An eye-opening, occasionally shocking look into the history of fad diets and health trends over the decades from 1920-2020, what people really believed would help them to lose weight or get healthy.
Consumerism was coming into power, people (especially those in white America) were becoming body conscious thanks to the media delivering messages of fit-bodied people enjoying a happy and successful lifestyle, you couldn’t have one without the other. Women of the age took to ‘reducing’ a craze which became obsessive and was not exactly healthy or nutritious but according to the magazines and the rise of Hollywood, to be thin was essential to your happiness. Fat equals unhappy. A concept which has never really managed to dissipate. The celebrity was infiltrating not just via the movie they had starred in and character they had portrayed but their lives were becoming a huge point of interest and fanaticism for the public. Body image became important, something we have all lived with since this time. So what was reducing? It certainly was no diet or health or nutrition plan, it was a way to literally reduce your size utilising creams, soaps and lotions! And in some cases tablets. It wasn’t until the time of the Wall Street Crash in 1929 that reducing came to an end, however the sentiment and driving factors (body consciousness, consumer culture and popular media) it was built upon sadly still remain to this day.
During this time the idea that cigarettes were bad for you was yet to be unveiled and so in 1925 the brand Lucky Strike actually suggested people ought to reach for one of their cigarettes as opposed to snacking in order to curb their appetites and magically end up looking like a Hollywood actress or model!
The Wall Street Crash spurred the Great depression hitting America hard in this decade which saw the rise of processed, preserved and fast foods. Rations meant that many people were going hungry and so bulk foods were high on the menu. The government got involved in educating the masses on nutrition. Despite this fad diets were on the rise in this era continuing the ‘reducing’ phenomenon of the 20s…
The Hollywood actresses diets became mainstream media fascination and were followed by women everywhere hoping to miraculously turn into their favourite female front women:
Two raw eggs whipped in warm milk for breakfast, no lunch, and for dinner broiled liver, steak, or lamb, and five carrots.
She occasionally went on “The Four-Day Diet.” For four days she ate only two tomatoes for lunch (with black coffee), and then the same thing at dinner.
The silent film star popularized the “Lamb Chop and Pineapple Plan” in 1924. For breakfast she ate two slices of pineapple; for lunch, a lamb chop and a slice of pineapple; dinner was two lamb chops and two slices of pineapple.
Taylor would diet six days out of the week, eating little more than dried toast. The seventh day was her “pig-out day,” and she would indulge in her favorite snack: sour cream mixed with cottage cheese.
A few spoonfuls of cold beef consommé and six crackers with mustard.
Oatmeal for breakfast, and then as many carrot sticks and celery as she wanted, provided she ate them by 11:00 a.m.
To drop the 50 pounds he gained to play the lead role in Citizen Kane, for a month he had only orange juice, salad (without salad dressing), and boiled eggs.
The opera star had a doctor inject iodine into her thyroid to “speed up her metabolism.”
She wasn’t a Hollywood movie star, but she was just as famous and influential. Her diet secret: her one daily meal would be a baked potato, topped with caviar.
The more generalised ‘Hollywood Diet’ consisted of 585 calories a day for 18 days, only dining on grapefruit, hard boiled eggs, green vegetables and melba toast. The grapefruit diet consisted of eating a grapefruit before every meal in order to stimulate weight loss. In 1936 diet guru Victor Lindlahr inspired thousands of radio listeners to tune in to his regular broadcast, “reducing party”.
There was also the Hay Diet – no you didn’t have to eat hay – it was a diet established by an American doctor named William Hay who believed that protein and starch must not be eaten during the same meal. Henry Ford followed this idea that food was either protein, starch, or neutral.
The first half of this decade was a globally war torn one in which dieting was not designed by choice, but by availability and necessity. Families had to live by way of rationing and so make do with whatever they could get their hands on; namely four ounces of ham, two ounces of butter, two ounces of cheese, eight ounces of sugar, and three pints of milk per adult per week. The government did encourage people to attempt to grow their own fruit and vegetables in their gardens so there was an attempt at achieving some nutritional goals.
