We love the thought of eating healthily so much that we trick ourselves into doing it.
A Diet Coke at the movie theater pairs with a large popcorn. A skinny Cinnamon Dolce Latte forgoes foam, but adds whip. A whole grain bagel wraps around jalapeno cream cheese. For every healthy choice we make, we reward ourselves with one that’s not so healthy — it's part of a cultural diet that grew from the new millennium.
But this age of paleo and veganism is just a non-GMO certified smear in the long line of diet crazes that have clutched the American psyche for decades.
Few things have been as damaging to the American populous as our image of ourselves. The need to be thin or muscular, V-shaped or waif-like comes from a history of advertising moguls and opportunistic capital ventures.
Here are a few fad diets from throughout the ages just to put a little perspective on your health kick. Remember to eat well and be smart about which diets you follow. Make choices for you and not for others — not for your girlfriend or boyfriend, not for your parents, not for the bandwagon and not for the advertisement you saw last night during "Scandal." Make informed choices about your health for yourself.
Antebellum period — Eat your bran
To get to the heart of this matter we have to go all the way back to 1837, when Sylvester Graham published his "Treatise on Bread and Bread-Making." (I’m not making this up.) At the time, dieting was less about weight loss and more about controlling one’s moral compass. Graham believed that by eating breads made from whole grains, one was better able to control sexual urges and maintain a balance of physical and spiritual health. This was not unusual for this time period. He also denounced spices and food that was “complex in preparation” because such things were believed to up a person’s carnal necessities.
His recipes have been reprinted hundreds of thousands of times, but one endures today much more prominently than the others — the graham cracker. The cracker that inspires s’mores, bonfires and general merriment. I’m not sure how Graham would feel about that.
Turn of the century — The Great Masticator
The 1910s gave birth to a dieting fad that persists today in the form of a grade school myth. We’ve all heard that chewing your food 32 times ensures that your stomach will digest whatever you’re eating better. This, of course, is not true. Yes, chewing is important, but 32 times might be overkill.
However, beginning in 1895, Horace Fletcher, an amateur nutritionalist, created this rule of 32. It became known as "Fletcherism" and dictated that all food must be chewed and mixed with saliva until it turned to liquid. Diners would tilt their head forward while eating, chew until liquified, then tilt their heads backward. Any food that did not slide down the throat was spit out and discarded. Fletcher referred to this process as “food swallow[ing] itself,” and believed this method prevented overeating, reduced a person's food intake and therefore conserved money.
Believe what you want, but Fletcher’s slogan beats all: “Nature will castigate those who don’t masticate.”
1920s — “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet”
It was a Lucky Strike marketing campaign that aligned the notion of dieting with femininity. In 1925, George Washington Hill, president of the American Tobacco Company, launched a public relations mission to condemn the taboo against women smoking in public. The story goes that Hill had an epiphany one afternoon while stopped at a traffic light in New York City. On one corner of the street was a plump woman eating a sizable piece of candy. In a nearby taxicab was a second woman, very slender and well-dressed, who was blowing smoke at passing cars as she waited at the light.
“Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet” became the Lucky Strike’s promotional platform. The company touted the nicotine found in their “deliciously toasted tobacco” as an appetite suppressant and metabolism booster. In their newspaper ads and plastered broadsides, the Lucky Strike featured images of slender women smoking cigarettes, decked out in pearls, wearing the latest fashion and short hairstyle associated with the freedom of the flapper movement. Women became bolder, but their lungs did not.
1930s —The Hollywood Diet
Enter the grapefruit, the starlet’s cure-all. Known as the first fad diet in America, this method’s claim to fame was that the citrus contained an enzyme that burned fat.
The diet lasts for 10 to 12 days and is followed by two days off. The diet hinged on the idea that grapefruit stimulates the burning of body fat when consumed along with foods high in dietary fat. For example, one would eat a protein-rich meal (like bacon and eggs) and follow it up with half a grapefruit. Dieters were advised not to eat an excess of carbohydrates and tended to cut vegetables and grains.
In 2004, a Florida study found that a high grapefruit intake may reduce insulin levels and lead to weight loss. However, many medications react poorly with the causal enzymes and often remain in the body, building up to sometimes toxic levels.
1940s — The Master Cleanse
If you’re thinking this has something to do with your intestines, you’d be absolutely right. The Master Cleanse, or Lemonade Diet, emerged in 1940 as laxatives became increasingly popular around the U.S.
The recipe was the same in 1946 as it is today: Squeeze fresh lemon juice by hand into a glass. Add maple syrup, cayenne pepper and “pure water.” Drink a minimum of six to 12 glasses per day whenever hungry. Lastly, before bed, take a laxative.
The Master Cleanse lasts for 10 days and follows a circular cycle. If this sounds like a fasting program to you, that's because it is. Side effects included a long-term weakened immune system, heart and kidney damage, fatigue, vomiting and irritability.
I’d be irritable, too, if my kidneys began to fail.
1950s — The Parasite Diet
It sounds gross because it is gross. A diet where you yourself are on the menu — how refreshingly backward and horrible!
In 1953, opera star Maria Callas shocked the audiences by losing 80 pounds in an unusually short amount of time. Rumors began to circulate that the singer swallowed a tapeworm, and the parasitic dieting industry took off. (In reality, Callas enjoyed tartare and came by her tapeworms naturally, if that’s possible.) Health food stores began selling pills containing tapeworm eggs. Women bought them by the case, and the little pills put many in the hospital and some in the morgue.
