These days, there is a diet fad to fit every lifestyle. From counting calories to counting carbs, cutting out an entire food group to eating only one type of food, each fad claims to have the secret to rapid weight loss. However, the concept of a diet as the eating of (or abstaining from) specific foods for the purpose of losing weight has been around for more than two thousand years.
According to author Louise Foxcroft, the ancient Greeks of the 3rd century B.C. were the first to institute a system of dieting. They believed obesity to be morally and physically wrong and that it was a sign of luxury and corruption. As a result, they thought food should be plain. Followers of the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates maintained a diet of light, soft foods along with exercise.
The next recorded occurrence of dieting came a millennium later. In the year 1028, William the Conqueror became so overweight that he was too heavy to ride his horse. As a result, he began the first liquid diet, abstaining from solid foods and consuming only alcohol. While there is no documentation of how much weight he lost, his eventual death from a riding accident is evidence that he had enough success to resume riding his horse.
William the Conqueror wasn’t the only person to try a diet of consuming more alcohol than food. In 1558, Italian nobleman Luigi Cornaro limited himself to twelve ounces of food and fourteen ounces of alcohol per day. This diet was nicknamed The Immortality Diet based on the rumor that Cornaro lived to be one hundred and two years old. The Drinking Man’s Diet of the 1960s included so-called manly foods like steak along with unlimited alcohol.
Another liquid-based diet was the Apple Cider Vinegar Diet. This diet, which consisted of drinking a mixture of honey and vinegar, became popular in the 1950s; however, nineteenth-century poet Lord Byron is said to have maintained his pale, thin appearance with vinegar and water. A more recent version of the diet involves consuming three teaspoons of apple cider vinegar before each meal. This is thought to reduce cravings and fat; however, it is not backed by scientific evidence.
Similar to the liquid diets were “cleansers,” diet plans designed to purge the body of toxins. Once such diet was created in 1941 by Stanley Burroughs. Referred to as the Master Cleanse or the Lemonade Diet, it involved drinking a mixture of lemon or lime juice, maple syrup, water, and cayenne pepper six times a day for ten days. This diet made a comeback in 2006 after Beyoncé claimed it had helped her lose twenty pounds in two weeks. Other versions of the cleanse involve taking laxatives and drinking a lot of water. A more disgusting version was the Last Chance Diet in 1976 which required drinking a “meat smoothie” of predigested animal byproducts. It was taken off the market after several users died.
There were several attempts in the early 1900s to develop a way to slim down quickly. A businessman named Horace Fletcher suggested chewing food until it became liquid as a way to avoid overeating. Another diet from around that time which may or may not have actually been used was the Tapeworm diet. This consisted of intentionally swallowing a tapeworm so that it would consume some of the food that was ingested. Vintage advertisements have been found, but there is no documentation of anyone actually purchasing the tapeworm pills. Other diets involve eating a single food to lose weight. These include the Grapefruit Diet, the Peanut Butter Diet, and the Ice Cream Diet. Another such diet which has reemerged about once a decade since the 1950s is the Cabbage Soup diet, which requires eating nothing but cabbage soup for seven days.
In 1917, Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters published a book entitled Diet and Health, which promoted the concept of counting calories. It became the first best-selling American diet book. In her book, Peters suggested focusing on calories rather than portion sizes, recommending no more than twelve hundred calories per day. Her book inspired numerous diets, many of which were successful, which involved counting calories; however, it failed to account for the varying nutritional value of calories.
Several diets popular today involve reducing or eliminating carbs. While this might seem like just another of today’s fads, this particular diet technique dates back one hundred and fifty years. An Englishman named William Banting lost fifty pounds in under a year by cutting out sugars and starches, subsisting instead on a diet of proteins, fruits, and vegetables. This was the first recorded low-carb diet. Banting’s diet bears a remarkable resemblance to the popular diets today, with similar results averaging one pound of weight loss per week.
Around the same time, the first diet pills began to hit the market. These diet pills contained dangerous ingredients such as laxatives, arsenic, strychnine, and amphetamines. Many early pills also included thyroid extract to speed up the metabolism. This caused several negative side effects including arrhythmia, increased heart rate, chest pains, high blood pressure, and death. Later pills included ephedra and fenfluramine, both of which caused negative effects on the heart.
While many of these diets have been used with success, there is no one size fits all approach to weight loss. Counting calories and reducing carbs are healthy choices which may lead to weight loss for most people, but not everyone will see the same results. People are individuals and therefore have individual nutritional needs. However, diet fads are most likely here to stay as weight management is a difficult journey and everyone is always looking for a shortcut.