The ideal in this decade was for middle-class women to get domesticated, married and assume their place in society as housewives and mothers. Nutritional advice was based around eggs, milk and poultry whereby drinking glasses of milk and consuming copious amounts of butter was considered good for you.
The Cabbage Soup Diet was a “winner” in the 50’s which entailed incorporating a tasty bowl of the vegetable broth into your daily meals.
The Domino Sugar Diet, was popular with women in this decade, replacing fresh foods with regular white sugar in order to up their energy levels! Sugar was actually promoted as a dietary AID. One advertisement actually presents a grapefruit as being far more “fattening” than 54 calories worth of sugar! Needless to say it was the actual brand of sugar that coined the name of this diet!
One that really tops the list of surreal weight loss fads, is the prayer diet whereby you literally pray your unwanted fat away. The Reverend Charlie Shedd actually wrote a popular book on how to ‘Pray Your Weight Away’ which incorporated praying along with calorie counting under his ideal that shapely, overweight bodies were condemned; a slim physique being far more in tune with being holy. A sequel was even written due to the popularity of the diet, graciously named ‘The Fat is in Your Head’!
Then there was the Tapeworm Diet, this was reportedly exercised by ingesting parasite pills which would unleash these little beasts into your system in order to help people slim down by way of the newly hatched tapeworms eating your unwanted food!
The birth of the counterculture, in all aspects of life there was anti-system global tension, even when it came to our health. Commercially-packaged, mass-produced foods were no longer acceptable as the new wave of food co-ops appeared, providing an alternative to factory farms and corporate grocery chains. Debates over the effects of synthetic chemicals found in foods also emerged following the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. An awareness was emerging.
Nutritionists encouraged Americans to consume less calories and avoid foods containing high levels of fat, cholesterol, sugar, and salt. Government nutritionists also began to criticise traditional foods such as beef, eggs, and butter, saying they could be to blame for the spread of diseases.
One of the most famous and still celebrated diets of all time was born in this era: Weight Watchers. This weight-loss phenomenon was the instigator to the Western world’s obsession with health and dieting. The scheme was born, developed and brought to the market by a self professed overweight housewife. The plan was to eat according to a points system in order to keep a healthy balanced diet.
Famed nutritionist Adelle Davis gained prominence in the 1970s. Known as the “first lady of nutrition,” Davis introduced the dangers of hydrogenated fats saturated fats and excess sugar to the public. Natural, additive-free foods were in demand, with an emphasis on unprocessed ingredients. The organic food movement also emerged, as more local stores began carrying organic produce. The diet fad craze had not disappeared, appearance was just as important as health, in fact diet crazes saw an all-time high in this decade with Dr. Robert Atkins becoming a household name. The Atkins Diet promoted a high-fat diet for weight loss with the book, Diet Revolution.
Slim-Fast was also introduced in the seventies, replacing meals with powdered milkshake mixes and diet bars. And let’s not forget the Cookie Diet, created by a doctor who claimed his (not very cookie-like) snacks had a “secret mixture of amino acids.” Believe it or not, this one is still prevalent to this day. The Sleeping Beauty Diet, reportedly entertained by none other than Elvis, whereby you must sleep up to 9 hours per night and eat foods promoting healthy sleep.
The complete Scarsdale Medical Diet was based around the idea of eating proteins, carbohydrates and fats in the portions 43% protein, 22.5% fat and 34.5% carbohydrates. To this day it still remains as one of the top selling diet books of all time.
The late seventies were also a time where appetite suppressants became a norm being sold over the counter and later banned due to their ingredients being a danger to our health!
The decade that gave birth to fitness mania and the leotard. Thanks to fitness icons such as Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons everybody began donning vibrantly coloured lycra outfits, sweat bands and jazzed their way to good health. Aerobics really kicked off when Jane Fonda released her exercise videos, promoting a lithe physique by following her daily routines. Finally a trend which actually did some good and evidently stuck around, the internet is now swamped with men and women promoting their exercise regimes.
Nutritionists also started shifting their focus to dietary fat. Two major reports identified dietary fat as the single most important change necessary to improve health, and the Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Agriculture published Dietary Guidelines for Americans for the first time. Among the tips: avoid too much fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol. Nutritionists also stressed a variety of foods from the major groups and stressed an “adequate” amount of starch and fibre. Progression!