In more recent years, a diet pill company was taken to court for placing tapeworms in their product and not including them on the list of ingredients. (Now would be the appropriate time to shudder.) But what was even worse was when deworming medication didn’t work — just to warn you, this is mortifying — doctors would coax the worms out using bowls of hot milk placed in front of a patient’s mouth. The worm would smell the milk and slither out to investigate. Doctors would pull the bowl farther and farther away until the parasite had extracted itself entirely from the host.
1960s — Your meal, in a can
It is, perhaps, not the best sign if the formula for your diet shake comes from a hospital kitchen. But that’s exactly what happened with Metrecal.
Around 1965, Edward Mead Johnson, co-founder of Johnson & Johnson, was introduced to Sustagen, a nutritional composite blend that was spoon-fed to hospital patients incapable of eating solid foods.
Johnson tried to expand the product line to include 15 flavors of shakes as well as lemon cookies, soups and canned noodles and turkey. Time Magazine asserted that, “No diet fad has ever taken the U.S. so overwhelmingly as the craze for the supplement Metrecal.”
Unlike previous fads, Metrecal ads were aimed at both men and women. The difference was that this product was billed as discreet. It could be employed in the home or office; Johnson even began selling a Metrecal flask.
But the product was said only to work because it tasted like chilled engine sludge, so no one ever finished a full can. The formula never changed, so when new and improved nutritional shakes came on the market, Metrecal tanked or, rather, it canned.
1970s — Your mother’s diet pills
In 1976, Dr. Robert Linn introduced the Last Chance Diet. Dr. Linn’s book, “The Last Chance Diet: When Everything Else Has Failed” was read by more than 2 million people. He opened weight loss clinics in the District of Columbia, Philadelphia, New York and Los Angeles and counseled politicians, movie stars and reputable news reporters. Among his more notable patients was Jacqueline Onassis.
This program comes in just above 1953’s tapeworm for number of dieters killed. "Last Chance" advocated for the consumption of Dr. Linn’s liquid protein composite, Prolinn. In 1978, following the receipt of more than 200 complaints and a total confirmed 58 heart attacks and 58 deaths, the FDA began an investigation into whether Prolinn, for lack of a better phrase, was legit.
Upon inspection, it was discovered that Prolinn consisted of ground, traditionally inedible animal parts, including hooves, horns and tendons. Basically, all of the stuff you wouldn’t even find in a dirty water hot dog. If you’d ever thought of eating anything pre-packaged again, this should put a stop to that.
1980s — Short shorts and sweatbands
We all know this was the age of the sweatsuit and leotard, the scrunchie and the casual running shoe. The 1980s saw the introduction of what had always existed as a method of fitness but was hardly seen as a craze until Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons broke out the glitter and little bitty shorts.
I'm talking about exercise — Jazzercise, to be precise. Each session lasted 60 minutes and employed a hybrid mix of yoga, kickboxing, latin and jazz dance, resistance training and pilates, all set to the latest and greatest Top 40 smash jams.
You could do these high-energy sessions in a gym with a group or at home with the help of the newly invented and highly technological VHS tape. In a world of bodybuilding gyms, women were encouraged for the first time to participate in a public, group exercise routine.
The firm persists today, despite the public notion that the program is outdated. During their 2015 rebrand, Jazzercise adopted the slogan, “Our only throwback is our right hook,” which is a pretty catchy slogan.
1990s — Bacon and eggs and more bacon ... and more eggs
The two biggest fads that came out of the ‘90s were the Atkins diet and diet Coke’s “You are what you drink!” campaign.
Both are incredibly well-known and have remained popular over the years, but Atkins, when broken down, is totally, totally strange.
Dr. Robert Atkins created his diet plan based on the concept that if your carb intake is drastically reduced, your body’s existing fat becomes fuel. Ketones, which can be used as energy, were released as your body processed that fat.
Dieters are encouraged to consume red meat, fish, eggs, poultry, pork, vegetable oils and butter during the first phase (or, as I have come to call it, the Ron Swanson phase). After that, they can eat small, clean meals like nuts, legumes, berries, seeds, vegetables, wine and whole grains.
The downside to Atkins is what’s known as the “Atkins Smell.” As the keytone levels in your body increase, your breath and skin take on a certain odor which Dr. Atkins claims is “not an offensive one.” Dieters have also reported feeling severe mood swings and depression during the course of both phases.
To that, I employ the words of Ron Swanson: “Please refrain from discussing feelings in the vicinity of the meat.”
2000s — The diet that isn't
This would be the portion of the timeline I'd call post-modern. Here, an inorganic, non-food material becomes a diet craze.
For the first time, outlandish diet ideas have become their own genre on YouTube. In particular, the cotton ball diet has spurred plenty of videos, one of which has almost 140,000 views.
Unlike trends of the past, this method of weight loss has no guiding principles or weeks on and off. You just eat cotton balls soaked in a coating agent like orange juice or smoothie. The idea is that the ball makes you feel full and remains in your stomach longer than foods do, decreasing your appetite.
The problem with this, aside from the fact that your body isn’t getting the nutrients it needs (or any nutrients, for that matter) most cotton balls aren’t made of real cotton. They’re a polyester blend that contain synthesized chemicals which your body can’t break down. Often, the cotton balls get stuck in the intestines and require surgery to remove.
Bottom line: if dogs shouldn’t eat socks, you shouldn’t eat cotton balls.