Fun fact: dieting does not work! Research tell us that the majority of people who diet, don’t only gain back weight, but actually put more weight on than they started with.
And yet, every year millions of us get on that diet band wagon looking for a quick fix. This isn’t a modern thing, it’s a tale as old as time. So let’s look back down the annals of history and try and find out why dieting is so prevalent and what our ancestors used to do (plus there’s some really gnarly dieting techniques here, so if you’ve ever done one of those horrific detox teas, this will make you feel better about your life choices!)
In Ancient Greece, it was understood that being overweight contributed to a lot of health issues. Greek physician, Hippocrates, actually wrote in his collection of medical work, the Hippocratic Corpus, that people carrying extra weight may experience conditions like (what we now know as) sleep apnea. He also outlines how bring overweight often means you die earlier and in general when it comes to obesity, the ‘danger is great’.
To combat this Hippocrates advised that Greeks taking on a ‘diaita’ (the Ancient Green term that diet stems from btw) not only make changes to the food they ate, but to their lifestyle as a whole.
Incorporating more exercise, drinking less alcohol and more water and eating lighter meals with a range of fruit and veg. So far so good, in fact, dare I say, it actually sounds kind of smart…
And right there is where Hippocrates health advice falls off a cliff.
You see, Hippocrates also advised:
- ‘Violent exercise; such as running long distances to the point of exhaustion
- Abstaining from sex while trying to lose weight
- sleeping on a plank of wood
- Frequently making yourself vomit
There’s a lot to unpack there. First, let’s all agree that the no sex and whole plank thing are awful ideas. But more importantly, all that advice is not only ill advised but incredibly dangerous!
Like Hippocrates, a lot of early sources around diet, didn’t call for people to lose weight as a way to look good, but because it was important for their health. 1558’s The art of living long, was written by Venetian merchant, Luigi Cornaro, who had previously been so overweight his health was in jeopardy. Cornaro advocated for a stripping back a diet to the necessary (though he still allowed fourteen ounces of wine a day).
London undertaker turned diet guru, William Banting had a similar story. His obesity had meant he was in and out of hospital, so after losing weight he published ‘A letter on Corpulance‘ in 1863, primarily as a way to flag up why losing weight was healthy and to tell people about the diet he’d used.
This letter blew up (seriously, it basically went viral) and soon Banting’s high fat, high protien and low carb diet was spreading like wildfire. In fact it was so popular that ‘Banting’ became Victorian slang for dieting (as in ‘sorry Fanny, that spotted dick looks great but I’m afraid I’m banting today.‘)
It’s also in the Victorian era that we start to see a real rise of diets being sold as a necessity to be attractive. Want to achieve that teeny tiny waist? Well girl, don’t just get a corset, get a tape worm!
That’s right. A tape worm. A flat parasitic worm that lives in your gut and can grow up to 25 metres. Yeah, knowingly ingest a pill to get one of those, so you can lose weight.
Victorian beauty standards were harsh, as one Beauty bible, ‘The Ugly Girl Papers‘ (jesus, what a name) put it:
‘It is a woman’s business to be beautiful’
Women were expected to have a healthy appetite and yet also be approperialty thin with a waspish waist. That is a hard balancing act! Made even worse when there were countless advertisements popping up telling you that one magic little pill could make you thin with zero side effects.
But of course there were side effects! It’s a parasitic worm people! One of the biggest issues was getting the tape worm out. You see, tape worms like living in your stomach, its basically an all you can eat buffet for them, so why would they want to leave? But if left in there, things get deadly pretty quickly.
So to coax them out, people had to get a little creative. For example one Dr. Meyers of Sheffield used to lure the tape worm out by inserting a cylinder of food down a patients throat. This actually worked, but unfortunately sometimes his patients had a nasty habit of suffocating to death before the tape worm could be fully removed.
It’s because of incidents like this that the Victorian tape worm fad fell out of fashion. However it still remains a thing! With many desperate dieters heading to dark corners of the internet to buy tape worm pills. In fact on one episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Khloe Kardashian managed to turn a whole new generation of people onto the parasite pills, with just once sentence! Saying:
‘I’d do anything to get a tape worm’.
Along with pills containing tape worms, Victorian women looking for a quick diet fix turned to arsenic pills.
