It’s tempting to think that obsessing over what we eat is a fairly recent fad. Surely no one can have been silly enough to try and survive on a diet of nothing but cabbage soup before the age of Kimmy K and endless selfies? Unfortunately for those of you who still have faith in human beings, it turns out that we’ve always been idiots when it comes to our food.
For as long as there have been people preoccupied with their public image, humanity has been willing to try all sorts of stupid things in the name of looking good. This means that we have a wealth of ridiculous stories and passing fashions that, for reasons which will soon become clear, didn’t last the test of time. Gathered from all over the world, here are some of the daftest dieting trends from history.
1. Sex and Biscuits
Many of our funniest ideas about food can be blamed on religion. In the early part of the 19th Century, several evangelicals dedicated themselves to the dream of a diet that could limit people’s sexual desires. The results were odd, to say the least. One of the more bizarre theories involved eating as many cream crackers as possible, as these were supposedly the least erotic biscuit. The main proponent of this theory, Sylvester Graham, lent his name to the biscuits that would lead the charge. Who knew that this is what Graham Crackers were originally designed for?
2. Whale Scurvy
For early sailors, one of the biggest dangers on a lengthy sea voyage was the ever present threat of scurvy. Over the centuries, hundreds of remedies were tried for the vitamin C deficiency, with mixed success to say the least. An unorthodox theory was advocated by Arctic explorers in the 20th Century, who believed that following the whale, seal and fish heavy diet of the inuit was the best way forward. This included fish buried in the tundra and left to ferment for several months. I’ll take the scurvy.
3. The Tapeworm
This infamous diet has become a gruesome warning from foodie folklore over the years. Involving the ingestion of a pill containing a single tapeworm egg, the theory behind the diet is that the parasite absorbs part of everything that you eat, meaning that you can munch on whatever you like, without putting on weight. Though most popular amongst Victorian women, this diet is - horrifically - still around today.
4. Smokers’ Choice
Back before we realised just how terrible they are, there were hardly any restrictions on how tobacco companies could flog their product. This lead to a 1920s campaign from cigarette giants Lucky Strike, who claimed that their smokes could serve as a diet tool. The advert advised the diet conscious to “reach for a Lucky instead of something sweet”.
5. Artists and Vinegar
The pasty skinny look has always been attractive to a certain type of artistically sensitive individual. For those not naturally blessed with a pallid hue, there were solutions available to the 19th century male. Advocated by Lord Byron, the diet involved diluting everything you ate - mostly water and potatoes - with vinegar. Small wonder they all died young.
6. What’s Your Poison?
Just as they are today, miracle diet pills have always been big business. However, though today’s remedies are essentially just hot air, the pills of yesteryear packed a significantly bigger punch. As part of their solution, many early dietary medications came laced with chemicals such as arsenic and strychnine, making them potentially lethal in a high enough dose. Of course, being dead is definitely one way to lose weight.
7. Chewing the Fat
If ever a diet delivers an idea to chew over, Horace Fletcher’s 1903 theory is definitely it. After being denied health insurance on account of his weight, Horace came up with a concept that focused less on what you were eating, and more on how you were eating it. He believed that the best way to lose weight was to chew each bite at a rate of 100 times per minute before being swallowed. This earned him the nickname of “The Great Masticator”.
It’s easy to roll our eyes at whatever passing fad seems to dominate the world of food at any given moment. But it’s also comforting to think that those who have gone before us have had equally, if not more ridiculous ideas about their dinner. Suddenly, cabbage soup doesn’t seem quite so silly.