Hard to Stomach: The Uncomfortable History of Diet Fads

From Lord Byron's "vinegar diet" to the waist trainers popularized by the Kardashian family, people have long tried to lose weight in bizarre—and often totally ineffective—ways.

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Mar 8 2016, 4:25pm

Image via Flickr user Jamie

Fad diets typically meet three requirements: They promise dramatic results, they require dramatic dietary or lifestyle changes, and they become very, very popular. Often a fourth parameter is that these diets are later declared to be fraudulent, dangerous, or completely unfounded.

Like many women, I've subscribed to plenty of diet fads, supplements, and treatments. I have even invented some diets myself, like my junior year of high school when I ate nothing but Green Tea Fat Burner soft-gels and deli meat turkey. I tried the Infrared Body Wrap at the tanning salon. I've purchased cellulite-reducing cream, $15 green juices, and 100 calorie packs. At 17, I did the Master Cleanse. I've replaced my fair share of meals with "protein shakes." I went vegan after reading Skinny Bitch. While I never tried the cabbage soup diet, I did do a similar soup-only program in college during which I subsisted on leeks, cayenne pepper, and water. Then there was that summer filled with Vyvanse and Cardio Barre, which ended in an anxiety attack that sent me to the emergency room.

I'll admit that diet fads appealed to me primarily because I placed more value on my bony clavicle than my health, happiness, and sanity. But extreme methods and questionable pills also drew me because they promised fast, quantifiable results. And I'm not alone: for the past two centuries, diet fads (and the writers, dietitians, entrepreneurs, and celebrities who popularize them) have held the rapt attention of the health-conscious and self-conscious alike. From Lord Byron's diary to soap that washes your fat right off, here's a comprehensive history of diet fads.

1800s: The Starvation Diet

Though anorexia nervosa was first designated as a clinical term in the 1870s, voluntary emaciation (or fasting) was not a new phenomenon then. As Joan Jacob Brumberg explains in her book Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa, "fasting girls" in Medieval Europe were labeled "anorexia mirabilis" (translation: "miraculous lack of appetite"); these young women were said to survive on spiritual devotion alone. In the Victorian Era, "fasting girls" were celebrities. People would make pilgrimages from far and wide to leave offerings for them in hopes of pleasing God.

1820: The Vinegar Diet

Some historians hypothesize that the English poet Lord Byron (1788-1824) suffered from extreme body dysmorphia that manifested in anorexia and bulimia. He wrote extensively in his journals about his efforts to lose weight, detailing his diet and exercise regimens, his goals, and his failures. He drank large quantities of apple cider vinegar as an appetite suppressant, thus popularizing the "vinegar diet". According to historian Louise Foxcroft, Lord Byron was one of the first diet icons and "helped kick off the public's obsession with how celebrities lose weight."

Lord Byron. Photo via Wikipedia.

1829: Graham's High-Fiber Diet

Reverend Sylvester Graham (1794-1851), an American Presbyterian minister and the creator of graham crackers, preached on the values of temperance, vegetarianism, sexual restraint, frequent bathing, and the importance of whole-wheat flour. His followers called themselves "Grahamites" and attended his lectures by the thousands. Graham assured his followers that a vegetarian diet devoid of spice, sugar, and processed flour would curb lustful urges and thereby put an end to masturbation, which he believed led to insanity and blindness.

1863: Banting Diet

William Banting (1796-1878) was an English undertaker and formerly obese man who was the first to popularize a low-carb diet. In his "Letter on Corpulence," an open letter and mass-produced pamphlet, Banting details his pathway out of obesity. The pamphlet was so popular that the verb "to Bant" entered the lexicon; dieters would ask one another how their "Banting" was going. Banting is still in occasional practice, and though it is considered to be a precursor to Atkins, proponents stress that Banting is a high-fat, high-vegetable diet, rather than a high-protein diet.

1903: Fletcherism

Fletcherism is defined as "the practice of eating in small amounts and only when hungry and of chewing one's food thoroughly." The man for whom it was named, Horace Fletcher (1849-1919), was an American dietitian who spent most of his life plagued by indigestion and obesity. In 1895, he set to work to find the key to good health. The set of principles he developed and propagated include: only eat when hungry and never when anxious, depressed or preoccupied; chew each mouthful of food exactly 32 times; "enjoy your food."

Late 1920s: Lucky Strike 'Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet' Campaign

The idea that cigarette smoking curbs appetite is one that persists to this day, but it's usually accompanied by some apologetic self-deprecation, or at least a bit of good old-fashioned nihilism. In 1929, however, the cigarette brand Lucky Strike launched an ad campaign that taunted women with double chins and unseemly one-piece swimsuits that hung like specters over their futures. "IS THIS YOU FIVE YEARS FROM NOW?" the copy asked, ominously. "Reach for a Lucky instead." The ads invariably wrapped up with two things: testimonies from doctors about how Lucky's toasted tobacco was delicious, soothing to the throat, and would curb your appetite, and a reminder to take everything in moderation.

