Every year we spend over $60 billion dollars on dieting in the USA alone. Between Paleo, raw foods, superfoods, juice cleanses, gluten-free, sugar-free, fat-free, carb-free, and about a million others, fad diets are doing pretty well for themselves these days.
But every saga has a beginning, and popular fad diets are no exception. Nearly every fad diet product on the market today but a copy of a copy of the trailblazing fad diets that came before them. Largely (but not entirely) forgotten, these are the stories of the very first fad diets.
In his 30s, Alvise "Luigi" Cornaro had become very sick. Suffering pain, fatigue, constant thirst and intestinal distress, his doctors gave him only a few months to live. He radically changed his diet, and within a year was not only still alive, but symptom free and full of energy! He maintained this new diet for decades (except for a short time in his 70s), and in 1558 (at the age of 91 . . . or 94, or 83, or maybe 74 . . . sources disagree on dates) he published a diet and lifestyle book, titled How to Live 100 Years, or Discourses on a Sober and Temperate Life.
Left: His book, 1620 edition. Courtesy of the Gallica digital library.
The diet regimen was strict: only 12 ounces of food per day, and 14 ounces of wine. By contrast, the average American today eats over five pounds of food daily, meaning Luigi ate less in a week than we eat in a day.
Most meats were cut out (fish and poultry, mutton and kid were still on the table), and what little bread he ate was made with course wheat meal, not "fine flour". Almost all the rest of his nutrition came from egg yolks and soups.
Despite the severity of his diet, his book was pretty popular. We don't know exactly how popular, as such records weren't generally kept, but even 450 years later surviving copies aren't particularly rare (meaning he probably printed a lot of copies) and it was popular enough to be worth pirating by at least one competing printer.
Historians disagree on how long Luigi finally lived, but all accounts agree he at least reached his eighties. Some sources claim he lived to 102 or 103, thus fulfilling the titular promise of the world's first fad diet book.
Sylvester Graham wanted to help you stop thinking about sex, and he was pretty sure his extra-bland take on veganism was the ticket. No meat, no animal by-products, no alcohol, no tobacco . . . and no spices or seasonings of any kind. The blander your dinner, the less likely you'd be to think about "dessert".
(And no white bread. Graham hated white bread.)
His diet attracted a dedicated but small following, though his influence was already tapering off by the late 1830s. Nonetheless, he continued to encourage those who were vegetarians/vegans for other reasons, helping to found the first American Vegetarian Society. He died in 1851.
Among the few "Grahamites" who stuck with it was one Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. His pursuit of bland, flavorless foods led him to invent one terrible food (corn flakes) and "invent" another (granola, ripped off from Dr. James Jackson's granula). When John's (non-Grahamite) brother Will added sugar (gasp!) to the recipe, it opened a wide rift between the Kellogg brothers. But if you've "enjoyed" corn flakes or granola recently, you have both brothers—and through John, Sylvester Graham—to "thank" for it.
English undertaker William Banting had tried for thirty years to lose weight, but at 5'5" and 65 years old, he still weighed over 200 pounds. On the advice of his doctor, he tried a low-carbohydrate diet designed for diabetics: smaller meals of mostly meat, fruits and vegetables, maybe a slice of toast, but no sweets, potatoes, beer, or dairy. Suddenly he was losing a pound a week, and he felt great.
Having lost 35 pounds in 38 weeks, Banting published an open letter to the public about his experience. He printed 1,000 copies of his letter to distribute for free (including to some physicians for fact-checking), with a generally humble tone of "this is what finally worked for me, maybe it will work for you?"
For daring to ditch sweets, starches, and spirits, Banting's character was ruthlessly attacked in the press. But his results were too good to ignore forever. As "banting" skyrocketed in popularity on both sides of the Atlantic, his name became synonymous with low-carb dieting, and then any kind of dieting. Though the verb has largely fallen out of use today, people were still asking each other "do you bant?" well into the 1920s.
