The History of Dieting in America

by | Oct 26, 2020

Created by Rachel Raymond, Dietetic Intern

We are constantly bombarded by ads, conversations, and products all focused on dieting. Although diets may seem to be a more modern interest as the obesity epidemic skyrockets, history tells us that dieting is nothing new to Americans. In fact, fad diets have been used for over 150 years in America. Let’s dig into a few of these diets to see how dieting has advanced and/or digressed over the years.

Dieting in the 1800s

1865- “Of all the parasites that affect humanity I do not know of, nor can I imagine any more distressing than that of Obesity” wrote William Banting in his “Letter of Corpulence” to the public[1]. William Banting was a carpenter who had become obese to the point that he was walking down the stairs backwards to prevent pain in his ankles and knees. He saw many doctors who recommended treatments such as exercise, medications, shampooing, and baths (but no diet)[1].

He eventually saw Dr. William Harvey who told him to restrict carbohydrates such as beer, bread, potatoes, milk, and sugar which Banting declared, “had been the main (and, I thought, innocent) elements of my existence[1].” Once he restricted these high-carbohydrate foods, he began losing weight. He lost 46 pounds over the course of a year. After publishing his letter to the public, the “Banting diet” became famous.

1888-The Salisbury Method emerged after Dr. James Henry Salisbury published his book, “The Relation of Alimentation and Disease[2].” He believed that food was the key to better health and that certain foods would cure illnesses[2]. He thought of meat patties as health foods and that vegetables and fruits were the enemy to health[2]. So, in 1861, he attempted to cure Union Civil War soldiers of chronic diarrhea by feeding them nothing but chopped up meat which he referred to as “the muscle pulp of beef[2].” Sounds pretty disgusting, right?

After Salisbury’s book was published, his idea of only eating meat became a sensation. In fact, this is how the Salisbury steak was created. Salisbury’s method of eating was one of the first very extreme versions of a low-carb diet.

Dieting Myths of the Early 1900s

1903- Horace Fletcher was nicknamed “The Great Masticator,” for developing the chewing diet that allowed him to lose about 50 pounds[3]. He was a self-taught nutritionist who spread “Fletcherism” far and wide from 1895-1919. He taught that all food must be chewed until it is liquid before swallowing. For example, the following excerpt was taken from Fletcher’s book, “The New Glutton or Epicure:”

“[I have] found that one-fifth of an ounce of the midway section of the garden young onion, sometimes called “challot,” has required seven hundred and twenty-two mastications before disappearing through involuntary swallowing. After the tussle, however, the young onion left no odour upon the breath and joined the happy family in the stomach as if it had been of corn-starch softness and consistency[4].”

Doesn’t this sound a little extreme? Fletcher believed that prolonged chewing led to better overall health and reduced food intake. He also cautioned people to only eat when they were “good and hungry” and to avoid eating when they were angry or worried [4]. He recommended eating whatever one wanted as long as the food was chewed until the “food swallowed itself.”

In Britain, followers of this diet started “Munching parties” where they would enjoy a drawn-out meal together. In the United States, Dr. J. H. Kellogg (inventor of the corn flakes) made up a silly song called the “Chewing Song” to sing to his patients[3]. I could not find the full song, but I know this was part of it: “Chew, chew, chew, that is the thing to do[5].” The following excerpt was taken from a letter written by Dr. Kellogg to Horace Fletcher, “I took occasion to tell [my patients] I thought Mr. Horace Fletcher, in inaugurating the chewing reform, had done more to help suffering humanity than any other man of the present generation[3].” Despite how absurd this diet may sound to us today, many people were strongly influenced by “Fletcherism” in the early 1900s.

1914-The first reducing salon opened in Chicago[6]. This wasn’t necessarily a diet, but it did claim to help people lose weight. The salon held Gardner Reducing Machines that enveloped male clients in two sets of adjustable rollers[5]. Women could also be “rolled” at W. F. Taylor’s Corset Shop in San Diego and at the Bush Sanatorium in Louisville5. Some of these machines had electrical ring rollers that would squeeze up and down the body eighty times per minute5. We’re not really sure what types of results followed use of these machines, but we can assume that the machines cannot have been very safe.

