The History of Food Fads in the U.S.

You should know by now how I feel about fad diets. I was interested to find out why, when & where this crazy attitude about food began? I think you will be surprised, I was!

The why isn’t too shocking. Women & men have had this need to ‘look good” at whatever cost to their health for a very long time. Looking good has not always meant being thin. For women, during some periods of history, it meant being what would be considered plump & curvy by the current standards. It also meant trying to have a young boys figure for those flapper dresses in the 1920’s & again during the 1960’s when looking like Twiggy was all the rage. Jack LaLane defined what a man’s body should look like starting with his health club in 1936! The problem with this is that most women & men, no matter how much, or how they lose weight, will never conform to those images.

I found this abstract on PubMed very interesting. Regime change: gender, class, and the invention of dieting in post-bellum America. by Katharina Vester  The crux of the abstract is to argue against the idea that women were encouraged to diet in the 1920’s as a way to control them from further independence. She offers that dieting started way before then, in the 1860’s, & targeted white, middle class males instead. Because the men were building up their bodies & losing weight, women began to do the same. “Revising the history of dieting to show its origins as a masculine practice appropriated by women to stake a claim to class and race privilege invites a rethinking of power and resistance in the disciplining of the female body.” The abstract is short & an interesting idea. Give it a read.

 To prove the point, here is the ~not so pretty~ history of some fad diets. The sad part is that some of these exist today.

Maeve Hanan gave me permission to use this wonderful info-graph from her site dietetically speaking. She is a Registered Dietitian from Ireland, currently working in England. She wrote this very interesting article about fad diets: A Brief History of Ridiculous Fad Diets by Maeve Hanan, March 20th, 2016. 

The first diet she lists is from 175 BC, the cabbage & urine diet. Maybe this is where our idea of the cabbage soup diet came from 🙂 Maeve also mentions the “tapeworm diet”. Believe it or not, it has been used for weight loss for over 100 years in the USA. It is also illegal in this country. I can’t even imagine how one can rationalize this diet to oneself. Read her article for the entire list. 

I want to add a note here for those of you who still believe that coconut oil is healthy for you to consume. Please read this very well researched & written article by Maeve Hanan: The Facts About Fat; Part 4: Coconut Oil Debunked.  Food for thought 🙂

This is a fun read about famous writers & their eating habits. The first Celebrity Diet is attributed to the poet & playwright, Lord Byron (1788-1824) in the article  10 Writers’ Diets In the 1800s by Sabine Bevers, June 9, 2013. Byron had a weight problem & designed his own diet. I would say that Robert Lewis Stevenson would be considered a glutton by today’s standards or maybe a ~heart attack waiting to happen~.

In another article from the BBC News Magazine: History’s weirdest fad diets January 2013, the author describes the vinegar diet. She writes about Lord Byron’s dietary use of vinegar for weight loss. Because of his status, his dietary habits became a worry due to his influence on the youth of the time. Sounds familiar. This article is also a fun read. The advent of rubber knickers & corsets for men & women to lose weight was started by Charles Goodyear! Another idea that was popular in the mid 1800’s.

This is a timeline for popular diets put together in an article in the Los Angeles Times: A brief timeline shows how we’re gluttons for diet fads by Rene Lynch Feb. 28th, 2015 

The author, Rene Lynch, begins her timeline with the book “The Physiology of Taste” written by Jean Brillat-Savarin in 1825. The timeline continues to the Paleo Diet in 2010. I like this timeline because it reminds us of all the foolish diets; the Drinking Man’s diet, the Cigarette diet 🙁 and the not so foolish diets; Weight Watchers & the Mediterranean diet. It is fun to read this & tic off each of the diets you have tried! I counted 7 🙂

Here is another timeline from CNN: Diets through history: The good, the bad and the scary By Lesley Rotchford,, February 8, 2013 . This one is especially interesting because it names the celebrities that backed some of these scary diets & ways of losing weight.

I was just ready to publish this post when I noticed these two articles.

This was on CNN about the Military Diet: Military diet: 3-day diet or dud? The first part of the article is a detailed description of what the diet is. Very entertaining! You may like the idea of eating ice cream with dinner everyday 🙂 As it describes the diet there is also commentary on why it is unhealthy. 

The Military Diet is also known as the Army or Navy diet. The U.S. Department of Defense disavows any link to this crazy diet. The article goes on to explore who actually created the diet. It is an interesting journey. It has also been called the Mayo Clinic Diet, Kaiser Permanente Diet, American Heart Association Diet,  the Cleveland Clinic Diet & the Birmingham Hospital Diet. All have denied ever creating such a restrictive diet, & they don’t support or recommend it. 

The author also explores why people fall for fad diets in the section called How Diet Misinformation Spreads. This is a very good article & worth reading. 

I just couldn’t pass this one up, although it isn’t a diet, it is about chocolate! Several news outlets had this in their headlines, but I chose CBS’s article to share with you: S​enator calls for regulation of “snortable chocolate​” Of course my first reaction was, “Are you kidding me? Really, what fun would that be, I mean what’s the point?” Sitting at the beach or reading a book & indulging in a rich piece of chocolate is Heaven! After reading the article I understood & share the concern with Senator Schumer.

The product is being marketed as “raw cocoa snuff”. As it says in the article, it is difficult to find what other ingredients are in it. I did find an article with an interview of the product owner & it said that the ingredients used in energy drinks, such as caffeine, taurine, and guarana, are in it You Can Now Snort Chocolate for Energy ). These ingredients are not safe. The manufacturers website, LegalLeanStore.comwhich is definitely aimed at young consumers, I found disturbing as a health care person, and as a grandmother. This is a good example of the FDA’s limits for regulating products. This is also a good example of why we as consumers need to read the labels on products. It is ultimately our responsibility when choosing to believe the hype or not.

I hope you enjoyed this trip through history. It shows how people were influenced by the icons, & media of their time. Fast forward to 2017 with it’s celebrities from the screen, fashion & social media dictating how we should look & how we should eat. Not much has changed. Even Queen Victoria was concerned about being too fat. I guess there must have been fat shaming in her time as well.

Fad diets will never go away. My message to you is to remember that you are a unique individual. You have to decide what is right for you, & what makes you healthy & happy. 

Until next week…Mary 🙂

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