It was Lord Byron, the waifish Romantic poet, who popularised this grim-tasting fad. In 1820, he noted down in his diary that he maintained his slim figure by drinking a mixture of vinegar and water. According to him, the acid quenched his appetite, so he ate only one meal a day. His female fans followed suit, after he made the claim that women “should never be seen eating or drinking, unless it be lobster salad and champagne, the only truly feminine and becoming viands”.
Though it’s true that a person can’t eat or be hungry if they’re asleep, this weight-loss plan isn’t recommended. The theory behind it is that a dieter should sleep most hours of the day and night, in order to keep calorie intake to a bare minimum. But in order to achieve this, followers (Elvis Presley was rumoured to have dabbled) artificially sedated themselves with drugs and alcohol, leading to long-term health damage.
When the power of advertising took off in the early 20th century, so too did this unhealthy meal replacement. Hoping to give women a reason to buy cigarettes, the brand Lucky Strike launched a campaign with the tagline: “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet”. The aggressive ad was published widely in fashion magazines and newspapers. However, the confectionery industry hit back and sued Lucky Strike, claiming that sweets were actually key to a balanced diet. Nonetheless, the campaign meant business was booming, and they were the most profitable cigarette brand for two years running.
Also known as the ‘chew-and-spit’ diet, this obsessive regime suggested that adherents should chew food hundreds of times, extracting all the ‘goodness’, before spitting out its ‘fibrous’ remains. A single shallot, for example, should be munched 700 times. The notion was pioneered by an American named Horace Fletcher, who claimed he had lost 40 pounds. He believed that if food was totally liquidised, it would reduce the calories. The jaw-aching trend reached its peak in the early 20th century, when prolific figures such as John D Rockefeller gave it a go.
Though it’s arguably the most unpopular meal in existence, a diet solely consisting of ‘nutritious’ cabbage soup gained a large following in the post-war era. The weightwatcher was able to have as much of the soup as they could eat – so long as it was the only thing they ate. Allegedly, you could lose up to ten pounds (four-and-a-half kilograms) a week. However, potential side-effects include flatulence, bad breath and possibly nausea when faced with yet another bowl of cabbage soup.
Back in the Victorian era, you could get wonder cures for nearly anything, including obesity. Those wishing to shed the fat quickly could take a number of dubious pills, including ones that contained arsenic. Though it was usually only a small amount, most people were unaware of exactly what they were taking, since it was (unsurprisingly) not advertised. As a result, keen dieters frequently overdosed on the pills, in some cases causing poisoning and death.
The most cringeworthy item on our list has to be the tapeworm diet – not for the faint of heart! This disgusting fad had its origins in the Victorian era, and meant swallowing a tapeworm, which then lived in the intestine eating digested food. It was rumoured that Greek opera singer Maria Callas achieved drastic weight loss via this method, though she denied it. The parasite can grow up to 30 feet long, eat its way into other parts of the body, and cause starvation.
The Hollywood Treatment
The myth that grapefruit has calorie-burning properties has persisted since the 1930s. Apparently, eating one half of the fruit with each meal will burn some of its fat, saving followers from doing it themselves by exercising. Despite consistently being proved false, the notion survives, and has spread to other fruits such as pineapple.
Crash diets are nothing new. A 16th-century Venetian merchant and libertine, Luigi Cornaro, decided to turn his failing health around. Cutting down his allowance to 400g of food a day (but generously giving himself nearly a pint of wine), and eating mainly eggs, bread and soup, the old reprobate lived until he was around 100 years old. He published his radical eating habits in a bestselling book, The Art of Living Long (1588).
Read more about history’s greatest mysteries in issue 43 of History Revealed, on sale now in all good newsagents and supermarkets. Subscribe and save 33% on the newsstand price.