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The Best-Selling Diet Book That Sold Sex As a Weight-Loss Tool

In the 1970s, Dr. Abraham I. Friedman’s advice to ‘reach for your mate, not your plate’ made a big splash amidst the the era’s diet and wellness fads. But was he onto something, or was it just another case of ‘sex sells’?

It was very appropriate that Dr. Abraham I. Friedman first laid out the central premise of his 1972 book How Sex Can Keep You Slim on April 1st, as it played more like an April Fool’s Day joke than actual dieting advice. “Ten or 15 years ago, I realized the great percentage of obese persons were overeating because of emotional problems,” he explained to the Miami Herald. “They were using food as gratification for frustrations, and most of their frustrations were sexual.”

When asked for the inspiration for his theory, Friedman cited his experience with a lone patient named “Sally,” who allegedly developed a desire for sweets after her first husband’s untimely death. She subsequently lost her sweet tooth when she remarried, but later regained her penchant for junk food when her second husband suffered a coronary and all sexual activity ceased. 

Essentially, Friedman argued, people like “Sally” were “substituting food for sex or love.” He, of course, was taking a big leap in presuming that most manifestations of disordered eating are about something very specific and altogether distinct from the myriad other factors cited by experts that can contribute to food-derived weight complications. 

Where did Friedman get this idea from?

In a day and age when a fitness or dieting strategy could be built around absolutely any concept, no matter how fanciful or outlandish, it was inevitable that someone would devise a calorie-burning scheme around sex.

Moreover, Friedman wasn’t the first to link the idea of sex to physical training, nor was he the first to advertise it publicly. Fitness classes promoting “sexercise” were already in existence by at least the late 1960s, although the majority of such classes dealt with the practice of encouraging women to become more active during sex, as well as more desirable to male partners (such was the times, unfortunately). But Friedman was seemingly the first to offer sex itself as a form of codified exercise within a literary format, and during the peak of the era’s jogging boom no less.

How Sex Can Keep You Slim also hit the market at the ideal time for it to become a blockbuster of a best-seller. Books on sex, dieting and exercise had all been proven to perform exquisitely well during that era. By subsuming all three of those themes beneath a singular premise, Friedman had mixed together a hardcover concoction containing every essential ingredient for literary success in the 1970s.

In fact, several reviewers, including the editors of The Bradenton Herald, The Berkshire Eagle and The Galesburg Register-Mail, independently trotted out the “Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog” theory of publishing when writing about How Sex Can Keep You Slim, which was essentially a joke about how a book was guaranteed to be a best-seller if it were about either Abraham Lincoln, doctors or dogs. If it were about all three, well, it was bound to be a can’t-miss hit. 

What did Friedman’s actual weight-loss plan consist of?

The process for accelerating weight loss proposed by Friedman could be distilled down to a faulty presupposition that’s supported by two broad assumptions:

  1. The average person will burn 200 calories during sexual activity.
  2. The average person will consume 700 calories worth of unnecessary snacks and beverages during the course of an average evening.

Therefore, if we accept Friedman’s logic in good faith, we would deduce that people who followed his advice to “reach for your mate, not your plate” every evening would create a 900-calorie deficit, and would lose weight as a result of this decision.

Was Friedman’s formula accurate?

Studies have demonstrated that men burn an average of four calories per minute during sexual activity, while women burn three calories per minute. In practice, the median sexual experience lasts between five and six minutes. In order for the average man to burn the sort of caloric sums Friedman was bandying about, he would need to go for 50 minutes per roll-in-the-hay. It’s worth noting that even taking that 50-minute total at face value and assuming it’s achievable by most men, the very same men capable of burning 200 calories through 50 minutes of sexual exercise could burn an equal number of calories in 15 to 20 minutes of several other forms of cardio.

Now, let’s address the 700 calories of snacks the sexual activity is allegedly preventing someone from ingesting. I don’t doubt that this figure is theoretically on the nose. After all, 700 calories is just one 16-ounce non-diet soft drink and one-third of a potato chips bag. If someone could somehow muster up the restraint not to consume these two products on a nightly basis, it would do them a world of good. But this is beside the point. If someone is truly hungry, and they opt for an explosive bedroom romp in lieu of a snack, they’re going to be absolutely famished once the post-coital euphoria subsides. And yet, Friedman argues, “If the sexual act has been successful, there’s no thought of food.”

Tell that to my rumbling stomach, Doc. 

But what if you don’t have a mate to reach for? 

Another core problem with Friedman’s strategy is that his entire weight-loss plan hinges on a person having near-daily access to a willing sexual partner. An admittedly more recent study exploring the frequency of sexual engagement found that dating, cohabiting or married individuals in their 20s — the most sexually active of all age groups — were the only folks who were averaging at least one sexual encounter per week, while no set of partnered folks in their 20s were averaging more than three weekly sexual encounters. Meanwhile, never-married, non-dating individuals in that age range collectively averaged 0.3 sexual encounters per week. 

What this indicates is that, on average, even the friskiest of cohabitating nymphomaniacs are only having sex around 52 times per year, while unmarried, non-dating folks are limited to an average of 17 sexual trysts each year. Such math even has the majority of adults engrossed in the most sexually expressive sets of relationships still reaching for their plates over their mates on more than 200 nights a year.

But hey, there’s no further need to discredit Friedman or his book; the good doctor was kind enough to spare us that trouble and do it directly himself. In 1974, riding the wave of success generated by his first book, Friedman published his follow-up Fat Can Be Beautiful. In it, he had the unironic temerity to focus his attention on the dangers of fad diets and how damaging they could be to their adherents.

It’s almost as if all he was interested in was selling books.