Lucky Strike ad from 1928. Image via Flickr user dok1.

1930s: The Grapefruit Diet

This diet, which resurfaced two decades later as the Hollywood diet, promised weight loss if adherents ate grapefruit at each meal. Grapefruits were believed to contain a special fat-burning enzyme. While that myth has been largely debunked, the high water content in grapefruit may make it a natural appetite suppressant.

Early 1930s: "Slimming Soap"

Claiming "Fat is Folly," La Parle Obesity Soap claimed to reduce fat "without dieting or gymnastics". Unfortunately, the soap was just soap, made with potassium chloride and other basic ingredients.

La Parle ad. Image via Wikipedia.

1950s: The Cabbage Soup Diet

Though the cabbage soup diet originated in the 1950s, it's still popular today. Basically, dieters are "allowed" as much cabbage soup as they can stomach, as well as limited other foods such as fruit, usually for the duration of a seven-day period. Side effects include gas, bloating, dizziness, and lethargy. Yum!

1950s: The Vibrating Belt

Less a diet than a massage, these belts were marketed in the 1950s as a weight loss miracle. The benefits were said to include improved metabolism, weight reduction, increased energy, muscle relaxation, increase in cell oxygenation, and stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system. While there is reason to believe that these vibrations can increase blood circulation, no other claims are substantiated.

1960s: The Macrobiotic Diet

Developed by Japanese philosopher George Ohsawa, Macrobiotics is considered by followers to be "a spiritual and social philosophy of living and eating." The diet is said to be a balance of yin and yang foods; "yin" foods include vegetables, grains, beans, and seaweed, while "yang" foods include salt, fish, and fowl, as well as other animal products. The breakdown of food groups is extremely specific: 50-60 percent of calories come from whole grains, 25-30 percent from vegetables, and 5-10 percent from tofu, tempeh, or other soybean products. Cookware is also limited. Macrobiotics rose to prominence in the 1960s and is largely associated with hippy culture.

1963: Weight Watchers

Founded by in 1963 by Jean Nidetch, a self-described "overweight housewife obsessed with cookies," Weight Watchers has grown into the world's most popular weight loss program. (Oprah Winfrey is currently a spokeswoman for the company.) Members attend meetings, during which they share diet successes and failures and provide emotional support to one another during public weigh-ins. Food is counted on a point system with a certain amount of points allowed per day. In 2014, Weight Watchers made $1.4 billion.

1970: The Sleeping Beauty Diet

Popularized by none other than Elvis Presley, the Sleeping Beauty Diet involves heavily sedating oneself for several days. The basic premise is that sedation prevents the dieter from eating. The Sleeping Beauty Diet claims participants can "sleep off the pounds" with a strict regimen of tranquilizers. Unfortunately, these drugs are highly addictive, and the lifestyle is extraordinarily unsustainable.

1977: Slim-Fast

Slim-Fast was invented in 1977 by American businessman Sim Daniel Abraham, owner of Thompson Medical. (Thompson Medical was also the parent company of controversial diet drug Dexatrim.) The program, described by the phrase "a shake for breakfast, a shake for lunch, then a sensible dinner", helps dieters lose weight by restricting caloric intake while insuring they get the vitamins and minerals needed for survival. In recent years, the Slim-Fast brand has expanded to include snacks and meal bars as well as their iconic shakes.

1981: The Beverly Hills Diet

A diet plan/weight-loss memoir, Judy Mazel's The Beverly Hills Diet sold nearly one million copies during its 30 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. Mazel's six-week program requires dieters to eat nothing but certain fruits in a specific order for the first 10 days. She emphasizes the importance of which foods are eaten when and in what combination. In 1981, the Journal of the American Medical Association criticized the diet for propagating medical inaccuracies, stating, "Not only is there no scientific evidence to support this diet plan, but it also contradicts established medical knowledge about nutrition." They also warned that the diet was associated with low levels of salt and immense water loss from diarrhea, which would result in fever, muscle weakness, and "a feeling of impending doom."

1985: The Caveman Diet

The Caveman Diet, which resurfaced more recently as The Paleo Diet, posits that 20th (and 21st) century humans should get in touch with their caveperson roots by subsisting on a diet of foods presumed to be available during the Paleolithic Era—In short, plenty of fruits, vegetables, nuts, roots, and meat, and no processed foods such as dairy, grains, sugar, legumes, oils, salt, alcohol, or coffee. It is now the semi-official diet of CrossFit. The Association of UK Dietitians called it an "unbalanced, time consuming, socially isolating diet," and a "sure-fire way to develop nutrient deficiencies."

