A Brief History of Dieting

Diet fads come and go, but the history of dieting goes back far before reality television shows like ABC’s new My Diet is Better Than Yours. While dieting did not become an established industry until the 1950s, the National Eating Disorders Association says the promotion of unhealthy body images and weight-loss practices dates back to the 1800s at least. From tight corsets made of whalebone to the “Cigarette Diet” to dangerous anti-obesity prescription drugs, dieting has now transformed into a $61 billion industry that influences not only our health choices, but also our lifestyle choices. With the help of theNational Eating Disorders Association, here are some important and frightening moments in diet trend history. Here’s hoping the future holds a more balanced, healthier view of bodies.  

1800s: During the Victorian era, from 1839 to 1901, women wore corsets laced so tightly that they were known to cause fainting, muscle dilapidation, and crushed ribs.

1863: William Banting, an overweight, former undertaker becomes the “grandfather of low-carbohydrate diets” by writing about his weight-loss plan in Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public. It sells more than 100,000 copies on both sides of the Atlantic.

1914: Plastic surgery is introduced to cosmetically repair the bodies of injured First World War soldiers, but is quickly used in private practice to alter women’s features.

1925: The Cigarette Diet is introduced by Lucky Strike Cigarettes with the slogan, “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.” In the ‘20s, tobacco companies begin to target women, suggesting that smoking helps control weight. Even today, 40 to 50 percent of female smokers still smoke for diet control.

1930: The first industrialized liquid diet is introduced. Dr. Stoll’s Diet Aid was a powdered meal replacement sold in beauty salons. It consisted of a teaspoon of milk chocolate, starch, whole wheat, and bran in one cup of water.

1934: Good news for fruit lovers — bad news for people who care about getting full nutrients in their diet. The Grapefruit Diet, consisting of eating grapefruit before every meal, becomes extremely popular. The United Fruit Company also promoted the Banana and Skim Milk Diet, consisting of eating four to six bananas and drinking three to four glasses of milk every day for two weeks.

1950: The Cabbage Soup Diet, which involves the unlimited consumption of a low-calorie cabbage soup, is launched and remains one of the oldest fad diets in use today. The girdle, an elasticized foundation garment which replaced the corset, is introduced and will become commonplace in the years to come.

1959: The FDA approves the first appetite suppressant, Phentermine. But by the ’60s, amphetamine-based weight-loss drugs are found to be habit-forming and dangerous.

1963: Peer pressure and public shaming work — and the numbers don’t lie. When Weight Watchers launched, it recruited 500,000 members and grossed $5.5 million in one year. Nowadays, Oprah Winfrey owns 15 percent of the company.

1970s: The Sugar Association launches a self-serving advertising campaign touting sugar as a useful diet aid, appetite suppressant, and energy booster. The advertisements claim that“[s]ugar can be the willpower you need to undereat” and “[i]f sugar is so fattening, how come so many kids are thin?”



1974: Short shorts-wearing exercise guru Richard Simmons hits the Beverly Hills scene with his judgment-free gym for overweight people, Slimmons. He authored nine fitness books and after home video was introduced in 1982, sold 20 million copies of hisSweatin’ to the Oldies aerobics tapes.

1976: Definitely don’t try this at home — ever. The Sleeping Beauty Diet sedates people for several days as a way to promote weight loss. Reportedly, Elvis Presley was a fan of this diet.

1982: Jane Fonda’s Workout becomes the best-selling video of the time, selling 17 million copies worldwide, and launches a new home video workout craze. Jane Fonda’s iconic legwarmers and Technicolor leotards become fitness mainstays.

1992: The anorectic, anti-obesity drugs Phentermine (FDA approved in 1959) and Fenfluramine (FDA approved in 1973) aren’t particularly effective individually — but are promoted as a “wonder drug” when combined as Pondimin. The drug was withdrawn from the American market in 1997 after reports of heart valve disease and pulmonary hypertension. It was banned in India in 1998.

1994: The early ‘90s were fraught with low-fat, low-sugar, “diet” versions of common foods. For example, the Snackwell’s reduced-calorie, chocolate-creme sandwich cookies replaced Oreos as the nation’s most-popular cookie.

1995: Another diet pill, Redux, enters the market because Pondimin’s patent is about to expire. Time magazine dedicates a cover to the drug, which was boosted by a $52 million marketing campaign and 85,000 prescriptions written by doctors every week.

2002: Time magazine names Robert Atkins, MD, creator of the low-carbohydrate Atkins Diet, one of its 10 most influential people of the year. While low-carb diets surged in popularity, experts such as Robert Eckel of the American Heart Association warned that this was a short-term weight-loss solution that low-carbohydrate diets increased the risk of heart disease.

2004: The Biggest Loser premieres on NBC, turning dieting in a national spectacle and competition. The show features obese or overweight contestants competing for a cash prize by losing the highest percentage of weight relative to their initial weight. The weight loss regiment in the show involves severe calorie restriction and up to six hours a day of exercise. Shows like ABC’s Extreme Weight Loss (premiered 2011), MTV’s I Used to Be Fat (premiered 2010), and The CW’s Shedding for the Wedding (premiered 2011) followed. In January 2016, My Diet is Better Than Yours will premiere on ABC.

2010s: Vegetarians are out of luck as diets heavy in protein become popular. Books touting the Paelo, Paleo Solution and Primal Blueprint diets encourage red meats and discourse fruits and other carbohydrates.

2016: The diet industry grosses more than $61 billion annually in the U.S. alone. Almost half of all American women are dieting daily.