

When evaluating the F-Plan Diet against other self-help books it is difficult to believe that it has had any long-term impact in the over-crowded world of dietary books.   Perhaps a general understanding about consuming fibre as part of your daily food intake is the legacy this book has left us.   This might be said to have encouraged a growth of artisan bakers and muesli manufacturers and put the jacket potato firmly on the menu both in restaurants and in people’s homes.    But with obesity in this country (according to the World Cancer Fund in 2007 37% of adults were overweight and a further 24% obese and 40% of children overweight and 19% obese) continuing to grow and stomach reduction methods being inserted to an increasing number of grossly overweight people, its long-term effect cannot be said to have had much impact.

Reading the book today it is very possible to see how its appeal in the early 80s was so strong.  Phrases like:-

‘if you base your slimming diet on the food you eat you should shed weight more quickly and more easily than on a diet based on the same quantity of any other foods’ – ‘lose weight more quickly than ever before’ -‘gain the well established health advantages by eating meals high in dietary fibre content’

These are certainly appealing slogans to the would be slimmer and clearly were in the book’s heyday. I found the book a dull read, the recipes with their choice of 29 different ways of serving jacket potatoes and 23 ways of using baked beans have an institutional feel which would not be acceptable today.  The small range of sample menus are depressingly boring and curiously the ‘Calorie Drinking Man’s Menu’ fails to mention wine.

Steve Samuel   2010

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