1990s: Low-Fat Diet

Starting in the late 80s, when cholesterol was linked to heart disease and TIME magazine ran an article titled "Sorry, It's True. Cholesterol Really Is A Killer", a low-fat/high-carb diet began sweeping the nation. By the early 90s, snack companies were racing to cash in on the trend by advertising "low-fat", "reduced-fat", and "light" versions of popular snack foods. Unfortunately, reduced fat resulted in bland tasting food, and companies made up for it by adding sugar, corn syrup, and salt. As NPR put it, "In trying to address one problem—heart disease—by cutting way back on fat, many experts [agree] that the original dietary goals may have helped fuel other problems, like diabetes and obesity."

1996: Blood Type Diet

The blood type was born of Peter J. D'Adamo's book Eat Right for Your Type, in which the self-described "naturopathic physician" encourages dieters to pair certain diets with their blood type. The Blood Type Diet claims to improve health and decrease risk of disease. Taking this diet as truth, I once tried to follow it under the impression that I was blood type O. I later discovered that I am actually type A. The blood type diet was recently debunked.

2002: The Atkins Diet

The Atkins Nutritional Approach™ was a low-carb diet craze popularized by #1 New York Times bestselling author Dr. Robert C. Atkins. Though his first book, Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution, was released in 1972, it was his second book, Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution, released thirty years later, which brought him cult fame. The Atkins Diet gained widespread popularity in 2003 and 2004. In fact, at the height of its popularity, one in eleven Americans said they were following a low-carb diet. By 2005, only 2 percent of the Americans were on a low-carb diet, and the company was filing for bankruptcy.

Screenshot via YouTube.

2000s: Raw Food Diet

In a 2003 episode of Sex and the City, Samantha drags Carrie, Miranda, and Charlotte to a restaurant called Raw, where (extremely Carrie Bradshaw voice) food is served cold and a certain waiter is very hot. At the time, this was en vogue. Though "Raw Foodism" has been around since the 80s, it gained popularity in the new millennium. The diet is based on the belief that uncooked food is the healthiest thing for the body. Celebrity subscribers included Demi Moore and Scarlett Johansson. Some people in Los Angeles took it way too far, as they are wont to do.

2004: The Master Cleanse

Also known as the "Lemonade Diet", this one had been around a while before it was re-popularized by Peter Glickman's Lose Weight, Have More Energy & Be Happier in 10 Days. The Master Cleanse is a liquid diet consisting of a mixture of water, lemon juice, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper. In 2006, Beyonce admitted to using the Master Cleanse to lose 20 pounds for Dreamgirls. I tried it at home and developed a whitish film on my tongue.

2010s: Juice Cleansing

I'll admit I've done a juice cleanse. I'll admit I purchased that juice cleanse at a discount on Gilt City. I knew they were overpriced; I now realize they are stupid and unhealthy as well.

2013: The Daniel Plan

In the Bible, Daniel is a man of unsurpassed piety, someone who provides counsel and dream interpretation to kings. He also gets thrown into a lions' den but is saved by an angel. He also has four distinct visions of the apocalypse. He also eats mostly vegetables. It was that last part that interested Rick Warren, the pastor of a megachurch in Southern California, who realized during a marathon baptism session that he and his congregation had grown too big for their undoubtedly holy britches. So he rounded up two doctors and wrote a book, The Daniel Plan, which marries obvious dieting tips (eat less, workout more) with a holistic, community approach to losing weight. Unfortunately, there is very little data on dieters as they relate to the end of days.

2013: The Cotton Ball Diet

This diet fad surfaced in online chat rooms and really freaked people out for a brief period. Dieters soaked cotton balls in juice and ate them in order to feel artificially full. As ABC News astutely reported, "Unless you're dining on an expensive organic brand, most cotton balls aren't made of cotton. They're bleached, polyester fibers that contain a lot of chemicals."

2015: The Waist Trainer

Hugely popular on celebrity Instagram accounts, the Waist Trainer is basically a modern corset. If you buy one from the Waist Gang Society—the brand favored by the likes of Kim, Khloe and Kourtney Kardashian, Amber Rose, and Nicki Minaj—it will run you around $120. But not everyone on the E! family is on board with waist training. Dr. Paul Nassif, of the E! show Botched, told the network: "I'm worried about what effect it has on the lower intestines with pushing the contents into the pelvic region [...] there is potential for internal organ compression causing kidney, gastrointestinal and lung issues."

2015: The "Teatox"

Though it's too soon to tell whether "Teatox" programs will prove to be dangerous or ineffective, some brands of the popular detox system have certainly demonstrated their prowess in marketing. Celebrities like Amber Rose, Scott Disick, Kourtney and Khloe Kardashian, Kylie Jenner, Nicki Minaj, Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Snooki, and Vanessa Hudgens have posted selfies promoting various Teatox products, and popular magazines have rushed to review them. Broadly writer Tara Evans reported that Teatoxes, which are essentially tea-based Laxatives, can delay your period, cause stomach aches and diarrhea, and disrupt birth control. Sexy.