5-Star Wellness Retreat

The History of Dieting (Part 2)

Be sure to start with The History of Dieting (Part 1: Ancient History to WWI) and check out our timeline infographic.

The Movies, The Great War, and the Revolution to Be Slim

The most dramatic change in American attitudes toward diet and weight occurred right after World War I, a time of social revolution and feminism. The world was ready for a new kind of music, clothing, and moral decorum. Everyone was ignoring Prohibition laws and meeting up in speak-easies to dance, drink and smoke. Waltz-time became jazz rhythmn and corseted long dresses gave way to short slinky flapper dresses. Automobiles became mainstream, giving unmarried couples a place to “neck” in privacy. 

vintage ad for quack fat cure

Do you think Dr. Oz would have brought her on his show?

Fabrics for flapper dresses were so silky that you had to wear them without stiff undergarments. The ideal figure was boyish, straight and very slim, and to finish out the androgenuous look, you bobbed your hair very short. Slim was in, curves were out.  Helena Rubenstein, who owned a large cosmetic company, wrote in her 1918 book “The Art of Beauty,” “Fat is repulsive. Slim and boyish is sexier than womanly.”

All of a sudden Americans were buying their first bathroom scales as well as vitamins, fat massages, thyroid extracts, sweat baths, chewing gums and pills with diet drugs in them. Magazines that reached mass audiences –Ladies Home Journal, Saturday Evening Post and others– were covered with ads for weight loss cures. Most of them, such as using soaps, body brushes, and electric currents to take away body fat, did not work and would never be allowed on the market today.                   

Some of the pills, gums, and patent medicines were actually dangerous and contained iodine, arsenic, and other poisons. Hundreds of thousands of pills made of dinitrophenol were sold during this era. Dinitrophenol did speed up your metabolic rate, but yet many people who tried it died or went blind. It was later banned as a powerful carcinogen.

When American soldiers returned from battlegrounds in Europe by the thousands, they  brought with them the first packaged cigarettes. You no longer had to roll each cigarette yourself. What had formerly been a man’s habit done in special “smoking” rooms and train cars, now was taken up by women. It became fashionable for flappers to carry their smokes in fancy bejeweled cases, and to use long cigarette holders that looked like pieces of jewelry.

lucky strikes for weight loss

And no one will want to kiss you because your mouth tastes like an ashtray.

By the mid-1920s, cigarette companies were selling cigarettes as health aids that benefitted digestion and most importantly, helped you to stay slim. The ads would feature doctors in white coats testifying  how they advised their patients to smoke for their health.  One of the most famous ad campaigns from the era was a Lucky Strike campaign with the slogan “Reach for a Lucky instead of a Sweet.”  The ads depicted beautiful and slim flappers, liberated and carefree, smoking Lucky Strikes.  Within the next ten years, cigarette manufacturers actually added amphetamines and other appetite suppressants into their products.

Yet the biggest influence on the ideal of slimness was the Hollywood movie industry, which began making the first silent movies about 1895.  By the early 1920s, Americans were paying five cents at their local Nickeleon to watch one short silent movie after another while a piano player provided the only sound.  Silent films starring Greta Garbo, Clara Bow, and Rudolph Valentino reached Americans in small farming towns, showing them how beautiful, thin and glamorous a person could be with the right body, make-up and clothes.

As slimness became the ideal, it also became perfectly acceptable to say all kinds of mean things about overweight people.  Dr. Leonard Williams, author of a 1926 diet book, said being fat was about “self-indulgence, greed and gormandising.” Dr. Williams accused American women of overfeeding their husbands to make them docile. William Fitch, author of “Dietotherapy,” wrote that fat people turn their stomachs into “an overfed boiler that burns out.” Amelia Summerville, author of the 1916 book called “Why be Fat?” wrote “I would die sooner than be fat.” 

Just like today, everyone was eager to read the next diet book and try the newest fad.  One was the “Inuit Diet,” introduced by a Swede who lived in the Arctic.  Vihjalmur Stefansson preached that Eskimos ate high calorie diets of whale blubber, caribou, and raw fish along with very little fruit or vegetables, and yet they remained healthy and slim.  His meaty diet was very similar to today’s “Caveman” and “Paleo” fads.

Backlash Against the Flappers and Their Diets

At the 1926 American Medical Association’s Convention, doctors spoke out against silly but dangerous diet cures and insane female regimes designed to diet away natural body curves, a fad they said could jeopardize a woman’s ability to conceive a child.  As one doctor put it, “It’s prepostorous. Is there no humbug too raw? Women should not follow beauty ideals to endanger motherhood.”

Dr. Morris Fishbein, writing in 1929, was even more forceful about dangerous dieting, although sadly he was also both sexist and homophobic in his protestations, “Malnourished women are deeply unattractive,” he wrote, “and they threaten male and female norms, encouraging the rise of lesbianism. Female fat is necessary for societal survival. This nonsense is the result of feminism.”  Writing in the same year Dr. Harlow Brooks agreed.  “A woman who is naturally sweet-tempered, good-natured and competent,” he wrote, “transforms into a different person (on a diet). She becomes petulant, unreasonable and hard to get along with, and might even end up as a lesbian.”