Horace Fletcher—whose diet earned him the nickname "The Great Masticator"—had one weird trick to lose weight and stay healthy: "Chew, chew, chew."
At its core, Fletcherism was really just about being mindful of what you ate: don't eat unless you're hungry, eat slowly, and stop eating as soon as you're not hungry anymore. But the specifics of Fletcherism are where it gets fun:
- Chew, chew, chew. If the food in your mouth is not completely liquid, and completely devoid of flavor, keep chewing it.
- Eat only when you're hungry, and only what you're hungry for. If your body says to eat pie at 3am, you eat pie at 3am. But remember to chew each bite until it's a flavorless liquid, and stop eating pie the moment you're not hungry for pie anymore.
- Even if your food is already liquid, chew it. Chew milk. Chew broth. Chew and chew and chew until that liquid has no taste left in it.
- Examine your poop. If you aren't pooping odorless dry pebbles, you're not chewing enough.
Fletcher tirelessly promoted Fletcherism. He wrote books, gave lectures, made up rhyming songs, and won over "disciples" to his cause. (He also became a millionaire.) To further drive home the health benefits of his diet, as a 60-plus-year-old man he personally challenged Yale's top athletes to a competition of strength and endurance, apparently beating them all and breaking at least one school endurance record.
Encouraged by his performance at Yale, the public (especially the upper classes) warmed to Fletcherism. Scenes like the YouTube clip above would not have been out of place in high society, and "to fletcherize" became synonymous with "to chew". But ultimately, the diet was too much work, and all that chewing killed the conversation at dinner parties. When Fletcher died in 1919, his diet was already being eclipsed by some new "counting calories" fad.
By the late 1800s, public opinion was souring on cigarettes. Just look at the language people were using: the first use of the phrase "coffin nails" was in 1888, and the phrase "smoker's cough" was coined in 1898. Even if there wasn't definitive scientific evidence, it was apparent that something about smoking was sickening and killing smokers.
The tobacco companies, worried that widespread discussion of the obvious might turn people off the habit, turned to marketing to win back the hearts and minds and lungs of the public. Celebrity endorsements were mixed with "throat doctors" making spurious medical claims.
Nearly all of these ads were targeting men, over 50% of whom were already smokers. But in the 1920s, tobacco companies started going after women, too.
"Reach for a Lucky" ad, 1930. Courtesy of the Stanford School of Medicine's SRITA website.
In 1928, the American Tobacco Company began running ads for their "Lucky Strike" cigarettes, specifically targeting women with the tagline "Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet." Often featuring thin, attractive women juxtaposed against obese ones, these advertisements pitched cigarettes as a way of guarding against "unhealthy" snacking that might lead to unattractive weight gain.
The ads were phenomenally successful. Almost overnight, Lucky Strike cigarettes became the #1 cigarette brand in the United States, their sales increasing 300% in just one year. The percentage of women smokers in America jumped from 5-6% (1924) to 12-16% of women (1929), an increase of at least four million new women smokers. While other cigarette brands had begun targeting women too, Lucky Strike's unparalleled rise to cigarette stardom implies that their "cigarettes for weight loss" ad campaign had a fair amount of impact.
In 1930 Lucky Strike dropped the ". . . instead of a sweet" to appease candy makers, but continued pitching cigarettes as a way to curb overeating. And even after the campaign finally ended, the social destigmatization of women smoking was almost complete. By 1950, nearly half of American women were smoking. Unfortunately, there are no good obesity statistics going back that far, so we're left simply to wonder whether this "diet" even worked at all.
As an interesting footnote, old-school advertising is still boosting Lucky Strike sales, after a fashion. Ever since AMC's Mad Men made Lucky Strike Cigarettes a top client for Don Draper's fictional ad agency, Lucky Strike has enjoyed a 50% increase in sales (at a time when other cigarette companies are barely growing at all). "Diet" or no, advertising is still good business for the brand.