This week we have a fun guest post by dietetic intern, Samantha Lance, MS, discussing the history of fad diets and diet culture. In addition, she also discusses the history of incorporating balance and moderation, mindful eating practices and their benefits in long term success when working to create a healthy lifestyle. Check out the article below for some of these fun facts!
When you purchase a product or service that does not work or even causes harm, you might blame the company, demand a refund, leave a bad review, and skip out on it next time. When that product or service is a part of the diet industry, you may blame yourself and return time and again to spend even more money on these services. Why is that? Well, unlike most other factors in our life, we consider our body’s weight and appearance to be solely a personal responsibility and, for some, a personal failure. We place far less accountability for perceived body image and weight on our social status, genetics, health conditions, healthcare system, and food marketing, among others.
Americans spent 78 billion in 2019 on the diet industry, up from 72 billion in 2018 (The U.S. Weight Loss & Diet Control Market, 2019). We are finally emphasizing body positivity and diversity in recent years, but these numbers speak for themselves. Despite our best efforts, dieting is embedded deeply into our history.
One of the earliest confirmed historical cases of a figure with excess weight is a 35,000-year-old sculpture from Germany carved from a mammoth tusk. There were many times in history that a curvaceous figure was desirable. However, higher weight was also often seen as political. Obese politicians, leaders, or kings luxuriating in excess while their people starve is a trope we see used in media both in ancient times and to this day.
Medical weight stigma was first documented with the Greeks around 2,400 years ago, describing it as a disease of polysarcia, or “excess flesh” associated with stupidity, laziness, and lack of control. They also saw luxurious, rich, and flavorful foods as immoral and corrupt. The Greeks perpetuated many modern disordered eating patterns like vomiting as a way to control weight. Starvation, deprivation, and mistrust of one’s own body was also common in religious practice.
Diaita, the Latin origin of the word diet from Greece, referred to not just food but mind, body, and lifestyle (Totelin, 2015). Being proponents of ethics, the Greeks were also the first advocates for vegetarianism and food’s societal impact. They understood that our environment was essential to our health, that food regimens varied from person to person, and that dietary changes should be gradual. Reputable science was often mixed with futile or even harmful practices, similar to what we see today.
Oddest Fad Diets
Using vinegar as a tonic is an ancient practice, even for ancient celebrities. In 1788 Lord George Gordon Byron, a celebrity poet of the romantic era who also obsessed with his weight, participated in the latest various fad diets such as biscuits and soda water or potatoes soaked in vinegar. He was often looked down on in the medical community for being an unhealthy influence on impressionable youth. Drinking Apple Cider Vinegar has also been marketed by stars like the Kardashians and Scarlett Johansson as a weight loss “cleanse.” There is no statistically significant research to back its validity. It can also damage tooth enamel and the esophagus due to its acidity (Shmerling, 2020).
Drinking Man’s Diet
Unfortunately, not even this odd diet was completely new historically. In 1028 William the Conqueror persisted on a liquid weight loss diet consisting entirely of alcohol. Published in the 1960s, the Drinking Man’s Diet avoided carbs and consisted of just meat and alcohol. It was seen as the early Atkins. The book sold 2.4 million copies in 13 languages while only being 50 pages long. Harvard medical posted research citing the diet as dangerous and unhealthful.
(“The Drinking Man’s Diet”, 2013)
Designed for ads run in the 1920s to feminize lucky cigarettes for women, “reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet” (Bruno, 2019).
Sleeping Beauty Diet
A dangerous diet that promotes sleeping more than 10 hours to avoid eating or drinking, often with sedatives. It was said that Elvis was a proponent of this diet and was put in a medically induced coma by his doctor. Can lead to memory loss, heart conditions, medication addiction, and depression (Rana, 2018).
Calories Don’t Count Diet
Published in 1961 this diet ran on a premise of 5% carbs and 65% fat claiming obese people process these nutrients differently. The author claimed he lost weight on 5,000 calories a day. He also sold safflower oil capsules on the side. The FDA charged the author with fraudulent health claims, drug violations, mail fraud, and conspiracy (“”CALORIES DON’T COUNT” Author Convicted of Fraud and Conspiracy “, 1967).
Popular Fad Diets
Raw Food Diet
Originating in the 1800s, this plant-based diet states heating food destroys natural nutrients and enzymes. The acceptable max temperatures range from 115 to 140F. While it is true that heating or cooking foods can destroy some nutrients, it is usually negligible. Many foods have something called “anti-nutrients” that can block us from absorbing vitamins and minerals. Spinach is high in iron, but unless it is cooked, the anti-nutrient “oxalates” will make it hard for our bodies to use. However, cooking spinach also removes some of its vitamin C. In the end, this diet just makes meals more confusing and very restrictive, especially with it being 100% plant based on top of raw. Eating a well-balanced diet is still the best way to ensure you are getting your necessary nutrients (“What is Raw Food Diet?”, n.d.).