Now, in this era, arsenic was used in everything! It was a cleaning aid, an ingredient in soft furnishings, it was used to make bright green fashion accessories and also occasionally used in a little light murder. So naturally some bright business person thought to market it as a diet aid.
But here’s the thing. Not all these pills actually said they contained arsenic. Some just advertised themselves as ‘diet pills’ or simply ‘wonder remedies’.
The pills worked by speeding up the metabolism and actually only contained a small amount of arsenic, that wasn’t enough to kill or do much damage. So whats the big deal? Well, it’s a diet pill. And what do people often do with diet pills? They take more than the advised amount. Which meant a lot of people giving themselves accidental arsenic poisoning.
But those weren’t the only diet pills on the market. There were a lot of options! With names like Dr Gordan’s Elegant pills, Corpu-slim and the very simple, Slim. These also contained incredibly dangerous ingredients, including dinitrophenol, an industrial chemical that can cause blindness, as well as thyroid ‘activating’ chemicals, which often resulted in long term heart issues.
It wasn’t all diet aids though. Way before Beyonce’s cayenne pepper ‘master cleanse’ and Tracey Andersons’s ‘baby food diet’, there was the Lord Byron diet. The mac daddy of celeb diets.
In 1816 famed poet Lord Byron lived on a thin slice of bread for breakfast, a few biscuits, soda water and copious quantities of cigars to keep the hunger pains at bay. He exercised in layers upon layers of winter coats in an attempt to sweat more and told friends he would rather not exist than ever be ‘fat’.
It’s now almost unanimously agreed on that Byron was suffering from severe anorexia, but in 1816 nobody knew that and so he became a diet icon.
Those desperate to get the pale and thin look sported by the huge pop culture icons that were Byron and his romantic poet set, eagerly took up highly publicised Byron ‘diet’.
The popularity and extreme nature of the diet was so much that it became a big talking point of the era. With Dr George Beard commenting that young women
‘live all their growing girlhood in semi-starvation… (for fear of)…incurring the horror of disciples of Lord Byron’
Along with celeb diets, calorie counting also isn’t new. Sure it’s now moved onto apps, where we can just scan a bar-code and our phones do the rest, but for decades dieting by counting intake has been a thing. In 1918 Lulu Hunt Peters published, ‘Diet and health with key to calories’ and it became the first true bestselling book based solely on a diet.
Those eager to get that flapper thin up and down figure learnt from the book how to count everything that went through their lips. Sustaining themselves on 1,200 a day (or less)
It’s from here on out that we see the boom of diet blockbuster books and lives built entirely around working out if an apple still counts as 90 calories if it’s large.
Around the same time as calorie counting came the cigarette diet. For much of the early to mid 20th century, there weren’t advertising standards around selling cigarettes. So advertisers could say anything and oh boy, they sure did. Cigarettes were touted as everything from good for people with asthma, healthy, to (of course!) an amazing way to lose weight.
And technically, cigarettes are an appetite suppressant. But they also cause major medical issues and will kill you. So you know swings and roundabouts.
Though these health fears (and more stringent advertising rules that came in the 1960’s -thus the first excellent episode of Mad Men-) meant that the trend for smoking to lose weight fell out of fashion, it of course came back.
In the 1960’s the ‘model diet’ advocated smoking and drinking black coffee. And not much else. This lovely one somehow managed to linger in different forms throughout the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s!
Now hopefully you’ve spent this whole article saying ‘my god, what was the past doing!?!‘. Which is good, and please never try any of these diet techniques.
But also, think before trying any diet – will this look ridiculous in 50 years? Because I can tell you right now, that diet lollipops, detox teas and 5:2 are all going to be fodder for some future snarky history writer.
So from me (someone who has a long history of hating my body and dieting) let me say this: The only time I have lost weight, sustained it and been happy, was when I:
A) Made gradual healthy lifestyle changes, which in time helped me find exercise I love, amazing food that’s good got my body and a better lifestyle that will hopefully mean I’m around to write random history articles for many years to come
B) Learnt to be OK with the body I have, not the body I hope to have
Hard truth, you can’t wait to be happy. You can’t pin everything on a future hypothetical perfect body. Life is way to short, and like tape worms, cigarettes, and arsenic pills, the diet ‘miracles’ that are popular now, might be messing your body up, making that life even shorter.
This was interesting where can I find out more? Calories and Corsets: A history of dieting over two thousand years, by Louise Foxtrot is a really fantastic read and massively helped with the research for this!
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