The Depression Makes Everybody Thinner

Bile beans vintage ad

And everyone’s favorite supplement, bile beans. Take it at bedtime, but leave extra time to get ready in the morning.

The Great Depression began in October 1929, changing Americans’ relationship with food.  All of a sudden people were going hungry. Overindulgence in food was seen as immoral and insensitive while others were starving.  This paradoxically meant the demand for diets, cigarettes, and weight loss cures did not go away, and may have even increased. 

All kinds of products were for sale, such as La-Mar Reducing Soap, Slends Fat Reducing Chewing Gum, Slenmar reducing brush, and Lesser Slim Figure Bath Oil. Over $50 million was spent every year on laxatives, which were used as an ingredient in “reducing breads.” The first diet drink, named Squirt, also went on the market.

In 1936, 26,000 joined a radio “reducing party” hosted by Victor Hugo Lindlahr, author of “You Are What You Eat.”

Women’s fashions in the 1930s were still so slinky and form-fitting that you had to be slim to wear them.  The style icons like Ginger Rogers, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, and Jean Harlow were all underweight, and their fans wanted to know how they kept slim.

First celebrity trainer

German-born Gayelord Hauser came down with tuberculosis in his twenties at a time when the disease was a death sentence. He managed to cure himself on a diet of salads, fruit juices, vegetable broths, and herbs, and then studied nutrition in earnest.  He arrived in Hollywood with a fake doctorate degree, but with his good looks and charismatic personality, he was able to convince movie stars like Marlene Dietrich, Paulette Goddard, and Gloria Swanson to follow his advice. He later worked with Ingrid Bergman, the Duchess of Windsor and Grace Kelly.  His most famous client was Greta Garbo, who was also his lover. 

Hauser wrote that “there is a real tragedy in fat” because fat women never reach their potential and “sleep is their only pleasure.”  He was the first to use juice diets to “cleanse” the body. His diet was extreme: a small fruit forsquirt vintage ad breakfast, salad for lunch, and one meat with chilled vegetables and small fruit for dinner.

First Tummy Tucks, Breast Reduction, Double Chin Surgeries

The first tummy tuck took place in 1899 at John’s Hopkins Hospital when Dr. Howard Kelly removed 15 pounds of fat from a patient’s “apron belly.”  Surgeries like these were rare because patients often died from infections or necrosis. Treatments improved during World War I when doctors were doing many restorative surgeries on wounded veterans.

By 1930, tummy tucks, double chin and breast reductions and other “beauty surgeries” were available but rarely done.  One doctor from the era sounds very modern when he said, “They are only satisfied for a little time and then they come back for more.”

Men Catch the Fever for the Perfect Body

charles atlas vintage ad

Siciliano changed his name to Charles Atlas and bought stock in leopard print underpants

Angelo Siciliano, an Italian immigrant, was at the beach at Coney Island when a bully kicked sand in his face.  The “97-pound weakling,” as Siciliano described himself, had no defense against the bully. Siciliano got into weight lifting, and by the 1930s he was winning body building competitions and posing for artists.  He changed his name to “Charles Atlas,” and took out ads in men’s magazines and newspapers to promote his body building secrets.  All the ads had a similar theme: after a bully insults a weakling, his girlfriend laughs and leaves him.  They had titles like: “The Insult That Turned a ‘Chump’ Into a Champ” and “How Jack the Weakling Slaughtered the Dance-Floor Hog.”  Over six million kits were sold. Mahatma Gandhi supposedly ordered a Charles Atlas kit, but unfortunately the company couldn’t ship to India.

In 1936 Jack LaLanne started the first health club in Oakland, California, and designed the first leg extension machines and other fitness equipment. He immediately faced opposition from the medical establishment, and later told an interviewer, “The doctors were against me—they said that working out with weights would give people heart attacks and they would lose their sex drive.” Nevertheless, his health clubs were successful and eventually licensed as Bally Total Fitness.

Diet Crazes of the 1930s

obesity soap vintage ad

It is so easy, especially if you eat the obesity soap.

The most interesting diet of the era was the one that gave birth to many diets of today, including the Beverly Hills, Acid Ash, Body Ph, and the Alkaline Diets.  In 1935 Dr. William Hay divided all foods into alkaline, acid or neutral.  Carbohydrates and starches are alkaline; meats and other proteins are acid; and the others are neutral. You shouldn’t combine acid and alkaline because your body is unable digest them completely if you do. Among Dr. Hay’s thousands of followers were car manufacturer Henry Ford and artist Man Ray. There is nothing scientific about his claims, although they endure today.

The Hollywood Grapefruit Diet also came out of the 1930s. This diet, a forerunner of the Scarsdale and similar ones in the 1970s, equals a half grapefruit, egg, and one Melba toast for breakfast, six slices of cucumber for lunch, and a half grapefruit, two eggs, lettuce and one tomato slice for dinner.  Another fad diet in which you consume only bananas and skim milk also dates from the 30s. 

