From cigarettes to buttered coffee, a brief history of fad diets


It may seem shocking, but a hospice chef once told food journalist Harriet Brown that many of the women at the terminal care center where he worked often refused to consume bread and butter because they wished to remain “attractive.”

In our culture, where self worth is often determined by one’s appearance, even death apparently demands the perfect figure. And why not — all our lives, the pressure to be fashionably thin comes at consumers from countless sources including magazine ads, social media and sometimes even the medical establishment. The pressure to be slim at all costs surrounds us every day, and especially during the summer months (“Is your summer body ready?”).

The urge to be super thin is not, however, new. As long ago as 1820, women sought to manage their weight with a diet of water mixed with apple cider vinegar, a mixture still promoted as a diet aid on the internet today.

Lucky Strikes

A century later in the 1920s, the company manufacturing Lucky Strike cigarettes launched a marketing campaign that encouraged women “to reach for a Lucky” instead of a sweet. Sadly, this flawed diet resulted in countless unnecessary cancer deaths.

By the 1930s the Grapefruit Diet, also known as the “Hollywood Diet,” emerged, requiring dieters to eat a grapefruit with every meal. Those who braved their way through this diet found their weight loss wasn’t permanent. On the positive side, the resulting grapefruit demand helped the California citrus industry survive the hard dark days of the Great Depression.

Grapefruit Diet 1

The war years of the 1940s imposed their own food restrictions, as items was rationed in order to feed the American troops. But by the post-war years of the 1950s, women were once again looking for a way to lose weight.

The popular Cabbage Soup Diet promised one could lose 10–15 pounds in a single week by eating a highly restricted diet and a lot of cabbage soup each day. Today we know that the resulting unhealthy weight loss was largely from water, not fat loss, with the weight returning quickly.

During the 1960s and ’70s, a wide variety of trendy diets, some good and some bad, appeared. Jean Nidetch, who described herself as an “overweight housewife obsessed with cookies” founded Weight Watchers, while Elvis Presley reportedly tried the Sleeping Beauty Diet, which involved heavy sleep medications and eventually addiction.

In the same era, a Florida doctor created the Cookie Diet, a plan where dieters ate cookies made with a blend of amino acids. Hollywood celebrities ate up the idea and so did their star-starved movie fans. But once again, the resulting weight loss was not part of a sustainable healthy diet and the lost weight soon returned. The decade ended with the invention of Slim-Fast, “a shake for breakfast, a shake for lunch, then a sensible dinner,” — a product that’s still marketed today.

Missett, Judi Sheppard
Judi Sheppard Missett

The 1980s embraced the dieting exercise concept of “No pain, no gain” thanks to Jane Fonda and her ground-breaking exercise video workout, Jazzercise. Fonda based her video on the work originally developed in 1969 by professional dancer Judi Sheppard Missett. As a result of their combined activities, exercise became an accepted part of most modern weight loss plans.

During the 1990s Robert C. Atkins, M.D. published “Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution,” a book which outlined a high-protein, low-carb plan that grew popular with celebrities as did the Macrobiotic Diet, a restrictive Japanese diet plan based on whole grains and veggies that was eventually popularized by Gwyneth Paltrow. In both cases, the diets met with initial raves, but the resulting weight loss proved difficult to maintain.

Baby Food Diet
The Baby Food Diet

The 21st century saw a wide range of new weight loss strategies from The South Beach Diet (low-carb), the Master Cleanse diet (which consisted of hot water, lemon juice, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper and was touted by Beyonce), the Baby Food Diet (during which one replaces some snacks or meals with jars of baby food), the Buttered Coffee Diet, and last but not least, the Keto Diet, with its extremely low-carb, high-fat regime. Each of these diets promised quick weight loss through unique food choices, but did not provide lasting weight loss or promote long-term healthy dietary choices.

Today, both chefs and doctors are encouraging diners to focus on plant-based proteins whether they are dieting or not. Over 75% of American women currently have unhealthy eating habits, according to the Mayo Clinic. We now know that just using weight as the prime indicator for health is dangerous and often only short termed.

Instead, staying at a higher, more consistent healthy weight and appreciating one’s body is a better standard of continuous health. The Mayo Clinic suggests that stressing about one’s body size even puts one at risk for weight gain.

Today’s chefs are actively putting the dieting errors of the past behind them and actively promoting better diets, ones that focus on healthier food choices from beverages to desserts. Through innovative more plant-centric menu creation, they are helping Americans to develop better, healthier ways to eat and enjoy a longer, healthier life.

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