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The Bizarre History of Fad Diets

Featuring the paleo diet, the first diet pills, tapeworms, and arsenic…

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We live in a diet-obsessed society. I started my first weight loss plan during my pre-teen years when I felt fat for the first time. Constantly switching from  fad diet to fad diet, I was hoping that this would one be the key to weight loss. It didn’t take me long to notice that everyone seemed to be an expert in dieting – in fact, it seemed that everybody was on a diet at all times.

The Bizarre History of Fad Diets

There’s a lot of talk about healthy eating: what works, what doesn’t. Which plan actually produces results, which just sheds water weight, and which diets cross the line.

We aren’t the only ones addicted to weight watching, either: our ancestors thought of some crazy ideas for losing those love handles. Here’s a brief history of our insane obsession with dieting:

 

Liquid Only
Year: 1050s

The Bizarre History of Fad DietsThe first person to go on a liquid diet was William the Conqueror. Did I say liquid diet? It was more of a liquor diet. After realizing he could no longer mount a horse, a symbol of great power, Willy decided to shed weight by drinking only alcohol. And it worked – sort of. Later that year, Will mounted his horse once again, but only to encounter a fatal accident. His horse reared and the blow caused his intestines to burst. He died from infection. It is rumored that he was drunk at the time of the accident.

Fun fact: while preparing for the funeral, the priests had such a hard time fitting the king’s body inside the coffin that they accidentally punctured the abdomen, releasing a nasty stench that was so vile that mourners ran away.

Vinegar
Year: early 1800s

We’ve all heard about the red wine vinegar regimen lauded by celebrities. This isn’t anything new. In fact, poet Lord Byron was the first celebrity who endorsed a vinegar diet. To get that chic pale and sickly thin look, Lord Byron recommended drinking vinegar and eating vinegar-dipped potatoes. The results: diarrhea and vomiting. Beauty is pain.

Arsenic
Year: late 1800s

The 19th century brought a wave of dietary pills, potions, and practices advertised as quick fixes to weight loss. Of course, their promises were too good to be true. Often these “miracle potions” contained the deadly chemicals arsenic and strychnine. They were advertised to cause weight loss through speeding up the metabolism, but as we all know, in high doses, these chemicals can be fatal. Some pill poppers doubled the recommended dosage, hoping that they would lose more weight. It only heightened their chances of arsenic poisoning.

Fletcherizing, otherwise known as Chew and Spit
Year: 1910s

Known as the “The Great Masticator” – not kidding – Horace Fletcher promoted the chew and spit diet, also known as “fletcherizing.” He reasoned that, in chewing the food thoroughly and then spitting it out, nutrients from the chewed food would absorb into your body without the nasty side effect of gaining the weight. Fletcher recommended chewing food thirty two times for maximum results. Great American leaders during the Victorian era, such as journalist Upton Sinclair, entrepreneur John D. Rockefeller, and cereal innovator John Kellogg, followed the chew and spit plan. Fletcher lost 40 pounds – so I guess it worked.

Cigarette Diet
Year: 192os

The Bizarre History of Fad DietsThese addictive suckers were embraced by women, especially in the 1920s. This was around the time that the women’s movement started kicking in the United States. Soon, cigarettes became a symbol of rebellion against traditional female values. Big cigarette companies took advantage of this new female market with ads promoting cigarettes for weight loss. Capitalizing on nicotine’s appetite suppressing properties, Lucky Strike launched the “Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet” campaign in 1925, featuring slim, sexy women.

While most of us would gag at the thought of a parasitic worm inside our bodies, people in the 1950’s thought it would be a great weight loss plan.

The Bizarre History of Fad Diets

Tapeworm
Year: 1950s

Oh, the great tapeworm slim down – probably the most disgusting and silliest diet idea on this list. While most of us would gag at the thought of a parasitic worm inside our bodies, people in the 1950s thought it would be a great weight loss plan. It allowed an all-you-can-eat diet with zero food restrictions. After swallowing a baby tapeworm pill, the parasite would eat and grow up to 30 feet inside the dieter’s intestines. Once you were done “dieting,” you would take an anti-parasitic pill that would kill the tapeworm. Then you would pray to successfully poop it out without any abdominal or rectal complications.

Sleeping Beauty
Year: 1960s

Another truly ridiculous diet method combines the two things humans love most: eating and sleeping. The sleeping beauty diet consisted of popping a few sleeping pills whenever you were hungry to avoid eating. Dieters were told to do this for about a week or so. The method to the madness? While you’re sedated, your body will be forced to shed stored fats. Elvis was actually a huge fan of this sleeping fast towards the end of his life when he no longer could fit into his infamous jumpsuits. There aren’t many studies that support this diet… in fact, there are none at all. Shocker.