1920sLucky Strike cigarettes posted ads of women smoking cigarettes that implied or claimed that smoking would stop the urge to overeat. A popular line on their ads was, “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.6” Although Lucky didn’t come up with a specific diet, many people followed its ads like a diet!

In 2011, it was discovered that some tobacco companies did add appetite suppressants to their cigarettes including amphetamine and nitrous oxide[6].

Lucky Strike Cigarettes

The Beginnings of Diet Programs

1930s-During this decade, the grapefruit diet, also known as the 18-day diet or the Hollywood diet, took the stage. The diet consisted of eating 1 grapefruit at each meal along with protein-rich foods and vegetables. Sugar, other fruits, grains, and starchy vegetables were to be avoided. This diet claimed a pound of weight loss each day. It became popular again in the 1980s. People thought that an enzyme in grapefruit would catalyze weight loss, although there is no evidence to support that claim.

1934-The bananas and skim milk diet was introduced by Dr. George Harrop Jr. through a newspaper article in the Milwaukee Journal. The diet specifically required eating 4 bananas and drinking 3 glasses of skim milk daily and nothing else. Dr. Harrop claimed that someone could lose 6-10 pounds in 2 weeks on this diet. Although bananas and skim milk are healthy for the body, it is not healthy to restrict intake to only those two foods. Plus, a diet like this doesn’t help someone to learn to navigate the real food world.

1950s-During this decade, the infamous cabbage soup diet emerged. No one really knows who first formulated the cabbage soup diet. The diet involves eating cabbage soup made with other low-calorie vegetables such as celery, tomatoes, and green peppers. Many people claimed you could lose 10-17 pounds in a week on this diet.

The cabbage soup diet reemerged in the 1980s as the Dolly Parton diet. It reappeared again in 1995 when it was published in magazines such as Cosmopolitan. Even medical professionals were prescribing this dieting method to their patients to lose weight quickly before heart surgery.

Some people even still consider doing this diet, but it is not recommended. Weight lost in that initial week is mostly water and muscle loss. Once someone resumes a normal diet, all the weight comes right back on.

1961Weight Watchers was established! Jean Nidetch began inviting friends over to her home in Queens, New York to discuss how to lose weight. After that, her idea took off. She founded Weight Watchers in 1963 and has millions of Weight Watchers members even today.

The Weight Watchers diet involves tracking points instead of calories. Each person has an individualized set of points for his or her needs. Many food labels list how many Weight Watchers points are in a serving. Weight Watchers encourages members to eat healthy foods such as vegetables, fruits, beans, and lean proteins by assigning those foods zero points. When someone doesn’t use all of their points for the day, they rollover onto the next day.

Diet Trends in the 1970s

1970s-The 1970s exploded with fad diets and dieting trends! Just a few of them are listed below:

The Wine and Eggs Diet: This diet was published in Vogue magazine in 1977 and it’s almost exactly what it sounds like. Breakfast included one hardboiled egg, a glass of white wine, and a cup of black coffee. Lunch was 2 eggs, 2 glasses of white wine and a cup of black coffee. Dinner was a little better: a 5 oz steak, the remainder of the bottle of white wine, and black coffee[7]. Please don’t try this. It’s not healthy.

-Slim-Fast Diet: I think we’ve all heard of this. This diet included a shake for breakfast, a shake for lunch, and a sensible dinner. You can still buy Slim-Fast shakes at your local Wal-Mart today (although I don’t recommend it).

The Sugar Diet: sugar was marketed as an appetite suppressant in the 70s by the sugar companies. Ads encouraged dieters to “spoil your appetite with sugar” before a meal by eating a spoonful of sugar or nibbling on a cookie. (See the ad to the right.) Clearly this was a fad for the gullible.

The Sugar Diet

-The Sleeping Beauty Diet: it’s no surprise that the 70s would produce a diet that involved taking lots of sedatives to sleep off hunger. Definitely do not try this one.

-The Cookie Diet: A doctor in Florida came up with this idea. He developed a special concoction of amino acids that he put into his cookies for dieters. Of course, in order to lose weight, patients also had to stick to a low-calorie diet.  

