Fad diets, get slim quick schemes and definitely dubious diet aids (I’m looking at you slimming lollipops and laxitive tea) may seem like a modern plague, but it turns out that the diet industry is as old as time! That’s right, diets litter history and like much like today, most of them were useless/kind of dangerous/designed to crush self esteem.
So without further ado here are 5 of the worst diets in history!
1.The Tapeworm Diet
Victorian Women were very aware of the role food played in their success of reaching the largely unattainable beauty standards of the day (because, after all, not even the tightest corset in the world could make a 30 inch waist the eras desired 16 inches!)
The pressure was on, as one beauty guide put it:
‘It is a woman’s business to be beautiful’
It’s not surprising then that in this era we start to see free from diets emerging (yes, despite what she might think, Lindsey in accounts isn’t the first person to do a month of dairy free!)
Alongside free from, the era also saw a boom in quick fixes. The most infamous being the tapeworm
Tape worms weren’t anything new. They’d been used as a dieting method for centuries before they were embraced by the Victorians.
Swallowing a tape worm couldn’t be easier – just wash down a little chalk covered pill and job done.
Once the tapeworm beds down inside the hosts internal organs it would grow up to 30ft and help the host drop the pounds like nobodies business.
Then of course, when the target weight I was hit, nice Mr Tapeworm needed to pack up and hit the road. And that’s when things got deadly.
You see getting rid of a tapeworm is tough. There were centuries worth of old wives tales, giving helpful hints. Including the classic tip of squatting over a glass of milk until the little guy would just wriggle out (all 30ft of him).
Surprisingly, that’s not how anatomy works. Nope, you need a doctor to get rid of a tapeworm.
But sadly, at this time, doctors didn’t have a foolproof method of removing takeworms.
Dr. Meyers of Sheffield prescribed inserting a cylinder of food up the patient, which would help lure the worm out. This worked but did have the unfortunate side effect of occasional death.
The only thing you could hope for was that you were one of the lucky Victorians who had been duped into buying a placebo and actually didn’t have a deadly parasite at home in their organs.
Though the tape worm fell out of favor with the Victorians (for pretty obvious reasons) it has somehow lived on!
Doing research for this I found countless articles on modern tapeworm based ‘cures’, along with tons of articles on Khloe Kardashian wanting to get ‘fitted’ with a tapeworm-a reminder that if a Kardashian says to try something you should run far away in the other direction.
2.The Cigarette Diet
Prior to advertising standard rules, companies could pretty much say whatever they wanted about their products. No industry embraced this loophole quite as much as the tobacco industry.
Cigarettes were regularly touted as an essential part of a healthy lifestyle. With some bold companies going so far as selling ‘asthmatic cigarettes’!
By the 1920s cigarettes were a symbol of sophistication and modern living for the flapper generation. As was a lean and fat free body.
So it makes sense then that tobacco companies amalgamated the two, urging girls to ‘reach for a Lucky’ rather than you know…food.
Adverts like this were everywhere. But unfortunately, so were the results.
You see cigarettes are both an appetite suppressant and stimulant, so when used as a meal replacement, the pounds did drop off. However, side effects were numerous: coughing, low lung capacity and the whole ‘cigarettes are a tad cancer-ey’ thing.
Though health scares helped this deadly fad diet die a much needed death, it was resurrected in the 1950s and 60s as the ‘model diet’ (mixed with drinking only black coffee) and lingered throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s.
3.The Arsenic Diet
Arsenic was everywhere in the Victorian era. It was both the murders poison of choice and also used medicinally, as a beauty aid and even to create acid green furnishings!
People would literally bathe in arsenic, they hung wallpaper dyed with arsenic and they ate ‘harmless’ arsenic wafers to gain porcelain skin.
So of course someone soon decided to sell arsenic diet pills!
Aside–In the same era arsenic was also used in weight gain aids….
The pills worked by speeding up the metabolism. Plus they only contained a dose of arsenic so small it wasn’t deadly. But before we all reach for the arsenic, let’s remember that, as with all quick fixes, people popped way more pills than recommended.