The controversial Fit For Life Diet was developed and published around the same time and became one of America’s all time best selling diet guides. According to Fit for Life principles, dead foods are those that have highly refined or highly processed origins; while living foods are raw fruits and vegetables; fruits are best eaten fresh and raw. Where possible they should be eaten alone. Carbohydrates & proteins should never be combined in the one meal.
The food pyramid, the ultimate promotion for a balanced diet was initially released in 1992. While it became the nutrition symbol for the United States, ironically, nutritionists argued that the pyramid encouraged obesity by telling people to eat several servings of grains. It was only made law in 1994 to print nutritional values and information on food and beverage packaging. via the Guide to Nutrition Labelling and Education Act.
This decade also saw the obsession with ‘low-fat’. Everything suddenly had to be low in fat or it was going to kill you somehow, blood pressure, cholesterol, heart attack, etc.
Dr. Atkins also made a big revival, and counting carbs became a thing.
The Liquid Diet emerged, Oprah was a promoter of this fad diet, which helped her lose 60 pounds of fat, a representation of which she proudly pulled on stage in a cart on one of her shows. This diet limits your intake solely to liquids as the name suggests, replacing whole foods with small amounts of juices, shakes or other liquid forms of food. The backlash of this diet was a disruption to the metabolism and regaining of the weight once it had been lost.
The turn of the century saw celebrities such as Victoria Beckham delivering their babies and in the blink of an eye becoming stick thin again.
Gwyneth Paltrow lends credit to the Macrobiotic Diet, a restrictive Japanese plan based on whole grains and veggies.
The FDA bans the sale of diet drugs and supplements containing ephedra after it’s linked to heart attacks.
Reality TV shows come out depicting overweight people attending a boot camp of sorts to shed pounds in an army-like setting. In America it was called ‘The Biggest Loser’ and ran for seventeen seasons!
The Lemonade Diet aka the Master Cleanse was born; a liquid-only diet consisting of three things: a lemonade-like beverage, salt-water drink, and herbal laxative tea. This diet runs far from the principles of healthy eating, and the results are unlikely to last. The claim was that after ten or more days you’ll drop pounds, “detox” your digestive system, and feel energetic, vital, happy, and healthy. You’ll also curb cravings for unhealthy food. Plenty of celebrities fell for this quick-fix unhealthy weight dropping scheme.
Alli hits the market. The nonprescription drug is taken with meals to keep your body from absorbing some of the food you eat.
The HCG Diet, which combines a fertility drug with a strict 500- to 800-calorie-a-day regimen, invites interest—and plenty of criticism.
Weight Watchers is back in fashion with celebrities such as Jennifer Hudson and Jessica Simpson losing shocking amounts of weight.
The Gut Reset Diet saw probiotics get intense with this seriously strict life-changer of a diet. Two months of absolute nutritional overhaul, eating things you had probably never heard of or recognised as food! No alcohol, sugar, dairy or carbs alongside a veritable mountain of daily supplements.
However, later in the decade (now) organic, vegan, and gluten-free are the buzzwords calling for cleaner, more sustainable food. “Foodies” have emerged, consumers are calling for more transparency in terms of where our food comes from, and there’s also now an increasing amount of information about pesticides and genetically modified organisms in our food.
We also found a new enemy: trans fat. In 2006, trans fats gained a place on nutrition labels after research found correlations between the fatty acids and higher rates of heart disease.
Aside from the obsession with losing weight, people are taking a closer look at what they are consuming. Awareness seems to be the poignant standing point in this decade, let us hope that continues!
Become a qualified Nutritional Therapist
Here at the School of Natural Health Sciences we offer seven courses for those interested in nutrition – Clinical Nutrition, Advanced Nutrition, Child & Adolescent Nutrition, Ethical & Sustainable Eating, Nutrition for Aged 50 Plus, Sport & Exercise Nutrition and Vegan & Vegetarian Nutrition. All these distance learning diploma courses are accredited in 26 countries worldwide, meaning you can get into business as soon as you have passed your course!