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The Crazy History of Dieting

Updated: Jan 11, 2023

Written by: Natalie Faella, MS, RDN, LDN | February 15, 2022

Nutrition textbook with low calorie diet tips and written calorie tracker

If you think back, when was the first time you heard of dieting for weight loss? Was it a certain diet your parent or family member was doing? Was it a commercial on TV?

Chances are, your first memory goes back to childhood. I can remember Slim Fast particularly sticking out in my brain — seeing the cans at the grocery store, the pretty, happy, slim women in the commercials... But diets had been a thing long before then.

Former King of England, William the Conquerer, may be one of the first documented dieters. It was noted that he was self-conscious about the weight he gained later in life so he went on a strictly liquid (wine and spirits) diet. It was also noted that he was made fun of for his weight by the King of France who said he looked like a "pregnant female." To provide some context of how far back weight stigma and body insecurity goes, William was born in 1028, (that isn’t a typo — the year was TEN twenty-eight).

In 1864, potentially the first diet book was printed by an English undertaker, William Banting, after he lost 50 pounds in 5 months on a low-carb diet. It’s noted he replaced his excessive intake of bread, sugar, and potatoes with mainly meat, fish, and vegetables, which is what his diet book recommends. His book opens with the weight stigmatizing statement “of all the parasites that affect humanity I do not know of, nor can I imagine, any more distressing than obesity…” It is no surprise that people began monitoring their weight more after this publication and scales began popping up everywhere — gas stations, markets, etc.

Fast forward to 1918 when Dr. LuLu Hunt Peters published Diet and Health, With Key to the Calories, which is noted as the US’s first best-selling diet book. It promoted calorie counting as a means of weight loss and included blank calorie and weight tracking charts for readers to keep themselves accountable. Not surprisingly, people of all ages in the US became calorie obsessed. It was noted that girls as young as 11 years old wrote to Dr. Peters for weight loss advice.

Also around this time, the thin, "stick-like" flapper replaced the curvaceous “Gibson Girl” for the feminine ideal standard of beauty. It is interesting that around the time women were gaining more rights (like voting), they were also receiving the subliminal message that they should take up less space.

Other recommendations like smoking cigarettes were prescribed by doctors as a means of weight loss in the 1920s, and amphetamines in the 1930s. Then BMI or body mass index became more recognized by health professionals around the 1940s. (And you already know all about how irrelevant that is if you read my previous blog “The Surprising Truth About Your Weight”).

It just keeps getting better. In 1941, the “Master Cleanse” diet was created by Stanley Burroughs, claiming to eliminate cravings for things like junk food, alcohol, and drugs. All you had to do was drink a concoction made of lemon juice, maple syrup, cayenne pepper, and water 6 times per day for at least 10 days. Sound familiar? Beyonce reports losing 20 pounds on this diet (also called the "Lemonade Diet") after doing it for 2 weeks in 2006.

The "Cabbage Soup Diet" became popular in the 1950s, Weight Watchers in the 1960s, Atkins Diet in the 1970s, Jenny Craig and Slim Fast in the 1980s, and a million more to follow like the Zone Diet, South Beach Diet, etc., etc.

So you see the trend: one new promising weight loss technique after another. Although many were similar — like low-carb diets starting with Banting, then Atkins, then the Zone, then Keto — they still brought new hope. When in reality, sticking a new name on a different form of calorie restriction wasn’t showing any new results.

Americans were deemed “fatter than before” by the Washington Post in 1995, and one of the leading theories was that the dieting obsession had actually led to weight gain. As we know, this is true because of the way diets and calorie restrictions impact our metabolism and set point weight. And “will power,” what the success of dieting is usually chalked up to, actually plays a mere role and is estimated to impact our BMI by only 1 to 4%. (Again — it’s not the person that failed, it’s the diet that is designed to be unsustainable and cause weight gain in the long term).

It’s alarming. Not only the drastic measures people have been willing to take to potentially achieve the thin ideal, but because it’s been known for years to not work and STILL we take the chance. But how can you blame people? Clearly, weight stigma has been around for hundreds of years (dating back at least to William the Conquerer’s time) — even longer than the thin body ideal. And even if we could push those pressures aside, our doctors or healthcare professionals have been pushing the recommendation for weight loss instead of lifestyle behavior changes for years. Even recommending cigarettes as a means of weight loss at one point.

To add an even more frightening note, the pictures for this blog (see more pics below) come from a 1982 Nutrition Therapy textbook, where 1,000 and 1,200 calorie diets, like those of Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters in 1918, are recommended for weight loss along with “techniques” like starvation for weeks to months and 800-1,000 calorie deficits daily. Nowhere is it mentioned the detrimental toll this takes not only on metabolic and hormonal functioning, but the mental impact these restrictive diets can have leading to food preoccupation, binge eating, and eating disorders.

Bottomline, there’s a reason there has been a new fad diet every 15 minutes: diets that focus on calorie restriction and deprivation do not result in sustainable weight “management” or improved health, and ignore the fact that our weight is largely determined by factors outside of our eating habits. No matter how promising the next trend sounds, just keep saying no to diet culture.

One last shocking thing to note, that 1982 college textbook had the price marked inside of it — $27.95.

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"Starvation" as a recommendation for weight loss. (Sound familiar? Intermittent Fasting anyone?)*

The recommendation to severely cut calories.*

Suggestions for 1,000 and 1,200 calorie meal plans.*

*These are NOT my recommendations. Just pictures to help demonstrate how crazy we've been made to be about weight loss.

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So interesting!!

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