Dieting wasn’t always present in the American consciousness. Before the 20th century, few people cared whether a person put on a few pounds. An ample middle was seen as a sign of prosperity and good health. Joan Jacobs Brumberg, author of “The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls,” says Americans were “uncomfortable with extreme thinness, because it signaled wasting diseases” such as tuberculosis and cancer.
Between intermittent fasting and Tom Brady’s alkaline diet, trendy weight-loss schemes are everywhere these days. But those don’t get anywhere near some of the crazier, more dangerous fads of the past.
So how did we get from there to here?
Several things changed that view. One was that insurance companies, which had been compiling actuarial tables that looked at the risk factors connected to occupation, age, gender, height and weight, started to become more sophisticated. The “average” weight for men and women changed to “ideal” height and weight in the early 20th century, says Susan Speaker, a National Library of Medicine historian, because insurance companies saw a correlation between excess weight and early mortality. Those charts started appearing on the walls of doctors’ offices.
Fashion also played a role. In the 1920s, as the flapper look took off, women began wearing slimmer, figure-hugging dresses that often ended just below the knees and bared the arms. Being plump didn’t seems as pleasing in such attire. The advertising world, powered by new businesses, was ready to jump in with solutions. The result? Here are seven of the strangest — and often unhealthy — strategies for getting thin.
A 1928 advertisement for Lucky Strike cigarettes said, “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet,” until the confection industry threatened legal action. In 1930, the ad was rewritten to say, “We do not represent that smoking Lucky Strike Cigarettes will bring modern figures or cause the reduction of flesh. We do declare that when tempted to do yourself too well, if you will ‘Reach for a Lucky’ instead, you will thus avoid over-indulgence in things that cause excess weight and, by avoiding over-indulgence, maintain a modern, graceful form.” There is some truth to this claim, says George Bray, professor of medicine at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, since cigarettes do “stimulate energy expenditure” (or burn calories) and probably do substitute for snacking for some users. And those who quit smoking do tend to gain weight when they replace the oral gratification of smoking with eating. But no one can call cigarette usage a healthy approach.
Amphetamines were first prescribed after World War II. They generally were discontinued in 1979 when addiction and the potential for abuse became better known. Amphetamines were used on the battlefields during the war to help sleep-deprived soldiers stay awake and alert. After the war, the drug company Smith Kline & French started selling the drugs for weight loss and depression.
Similar to amphetamines were the “rainbow pills” of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, a colorful array of pills that included laxatives, diuretics, and amphetamines, and were connected to several deaths. Although amphetamines are out, methamphetamine (yes, meth) is still approved by the Food and Drug Administration for short-term weight loss for certain people, Bray says.
Then there was Ayds, a fudgelike candy that was designed to be taken before meals as an appetite suppressant. First introduced in the 1950s, Ayds grew in popularity for the next 20 years. One commercial shows a thin woman wearing a yellow shirtwaist dress (that looks no larger than size 4 in today’s measurements) saying, “And I love being a size 10 again!” But there was something in those little brown squares — the supplement first included benzocaine, an oral anesthetic that would presumably numb the taste buds. Later Ayds were infused with phenylpropanolamine, a decongestant also used for urinary incontinence in dogs. But when the AIDS crisis hit in the 1980s, the word association appeared to be just too much. Ayds was withdrawn from the market in the late 1980s.
Also known as the “Twinkie diet,” this approach — more of an experiment than a serious diet — was tried by Mark Haub, a professor of human nutrition at Kansas State University, in 2010. For 10 weeks, Haub ate Twinkies, Doritos, Oreos, and other junk food exclusively, but kept his calorie limit to about 1,500 calories a day, a good 800 calories below what he would need to maintain his weight. And he lost 27 pounds. Today, Haub says he’s put back on all but seven of the lost pounds, but he feels the diet helped him jump-start his weight loss.
His current diet focuses on whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and more mindful eating, he notes.
Sometimes called “the Hollywood 18-day diet,” or just the grapefruit diet, this plan, which has existed in some form since the 1930s and had a resurgence in the 1980s, restricted food to almost nothing but grapefruit and maybe a hard-boiled egg. It came in at somewhere between 400 and 800 calories a day. Hillel Schwartz, author of “Never Satisfied: A Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies and Fat,” says the principle behind any of the historic diets that relied on some kind of acidic substance (see “Spoonful of vinegar,” below) was that the acid in grapefruit would dissolve the grease inside the body. To be sure, a diet of so few daily calories is probably going to result in weight loss, so yes, many on this diet do lose weight. But being famished often meant that dieters turned to binge-eating and weight gain after the diet ended.
Khloé Kardashian might have been joking when she said, “I would do anything to get a tapeworm” to help her lose weight, but Victorian women took this approach seriously and even some contemporary dieters have tried it. The concept is that a tapeworm living in the intestines consumes calories that might otherwise feed the human host. Elizabeth Tucker, co-author of “Folk Culture in the Digital Age,” said by email that she investigated a doctor in Tijuana who offered to provide tapeworms for weight loss if she would come to Mexico for them. She says she declined because she served in Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer and knew that ingesting worms “could have pretty bad consequences,” including causing intestinal blockage and damage to the brain, liver and eyes. Tucker says there was even an episode about death from tapeworm ingestion on the TV show “1000 Ways to Die.” She adds, “tapeworms appeal to us because they seem like tiny friends who eat up all the food that isn’t good for us.” On the negative side, the parasites might damage or kill you. Oh, and there’s no evidence the tapeworm diet actually ever worked.
The “apple vinegar cider weight-loss diet” saw a boost in popularity a couple of years ago. The idea is to take a couple of teaspoons of the vinegar, diluted by water, before a meal, which advocates say induces weight loss by decreasing appetite and even reducing insulin levels. Robert Shmerling, senior editor at Harvard Health Publishing and rheumatologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, says no studies have conclusively proved that vinegar leads to weight loss, although it might cause a feeling of nausea that will make people eat less. The downside, Shmerling said by email, is that “because it is highly acidic, it can damage tooth enamel or irritate the esophagus,” which can lead to acid reflux.
Nutritionists say that as people turn their attention and efforts to shedding holiday weight, it’s worth remembering that lots of diets can help you quickly lose pounds; the issue is keeping them off after the diet.
“For most people, they’re unable to maintain that” since maintaining a weight loss requires permanent changes in eating habits and lifestyle.
That’s one of the reasons, Bray says, that there’s a perpetual market for new quick diets — “none of them accomplish the long-term goal of a cure” for obesity.
Gabriella Petrick, a food historian in Boston, says that Americans’ bodies started changing in the 20th century. “We as a society are getting fatter,” she says.
Along with that, she says, is a growing understanding “that once we put weight on, it’s so hard to take it off. The newer thinking is ‘Don’t put it on in the first place.’ ”