1981-The Beverly Hills Diet: This dieting book was written in 1981 by Judy Mazel who ran a weight-loss clinic in Beverly Hills[8]. She lost 72 pounds on her own and shared her insights on weight loss through her book. The diet includes almost nothing but fruit for the first 35 days. After that, there were specific rules on how to combine certain foods such as protein with fat, but no carbohydrates with protein. This is a pretty difficult diet to follow with many rules, but somehow it’s still around. Although some are still falling for its claims, we do not recommend this diet.

1985: Jenny Craig came to America[9]! Jenny started her dieting company in Australia in 1983, but made her way over to America a couple years later. Jenny’s program offered personalized nutrition coaching and meal replacements for dieters. The idea was to teach people how to make healthier choices and wean them off of the premade meals. This is still popular today.

1988-Oprah made the Optifast diet famous. Oprah came out on her show pulling a wagon holding 67 pounds of actual animal fat[10]. She told everyone she had lost 67 pounds on the liquid Optifast diet. With her endorsement, it’s no wonder that the Optifast company received over 100,000 calls after the show. The diet consisted of drinking a high-protein and vitamin-packed shake 5 times a day for a total of 420 calories. The problem with this diet is that most people gain the weight right back. Even Oprah said that within 2 days of walking out onto that stage, she could no longer fit into those jeans. She yo-yoed constantly after that. In 2005, Oprah admitted that this diet was a huge mistake[11].Oprah's dieting efforts

1995-The Zone Diet was created by Dr. Barry Sears. The diet insists on dieters following a specific macronutrient distribution: 40% carbs, 30% fats, and 30% protein. It also required that only low-glycemic carbs be consumed. Without any evidence, Dr. Sears claimed that the diet would improve many aspects of health including athletic performance. Sure, people can lose weight on this diet, but the 2015-2020 Dietary guidelines list that an adult’s diet should consist of 45-60% carbs, 20-35% fat, and 10-35% protein[12].

1996-The Blood Type Diet was developed by Dr. Peter D’Adamo. He wrote the book “Eat Right 4 Your Type,” which gained an impressive following soon after. His claim is that blood type determines which types of food we should be eating. For example, he says that people with Type O blood should be focusing on high-protein foods and eating some fruits and vegetables. He also states that type-O people should limit grains, legumes, and dairy, and completely exclude wheat and corn.

Despite the popularity of the blood type diet, evidence does not show that there is a specific diet better for one blood type than another[13]. Plus, following these specific diets can deprive followers of important nutrients. Final message: don’t follow these diets.

1998-The Atkins’ diet became popular. Dr. Robert Atkins actually published his book “Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution” in 1972, but the diet didn’t take off until the 90s[14]. He published “Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution” in 1992 and began producing the original Atkins bar in the mid-90s12.Atkins Diet

The Atkins’ diet is a high-protein, high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet including 4 phases. The first phase has dieters eat less than 20 grams of carbs per day for 2 weeks. The second phase involves adding more nuts, vegetables and small amounts of fruits. Phase 3 includes slowly adding more carbs to the diet until the weight loss slows down. Lastly, phase 4 is a maintenance phase including as many carbs as the body can tolerate without gaining weight.

This diet has been one of the longest-lasting diets in history. Many people still follow this diet. In 2016, Kim Kardashian announced that she lost 60 pounds on the Atkins diet. Because this diet is so high in protein and fat, there are risks of developing heart disease and a fatty liver. Plus, the initial weight lost during the first week is mainly stored glycogen (sugar) and water weight. Please consult a dietitian before going on the Atkins diet.

Modern Day Dieting

2004-The Master Cleanse Diet stormed Hollywood. Although it was created in 1941 by Stanley Burroughs, it wasn’t made popular until Peter Glickman’s book “Lose Weight, Have More Energy, and Be Happier in 10 Days” was published in 2004. The cleanse progressed from vegetables and whole grains on day 1, to broths and juices on day 2, to only orange juice on day 3. Days 4-7 included only a special lemonade made out of lemon juice, maple syrup, cayenne pepper, and water. The last few days followed the first 3 days in reverse.

