Fad Dieting Throughout History

Atkins, Paleo, Keto, Warrior – these are just a few of the diet fads that have taken over in recent memory. The list of celebrity diets is even longer, ranging from eating baby food to loading up on the “cookie diet” (yes — it’s exactly what it sounds like). No matter where you turn, there’s likely someone ready to sell you the latest diet idea that cures all your problems. 

But this got me thinking – How long has this been going on? How long have people tried outlandish or even dangerous diets to stay thin? Turns out there is evidence of extreme dieting going back nearly 1,000 years! Reportedly William the Conqueror, who conquered England in 1066 A.D., enjoyed the king’s lifestyle a bit too much and grew extremely overweight. In a drastic move to lose weight, he went on an all-liquid diet – meaning he drank mostly alcohol. He apparently did lose some weight, but died shortly after in a horse riding accident. William’s case gives us perhaps the earliest example of a celebrity trying an extreme diet.

Dieting fads started taking off more regularly hundreds of years later around the 1800s. That century gave us some of the earliest popular dieting crazes and self-help weight loss books, laying the foundation for the modern diet fads that emerge every few years. Let’s have a look at some, and find out which were junk and which might have had some actual science behind them. 

Lord Byron’s Vinegar Diet

Lord Byron

Britain’s Lord Byron (1788-1824) is well-known as a great poet and national hero. However, he was also one of the first famous celebrity dieters. Reportedly obsessed with staying thin, Bryon was known for some extreme dieting techniques. One of his favorites was a “vinegar and water” diet. Byron would soak his foods, usually just biscuits and potatoes, in vinegar and wash everything down with either soda water or plain tea. Byron also paired his diets with exercise, heavy clothes that caused him to sweat profusely, and cigars to suppress his appetite. Some historians think that Byron’s weight obsession was a sign of anorexia. Byron died of a fever at only 36 years old. While not a direct cause of his death, his punishing diets probably weakened his body and immunity. 

Still, dietitians consider his vinegar routine a precursor to the modern vinegar diet, which involves drinking a mixture of water and apple cider vinegar, and studies suggest it is indeed helpful for weight loss. An apple cider vinegar mixture can help boost metabolism and suppress appetite, so Byron was on to something with his vinegar obsession – but of course, you should incorporate this mixture into a balanced diet rather than cutting out all other foods as Byron did.

WIlliam Banting’s Low-Carb Diet Book

What would a diet fad be without a book that someone can sell you? Probably the first such book was Dr. William Banting’s A Letter on Corpulence, published in 1863. Overweight much of his life, Banting tried numerous diets and exercise regimens for years. At age 65, Banting took the advice of a doctor and cut out nearly all starches and sugars from his diet. This seemed like the one plan that worked for Banting. At 202 pounds when he started the diet, he was down to 156 a year later, and also enjoyed renewed mobility and eyesight. Banting was so amazed by the results that he wrote A Letter on Corpulence with the intention of spreading the word on this diet. 

Bating’s “Letter on Corpulence,” perhaps the first mass diet book

Unlike later diet book authors though, Banting didn’t charge anything for the first two editions of his book, hoping his advice would help working-class people without time for intense dieting and exercise plans. His diet plans became so popular that participants reportedly asked each other how the “Banting” was going. Banting’s low-carb approach anticipated many modern diets like the keto diet, and has been shown to have some effectiveness in treating diabetes.

“The Great Masticator”

Have you ever heard the old adage that you should chew your food a certain amount of times to improve digestion? The modern root of this practice is Horace Fletcher, an American businessman and “self-taught nutritionist” whose Fletcherizing technique became popular in the early 1900s. Fletcher believed that chewing food until it was essentially liquid helped digestion and prevented overeating. He advocated chewing each bite of food 32 times (very precise) before swallowing. This system, he argued, would not only improve digestive health, but help people lose weight by preventing overeating. His system also dictated that people should wait until they were hungry to begin eating and also not eat when they were worried or angry, times when people often over-ate. Fletcher was also sure to note that not overeating would save people money — his system promised improved health and finances! With his emphasis on proper chewing, Fletcher earned himself the nickname The Great Masticator. 

Although the benefits are not as dramatic as Fletcher presented, experts do agree that chewing food properly is a good practice. Breaking your food down through chewing helps your digestive system absorb the maximum amount of nutrients and eating slowly helps avoid overeating. So there’s no harm in giving Fletcherizing a try.

The Tapeworm Diet 

This one is a little tricky. You may have heard the urban legend that in the early 1900s, Victorian ladies willingly ingested pills containing tapeworm eggs as part of a diet plan. The theory went that since tapeworms absorb nutrients that the host has eaten, a tapeworm infection would help the host lose weight. Belief in this practice is so widespread that there are currently reports of people giving the diet a try and willingly infecting themselves with tapeworms. 

This ad is usually held up as evidence that people really did swallow tapeworm pills as a diet, but its veracity is questioned

However, not only is this an extremely dangerous practice that has negative health consequences, but historians even doubt if it was ever a fad in the Victorian Era at all. Although there are advertisements from the period for tapeworm sales, there is shaky evidence that the tapeworm diet was a common practice. Historians doubt many people actually purchased such pills. Further, there’s no way of knowing whether the so-called “tapeworm pills” contained any tapeworms at all. Harvesting tapeworms and placing them in pills would have been a laborious process for someone looking to make a quick buck. In a world of loose medical regulations, these pills may just as well have been placebos passed off as weight-loss tapeworm pills. Indeed, that’s almost certainly what any quack doctor of the time would have done. There is likely more legend to this practice than actual fact, but enough people believe the legend that we hear of people trying this diet from time to time.

I hope this goes without saying, but — please don’t swallow tapeworms. 

The Cigarette Diet of the 1920s 

The famous “Reach for a Lucky” campaign

Okay, let me just say from the start — don’t try this one. Smoking is linked to a laundry list of risks that you don’t want any part of, so don’t start smoking if you don’t already. Nicotine is a natural appetite suppressant, though, leading some to consider smoking a viable diet plan. The most likely root of this plan is – you’ll never guess – a cigarette company! In 1925, the Lucky Strike cigarette company capitalized on nicotine’s appetite suppressing abilities with its “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet” advertising campaign, effectively creating the first cigarette diet. Its ads portrayed young, skinny models with cigarettes, associating smoking with thinness. Lucky Strike and other cigarette companies used such taglines until the 1960s, when laws banned the marketing of cigarettes as diet products.

So there you have it. People have been coming up with diet fads for at least 200 years, and probably much longer. Some of these, like Banting’s low-carb regimen, had some real science behind them and were precursors of modern dietary treatments. Some, like the tapeworm or cigarette diet, would almost always do more harm than good. Since we regularly hear about new diets from TV doctors or celebrities and people seek quick weight loss solutions, it seems we can be sure about one thing: Fad diets aren’t going away anytime soon.

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