January is a big dieting month. But once upon a time, “diet” was not a verb. It was simply a noun, one that referred to one’s overall patterns of food consumption—a way of eating, you might say.
So when did diet become something to do rather than something to have? Perhaps it goes hand-in-hand with the mechanization of agriculture, which has made food so abundant to so many people. Whatever the case, there’s an entire industry of publishing and marketing devoted to weight loss via diet programs.
Celebrities and dieting have gone hand-in-hand, probably because appearance is crucial for celebrities, and an adoring public is more apt to take interest in a diet plan if it’s endorsed (directly or indirectly) by a celebrity. In the world of diets, doctors can become celebrities, too: consider Dr. Atkins.
How do we put this tactfully…er, some of these diets are based on good science, and others aren’t. After simply being safe, the most important part of a diet is the conviction of its follower; no matter how hard you try, some of these are just not doable long-term. Which is what makes them perfect fads.
Presbyterian minister Sylvester Graham created a high-fiber vegetarian diet around 1830; it emphasized vegetables and whole grains while excluding spices and calling for dairy in moderation. The Graham Diet was in part to solve the nagging problem of sexual urges—Graham espoused that his diet was a cure for lust and alcoholism. Happily horny vegans and vegetarians the world over will gladly dispute the effectiveness of Graham’s diet in those aspects, but Graham’s legacy lives on in the mildly sweet whole wheat crackers he created.
Popularized in the 1930s and also known as the Grapefruit Diet, the Hollywood Diet consists of eating half a grapefruit at every meal—or, depending on your interpretation, half a grapefruit for ever meal. The gist is that consuming a grapefruit (or grapefruit juice) prior to eating other (low-carb) foods boosts the body with fat-burning enzymes. This claim, however, is bunk science. If there’s any reason to eat grapefruit, it’s because it’s nutritious and very tasty, especially in the winter when it’s in season. To this day, grapefruit had a bad rap as an austere diet food—the Grapefruit Diet had made the rounds for decades, earning its own place in the pop culture lexicon on the way—and in midcentury cookbooks, grapefruit appears often in menus for weight loss.
First of all, Richard Simmons (heck yes!) Second of all, a deck of cards. I’m sold already! As this 1987 commercial told me hundreds of times when I watched TV as a kid, the food group-themed Deal-A-Meal cards helped the user create a daily balanced diet with a minimum 1,2000 calories. Simmons updated the Deal-A-Meal principles with his current weight loss program, FoodMover. Combine that with a VHS copy of Sweatin’ to the Oldies and you will burn the pounds away, my friend! Unlike many of his weight loss and fitness contemporaries, Richard Simmons had (and has) an inspiring, body image-positive approach…and a usually winning rapport with David Letterman.
While a student at Cambridge University, sexual miscreant-poet-scenester Lord Byron followed an extreme diet of biscuits and soda water or potatoes drenched in vinegar. He would then binge on large meals and follow those up with a dose of milk magnesia. (Popular opinion among Victorian intellectuals held that an agile and delicate mind was a result of scant eating). Byron’s inclination for what we might now call disordered eating alarmed some physicians of the day, as Byron was an influential celebrity/cultural figure, particularly among the youth. Byron struggled with his weight his whole life, and at times drank water mixed with apple cider vinegar as a diuretic and hunger suppressant. Nothing wrong with that—it’s probably the cycles of eating extremes that harmed him.
Cue the fart jokes! Versatile, inexpensive, and full of fiber, cabbage is a star in innumerable dishes in hundreds of cuisines. But none of them have a namesake diet except this simple, broth-based vegetable soup (it’s often vegan, though perhaps not intentionally) starring everyone’s favorite brassica. “Eat as much as you like, as often as you like,” claimed the diet, whose origins are fuzzy, but supposedly trace back to the 1950s. It’s which has experienced several surges in popularity since, and remains popular enough today that there’s a website devoted specifically to selling cabbage soup seasoning packets.
A formerly obese Indiana man, Fogle slimmed down by avoiding the fast food choices he’d formerly favored in lieu of Subways subs. He also ate smaller portions and avoided high-calorie condiments like mayonnaise. Subway made Fogle the focus of a 2000 ad campaign touting his weight loss…and a celebrity was born. Sadly, disgrace followed: questions arose about the intentions of his foundation to help obese children, and in 2015 Fogle pled guilty to charges of having sex with minors and child pornography.
Originated by Miami, Fla.-based Dr. Sanford Siegal in 1975, The Cookie Diet consists of replacing breakfast, lunch, and snacks with packaged Cookie Diet brand cookies (the sensible dinner is up to you). A few competing cookie diet companies are out there, but they’re all similarly based on calorie restriction, meal replacement, and specially formulated cookies.
Launched in 1977, Slim-Fast is a meal replacement drink. Initially it advocated “a shake for breakfast, a shake for lunch, then a sensible dinner” (kinda like those diet cookies), but now the brand offers a range of products, including snacks and meal bars. Slim-Fast wasn’t the first meal replacement shake to hit the shelves, but the timing was a better fit for busy lifestyles and a general shift toward thinner body images.
Before you get your early 2000s nostalgia going on too strong, know that Dr. Robert Atkins’ developed his low-carb diet well over half a century ago, and promoted it in a series of books, the first of which was Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution in 1972. His revised edition, Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution, came out in 2002, sparking a dieting rage that led to all kinds of bullshit, like making turkey stuffing out of fried pork rinds. Over a decade and hundreds of closed stores hawking Atkins Nutritionals-branded packaged foods later, the present form of the Atkins Diet puts more of an emphasis on whole foods.
The Paleo Diet is unique in that a lot of its followers don’t come to it with weight loss as a primary motivation. It’s also notable because it sparks a lot of passion, both among fans and detractors. Fans say it gives them energy and positivity that will pay off in a longer, more active life. Detractors say it’s not actually a true reflection of what humans of the Paleolithic era ate, and its reliance on meat is unsustainable. Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock (how stone age of you!), you know that the Paleo Diet avoids grains, dairy, legumes, and processed foods. Somewhat like keeping kosher, eating Paleo is open to interpretation: some people might eat, say, potatoes, while other might not.
You know how your mom told you to chew your food thoroughly before eating it? She was maybe onto something, at least according to Horace Fletcher, who, at the turn of the 19th century, popularized a program of mastication (that’s fancy talk for chewing) for a healthy and robust constitution. Fletcherizing, as it was known, called for chewing food about 100 times prior to swallowing it, as Fletcher believed that food had to be properly and thoroughly mixed with saliva in order to be properly digested. “Nature will castigate those who don’t masticate,” he held.
The London undertaker William Banting was also a diet groundbreaker: his 1863 booklet Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public outlined a plan for weight loss based on calorie restriction and low carbohydrate intake. Banting’s shared his own personal journey of weight loss in the booklet, and it was so well-received that “bant” became a verb for dieting (as in, “Are you banting?”).
Lead photo of woman with milk by George Marks/Getty