Dr. Eustace Chesser’s book, “Slimming for the Million,” advised overweight people to avoid “fat-forming foods” and eat eggs and bacon for breakfast, meat, vegetables and fruit for lunch and dinner.  Meanwhile scientists and other experts continued to write mean things about overweight people. Professor Charles Lambie, writing in 1935, believed obesity is most common in people with “sluggish habits.” Dr. Ernest Blaxton remarked that “noble savages” are never fat so it is unnatural.  “Why do we laugh at the fat man?” he asked. “Because they look funny and have an intrinsic lack of dignity.”

Rosie the Riveter Strikes Back

America was at war. By 1943 over 11.6 million men were in uniform while American women went to work building planes and war equipment. With so many men overseas, many movies of the era were “chick flicks” with females in the lead roles.  The slim boyish body went out of fashion, and bust lines returned and stayed in fashion until around 1960. Women’s clothing was more structured and forgiving, with large padded shoulders and mannish tailoring, reflecting the cut of military uniforms.  Pants for women came in style.

vintage push ups

Before Nikes ladies wore their most sensible pumps to exercise but traction was an issue.  Hence, the poor plank form.

In 1942 the U.S. federal government was rationing food. If you wanted to buy meat, cheese, fats, canned fish, sugar, coffee, canned milk and other processed foods, you had to have government-issued coupons. Although many people bought restricted items on the black market, it was considered unpatriotic to eat more than your share of rationed foods, and wrong not to “finish all the food on your plate.”

In 1943, the U.S. federal government issued its first guidelines for good nutrition, recommending that everyone eat from the following seven food groups every day: vegetables, citrus and salad greens, potatoes and fruits, milk and dairy, meat and poultry, bread and cereals, and finally butter and margarine. These guidelines were and always are important in that they help determine school lunch programs, programs for the hungry, which crops should be raised, etc.

While women’s magazines still featured reducing diets, in the 1940s they also began to feature exercise routines, usually performed by Hollywood film stars.  The Grapefruit Diet or Hollywood Diet was still popular, as well as the Master Cleanse or Lemonade Diet. For three days you drink nothing but one teaspoon each of lemon juice and maple syrup with a dash of cayenne pepper in a glass of water, six to 12 times per day. A diet guru named Sylvia of Hollywood catered to movie stars, offering them starvation diets plus “fat reduction” massages.

In 1948 Esther Manz created a support group called TOPS, which stood for “Take Off Pounds Sensibly.” The original group met once a week in Milwaukee, did not follow a diet plan but rather just discussed their mutual struggles and weighed themselves at every meeting.

In 1942 Metropolitan Life created the first age and weight tables that showed “ideal” weights for men and women based on their height.

In the mid-1940’s Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Wards began to offer “plus-sized” clothing for women. The notation was a standard size with a plus-mark after it, such as Size 14+.

In 1949 doctors formed the National Obesity Society to understand the causes, consequences, prevention and treatment of obesity.

A British study completed in 1950 had two groups of people overeat for a week. Thin people’s metabolism raised when they overate to burn off the excess calories. Overweight people’s did not rise, leading the researchers to conclude that, “Diet advice is heartless and out of date.”

Marilyn Monroe and the Rise of Passive Exercise: 1950 to 1959

vintage girdle ad

Live rubber? Maybe the plot for a new horror franchise.

Once the war was over, women’s fashions changed again — this time they demanded an hour-glass figure with a tiny waist. Marilyn Monroe and other popular film stars were full-busted and had tiny waists — Liz Taylor’s was only 18 inches.  Since it was no longer necessary to ration rubber for the war effort, women wore constraining rubber girdles and “long-line bras” designed to hold in their waists. In the 1950s women spent about $6 million a year just on “merry widows,” which were garments that cinched the waist.

Once dieting came back in style, it once again became okay to be mean to fat people.  An ad for RyCrisp crackers featured the headline, “No one loves a fat girl.”  Hollywood diet guru Benjamin Hauser wrote in 1951, “There is no such thing as stylish stout.”

Even God did not approve of fat in the 50s. Charles Shedd, a preacher who lost 100 pounds, wrote, “We fatties are the only people on earth who can weigh our sin.”  His 1957 book was entitled “Pray Your Weight Away.”  Deborah Pierce wrote a similar book called, “I Prayed Myself Slim.”  She said she figured that “if gluttony were a sin, then God would help me overcome it.” Pierce lost enough weight to become a fashion model.

The pressure to stay thin and be buff was now on men too. Elmer Wheeler’s book, serialized in 1950s newspapers, was entitled “The Fat Boy’s Book: How Elmer lost 40 pounds in 80 days.” The work sold 112,000 copies as a hardbound.

By 1958 TOPS had 30,000 members.

By the mid-1950s, ads for diet cures began to air on television. Daytime shows by Jack LaLanne and other fitness experts featured exercises you could do along with them.

