History of Dieting Fads and How Vanity Often Outweighs Common Sense

Fad diets have appeared in many forms, as far back as the middle ages and William the Conqueror
Fad diets have appeared in many forms, as far back as the middle ages and William the Conqueror

“Of all the parasites that affect humanity I do not know of, nor can I imagine, any more distressing than that of Obesity.”

So started William Banting‘s “Letter on Corpulence,” likely the first diet book ever published. Banting, an overweight undertaker, published the book in 1864 to espouse his success after replacing an excessive intake of bread, sugar and potatoes with mostly meat, fish and vegetables.

Since then, fad diets have appeared in many forms. To what length will people go to achieve their desired figure? As a professor of nutrition and eating behaviors, my sense is the history of dieting shows vanity outweighs common sense.

Liquid-based diets

Let's jump back to 1028, the year William the Conqueror was born. Healthy most of his life, he became so overweight in later years that he went on a liquid diet consisting of almost nothing but alcohol. He lost enough weight to resume riding his cherished horse, but a riding accident soon led to his untimely death.

We do know of one case in which consuming more alcohol than food allegedly led to longevity. In 1558, Italian nobleman Luigi Cornaro restricted himself daily to 12 ounces of food and 14 ounces of wine. Rumor has it he lived to a ripe 102 years of age, earning his approach the nickname The Immortality Diet. 

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Another alcohol-focused plan, The Drinking Man's Diet, was introduced in the 1960s. This included so-called “manly” foods like steak and fish, along with as much alcohol as desired.

Poet Lord Byron credited his thin, pale look to vinegar and water. This practice reemerged in the 1950s as the popular Apple Cider Vinegar Diet, which instructs people to drink a mixture of equal parts honey and vinegar. The latest version, although not scientifically supported, claims that three teaspoons of apple cider vinegar before each meal will curb cravings and cut fat.

Cleanses

“Cleaner” liquid diets, cleanses and detoxes are designed to supposedly rid the body of toxins, despite our natural ability to do so.

In 1941, alternative health enthusiast Stanley Burroughs created the Master Cleanse, or Lemonade Diet, to eliminate cravings for junk food, alcohol, tobacco and drugs. All you had to do was consume a mixture of lemon or lime juice, maple syrup, water and cayenne pepper six times a day for at least 10 days. Beyoncé made this popular again in 2006, saying she lost 20 pounds in two weeks.

TV physician Dr. Oz and others have since promoted their own versions, varying in length and foods allowed. Most include a daily laxative and copious amounts of water.

The Last Chance Diet, published in 1976, consisted of drinking a very low-calorie liquid a few times per day. The main ingredient was a blend of predigested animal byproducts – think hide, horns and tendons. This “meat smoothie” was taken off the market after several followers died.

More recently, the Green Juice plan became popular. Many were captivated by the promise of a deep cleanse or quick weight loss, while others saw it as an easy way to consume more fruits and vegetables. One of the original recipes called for apples, celery, cucumber, kale, lemon and ginger.