Gluten-free, Paleo, low-carb, keto, Atkins, pescatarian, Mediterranean, vegan — the list of dietary fads and trends around these days is almost overwhelming! While it might seem like dietary trends have only been around for a few decades, when we look back, we can see people have been trying different ways of eating for at least the past 100 years or so. Some of today’s longer-lasting plans have their roots in some of these earlier dietary plans. Let’s look at some of the most popular diet plans over the past several decades and see which ones had merit — and which ones were destined to fail!
The 1900s — The Mastication Diet
As with many popular eating plans, we have an individual to thank for starting this one. An industrialist named Horace Fletcher believed that chewing our food until it was liquefied before swallowing was the key to good health, a process called mastication — which he renamed “Fletcherism.” Fletcher even advised against swallowing beverages before allowing them to mix with saliva in the mouth first. And again, as with many trendy diets, mastication had a celebrity following with renowned people such as Thomas Edison, Henry James, John D. Rockefeller, J.C. Penney and Franz Kafka trying his plan.
Is there any merit to mastication? Most nutritionists will agree that taking the time to enjoy a meal in the company of others is healthier than standing over the sink shoveling food into your mouth. And by eating more slowly and chewing food properly, we’re likely to consume fewer calories and aid our digestive system. However, chewing food to the point of liquid is probably overkill!
The 1920s — The Cigarette Diet
The Roaring ‘20s were all about pushing the limits when it came to music, booze and the length of women’s hair and dresses, so it should come as no surprise that promoting the idea of smoking yourself thin was widely embraced in some circles. Remember, this was long before we knew the dangers of smoking! Lucky Strike even touted the motto, “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.”
Nicotine is a stimulant and an appetite suppressant, so it can contribute to weight loss — but at a significant cost to your health and to those around you. Ditch this dietary plan!
The 1930s — The Grapefruit Diet AKA The Hollywood Diet
This diet featured drinking black coffee and eating only small quantities of lean meat, salad and a half of grapefruit before each meal. Followers chose a 7-day or a 21-day plan, which were basically very low-calorie diets. Proponents of the Grapefruit Diet believed grapefruits contained fat-burning enzymes. Later versions of the diet emerged — including one in the 1970s called the Mayo Clinic Diet which had no affiliation with the real clinic.
Can you lose weight on the Grapefruit Diet? Since it’s a restricted-calorie and low-carb dietary plan, you will lose weight — but not because grapefruit contains a silver bullet that melts fat! Grapefruits are high in antioxidants, which aid in disease prevention, so it certainly can’t hurt to consume them as a healthy snack if it helps you eat fewer calories during meals. However, due to the extreme calorie restriction, it’s not a sustainable diet and you risk missing out on essential nutrients.
The 1950s – The Cabbage Soup Diet
Cabbage soup three to four times per day — that was the gist of the Cabbage Diet! People lost weight (mostly water weight) since they were ingesting few calories but at the price of dizziness, inadequate protein intake and vitamin and mineral deficiencies. This diet is also unsustainable.
The 1960s — Weight Watchers, The Vegetarian Diet & Rainbow Pills
In 1961, an overweight housewife named Jean Nidetch realized she could stick to her diet more successfully if she invited friends who were also trying to lose weight over to her home for weekly meetings. The group soon realized they were on to something — the ongoing support was the key to losing weight and keeping it off.
Nidetch’s idea grew from there and in 1963, she launched Weight Watchers and began holding meetings in public places. Weight Watchers continues to be one of the most successful diet and lifestyle plans around today. If you find your motivation waning or you need structured meal plans, you might want to give Weight Watchers a try!
Later in the ‘60s, the counterculture not only turned its back on religion, the Vietnam War and conservative values — it rejected mass-produced, commercially packaged foods. Food co-ops sprung up and many people embraced eating wholesome fruits and vegetables while avoiding meat.
Eating a plant-based diet certainly offers a variety of health benefits and can help you lose weight — if you eat mostly fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, seeds, nuts and whole grains, not cheese pizza, mac & cheese and high-calorie, sugary drinks! You also must follow guidelines for pairing certain foods to be sure you’re meeting all your nutritional needs.
Amphetamines, a synthetic stimulant, began showing up in diet pills in the ‘50s but they gained momentum in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Drug companies and unscrupulous doctors began prescribing a variety of pills including amphetamines, laxatives, diuretics and thyroid hormones for weight loss — but patients were so wired at the end of the day, they couldn’t sleep. To counteract the stimulants, doctors prescribed “downers” such as barbiturates, benzodiazepines, corticosteroids and antidepressants.
Due to the variety of pill colors, this practice earned the nickname “Rainbow Pills.” As you might imagine, this practice was dangerous and led to psychosis, strokes and even death. “Rainbow pills” have reemerged over the decades, most recently marketed as “herbal supplements.”
The 1970s — The Atkins Diet & The Scarsdale Diet
The Atkins Diet
A cardiologist named Robert C. Atkins developed this high-protein, very low-carb, high-fat diet in the early ‘70s. You’re encouraged to eat a lot of meat, dairy, oils, and eggs and avoid bread, pasta, fruit and sugar — it’s very similar to the keto diet many follow today. The diet has four stages, starting with eating almost no carbs and then gradually adding up to 40-60 grams of carbs once you’ve reached your desired weight.
Many have lost weight on the Atkins Diet since avoiding carbs forces the body to burn stored fat for energy. Potential Atkins Diet problems include vitamin and mineral deficiencies, reduced kidney function and increased risk of osteoporosis and colon cancer.
The Scarsdale Diet
Similar to the Atkins Diet, the Scarsdale Diet was founded by a cardiologist, Dr. Herman Tarnower, and severely restricted calories and carbs and prohibited snacking. Tarnower devised four variations of the diet: epicurean tastes, international, vegetarian and money-saver. As with Atkins, people lost weight but risked similar health issues. Both diets are difficult to follow for extended periods.
The 1980s —SlimFast & Low-Fat Diets
SlimFast, meal-replacement, high-protein shakes, were introduced in 1977 but gained popularity in the early ‘80s. The program told users to drink a shake for breakfast and lunch, eat three 100-calorie snacks and eat a “sensible dinner” every day. Followers lost weight because again — it’s a calorie-restricted diet. SlimFast works for those who like the simplicity of not having to worry about portion sizes.
Aerobic dance exercise took the ‘80s by storm too, with celebrities such as Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons making videos, and we saw exercise studios popping up everywhere.
Nutritionists began noticing that the high-fat diets often led to heart attacks and other health issues, so in the ‘80s, fat became Public Enemy #1. People were advised to avoid fats, which resulted in diets high in carbs and sugar to compensate for the missing fat in foods. The biggest problem — trans fats such as margarine and processed vegetable oils. These products were cheaper and had a longer shelf life too, so packaged foods were loaded with them.
Reduced-fat and fat-free products began flying off the shelves and this trend continues today. However, the obesity epidemic began in 1980 and rates have skyrocketed over the past 30 years. Now many nutritionists believe this low-fat trend is one of the most significant contributing factors to obesity.
Diet Trends Today
As noted above, today keto, gluten-free, vegan, Mediterranean and Paleo are among the most common dietary trends today. Many of these trends have their merits and help us lose weight and eat healthier. The key takeaway is to ensure your nutritional needs are being met. If you need to follow a specific diet plan such as gluten-free, Paleo, or diabetic, etc. but lack the time to shop, prep and cook meals, consider a meal-delivery program! Many can accommodate specific dietary needs and contain no preservatives, artificial ingredients or sweeteners you frequently find in packaged, diet-plan foods.