The Mead Johnson company introduced “Metracal,” a liquid shake advertised as “neither a drug nor food.” You drank a can of Metracal instead of eating a regular meal.  Similar meal replacement products quickly appeared: Bal-Cal by Sears Roebuck, Quota by Quaker Oats, and Sego by Pet Milk. By 1965 Sego and Metracal were a $450 million market.

vintage lane bryant ad

Because every overweight child dreams of being mocked into buying clothes

Plus-sized clothing was becoming widely available in most retail stores.  If a standard size was 14, the designation was often Size 14+ or Size 14-1/2.  Lane Bryant had been selling women’s plus-sized clothes since 1922, but now began marketing them in children’s sizes as well.

Some of the weight loss products sold through ads in women’s magazines were “Doctor’s Diet Reducing Tabs,” the “Sauna Slim Suit,”  and the “VibaWay Tummer Trimmer.” 

One of the most expensive weight loss cures you could buy was the Staffer Home Reducing Plan that included a machine that looked like a backless padded couch. When you lay down on it,
the “magic couch” would vibrate in such a way that your fat would disappear through “passive exercise.” The appliance could also be used to rock a baby.  Stauffer’s ads were sometimes beamed to men, noting it was an item purchased by “understanding husbands.”

The general belief among the medical community in the 1950s was that a high fat diet causes heart disease. The market responded by manufacturing low-fat versions of cottage cheese, milk, sour cream, and other processed products.

In 1956, the government changed its guidelines for a healthy diet, recommending that you eat from the following four food groups: vegetables and fruits, milk/dairy, meat, and breads/cereal. Butter was no longer a food group.

Drugs, Sex and Rock and Roll — The Sixties Way of Dieting

In the early 1950s, the United States Center for Disease Control began keeping records of obesity for the first time, partly in an effort to combat obesity-related diseases.  From 1950 to 1960 33% of adults were overweight, and an additional ten percent were clinically obese.  By 1969, 35% of adults were overweight, while the obese percent had climbed to 15%.

The 1960s fashions called for a slim, boyish, androgynous body.  A typical dress was like something made for a little girl: extremely short, brightly colored and cut in a simple A-line. The top model of the decade, a tiny Brit with cropped hair, was nicknamed Twiggy because she was as thin as a twig. At 89 pounds and five foot six, Twiggy was seriously underweight with a BMI of 14.

The Baby Boomers generation was moving into their teens and twenties, and the media followed them with diet tips and articles like “How to Look Like Your Favorite Model” and “The Prom Diet” in magazines like Seventeen, Glamour, and Cosmopolitan.

The main approach to dieting was to count calories as you cut out sweets and high fat foods. This was based on the science of the times, particularly by studies done by Ancel Keys, a leading nutritionist. One of his earliest studies was about men on starvation diets during World War II.  He found that they became anxious, depressed, unable to concentrate, and preoccupied with food and cooking. Some would sneak food into the study area, and one participant cut off the tip of his finger to get out of the experiment.  These behaviors and problems are typical of any person on an extremely low-calorie regime.

metrecal is like a steak

Surely everyone has experienced downing a diet shake and thinking, “Mmm, just like a ribeye.”

Keys developed the idea that high fat foods cause high cholesterol, which in turn leads to heart disease.  After studying diets all over the world, Keys concluded that the Mediterranean diet was the healthiest, and convinced government nutritionists to promote a similar low-fat diet in the United States. Today many believe that was a mistake, and that Keys dishonestly arranged the statistics he collected to link high cholesterol with heart disease. Nevertheless, calorie counting, low fat foods, and “diet” foods stayed in style until the Atkins revolution in 1972.  Dieters in the 1960s would typically buy a “calorie counter” that usually included an “ideal” weight chart based on gender, height and age.

Grocery stores began to offer “diet foods” like low-calorie bread, salad dressings, gelatin desserts, and hundreds of other “low-calorie” products that contained artificial sweeteners.   Coca-Cola introduced Tab soda in 1963 for those who wanted to keep “tabs” on their weight, and meanwhile RC was selling Diet Rite Cola.  You could also buy “Sweet-n-Low” in packets to use as a sugar replacement at the table. By 1980, 30 million people were these sweeteners,  a $2 billion market.

Dr. Herman Taller’s book, “Calories Don’t Count” published in 1961, was an exception. Dr. Taller himself lost 65 pounds on a low-carbohydrate regime of 5,000 calories a day. He actually sold oil supplements to dieters but was convicted of mail fraud in 1967.

One popular fad diets appeared in 1964,  “The Drinking Man’s Diet.” Two million copies of this book sold within two years.  It advised people to keep carbs below 60 grams a day, and to fill up on meat, lobster and other rich foods topped off with your favorite martini.  You could have a two-martini lunch if you wanted.

Elvis Presley struggled with his weight as he approached middle age.  He tried a 1960s fad diet which is not a diet at all.  The Sleeping Beauty Diet is about taking sleeping pills and not eating for a few days while you are comatose. 