Even though the Master Cleanse diet is basically a starvation diet, celebrities such as Beyoncé followed this trend and made it even more attractive.  

2003-Dr. Arthur Agatston created the South Beach Diet which he claimed was a doctor-designed, foolproof plan for fast and healthy weight loss[15]. He saw that patients were losing weight on the Atkins’ diet, but he was not comfortable with the amount of saturated fat in the diet[13]. So, he created a healthier low-carb dieting method.

This diet also involved phases. Phase 1 lasted 2 weeks and involved restricting high-carb foods such as fruits and grains. Phase 2 is maintained for as long as it takes to achieve goal weight and begins to allow limited portions of good carbs such as whole grains and small portions of fruit. In Phase 3, a new lifestyle should have been developed and no foods are truly off limits. He recommends that if weight starts to come back on, to repeat phase 1. Dieting this way is healthier than the Atkins’ diet because it does allow for high-fiber foods and limits saturated fat, but it’s still a restrictive diet.

2007-The HCG diet emerged in Kevin Trudeau’s book titled “The Weight Loss Cure, What THEY Don’t Want You To Know[16].” Background: HCG (Human chorionic gonadotropin) is produced in a pregnant woman’s placenta, and it was experimented with in the 70s for weight loss[16]. After Trudeau’s book made waves in the diet community, certain professional clinics in the US began offering hCG for weight loss.

The diet involved taking hCG in the form of shots and pills along with a 500 calorie diet. The hormone supposedly suppressed appetite, but many ensuing studies have found that it does not actually suppress appetite[17]. There were a few problems with this diet: (1) it was not safe, and (2) after people would experience intense weight loss, they gained it all right back. Through cutting calories that low, they put their bodies into starvation mode and ended up clinging on to weight once the diet ended.

The FDA has since stated that HCG is not approved without a prescription and is not approved for weight loss[18].

2007-There’s debate over when the Ketogenic Diet began dominating the diet world, but we’re going to say it was around 2007. The Ketogenic diet or the “keto” diet was originally designed in the 1920s to prevent seizures in epileptic patients[18]. When medications improved over time, the keto diet was prescribed less and less[18]. It was brought back to light in 1994 when NBC Television’s Dateline aired on the topic of the keto diet for epilepsy[19]. People have been experimenting with it ever since.

The keto diet is a high-fat diet. The diet includes 70-90% of calories from fat, 5-10% from carbs, and 20-30% from protein. It pretty much involves eating lots of bacon, avocado, steak, cheese, and coconut oil with small amounts of green vegetables, and berries. Does it aid in weight loss? Yes. However, understand that the initial 2-3 pounds of weight lost are just water and stored glucose. Many people who do the keto diet eventually regain all the weight they lost on the diet if they don’t transition slowly to a balanced diet. Is it healthy? Researchers are still working on finding the best answer to this question, but for now, we say no. It excludes entire food groups and is really low in fiber which can lead to a plethora of digestive problems.

2009-The Whole30 Diet hit the shelves. Melissa Hartwig and her husband Dallas Hartwig created this 30-day whole foods diet program which is still widely accepted today. The program rules involve only eating specific unprocessed foods. For example, meat, seafood, eggs, vegetables, fruit, natural fats, herbs, spices, and seasonings are acceptable[20]. The excluded food list included sugar, artificial sweeteners, alcohol, grains, legumes, soy, dairy, preservatives, baked goods or sweets[16].

On top of a restricted food list, participants are not to weigh or measure themselves for 30 days[16]. The problem with this dieting in this way is that it does not allow any flexibility which may lead participants to binge eat towards the middle of the program or overeat afterwards. Plus, eliminating grains, dairy, and legumes is not recommended unless someone is allergic to all of these food groups. 

2010s-The Vegan diet went mainstream. Although the term “vegan” was coined in 1944 by Donald Watson, the diet didn’t revive until the 2010s. This diet includes only plants such as vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts and legumes. All animal products, meats and seafoods are excluded. 

