The History of Diets

Think you know everything about the history of dieting? Fat chance.

Slim to None

To put it mildly, dieting wasn't really a concern for our ancestors. For them, the main problem was getting more carbs, fat, and sugar into their systems, not less. That's why, in all of human history, the first person to go on a recorded weight-loss diet was England's first king, William I. Better known as William the Conqueror, by all accounts, he's the fattest man to lead a major country until William Howard Taft became stuck in a bathtub nearly 1,000 years later. Near the end of his life, William became so corpulent that he was unable to get on a horse, a major drawback at a time when that was a key means of transportation and regal honor. To cut his waistline, William adopted a liquid diet; with "liquid" here meaning "liquor." For the better part of a year, the king attempted to subsist on nothing but alcohol. Amazingly, this worked better than you might expect and, eventually, he was even able to get back in the saddle. Unfortunately, this also led to his undoing. Not long after losing the weight, the king was riding his horse when it reared, driving the saddle horn into his gut and causing internal injuries that killed him shortly thereafter. To add insult to fatal injury, when it came time to load William into his casket, it turned out his diet hadn't worked all that well, Courtiers still had to squeeze him into the box. Thus, appropriately, the first diet was also the first failed diet.


The first fad diet programs began popping up in the 19th century in America, usually centered around sanitarium health spas. But it wasn't until the dawn of the 20th century that the diet really became part of popular culture. Much of the credit for that achievement goes to Horace Fletcher, a businessman and self-taught nutritionist who became the 20th century's first diet guru. Fletcher's diet was really more of an overall plan for how people ought to eat, whether they were fat or not. To Fletcher, most of America's dietary health, from corpulence to bad dental hygiene, could be explained by one simple fact: people weren't chewing enough. Fletcher taught that, for ideal health, people should chew food until it becomes liquid in their mouths. Yum. From 1895 until 1919, Fletcherism was a part of the American psyche, with believers claiming that it would help you lose weight, keep your teeth clean and healthy, and save you money on food you'd have otherwise wasted in rushed, careless eating. For best weight-loss results, Fletcherites were also urged to eat only when they were really, really hungry and to never eat when their emotions were running high. If they followed these rules, and adequately chewed everything, they could eat whatever they wanted.

Weight Watchers

Arguable not so much a "fad" as a long-standing love affair, Weight Watchers was started in the small Queens, New York home of Jean Nidetch in the early 1960s. According to her own reports, Nidetch had always been a "big girl," and had never felt comfortable around thin people, preferring to build friendships with people who were struggling with their weight as much as she was. As a young wife in her 20s, Nidetch decided to finally get control of her body, but even after losing 20 pounds in 10 weeks using a diet sponsored by the New York City Board of Health, she found she couldn't seem to stick to the plan in the long term. That was when she realized she needed the support of her friends. Nidetch began holding weekly meetings at her house, passing copies of the Board of Health Diet to anyone who came, with the hope that the more people were dieting together the better they all would do. Bear in mind, this predates the self-help movement and its attendant support-group networks. Nidetch and her friends were making this all up from scratch, and it turned out to be an addictive recipe. Within three months of her first meeting, more than 40 people were cramming into Nidetch's house on a weekly basis. Over the next year, she started several different groups around the New York metro area, finally incorporating her fledgling business in May of 1963. Now down to a trim 142 pounds, Nidetch hosted her first official Weight Watchers meeting, drawing more than 400 attendees.

The Drinking Man's Diet

In 1964, stylish San Franciscan Robert Cameron launched the one diet we would personally be ecstatic to follow. Combining his triple loves (booze, gourmet food, and weight loss), Cameron launched what he christened "The Drinking Man's Diet," aiming it at slightly chubby men-about-town such as himself. Cameron began the business with a simple pamphlet, price at $1 (cheap!) and within two years he'd sold more than 2 million copies. And no wonder. At its core, The Drinking Man's Diet was a pre-Atkins take on the low-carbohydrate plan. In Cameron's time, however, low-carb tended to take the form of country-club lunch foods: fine steaks, meaty fish, French sauces, and high-quality cheese. Cameron called this "man-type" food and supplemented it with a healthy daily serving of booze. Noting that distilled spirits, such as rum, vodka, and gin, all contained mere trace amounts of carbs, Cameron incorporated them into his plan, thus finding a way to stand out from the crowd by crafting a diet perfectly fit for the pages of Playboy. In fact, the Drinking Man's Diet and Cameron himself are still going strong. The pamphlet now costs $4.95 on while Cameron remain svelte at 96 years old.

And Another Thing: The Other "Ayds"

Just a simple appetite-suppressant candy laced with phenylpropanolamine (try it in chocolate, caramel, or butterscotch!), Ayds were the toast of the weight-conscious 1970s. Then, the company hit a small marketing snag. Although company officials claimed that there had been no HIV-related impact on sales in 1983, within five years Ayds had lost 50 percent of its market share and the company was reluctantly forced to "soften" the name to "Diet Ayds," a name that customers were less prone to associate with the horrific virus-related deaths.


The article above was reprinted with permission from mental_floss' book In the Beginning.

From Big Hair to the Big Bang, here's a Mouthwatering Guide to the Origins of Everything by our friends at mental_floss.

Did you know that paper clips started out as Nazi-fighting warriors? Or that cruise control was invented by a blind genius? Read it all in the book!

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The drinking man`s diet appeals to me!
I am not surprised it was so popular.

What I find amazing is that the author stayed so slim.
I have got to give that one a try!
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Interesting article, but William I was not even close to being England's first king.

Those interested in the subject should look into George Cheyne, an early proponent of vegetarianism. "Obesity and Depression in the Enlightenment" is a good look at his interesting life.
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I've got an original, hardback copy of "The Drinking Man's Diet Cookbook" I found in a thrift shop years ago. The recipes sound disgusting, but the cover's such a conversation piece that I keep it around.
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