Dieters also got help from the medical community in the form of prescription “diet pills,” which contained amphetamines and dinitrophenol to increase your metabolic rate. These drugs were already being widely prescribed for depression and had been widely abused for decades.  By 1970, 8% of all prescriptions were for amphetamines with many sold by “diet doctors” at “diet clinics.” Dr. Nicholas Rasmussen, writing the Journal of Public Health, estimated that about six to ten billion 10-mg tablets were sold every year in the 1960s. 

vintage dexedrine ad

So basically, they went from suggesting cigarettes for appetite control to taking amphetamines

Amphetamines were not only chic, they were considered harmless and non-addictive. Neither was true. Dr. Max Jacobson, known as “Dr. Feelgood,” injected his patients with a combination of B vitamins, hormones and methamphetamine for energy and weight control. Among his clients were President and Mrs. John Kennedy, Cecil B. De-Mille, Alan Jay Lerner, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and members of the Rolling Stones.

People unable to locate a diet doctor could buy over-the-counter diet drugs like Formula 37, CorpuLean, Odrinex, Benzadrine, Prolamine Control, and others. These drugs often contained an amphetamine compound called ephedra and/or the decongestant phenylpropanolamine.  When people developed heart problems, strokes, addictions or even fatal reactions to these ingredients, the manufacturers replaced them with green tea extract, caffeine, and sometimes dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), a steroid.

In 1961 fewer than one in four American adults said they exercised regularly, according to Dr. Marc Stern, an expert on the history of fitness, but by 1987, 69% of adults said they did.  Between those years, commercial fitness centers like L.A. Fitness and Gold’s Gym were expanding their operations, and large companies began to offer on-site exercise facilities for their employees. In the early 1960s, however, all this was just beginning.

In 1962 a housewife in Queens named Jean Nidetch formed a weekly group with friends to support one another in weight loss.  The group used a diet designed for cardiac patients from the New York Department of Public Health. Within a year “Weight Watchers” had gone public, and 400 people lined up to join. Today the organization has 1.5 million members and 25,000 employees.

In 1960 the first Overeaters’ Anonymous group was formed to use a 12-step system to fight food addiction based on the success of Alcoholics Anonymous.

In 1964 the Surgeon General of the United States published a report called “Smoking and Health,” making it official that cigarettes cause cancer. In 1958 a survey of done by Gallup showed that 44% of American adults believed smoking caused cancer, but by 1968 that percent was up to 78%.

The 1970s: You Say You Want to Have A Revolution

Between 1970 and 1979, the percent of overweight adults remained about 35%, but the percent of obese adults climbed from 11% to 17%, meaning that for the first time the majority of Americans were too fat, despite all the diet books, weight loss products, pills, equipment and low-calorie foods now available. 

Women’s and even men’s fashions in the 1970s required a slim, small-hipped body to wear brightly-colored tight pants that flared into “bell bottoms.” Disco came in style. The ideal women was someone close to Farrah Fawcett, slim but more athletic looking than in recent decades.                  

The number of low-calorie foods available kept growing. Coca-Cola Company sweetened Tab with saccharin instead of cyclamate after the FDA banned cyclamate in 1969. In 1977 the FDA tried to take saccharin off the market as a carcinogen, but instead put warning labels on products containing it. Slim-Fast was introduced in 1977 as another liquid meal replacement. The Slim-Fast Diet was one shake for lunch and breakfast, followed by a “sensible dinner.”

Diet pills were still very popular. Dexatrim came out in 1977, but the FDA pulled it from the market in 2000 when it was linked to strokes.

Some diet fads of the 1970’s were Dr. Siegal’s Cookie Diet, which required you to buy his health cookies, the cabbage soup diet which is just what it sounds like, and the Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet and the Mayo Clinic Diet, both similar to the Hollywood Grapefruit Diet of the 1930s. The Prolinn Diet also known as the Last Chance Diet was particularly crazy. Dr. Roger Linn would have you eat nothing but Prolinn, made from ground animal horns, hooves, hides, tendons and bones. Prolinn was banned when 58 people suffered heart attacks after taking it.

Weight loss centers that sold prepackaged meals and had you report to a counselor every week opened up. The Diet Clinic plan and Nutrisystem were both founded in 1973, and still exist today.

virginia slims make you slim ad

Just in case amphetamines weren’t enough.

Liggett Myers and Philip Morris companies introduced cigarettes marketed to women and with ads that synched with the women’s movement. The slogan for “Virginia Slims” was “You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby — You’ve got your own cigarette now.” The Virginia Slims’ message also implied if you smoked, you’d stay slim. The ads were not even that subtle, using language like “These cigarettes are longer and slimmer than the fat ones men smoke.”  Eve cigarettes were deliberately packaged in a feminine way with flowers and an image of Eve in Eden. The Eve ads insisted that cigarette smoking was for ladies, and used slogans like “Finally a cigarette as pretty as you” and “Every inch the lady.” In the 1970s about 45% of men and 34% of women were smokers. By 2015 lung cancer was the most common cancer, and in 2012 women’s deaths from it numbered 70,734, about 12% less than men’s deaths at 86,689.

