The history of dieting

From one medieval egg a day to the 5:2 plan, Joelle Jefferis discovers that diets have been with us for centuries
The Art Of Living Long by Luigi Cornaro – one of the world’s first bestselling diet books – was published. From his late 30s, Cornaro restricted himself to 400g of food a day and 500ml of wine. He later limited his daily consumption to one egg. The proof of his plan came from his longevity – he was 98 when he died.  

Italian Giacomo Castelvetro urged the British to shun their meat-filled diet and to instead enjoy the benefits of a produce-rich diet in The Fruit, Herbs And Vegetables Of Italy. His sentiments were echoed by John Evelyn in 1699 when he wrote the first recorded book on salads.  s

Diet powders were all the rage. Their ingredients often included unsavoury things like lard, washing powder and even strychnine, an ingredient of many pesticides. 

Lord Byron, keen to be thin and also to keep his mind sharp, restricted his diet drastically, at one point using vinegar mixed with water to aid weight loss. In 1806 he weighed 13st 12lb but in five years dropped to under nine stone. His fame and celebrity saw many female admirers emulating his strict diet.  

‘The Great Masticator’ Horace Fletcher promoted his Fletcherism technique. He advised chewing each mouthful of food 32 times before swallowing, to increase strength while decreasing food intake. He promised that Fletcherism would turn ‘a pitiable glutton into an intelligent epicurean’.  

Not for the fainthearted, the tapeworm diet rose to prominence in this era. Beef tapeworm cysts were swallowed in the form of a pill; the theory was that these would then grow to maturity and absorb food in the intestines. This could cause weight loss but also vomiting and diarrhoea. Plus dieters ran the risk of contracting meningitis and epilepsy. Once the desired weight was reached, an anti-parasitic pill was taken.

Lucky Strike cigarettes launched the ‘Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet’ campaign; it played on the long-known appetite suppressant qualities of tobacco.

The Grapefruit Diet, or Hollywood Diet, became fashionable amongst film stars. It involved eating half a grapefruit at every meal, coupled with severely restricting overall calorie intake. The premise of the diet was that grapefruit contains an enzyme that, when eaten with protein, triggers fat-burning and thus weight loss.

The Cabbage Soup Diet originated in this era but continues to come back into fashion every decade or so. A quick weight-loss plan meant to be followed for seven days, it involved eating unlimited amounts of cabbage soup, plus certain other foods on specific days. It was claimed dieters could drop 10lb to 15lb over the week.

Weight Watchers was formed by Jean Nidetch, an overweight housewife from New York who had tried numerous fad diets herself. Weight Watchers promotes healthy weight loss through a well-balanced diet, changing long-term behaviour, increasing exercise and group meetings where dieters can support each other.

Dr Robert Atkins published Dr Atkins’ Diet Revolution, which he based on a 1958 article on weight reduction in The Journal Of The American Medical Association. The focus of the diet is limiting the intake of carbohydrates, so the body does not metabolise glucose into energy but instead converts body fat to energy. This process is known as ketosis. The Atkins Diet saw a second surge of popularity in 1992 when he published Dr Atkins’ New Diet Revolution, where he modified parts of the diet but kept the core concept.

Florida weight-loss doctor Sanford Siegal developed a mixture of amino acids and baked them into cookies meant to control his patients’ hunger. On his Cookie Diet, slimmers consumed six cookies a day, totalling approximately 500 calories, and then an evening meal of around 300 calories. Commercially it was a huge success.

Slim-Fast was introduced to the market with its slogan: ‘A shake for breakfast, a shake for lunch, then a sensible dinner’. The plan has been changed since to include meal bars and snacks, but the shakes are still a popular weight-loss tool.

The Scarsdale Diet brought the combined use of grapefruit and ketosis into play with a meal plan limiting dieters to 700 to 1,000 calories per day. It is a very specific, rapid-loss diet that needs to be adhered to for 14 days.

A period in dieting history characterised by its promotion of exercise. Jane Fonda established a second career as a fitness guru thanks to her aerobic workout VHS tapes. Oat-bran diets were in their heyday too, touted as a way to reduce cholesterol.

Jenny Craig was founded in Australia and spread worldwide. This is a weight-management programme that involves sticking to planned meals, which utilise the company’s range of frozen and dried foods, combined with increased physical activity and counselling.

The Zone Diet was popularised by biochemist Barry Sears, who claimed the key to weight loss was staying in ‘The Zone’, where hormones were properly balanced and blood-sugar levels stable. According to Sears, this could be achieved by eating foods in the right proportions at every meal: 40 per cent carbohydrates, 30 per cent protein and 30 per cent fat. It also involves a strict eating schedule, where dieters never go more than five hours without food.

The Baby Food Diet encouraged slimmers to replace two of their daily meals with jars of puréed baby food, then have a healthy evening meal. The availability of gourmet baby food in recent years may make this diet more bearable, though it’s unlikely to come cheap.

American singer Beyoncé has reportedly followed the Maple Syrup diet, an extreme detox, which involves surviving on a concoction of water, maple syrup, lemon juice and cayenne pepper. Weight loss is quickly achieved due to the severe restriction of calories – consuming nine of these drinks a day means dieters take in only around 500 calories.

Google’s most searchedfor diet is the Palaeolithic Diet, also referred to as the Caveman Diet. It is based on the presumed diet of wild plants and animals, which humans would have feasted on in the Palaeolithic era. Dieters avoid any foods linked to the rise in agriculture, including grains, beans, potatoes and dairy products.

The 5:2 Diet is this year’s rage. The plan allows dieters to eat normally for five days and then limit themselves to 25 per cent of their normal calorie intake for two days. It is also meant to help reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer, and improve cholesterol levels.