Similar to the Drinking Man’s Diet and Atkins diet of the 60s and 70s, the claim is that a high protein, high-fat, and low carb diet is what our prehistoric ancestors ate and an easy route to weight loss and health. Eating more fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds is great. However, ancient humans did not have consistent access to meat, eggs, or oils. Many cultures also ate legumes and grains, which are removed from this diet alongside dairy, limiting varied protein sources. The evolution of modern crops also means they contain far less dietary fiber than their wild relatives. Any diet that removes major food groups is difficult to maintain long-term and can lead to deficiencies, in this case, Vitamin D and Calcium. It is also very likely that someone would consume too much saturated fat, putting them at risk for heart disease and stroke.
(Frost, et al., 2014)
Cleanse drinks go back to the 16 and 1700s, though this version was popularized in the 1940s and 70s. The diet of saltwater, laxative teas, and a lemon, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper drink is consumed for ten days. Afterward, you work up to juice, soup, and solid foods. This diet has no lasting impact on weight loss. Weight returns very quickly with a loss of muscle mass and sometimes even additional weight gain from the start. It also severely lacks essential basic nutrition with almost no macro or micronutrients. It encourages misinformation that your body does not know how to cleanse itself, but this is the primary function of your liver (Robinson, 2020).
Founded in the 1960s, weight watchers assigns a daily and weekly point goal based on calories, saturated fat, sugar, and protein.
You would think the points system would simplify a complicated process, and it does, but fats and carbs are essential nutrients, not just calories. It also encourages you to remove points from one part of your day to use at another. Eating is about balance. If you skip meals, you will drop your blood sugar, often leading to overeating to compensate later on. A more reliable and sustainable alternative is using the exchange system and a scheduled meal plan. If you eat a higher calorie meal, you don’t skip food later in the day but eat a lower calorie option for those same exchanges (Asp, 2019).
Throughout this timeline, countless diet books have been published, with a few standout best sellers. The repeated theme was simplicity and restraint in one’s diet until the introduction of increased trade brought the wide acceptance of foreign delicacies. There was little change in science, religious ideology, and medicine from the Greeks well into the 1700s. It wasn’t until the 1850s that nutrition science discovered the early mechanisms of metabolism.
How to Find Balance
We can see that the history of dieting is long, but the practices we often discuss as nutrition professionals that fight against these notions: balance, and moderation, have also been a part of human history for thousands of years. We can invest time toward practices that have scientific consensus to manage a healthy lifestyle and even lose weight.
Record what you eat and how much you exercise in an app, on some paper, or however you see fit. It is a great way to establish a sense of accountability and track progress.
Stress can inhibit behavior change, increase inflammation, and lead to weight gain. Meditation reduces stress and improves brain function, allowing you to be more self-aware when working through your goals and dealing with the more emotional side of eating.
Especially in adolescents, food messaging can increase the risk of unhealthy eating behaviors. Changing the food messaging we may have experienced in the past is an important step to developing a healthy relationship with food. Negative messaging promotes restricting what we “shouldn’t” eat, giving us a minimal idea of what’s okay. Restriction often leads to yo-yo dieting and stress. Positive messaging gives us more guidance and less restriction, not telling us what we can’t have but choices on what we can, letting us feel more relaxed in our wellness journey.
I hope you enjoyed this fascinating guest post about the history of diet culture and would love to hear any thoughts or insights you have!
Wishing you a happy, healthy week ahead,
–Ricci-Lee Hotz, MS, RDN
Denver’s Dancing Dietitian
A Taste of Health, LLC
“Improving Quality of life one bite at a time”
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Asp, K. (2019, November 21). Weight Watchers. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/diet/a-z/weight-watchers-diet
Bruno, D. (2019, January 29). From Lucky Strikes to tapeworms: 7 of the oddest weight-loss schemes of the past were also unhealthy. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/from-lucky-strikes-to-tapeworms-7-of-the-oddest-weight-loss-schemes-of-the-past-were-also-unhealthy/2019/01/25/5e8fa6ae-19c2-11e9-88fe-f9f77a3bcb6c_story.html
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Foxcroft, L. (2013). Calories and Corsets: A history of dieting over two thousand years. London: Profile.
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Rana, S. (2018, May 02). Sleeping Beauty Diet: The Bizarre Diet Fad People Are Embracing to Lose Weight. Retrieved from https://food.ndtv.com/food-drinks/sleeping-beauty-diet-the-bizarre-diet-fad-people-are-embracing-to-lose-weight-1733037
Robinson, K. M. (2020, September 09). Master Cleanse (Lemonade) Diet. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/diet/a-z/lemonade-master-cleanse-diet
Shmerling, R. H. (2020, October 29). Apple cider vinegar diet: Does it really work? Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/apple-cider-vinegar-diet-does-it-really-work-2018042513703
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