Bizarre Diets

Bizarre diets - deformed cucumber diet

Soon to come?  –  The Deformed Cucumber Diet

The First “Celebrity” Dieter

King William 1st  of England (“William the Conqueror”) is generally considered as the first well-known person to go on a weight reduction diet, in the 11th century.  He certainly needed to diet, as he was, apparently, of massive size. A remarkably modern-sounding diet it was too. He kept to his bedroom and took no food – only liquor, which is just a slight variant on the Drinking Man´s Diet. As happens nowadays, too, , the diet apparently worked in the short term, but not in the longer term. If he kept to the diet, I am sure that it will have worked and he will have lost a lot of weight. But soon after finishing it, poor William was killed in falling off his horse. Drunk, some say, but I don´t know if there´s any evidence for this.

Subsequent Bizarre Diets

(Some reasonable ones mixed in with the mad ones)

In the 18th century, we had:

1727   –   Avoid swamps:   Thomas Short, an English doctor, wrote “The Causes and Effects of Corpulence”. He was interested in the effects of land drainage on public health. To this effect, he studies mortality and meteorology and noted the apparently strong relationship between health and the environment. He asserted that his studies showed that people living in low swampy areas died earlier than those living in dry higher places. The book´s title refers to “corpulence”, so presumably he believed that overweight or obesity was another possible consequence of living in low-lying swampy areas. The conclusion is obvious:  if you live in such a place, to avoid obesity and early death move somewhere safer. Somewhere dryer, without swamps.

Victorian Times:

The Victorian era is when diet fads really became popular. Many of them were, of course, close to madness – but then so are a lot of present diet fads. Many of these diets, though, had a remarkably modern sound to them, as did King William´s long before.

Strange diets were followed by Byron

Byron – Heart-throb and dieter

1820´s   –   Vinegar diet:   This was popularised by Lord Byron, possibly the first celebrity dieter. (Unless we consider King William as such!) He seems to have had a continual battle with his weight, which varied up and down by large amounts. As well as being a poet, he was also a heartthrob and wanted to be fashionably pale and thin. This led to various diets. One of them was  his “vinegar diet”, he drank lots of vinegar and water every day, together with one cup of tea and a raw egg. This produced disagreeable side effects like vomiting and diarrhea, but it must, nevertheless, have helped bring his weight down. At Cambridge University, he followed a madly strict diet, consisting of hard biscuits, soda water and potatoes soaked in vinegar. (At other times, however, he binged on huge meals!)

Byron had a great cultural influence at that time and when his various diets were apparently successful, young women and the young in general started to copy him if they thought they needed to lose weight. (He died at just 36.)

1830   –   Graham´s Cracker Diet:   Sylvester Graham was  an American Presbyterian minister, who came up with a puritanical diet plan. It followed the ethos of the time and was intended to improve general and spiritual health and sexual purity.

Graham, a vegetarian and teetotaller,  believed in avoiding foods with over-processed flour and eliminating  spices and sugars. His diet would get rid of sexual immorality and lustful thought, as well as masturbation, which he considered led to insanity and blindness. He devised the Graham Diet and went out and preached its benefits to the public.

Strange diets and graham crackers

They still look a bit bland and boring!

He came up with the graham cracker, as part of his diet, a square biscuit made with whole wheat flour and with little taste. On his high-fiber diet, food produced by animals was barred, because it would lead to impure thoughts. Exceptions to this were eggs, milk and cheese, which were OK to eat as long as they were totally fresh.

Now generally looked on as crackpot, because of his mixing of religion and diet, Graham´s ideas were sometimes good. His diet or way of living probably did little to cure sexual urges or lust, but his emphasis on fruit and vegetables remains excellent. The avoidance of over-processed foods, or even processed foods in general, is also the trend today, as is his urging on the importance of exercise.

Graham crackers are still sold in the USA, but with a much better taste now than they once had. Graham´s views on eating animal flesh are echoed by vegetarians and vegans. Graham´s diet has gone, but his influence lingers.

1863   –   “Banting”  –  low-carb diet:   William Banting, an undertaker, in this year published what was probably the first best-selling book for dieters: “Letter On Corpulence, Addressed to the Public”.  This book detailed Banting´s diet, which enabled  him to lose a tremendous amount of weight very quickly. Before the diet, bordering on obesity, he could not reach down to tie up his shoelaces and other health problems were looming. The diet was essentially a low carbohydrate diet. It placed particular emphasis on reducing starchy and sugary foods and also beer, milk and butter. It included lean meats – large amounts of lamb, beef, poultry and game – eggs and green vegetables. He could take alcohol, put portions were carefully controlled. It has an extraordinarily modern sound to it!

The book was so popular that for a long time dieting was known as “banting”.  There is a recent modern diet called “banting”.

Strange diets and anorexia

Nightmare world of anorexia

1800´s   –   Starvation or Hysteria  –   Anorexia Nervosa:   This is a strange eating disorder, in which people diet practically to starvation, because of a morbid fear of being fat. Many think of it as a recent phenomenon, but it actually dates back a long way. St Catherine of Siena, in the 14th century, is thought to have been a sufferer and in the 1800´s young country Catholic girls often copied her. They wanted to achieve a saint-like appearance and state.

Anorexia started to appear among young middle-class women in the middle of the 19th century. It was formally identified and named  in 1873 by a British doctor, Sir William Withey Gull, but it also existed in other countries. The thinking then was that being thin and frail, perhaps stretched out most of the time on a sofa, made you more interesting.  Poetic, ethereal.  It was mainly a middle-class female thing. The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning is thought have suffered from anorexia, possibly as a result of childhood traumas.

