A Bizarre History of Diet Fads in America


Americans spend around $40 billion annually on diet programs, diet meals, diet supplements and diet fads. Check out some of the most bizarre weight-loss plans in history.

Before the Cookie Diet, Zone Diet and the detox and cleansing diets, people tried many ways to reach their ideal size. Throughout history, Americans have craved weight-loss gimmicks.

The American Dietetic Association, the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals, says fad diets are nothing new. In fact, the ADA has a list of fascinating diet crazes dating back to 1820.

Would you believe doctors once recommended that their patients light up to slim down? What about the diet that claimed you can eat what you want and wash it all down with booze? How about the minister who preached that spices could lead to sexual excess?

“What were they thinking? It just goes to show how we really need to use science as our guide when we’re choosing what we eat,” says Cathy Moore, a registered dietitian in Watertown, New York.

As unusual as some of history’s diet fads were, aspects of them survive today.

Vinegar Diet

In 1820, British poet Lord Byron is credited with popularizing the vinegar diet. He drenched his food with the sour-tasting liquid and reportedly lost 60 pounds. Some historians believe Byron actually suffered from an eating disorder.

Graham’s Diet

In 1830, Presbyterian minister Sylvester Graham invented a diet to end the sin of gluttony. He preached against the evils of tea, coffee, alcohol, meat and spices because they could lead to sexual excess. Graham believed in drinking only pure water and eating fresh fruits and vegetables, whole wheat and high fiber foods.

Although his teachings were controversial, Graham attracted disciples. Grahamites, as they were known, became vegetarians and abstained from alcohol and sex.

“It was very odd and very interesting,” says Moore.

Graham’s movement eventually died off, but his legacy lives on; he’s known today as the father of graham crackers.

Cigarette Diet

In 1925, Lucky Strikes cigarettes encouraged dieters to “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.”

“That’s when the research started to show that there might be a problem with smoking cigarettes so they actually put a health spin on it and they actually got doctors to prescribe it,” says Moore. “It’s probably a good way of killing people”

Bananas & Skim Milk Diet

In 1934, the United Fruit Company endorsed the work of Dr. George Harrop, who found skim milk and bananas to be an ideal diet.

“It was one of the first efforts of having a marketing effort in terms of getting people to eat a certain way to sell a product,” says Moore.

She says bananas and milk are probably the healthiest of all of the fad diets because you get protein, calcium and potassium from the foods.

“I’m not saying it’s good, but it’s not as harmful,” says Moore.

The Drinking Man’s Diet

Robert Cameron published this best-seller in 1964. He claimed men could eat a steak, wash it down with a martini and still lose weight. His approach is sometimes described as the granddaddy of all low-carbohydrate diets. The Harvard School of Public Health declared the diet unhealthful.

Best Diet Advice

According to Moore, diet fads don’t work. She says people should eat large amounts fruits and vegetables and small amounts of lean meat.

“They should be eating at least six servings of grain and at least half of those should be whole grains,” she says.

Moore also says it’s important to eat protein foods like beans, legumes, nuts and seeds. In addition, people should drink two to three servings of low fat milk and limit the amount of fats and sugars in their diets.


  1. American Dietetic Association;
  2. Never Satisfied: A Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies & Fat by Hillel Schwartz, and the University of Colorado at Boulder.