Dieting fads through the years

Desperate to shed the festive pounds? History shows you are in good company. But you might think twice before plumping for certain diets from the past, says Robert Hume.

After an overindulgent Christmas, losing weight is now on many people’s minds. But worry not: Help is at hand. Slim-down smoothies and foods that burn fat promise to “turbo-charge” weight loss and “revolutionise your body from the inside out”— whatever that means.

Dieting tends to be thought of as a new fad, but that’s far from being the case. Rumour has it that around 1910, US president William Taft, who tipped the scales at 152kg, embarked on a sugar-free diet after getting stuck in the White House bathtub.

But there are considerably earlier attempts to lose weight, and certainly much weirder ones:

William the Conqueror and the all-alcohol diet

As he got older, feasting left its mark on the Conqueror’s waist, and his poor horse began to groan under his weight. Not surprising, then, that the English king was nicknamed “William the Great”.

King Philip I of France’s quip, “are you pregnant?” was the last straw. A drastic solution was needed. In 1087, he came up with one. He would lie in bed most of the day, stop eating, and only drink… alcohol.

Unfortunately, before he had a chance to see if it was working, William was thrown from his horse and died.

Lord Byron and vinegar

The man once described by Lady Caroline Lamb as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” also had a “morbid propensity to fatten”.

At Cambridge University, he began restricting himself to biscuits and soda water, and potatoes drenched in vinegar. Every day, he would also drink two pints of vinegar straight. It caused vomiting and diarrhoea… and, of course, weight loss! Byron’s 88kg of 1806 plummeted to 57kg by 1811.

Horace Fletcher’s ‘chew and spit’

Fletcher, a San Francisco art dealer, believed that the key part of nutrition is “the right preparation of food in the mouth” for digestion.

In 1906, he urged that each mouthful be chewed vigorously at least 32 times until it was as thin as a liquid paste, and then either swallowed or spat out.

While people could still enjoy the taste of the food, it meant they would absorb fewer calories. This way, “a pitiable glutton” could become an “intelligent epicurean”, said Fletcher, who boasted how he personally had lost 18kg from his method. For decades, he promoted his ideas on lecture circuits, and carried around a two-ounce sample of his own poo to demonstrate the purity of his system. People said it smelled delicious — like hot biscuits.

Among others, writer Henry James and business tycoon, John D.Rockefeller, gave ‘Fletcherism’ a try. Fletcher, known as “The Great Masticator”, ended up a millionaire.

The cigarette diet

American Tobacco Company president, Percival Hill, saw the potential in selling cigarettes as an appetite suppressant, especially for women anxious to maintain the small waistlines popular in the 1920s.

Hill was behind the 1925 controversial campaign “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet”. Its advertisements, that appeared in fashion magazines and daily newspapers, boasted how “beautiful women keep youthful slenderness these days by smoking Luckies”.

Later publicity featured either a man or a woman in profile, with their once much fatter silhouettes — complete with pot belly or double chin — in the background.

Maria Callas’s tapeworm diet — the least appetising in history

This gruesome idea — which sounds more like a torture method from a horror movie than a means of trying to lose weight — originated in Victorian times and gained support in the Roaring ‘20s.

Dieters swallowed a pill containing a tapeworm egg. Once hatched, the parasite grew bigger and bigger inside by feeding off their innards. Later, another pill was taken to kill and excrete it. An urban legend maintains that Maria Callas lost almost 30kg in the 1950s by popping pills that contained a tapeworm egg. Years later, however, she owned up that the true reason behind her dramatic slim-down was due to a low-calorie diet of salads and chicken, not tapeworms.

Elvis Presley and the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ diet

The underlying principle couldn’t be simpler: If you’re sleeping, you’re not eating, so can’t gain weight.

In Jacqueline Susann’s 1966 bestselling novel, Valley of the Dolls, three young women check themselves into ‘Swiss sleep clinics’ so as to lose weight, and take dangerous and addictive sedatives so they can sleep — for up to 20 hours a day. Elvis Presley reportedly used the Sleeping Beauty diet during the mid 1970s.

According to the Washington Post, his craving for fried meat and for peanut butter and banana sandwiches had made “his stomach hang over his belt, his jowls hang over his collar…”, and he was finding it hard to squeeze into his sequinned jumpsuits.

Why ever didn’t they all just eat less, and take a little more exercise? Certainly more sensible but as many of us know, easier said than done.


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