Meanwhile the federal government was going after the cigarette industry. On April 1, 1970, Congress passed a law banning cigarette advertising on radio and TV. The last TV ad for cigarettes aired just before midnight on January 1, 1971, on the The Johnny Carson Show.

It was still okay to be mean to fat people in the 1970s. As Washington Post columnist Ellen Goodman put it, “Eating has become the last bona-fide sin left in America.”  Dr. Thomas Szasz, a radical psychiatrist, wrote in 1973, “We used to go after Jews, homosexuals, the insane and drug addicts. Now it’s fat people. We impose diets on them as part of the moral order. It’s a national neurosis.”

In 1972 Dr. Roger Atkins published “Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution.”  The title was no mistake — his ideas actually caused a revolution in the diet industry. 

Although very low-carb diets like the Hollywood Grapefruit Diet had existed long before Atkins, they had been designed to be used for no more than a week or two.  Dr. Atkins was telling people you could stay low-carb for the rest of your life.  You did not have to count calories, and you did not have to restrict the amounts of food you were eating, but you did have to restrict what you ate.  You had to cut out fruit, fleshy vegetables like potatoes, bread, cereal, pasta, desserts, sugary sodas, and everything but foods containing very few carbohydrates, such as meat, poultry, butter, fats, oils, nuts, and salad greens.  People were having breakfasts of bowls of sour cream with fried eggs, lunches of five hamburgers without buns, and dinners of unlimited steaks with butter. Despite ingesting thousands of calories a day, Atkins fans claimed they were losing weight without feeling hungry.

The diet caused immediate controversy in the medical community, with most doctors assuming that it would increase heart disease by raising cholesterol levels. Some studies showed the immediate weight loss of between five and ten pounds the first week was mostly water loss, and if you stayed with Atkins, your results would be about the same as if you stayed on a healthier low-calorie diet.

Dr. Atkins went on to build a diet empire that manufactured all kinds of weight loss foods to use with the diet.  At the height of its popularity, one in 11 Americans were on Atkins.

The 1970s also brought new exercise equipment that you used at home, such as the “Twist and Tone,” a wheel that spun when you wiggled your hips, stationary bicycles, and vibrating belts designed to jiggle the fat away. You could also buy a sauna suit that looked like something an astronaut would wear in order to sweat your fat away, or you could wear inflatable “air shorts” designed to eliminate water weight.

In 1974 the American Psychiatric Association recognized bulimia and anorexia as mental diseases of childhood and adolescence.

1980s Go For the Burn, Baby

Although the percent of overweight Americans stayed steady around 35% between 1960 and 1990, the percent of obese adults began to skyrocket around 1980, climbing from 17% in 1980 to 35% by 1989.  Scientists blamed the suburban lifestyle, too much reliance on cars, the increasing number of people eating out in restaurants, restaurants serving gigantic portions, sugary sodas, lack of breast-feeding, increased female participation in the work force, fewer people smoking, overly processed foods, fast foods, food advertising on television and radio, government advice on diets, and a too sedentary lifestyle. It was probably a combination of all of those things and more.

Some evidence implied that dieting itself could cause overweight because it may permanently lower the body’s metabolic rate. Also the vast majority of people gain back any weight they lose in diets, usually along with some extra pounds.

Fashions in the 1980s were ruffled and fussy with big shoulders to match the big sprayed hair also in style. The icon of the decade was England’s Princess Diana, a tall slim woman who suffered from bulimia. As a result of the fitness craze, work-out clothes and jogging outfits came in style as street wear for the first time.

Jane Fonda's workout book 1981

Jane Fonda still looks almost exactly like this.

It was the decade when Americans, especially baby boomers nearing middle age, turned to physical fitness to help them control their weights. An estimated 25 million adults took up running, including President Jimmy Carter.    Academy-award winning actress Jane Fonda released her book, “Jane Fonda’s Work-Out,” which became an immediate best-seller. She followed it up with the “Jane Fonda’s Work Out” video in 1982 and produced 22 more exercise DVDs that sold over 17 million copies.  Her advice was to work out until “you feel the burn.”

Judi Sheppard Missett, a professional dancer, invented “Jazzercise,” a combination of aerobic exercise and dance. By 1985 Jazzercise as well as classes in aerobics, high impact stepping, and other calisthenics were in all 50 states at community centers,YMCAs and health clubs.  You could also work out with Denise Austin and other celebrity trainers who had their own TV exercise shows.

In 1984 the National Institutes of Health declared that fat is bad for people. Four years later, the United States Surgeon General said that ice cream is comparable to cigarettes when it comes to your health, and he linked a high-fat diet to heart disease, breast cancer, high blood pressure, and other health problems. As Ann La Berge wrote in the Journal of the History of Medicine, “the low-fat approach became an overarching ideology, promoted by physicians, the federal government, the food industry, and popular health media.”