Many studies have shown that a vegan diet leads to improved health in many areas. Although a vegan diet is a pretty healthy diet, that doesn’t mean that all vegan choices are healthy. It’s possible for someone to live off of Oreos and French fries and accurately claim to be a vegan. While there are many benefits to a vegan diet, there are also some downsides to consider. Vegan diets are low in certain nutrients including vitamin B12, Vitamin D, Iodine, Calcium, Iron, Zinc, and EPA and DHA Omega-3 fatty acids. Not to mention, it can be difficult to consume enough protein without adequate planning.

Vegan dieting does seem to be very effective at helping people lose weight without even cutting calories. This is likely due to the fact that a vegan diet is high in fiber and low in fat. One study showed that, after 18 weeks, people on a vegan diet lost 9 pounds more than those on a control diet[21].

2013-The Paleo Diet became the most Googled diet of 2013. Originally conceptualized in the 70s, the Paleo diet didn’t become popular until well after Loren Cordain published her book “The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Foods You Were Designed to Eat” in 2002.

The idea behind the diet is that the human body hasn’t genetically adapted to our modern diet and that we need to return to a more primitive way of eating. The diet includes only lean meat, fish, nuts, seeds, oils, fruit, and vegetables.

Although this diet has become widely popular, one major misconception is the belief that our ancient ancestors were mainly carnivores, when in reality, they mainly lived on a plant-based diet[22]! Anthropologists have found that a true paleolithic diet was rich in plants, insects, seafood, and very low in animals and animal products.

2018-Intermittent Fasting entered the diet world. Fasting means going without food for a period of time. Fasting has been around for thousands of years in different religious practices and cultures, but it wasn’t until recently that it became a diet trend. Many types of fasting have emerged including alternate-day fasting, periodic fasting, and time-restricted feeding. Each allows for different fasting periods and eating periods.

So, is it worth it to fast/starve yourself? One Meta-analysis found that an intermittent fasting regimen of fasting 2 days a week yielded results equal to those of a restricted calorie diet (by about 25%)[23]. Many studies show that it can improve certain markers of health, but when it comes to losing weight, it is equal to a restricted calorie diet. This means, you could just eat 500 calories less per day to get the same results.

THIS is the Answer to Your Dieting Questions …

As you can see, dieting has fluctuated immensely over the last 150 years! Despite our constant wish of finding the perfect get-fit-quick dieting scheme, we know that the best way to lose weight and keep it off is to:

1. Eat regular, balanced meals

2. Get plenty of fiber (14 grams per 1000 calories consumed)

3. Avoid highly processed, sugary, and fatty foods

4. Exercise regularly

5. Avoid overeating

If you have any questions on how to lose weight, call to make an appointment! We’d love to personalize a plan for you to help you on your weight loss journey.

[1] Letter on Corpulence Addressed to the Public

[2] Salisbury Steak: Civil War Health Food

[3] Horace Fletcher (1849-1919): “The Great Masticator.”

[4] The New Glutton or Epicure

[5] Dr. John Kellogg Invented Cereal. Some of His Other Wellness Ideas Were Much Weirder

[6] Calories and Corsets: A History of Dieting over Two Thousand Years by Louise Foxcroft

[7] I tried that viral wine & egg diet from Vogue. I have so much to tell you!

[8] The New Beverly Hills Diet

[9] Jenny Craig

[10] Sure, Oprah slimmed down fast, but liquid diets aren’t right for

[11] Oprah’s ‘Fattest’ Mistake

[12] 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans

[13] Blood type diets lack supporting evidence: a systematic review

[14] Atkins’ History

[15] Our Mission

[16] HCG Diet Council

[17] Human chorionic gonadotrophin and weight loss. A double-blind, placebo-controlled trial

[18] Avoid Dangerous HCG Diet Products

[19] History of the ketogenic diet

[20] Program Rules

[21] A multicenter randomized controlled trial of a plant-based nutrition program to reduce body weight and cardiovascular risk in the corporate setting: the GEICO study

[22] Paleolithic Diet

[23] Intermittent fasting interventions for the treatment of overweight and obesity in adults aged 18 years and over: a systematic review and meta-analysis


Want to request an appointment? Click here!

Recent Posts

AZ Dietitians Guide to Aging Well

Sign Up to Receive Your FREE Guide To Aging Well!