In modern times, it was prevalent in the 1970´s, but continues to be a worry even now. It is viewed as an emotional disorder, in which those who suffer from it have a sense of being in control of their own lives and also of being centres of attention among their friends and family.


1903   –   The Fletcherism Diet:   Horace Fletcher, a San Francisco art dealer, attributed a 40-pound weight loss to his eating technique. This involved extensive chewing of food – 32 times per bite – so that the juices trickled down the throat, while the solid residue after all the chewing had to be spat out. Each bite of food had to be chewed 32 times. The reason for devising the diet and losing weight is that he had been denied health insurance because of his size. Fletcher, who became known as “The Great Masticator”, had a catchy little saying to go with his diet:  “Nature will castigate those who don’t masticate.”

Merriam-Webster´s Dictionary defines Fletcherism as “the practice of eating in small amounts and only when hungry and of chewing one’s food thoroughly”, which makes it sound like a reasonable diet, rather than the crackpot scheme it undiubtedly was. Nevertheless, Fletcher himself does seem to have lost a lot of weight following his plan, though this could have been helped by having many fewer meals away from home.

1930´s   –   Slimming Soap   Slimming soaps in the 1930´s, like “Fatoff” or “La- ar Reducing Soap”, were bought specially by women who were eager to wash their fat away in the bath. Some of the claims made for these soaps were astounding. La-Mar, for instance, claimed in big advertisements that use of their soap would “reduce any part of the body without affecting other parts”. “No dieting or exercise..Be as slim as you wish..Acts like magic in reducing double chin, abdomen, ungainly ankles..any superfluous fat on body”.  Needless to say, these soap that promised so much had discovered no magical solutions to weight problems.

(See the UK Daily Mail for a fascinating article on these wonderful soaps here.)

Bizarre diets from Lucky Strike

Smoke Lucky’s & be slim!

1925   –   Cigarette Diet   This is a “diet” that was devised by the Lucky Strike Cigarette Company, with the slogan: “Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet”.. It capitalised on the appetite-suppressant properties of nicotine and came at a time when cigarette smoking had a bit of a glamorous air and its other disagreeable attributes were not yet fully appreciated. (Presumably people must have noticed that heavy smoking was liable to give you a permanent cough!)

The campaign worked, as people chose to smoke and eat fewer calories.  Lucky Strike sales zoomed up by over 200% in the 1920´s and other cigarette manufacturers started to imitate Lucky Strike. Since the full potential for nasty illness caused by smoking was realised in the 1960´s, advertising has been increasingly controlled, or even outright banned, but it was also in the 1960´s that Hollywood made smoking fashionable.

The UK has recently introduced new regulations, forcing cigarette companies to use plain packaging. Various other countries are in the process of doing the same thing. The future of this diet is thus doubtful, but that may be quite a good thing.

1930´s   –   Grapefruit Diet   (aka The Hollywood Diet):   This diet started in the 1930´s and has never really gone away. It became popular again in the 1980´s and is still around and well-known today.  The diet, which lasts 10 to 12 days, claims that you will lose up to about 10 pounds. Grapefruits supposedly contain some very helpful enzymes, that help in burning off fat, always provided the grapefruit is eaten before the other foods.

There are different versions of the diet, but the classic one recommends eating grapefruit, or grapefruit juice,  with every meal. It also recommends cutting back on sugar (which might be quite hard, as grapefruit tends towards sharpness) and also on carbohydrates, particularly rice, potatoes and pasta. Certain foods, like celery and white onions, should be avoided. Other foods high in protein and fat –  like eggs, pork and red meat – should be eaten in greater quantities. Some of the diet variants also cut calories as low as 800 a day, which is dangerous over time.

There is no reason to suppose that grapefruits have any special fat-burning properties. Except for the results of a recent American study by scientists at the Nutrition and Medical Research Center at Scripps Clinic in San Diego! They found that adding grapefruit, or grapefruit juice, to your diet can aid weight loss, without changing the rest of your diet in any way! Not only does it help in weight loss, per this study, but it also has some other health benefits. If this had been the version of the grapefruit diet that severely restricts calories consumed, then the weight loss obtained in the study would not be surprising.  But the people studie ate their normal diet, other than adding grapefruit to it!

(It should be noted that grapefruit can react badly with certain medicines.)

1950´s   –   Cabbage Soup Diet   This is a 7-day very low calorie diet, which fans can claim can result in a weight loss of 10 pounds or more in that time. Cabbage soup has to be eaten several times a day, together with certain other foods which vary from day to day. On Day 4, say, you can add bananas and skim milk, while Day 4 allows beef or skinless baked chicken and tomatoes. The recipes for the soup include various vegetables that can be added, as well, of course, as the base cabbage. The soup quickly becomes very boring. Most of what you eat are vegetables, so it is low-fat, but some meat is allowed. No alcohol can be taken. Drinks are limited to water and unsweetened fruit juice on days when the diet includes it.

Weight is lost very quickly, as the prescribed diet does not reach 1,000 calories a day. Also, a lot of the weight lost is water weight and that is strictly temporary. Losing weight at this speed is dangerous, even on a diet that only lasts for a week. As the diet is only for 7 days, people in good health should not do themselves any lasting damage – but the diet could be disastrous for those with particular health problems. The diet should never ever be followed for more than the week, but it has very little to recommend it.

1954   –   Tapeworm Diet

Cottonball Diet

Images courtesy of:

Header image – Cucumbers   –   digital14047 

“Lord Byron”   –   Scottmga               “Graham Crackers”   –   Andrea Goh            

“Grapefruit”   –   Peter Massas          “Anorexia”   –   massimo bianchi          “Smoke Lucky Strike, Or Else!”   –   clotho98

Other images:   –   pixabay