Hundreds of new low-fat versions of food products appeared alongside the low-calorie ones in grocery stores.  However, many low-fat products contained starches and sugar to replace the fat originally in them, which meant they had fewer calories than the original products, but more carbohydrates. They were also less filling.

Low-fat reducing diets were popular in the 1980s, such as the Pritikin featuring large amounts of fiber and whole grains but only 10% fat.  Similar ones are the Ornish and Volumetrics. Dr. Dean Ornish’s diet emphasizes fiber and complex carbs, forbids nearly all animal products, and has only 10% fat.  Dr. Ornish served as President Bill Clinton’s and Clint Eastwood’s diet doctor.

The Beverly Hills Diet, introduced in 1981, starts off low fat with ten days of nothing but fruit eaten in a certain order. On Days 11 to 18, you add bread, two tablespoons of butter and three ears of corn on the cob. You don’t add meat until Day 19. Liza Minnelli and Linda Gray were among the celebrities who tried Beverly Hills.

Actress Elizabeth Taylor lost over 50 pounds on a 1000-calorie diet, and then wrote about it in her 1988 book, “Elizabeth Takes Off.” The first half of the book is a blunt description of how she gained the weight as bored wife of a senator in Washington, D.C.

The Fit For Life Diet was another popular regime that forbids dieters to eat complex carbs with protein at the same meal, which makes it a throwback to the 1940s Hay Diet.

Perhaps the most dramatic moment of the decade in terms of dieting came on November 15, 1988, when Oprah Winfrey pulled a wagon full of 67 pounds of fat across a stage on her TV show to represent the weight she lost on a liquid protein fast.  She was wearing size 10 jeans, but she later said they did not fit by the following week once she started to eat real food again.

Anorexia or refusing to eat became a media fad.  One Gallup Poll in 1985 found that 9% of adolescent girls said they had some anorexic behaviors. Feminist icon Gloria Stein declared that eating disorders were a result of “gender prisons,” and that 150,000 women died of them every year. The actual number recorded on death certificates in 1983 was 101.

1990s: Thigh Masters and Food Pyramids

At the beginning of the 1990s, about 32% of American adults were overweight, 23% were obese, and 3% were extremely obese. Within ten years those figures were 34% overweight, 30% obese, and about 5% extremely obese, for a total of 67% of the entire population.

A 1990 Gallup Poll found that over 60% of women and 42% of men wanted to lose weight, but yet only 18% were on a reducing diet.  Eighteen percent were dieting in 1950 when only 40% of American adults were overweight.  These numbers indicate that many people were giving up.

In the 1990s tattoos and body painting came in style. Clothing was more casual, and work-out clothes like sweatpants and tights with oversized tops were still common as street wear. After Madonna wore corsets and bras on stage,  celebrities wore the “nightgown” look on the red carpet. Grunge was in style, along with denim everything and sandals. The look was messier and less uptight than in the 1980s and more wearable for overweight people. Businesses were embracing the policy of “Casual Friday,” which meant male employees could wear khakis instead of suits, and females could also dress down on the last day of their work week.

Fashion icons of the 1990s were extremely skinny supermodels like Linda Evangelista and Cindy Crawford, and very thin actresses like Michelle Pfeiffer, Meg Ryan, and Gwen Paltrow. Paltrow was diagnosed in 2010 at age 37 with osteopenia, a bone thinning disease common in older women. Extreme dieting can cause the condition.

curvy girl crochet

Mode magazine clearly opened the door for some pretty niche publications.

When “Mode,” a new magazine for “plus-sized” women appeared in 1994 featuring an actress who weighed 296 pounds, circulation climbed to 370,000 in the first month. 

In 1992 the United States government came up with a “food pyramid” to replace the old chart of essential food groups.At the bottom of the pyramid were bread, grain and cereal with the advice to eat 8-11 servings a day; next came fruit and vegetables with recommendations of 2-4 servings a day of fruit and 3 to 4 of vegetables; next was dairy and meat, and recommended was two to three servings each a day. Fats and oils were on top, and the advice was “to eat sparingly.” Those who do better on low-carb diets sometimes point to the Food Pyramid as some of the worst advice ever given.

In 1994 the FDA required that all packaged foods must have a label that provides nutritional information.

The most popular diets in the 1990s were at two extremes of high protein and high carbohydrate.  The Atkins Diet came back from the 1970s and reached its peak in popularity with the release of “Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution” in 1992.

Barry Sears invented the popular “Zone Diet,” a compromise between Atkins and high carb in that you needed to stay in the “zone” at every meal, eating within the 40-30-30 ratio of carbs, fat and protein.

vintage thighmaster

Maybe if you mastered your thighs the rest would follow?

New grocery store products became available for calorie-counters, grain eaters, and Atkins fans. You could buy Atkins low-carb entrees in the freezer section of the store, as well as Atkins packaged snacks. Boxes of popular snacks like potato chips and cookies appeared in packages of 100-calories each. Once obscure grain products like Bulgar wheat and quinoa became mainstream.  Lean chicken was a diet fad in the 1990s.  “Energy drinks,” containing large amounts of caffeine, were beginning to equal the sales of traditional sodas.

