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Alcohol, cabbage soup and vinegar potatoes: Fad dieting through the ages

Sign in a health food shop advertising kale juice, popular in fad diets.
From kale to vinegar, an interest in fast weight loss through crash dieting has persisted through the ages.

From drinking only alcohol to swallowing tapeworms, fad diets have been a feature of human life for centuries — and despite their dubious nature, there are no signs their popularity is fading.

It might seem like a modern-day media and celebrity-fuelled phenomenon, but the desire to lose weight quickly dates back to well before the invention of the printing press.

Melissa Wdowik is an associate professor of food science and human nutrition at Colorado State University and has studied fad dieting throughout the ages.

She said the earliest documented case appeared almost 1,000 years ago.

Dean Martin reads a copy of the Drinking Man's Diet
Dean Martin reads a copy of the Drinking Man's Diet

Facebook: DeanMartin

"The first documented weight-loss diet was in 1060, with William the Conqueror," Dr Wdowik told ABC Radio Perth.

"He loved riding his horse and he just found that he was too physically massive to ride his horse.

Drinking alcohol to lose weight?

Dieting based on drinking rather than eating has often proved popular.

"I found quite a few diets based on alcohol," Dr Wdowik said.

"In the 1500s there was a nobleman who restricted himself to just 340 grams of food and 400ml of wine, and he was able to lose weight and live a long time.

"And then the Drinking Man's Diet reappeared in the '60s which prescribed just drinking as much alcohol as desired and a little bit of food."

The Israeli Army diet in the Australian Women's Weekly, 1977
Although it bore no relation to what the Israeli Army ate, the Israeli Army Diet took off in the 1970s.

Supplied: Trove

Diets based on following what celebrities eat have also long held a fascination for the public.

The notorious romantic poet Lord Byron advocated an apple cider vinegar diet in the early 1800s; eating dry biscuits and potatoes soaked in vinegar and skipping many meals altogether.

His diet was considered a dangerous influence on young people at the time.

Following Hollywood fads

"I think people look up to celebrities and think, 'that is how they got to be beautiful and slim and I'm going to try it'," Dr Wdowik said.

Even the stars must eat - Australian Women's Weekly, January 1937.
The Australian Women's Weekly reported on Hollywood diets in 1937. The eating habits of celebrities has long been of interest to the public.

Supplied: Trove

In the 1960s, Elvis Presley inspired others in his quest to lose weight.

Artist Andy Warhol had a strategy that involved ordering dishes he didn't like in restaurants to ensure he didn't touch his food.

"Then when he left he would take it in a takeaway box and give it to someone who was homeless on the way home," Dr Wdowik said.

"So he didn't eat it and someone else benefitted."

One perennially popular celebrity diet has been the Cabbage Soup Diet.

"I would say every 10 years it comes back into vogue," Dr Wdowik said.

"It's an interesting diet because it's recommended that you eat nothing but cabbage soup for seven days and that can actually be a good thing — eating vegetables with a lot of water.

An advertisement for the tape worm diet
An advertisement for the Tape Worm Diet, but there is little evidence to suggest people took it up.

Supplied: diet-blog.com

"But it can get kind of boring after a while and I'm not sure if people can stick to it for that long."

Forget green smoothies, what about the meat smoothie diet

Dr Wdowik said the worst eating plan she discovered was the ominously titled Last Chance Diet from 1976 that prescribed a liquid formula.

"It was high-protein," she said.

"It was liquid and made of pre-digested animal products.

"People would ingest that and I can only guess that people could only drink so much and that is why they lost weight.

"It was taken off the market because people actually died, probably because of contaminants that were in those by-products."

Another notorious diet emerged in the 1900s with tapeworms, but there is little evidence that many people actually did it although it was advertised in newspapers.

"People were told that if they swallowed the tapeworm it would eat their food instead of their body eating the food and it was rumoured to cause weight loss."

A glass of grapefruit juice and some cut fruit.
Whether it's grapefruit or cabbage soup, diets with only one ingredient can prove boring and thus hard to stick to.

iStockPhoto

Eating air, cotton wool not advised

And while we might imagine that we live in more enlightened times, two of the most dangerous diets Dr Wdowik found during her research were recent.

One, Breatharianism, involves eating nothing.

"There were followers who claimed that they didn't eat anything, just subsisted on the breath," she said.

"It's really a starvation diet, or prolonged fasting, so that's not healthy.

"Another one was the Cotton Ball Diet which was believed to have been started by models who were trying to lose weight, and they would eat a few cotton balls which would fill them up but of course would also cause intestinal obstruction.

"So that didn't last very long fortunately."

Dr Wdowik, who is a clinical dietician, advises people who want to lose weight to look for a diet with variety.

"Try to avoid a diet that makes it just sound too easy — eat this one food and you'll lose weight and you don't have to exercise.