What made this extra pill poppage worse was that a lot of these diet pills didn’t actually advertise their use of arsenic!
Arsenic was easy to obtain (thus murderers love of it) as it was a household item. Thanks to this it wasn’t tightly controlled. And so it was easy to put in diet pills. If the consumer knew it or not!
The fad for arsenic based products quickly ended (illness and death will do that). But as has sadly been the case for every diet so far…this wasn’t the end for deadly diet pills!
Arsenic was just replaced by -almost as dangerous- amphetamines. And these pills continue to come in and out of weight loss fashion.
4.Lord Byron Diet
Celebrity diets are an ever flowing source for the weight loss inspiration. From Beyoncés cayenne pepper diet to every B, C and D lister uploading clean eating pics to Instagram.
But before these pretenders there was the Byron Diet.
Lord Byron was one of the most acclaimed minds and poets of the 1800s, as well as absent Father to the groundbreaking, Ada Lovelace (he didn’t contribute to her badassery, but she’s too great not to mention)
Yet for all his literary accomplishments, Byrons friends knew him as much for his weight loss as his work.
Byron had a tendency to ‘fatten’, something he was more than aware of. He would restrict to the extreme, wear multiple heavy layers to sweat the calories out and smoke cigars constantly to abate his hunger pangs (if they’d only had Lucky Strike then!!).
Modern doctors now believe that Byron suffered from Anorexia.
But Byrons extreme popularity meant that the public wanted to emulate him; to dress like him, talk like him…eat like him. And so there was a boom in Byrons favourite diet dinner, flattened potatoes absolutely drenched in vinegar.
Byron believed that the vinegar helped quell hunger (and used in such high volume, rendered much of the food indelible)
Possibly due to the tough nature of this ‘diet’ it didn’t last long with the public, who soon turned to other Victorian diet methods that wouldn’t leave them fainting and with severe acid reflux (fingers crossed too many didn’t turn to arsenic and tapeworms though…)
But Lord Byron didn’t quit. He was gripped by what we now know to be an incredibly serious mental illness and sadly he lived 200 years to early.
Without any mental health help available, Lord Byron continued to smoke and starve himself into a state of ever growing ill health.
Well that turned out pretty bleak didn’t it? let’s try and and finish this thing on a more cheery note.
Now where do you turn for glitter soaked happiness….
It’s not really a surprise that Old Hollywood was a town of dieters. The studio system made weight gain a violation of starlettes contracts.
Stars including Marilyn Monroe released diet books. With Marilyn giving solid gold excercise advice, including lying down and moving weights around your head ‘until you get tired’.
But perhaps no Hollywood dieter is as notorious as Elizabeth Taylor:
5.The Liz Taylor Diet
Liz Taylor was a yo yo dieter. She went from being one of the worlds most beautiful women to one endlessly mocked for her weight.
During both her career and metabolisms peak Liz started the day with bacon, eggs and a mimosa, which sounds amazing and is totally something I’m going to adopt.
But as she got older those mimosas didn’t shift as easily as they used to. This was something the media just couldn’t let go and Liz’s extra pounds soon become the literal butt of every gossip columnists jokes.
So in 1987 Liz penned a bestselling diet book.
Now let me say this: everyone should read this book. Liz Taylor is hilarious and the book is an incredible insight into the pressure we put on women’s bodies. But the dietary advice…well personally I’ve never wanted to eat tuna salad mixed with grapefruit, maybe that’s just me.
Liz’s recipes include such classics as: hamburger and peanut butter on toast, cottage cheese and sour cream over fruit and dry toast for breakfast everyday.
For exercise, Liz has handily titled one chapter:
Aerobic Exercise: Are They For You?
Liz then suggests we contact our doctor before trying such exercises as standing straight.
Truly Liz Taylor is the hero we all need.
That was interesting where can I find out more? You should totally check out Elizabeth Takes It Off; as said, there is very little actual advice, but really thats not the point. You can find it online or I bet your library has a copy.