The Bizarre History of Fad Diets

Stone Age/Paleolithic
Year: 1970s

The Bizarre History of Fad Diets

No matter how you slice it, animal protein is bad for you

Let’s go back to the cuisine of our hunter-gather ancestors: meat, meat, nuts, berries, and did I mention meat? This regime as a diet plan became mega popular after Walter Voegtlin published his book The Stone Age Diet in 1975, arguing that our bodies are biologically programmed to eat like our caveman predecessors. In this Stone Age Diet, foods pumped with processed oils are a big no, as are dairy, grains, and beans. Lean and grass-fed meats are the main staples.

Personally, while I don’t think switching my morning dairy yogurt to coconut yogurt is a big deal if it means shedding a few quick pounds, I would never want to give up beans (hey, they’re a great source of protein!) This program wasn’t entirely ridiculous: cutting out dairy lowers your risk for common modern diseases such as obesity and heart disease. The ridiculous part is that animal protein (meat included, of course), has been proven again and again to dramatically contribute to obesity, diabetes, cancer, and a range of other health issues!

Cabbage Soup
Year: 1980s

Nobody really knows where this craze came from. It is said that it became trendy through faxlore – which is basically junk mail through fax machines (remember those?). Most nutritionists are vehemently against this 1-week extreme dietary program, since dieters cut out important nutrients, don’t receive enough calories, and only lose water weight. Also, aren’t you going to get bored with only eating cabbage soup? And who even likes cabbage soup?

South Beach
Year: 2000s

Instead of limiting calories, this Miami-based trend educates dieters on “good” and “bad” carbs and “good” and “bad” fats. Developed by cardiologist Dr. Arthur Agetston, the South Beach Diet is like the heart-healthy sister of the Atkins Diet, the acclaimed low-carb diet. Originally the regimen was created to prevent heart disease, but became widely known as a weight-loss plan after Dr. Agetston published his book in 2003. The South Beach Diet isn’t about low-cal and low-carbs – it’s about choosing healthier food and normalizing portions (lessening your American-sized meals). My favorite part: snacking is encouraged.

Most nutritionists are vehemently against this 1-week extreme dietary program, since dieters cut out important nutrients, don’t receive enough calories, and only lose water weight.

Juice Cleanse
Year: 2010s

The Bizarre History of Fad Diets

Want to look young? Put down the bottle and pick up a green juice!

We’ve took a look at all the bizarre, disgusting, unhealthy, and controversial diets trends of the past. Now, we’re back to the liquid-only craze, embedded deep in the era of the juice cleanse. These cleanses promise to clear the body from toxins by drinking a few pre-bottled juices per day. On their own, I love these juices. They’re delicious, easy to take on the go, and highly nutritious. I feel fresh after my green drink, despite the weird looks I get sometimes, but I’ve never tried a 7-day intense juice only regimen. Its benefits aren’t proven, and professionals think it’s potentially hazardous. And anyway, who knows? Maybe someday this will be just another outrageous diet.

Frances is an upcoming multimedia journalist that spends her time between New York City and Philadelphia. On the weekends, she experiments with new recipes and uncovers cool destinations to write about.

Reader Discussion: 6 Comments

  1. Cassy White

    Fad-diets are targeted to a certain population who are gullible enough to believe that getting healthy fast is true.

  2. Hannah Mayers

    I really find reading history of things a lot of fun. It gives me a sense of knowing why things (or people) behave the way they do today. It’s interesting to know that “diet(ing)” exists years and years ago (even though media was not really influential when it comes to the way people look and weigh during those times).

    I’m not particularly (or very much concerned with my weight), what concerns me most is being healthy. Being thin doesn’t mean you’re healthy 🙂 

    Proper intake of right nutrients should be the number one concern!

  3. Courtney Watson

    This is really an informative and well-researched article! Very well-historically presented and I love it! To me, the best diet is still regular sleep and exercise (as Jen pointed out). Most of the time, I wonder, “why it’s so easy to gain weight, but very difficult to lose it it.” Urgh!

  4. Great article! It's interesting to see that people have resisted the healthy weight loss formula (as Jen pointed out: regular sleep, eat better, and exercise) in favor of quicker methods. I'd always thought these crash diets were more of a recent thing!

  5. Jen Spillane

    Hilarious article! I agree with Sara–reading about these crazy trends makes me wonder what trends we accept as normal today that we will see as crazy tomorrow. I think all of these fads are unfortunately a way to add novelty to something that is really pretty straight-forward. I think most of us know deep down what we need to do to lose weight. We need to eat better, get regular sleep and exercise. But that's not nearly as interesting or exciting as one of these diets. They make weight loss seem like an adventure, a quest, when in fact making a real lifestyle change is all about how you handle the daily grind.

  6. Sara E Liz

    Considering that so many people found these normal at the time, it makes me wonder what sort of popular fad diets now will be deemed ridiculous, unhealthy and ineffective in the future. I suppose history does repeat itself since so many people are trying the juice-only diet, similar to the liquid diet back in the day. Some believe that you can't actually get the true nutrients from this diet so I suppose Frances is right, this will probably be another silly fad in a few years.

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