From Fad to Good: Decades of Diet Theories Explored

Article posted in: Diet & Nutrition
grapefruit, orange and tangerine on blue background

For much of human history, man’s goal has been to not waste away for lack of food. The timeline of humanity is studded with wars, pestilence and famine, which can make our modern concern with weight loss seem petty by comparison.

But the truth is, according to historian Louise Foxcroft’s book, Calories & Corsets: A History of Dieting Over 2,000 Years, the desire to remain slender has been with us almost as long and with good reason: It’s healthier. Savvy dieters knew that being trim was better for their health and longevity when what may have been the first diet book (full of interesting diet theories!) was published—in the 16th century!

Here you can follow the long road of dieting history, culminating in the long-lasting Nutrisystem program, which brought (shameless plug alert!) well-balanced, portion-controlled meals into the mix in 1975 and has remained a diet leader for more than 40 years. That’s staying power.

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The 1500s: Restricted Calories
Well into his 90s, Luigi Cornaro told the story of how he paid for the “excesses of my past life”—which gave him everything from gout to what now sounds like diabetes—by going on a diet of only 12 ounces of food and 14 ounces of new wine distributed over four meals a day. He was 40 when he started his diet, and reported that he was completely cured within the year. He wrote the book called The Art of Living Long. Cornaro was 102 when he died in his sleep. Today, research suggests that Cornaro was on to something. Studies have found that restricting calories does promote longevity, at least in lab animals.

1800s: The Celebrity Fad Diet/Low-Carb Diet
In 1806, poet George Gordon Byron, aka Lord Byron, was horrified to discover he weighed almost 200 pounds. He embarked on a weight loss regime that involved either biscuits and water or potatoes soaked in vinegar. By 1811, he had lost more than 70 pounds. Later, he subsisted on a thin slice of bread and a cup of tea for breakfast and a vegetable dinner with seltzer water and a touch of wine. He dealt with hunger pangs by smoking a cigar.

At the same time, French food writer Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (“Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are”) became the earliest proponent of the low-carbohydrate diet. Noticing that carnivorous animals never got fat but those that were fed on grains did, he promoted a diet that was high in protein, but low in white flour and sugar.

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Mid 1800s. Low Carb Diets
British undertaker-to-the-rich William Banting wrote the book on low-carb dieting in 1866. In his “A Letter on Corpulence” he advocated what had worked for him: He had pared his 202 pounds by 46 pounds in a year (he was only 5’5” tall) by giving up bread, butter, milk, sugar, beer and potatoes. His book was so popular that dieting for weight loss was called “Banting” until the 1920s in England and the US.

Early 1900s The Chewing Diet
How’s this for a slogan: “Nature will castigate those who don’t masticate.” That was the diet technique promoted by American health food enthusiast Horace Fletcher, whose followers recited and followed his instructions to chew a bite of food 100 times before swallowing. He also encouraged his fans, which included John D. Rockefeller and Mark Twain, to never eat before they were “good and hungry,” and to avoid eating when feeling angry or sad.

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1920s: The Hay Diet
No, it didn’t involve eating hay. This diet of food combining was invented by a New York physician named William Hay who developed the program to drop 50 pounds from his 225-pound frame, largely to deal with heart problems. Followers of the Hay diet—one of which was Henry Ford—never ate proteins and carbs together. Hay classified protein foods as acidic, carbohydrates as alkaline, and they were eaten at separate meals. He saw vegetables as a neutral food that could be eaten with either.

1920s: Calorie Counting
They called Lulu Hunt Peters, MD, “The Queen of Calories.” An American physician who once weighed 200 pounds, Peters wrote a newspaper column called “Diet and Health” and a bestselling book, “Diet & Health: With Key to the Calories” which had American women counting calories and embracing the idea that fat was totally out of style (and she counted on the fashion industry’s standards to reinforce that).

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1925: The Cigarette Diet
This was spawned by an ad campaign by Lucky Strike cigarettes that urged “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.” Enough said.

1930s: The Hollywood Diet
This extremely popular diet fad called for eating a grapefruit with every meal. It lasted well into the 20th century, though sometimes by different names, such as the Mayo Clinic Diet, much to the chagrin of the Mayo Clinic, which had nothing to do with it.

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1950s: The Cabbage Soup Diet
Promising a 10 to 15 pound weight loss the first week, this diet that seemed to come out of nowhere still has fans today, if only because it does promote quick weight loss. It’s not for a lifetime: You eat fat-free cabbage soup up to three times a day and add a new food every day, starting with fruit, then vegetables, eventually including beef, chicken and brown rice. It’s a seven-day diet plan.

1972-today: Nutrisystem
During a time when popular diets required either awesome math skills (Weight Watchers, anyone?) or the willpower of a carb-hating superhero (think Atkins), emerged Nutrisystem. Founded by Harold J. Katz, then 34, who was inspired by his mother’s continuing struggle to lose weight, Nutrisystem became one of the earliest meal delivery providers in the diet industry. By eliminating weighing and measuring—it provides portion-controlled, well-balanced meals—Nutrisystem made weight loss easier, and did away with the need for fad diets. The diet promotes a balanced approach to weight loss. It doesn’t rely on counting calories and it doesn’t demonize any food item or food group (yes, carbs are allowed!). Instead, its common sense and scientifically vetted focus is on quality carbs, lean protein and healthy fats—and establishing an eating plan that can last a lifetime.

Even more popular today than it was when it was founded, Nutrisystem’s effectiveness is also supported by scientific research. A 2015 study in the Annals of Internal Medicine comparing commercial weight loss programs found that people on Nutrisystem lost almost four percent more weight after three months than participants in other diet programs. Another study found that postmenopausal women lost an average of 10 pounds of belly fat after three months on the program. Want more justification to try this great weight loss program? We’ve got you covered right here.