Throughout history, charlatans and snake-oil salesmen have capitalized on the allure of fads promising shortcuts to health, happiness, or a narrower waist-line – generally for a price. As a reminder of the dangers of potions and panaceas, our team of expert nutritionists has compiled a list of ten (thankfully largely debunked) health and dietary movements from history.
Frida Harju-Westman, our in-house nutritionist, comments: “Not only do these fads come in all shapes and sizes, but with each one comes a story. Often, it is a story of intentional deceit; sometimes of desperation; and sometimes simply of hysteria taking hold. This list aims to serve as a warning about the dangers of sensationalist trends in the world of health – and illustrate just how far people will go for the sake of body-image.
“At Lifesum, we advocate none of these methods. Instead, we recommend a balanced diet which does not devote itself to one specific type, coupled with regular exercise and a balanced perception of body-image. This will do far more for a person’s wellbeing than cotton balls, cigarettes, or tapeworms.”
Lord Byron (1788-1824) is perhaps remembered most for his poetry and volatile love-life, rather than for his expertise as a diet guru – but the flamboyant aristocrat was one of the first ‘celebrity’ diet influencers. Byron cultivated an image of gaunt athleticism, when, in reality, the poet struggled to control his waistline. In his later years, Byron adopted a number of detox-like health regimes, of which a more extreme was the ‘vinegar diet’. This consisted of copious quantities of vinegar, sometimes soaked up by rice or potatoes. The regime was replicated by Byron’s fans looking to emulate his fashionable pallor. The results (vomiting and diarrhoea) were rather less poetic.
In the mid-19th century, the mass-production of rubber goods was achieved for the first time. Amongst the stranger of these new products was a range of rubber corsets and knickers designed to help the wearer lose weight – based on the premise that the rubber would help wearers to sweat fat out of the body. For obvious reasons, the garments were uncomfortable to wear under already-restrictive Victorian clothing, damaged the skin, and had no effect on the wearer’s weight whatsoever.
Now widely recognized as a deadly poison, in the 19th-century arsenic was a key ingredient in countless medicines, treatments, and even high-end wallpaper. Its use in diet remedies, peddled by unlicensed quacks who lied about the benefits, was particularly fatal – bringing premature deaths to people expecting weight loss and improved digestion.
Invented in 1894 by brothers John Harvey and Will Keith Kellogg, corn flakes were initially introduced as part of a bland diet intended to prevent masturbation amongst residents at the Battle Creek Sanitarium (a Seventh-Day Adventist Church health resort), where the brothers worked as superintendent and bookkeeper respectively. J.H. Kellogg was an ardent critic of masturbation, believing it to cause “cancer of the womb, urinary diseases, nocturnal emissions, impotence, epilepsy, insanity, and mental and physical debility”, amongst other issues. Kellogg explored a variety of treatments for patients, and – as popularised by 1994 movie, The Road to Wellville – the Sanitarium provided many other health and nutritional therapies to residents, including regular yogurt enemas and ice-cold colonic cleansing.
While tobacco was sometimes used medicinally in the 18th and 19th centuries, by the 1920s, US cigarette companies had begun to receive their first complaints about the negative health-related effects of smoking. In a pre-emptive move, they integrated physicians into their marketing and advertising campaigns to espouse the health benefits of smoking. Several of these experts hailed the appetite-suppressing side-effects of cigarettes. The wording of one Lucky Strike advert in particular would draw gasps from the modern consumer market: “Light a Lucky, and you’ll never miss sweets that make you fat.”
Tapeworms are flat, segmented worms that can live in the stomachs and digestive tracts of humans and animals for years on end, and, in some cases, seriously damage their host’s health. This did not deter those swayed by early 20th century advertisements for the ‘tapeworm diet’. Advocates of the diet maintained that the parasite would harmlessly dwell in the host’s digestive tract and consume fatty foods ingested. The worms were packaged, sold, and advertised as legitimate medicines. Despite the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officially banning the practice, still today a host of diet blogs cover the topic – and it was even mentioned enviously on television by a Kardashian.
Legend has it that Elvis Presley himself was an advocate of this short-lived 1970s weight-loss solution. Based on the principle that the body burns off calories during sleep, this diet required a comfortable bed and heavy sedation. The dieters would then lose several days in a comatose state, supposedly achieving considerable weight-loss in the process.
Designed to enable weight-loss through the daily consumption of several specially formulated cookies, since its introduction by Dr. Sanford Siegal in 1975 the Cookie Diet has provided users with a food regime that is as dull as it is innutritious. Whilst it may help weight-loss in the short-term (as any calorie-controlled diet will), restricting intake to only cookies and a small dinner is likely to lead to nutritional deficiencies. A much healthier way to lose weight is to adopt a well-rounded, balanced diet of smaller portions.
In 1976, American doctor, Robert Linn, revealed his ominously named ‘Last Chance Diet’, which instructed desperate readers to eat nothing except, conveniently, his miracle weight-loss tonic, ‘Prolinn’. This curious concoction was brewed from ground animal bones, horns, hooves, and hides from slaughter-houses, before being treated with artificial flavours and colours. Prolinn provided a mere 400 calories per day, but was also nutrient-free. At least 60 people who tried the diet suffered sudden deaths.
A more recent nutritional programme, supposedly created by the modelling industry, the Cotton Ball diet first gained widespread notoriety in 2013. The diet is fairly self-explanatory: encouraging dieters to consume cotton wool balls in order to create a sense of ‘fullness’ – therefore suppressing hunger. Unsurprisingly, not only does this diet not aid the process of losing weight, but it is also highly dangerous. Ingesting cotton wool drastically increases the risk of choking, malnutrition, and intestinal tract obstructions.
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