In 1994 the American Psychiatric Association recognized anorexia, bulimia, and added “eating disorder not specified” to their list of mental disorders.

Various home gyms and exercise equipment showed up on TV infocommercials. The most popular was Suzanne Somers’ “thigh master” from 1994.

2000-2015: Ear Staples and the Digital Revolution

The most recent government figures for obesity and overweight in United States are from 2012, showing that about 33% of the adult population is overweight and 36% obese. In the same year the government found that about half of all American children are either overweight or obese.  

Obesity is now double what it was in 1965, and the average American is about 24 pounds heavier than he or she was back then. Childhood obesity has tripled since 1980.

Even though overweight people are in the majority, discrimination against them at work, school and during social occasions continued in 2000s decade. A Yale University study published in the International Journal of Obesity in 2008 found that this kind of discrimination is as prevalent as racial discrimination. Another study found that an overweight person earns about $100,000 less over a lifetime than normal weight people with similar qualifications.

In 2013 the American Medical Association recognized obesity as a disease.  This opened the door for some insurance providers, including Medicare, to pay for bariatric surgeries, such as inserting a gastric band to make the stomach smaller, surgically removing part of the stomach, and so forth. Over 179,000 of these surgeries were done in 2013, up from 103,000 ten years earlier.

In 2013 the American Psychiatric Association changed its criteria for eating disorders by adding binge eating disorder, keeping anorexia and bulimia, and taking out “eating disorder unspecified.” The National Institutes of Health estimates that anorexia affects 0.5% of women and 0.1% of men; bulimia is 1-3% of women and 0.1% of men; and binge eating is 3.3% of women and 0.8% of men.  This means almost 8% or 2.5 million Americans have eating disorders. Some experts on eating disorders believe they only happen in places where there is a lot of food.

The fashions of the decade were extremely casual, and a mash-up between styles of other eras, such as cuffed jeans with high heels. The big buzz word was “layering.”  Shiny tech-y clothes were in style in 2000, known as the “Y-2” trend.  Ghetto styles, such as baseball hats and long tee shirts, were trendy. Fishnet stockings for women came in fashion. 

Torrid opened in 2001 as a store that sells plus-sized clothes for teenagers as well as women. Other mall favorites like Delia’s, Gap and Old Navy began sizing up for “curvy teens.” Big mainstream designers like Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger finally began making clothes in plus-sizes, after traditionally ending at Size 14. Carré Otis, who at five foot ten, 155 pounds and a size 12, became one of the first mainstream “plus-sized” models in 2001. Destination XL and other new stores for men began offering clothing in large sizes, finally giving this demographic a choice other than the “Big and Tall Shops.”

Grocery stores were still selling over-the-counter diet pills, but their ingredients were different than in other decades. Natural stimulants like acai berries and green tea were replacing laboratory formulas, mostly because the FDA had banned them. 

In 2009 the FDA approved Alli as effective for weight loss. The only FDA-approved drug sold over the counter, Alli comes with a “success plan” that includes a reducing diet. Its active ingredient, orlistat, interferes with how you digest fats. Many people cannot tolerate orlistat because it gives them diarrhea, or worse, causes discharges of oil.

Some of the popular diets in the early 21st century were the Breatharian, Blue Vision, South Beach, Paleo, Medifast, and Dukan.

Medifast is a rival to Jenny Craig and Nutrisystem in that dieters buy prepackaged meals from clinics. In 2012 Medifast paid a $3.7 million civil claim for false advertising.

Dr. Pierre Dukan’s diet allows you to eat all the protein you want, and then you eat vegetables, making it a throwback to both the Hay Diet and Atkins. The Blue Vision Diet requires you to wear blue tinted glasses in order to make food look blue and disgusting. 

The Breatharian Lifestyle comes from the notion that a person who is truly spiritual and in harmony with the universe does not need to eat. Many try, some to the point of starving themselves to death.

The South Beach Diet is a cross between Atkins and the Mediterranean diet, in that it begins with a fruit fast, goes low-carb, and ends Mediterranean. The Paleo Diet is very close to the Caveman Diet and the Stone Age Diet from the 1970s.

Some of the more bizarre products for weight loss are high-tech leg wear that heats the skin and slims your legs by inches; fat-burning lip balm, aroma products designed to relax you and thereby suppress your food cravings, and ear staples that supposedly work like acupuncture to curb the appetite.

Yoga became very popular in the 2000s.  Not only were health clubs and community centers offering classes, but many entrepreneurs were opening boutique gyms specializing in the ancient art that combines relaxation with stretching. Some other popular exercise regimes were Pilates, Zumba, spinning, ballet barre, and kick boxing. A fad in cities worldwide were “fight clubs” for men.

Digital entered the fitness world around 2000 in the form of apps, websites and wearable electronic devices. Some are just hyped-up pedometers, but others are complex little machines that monitor calorie, carb and protein intake, sleep patterns, and calories burned during exercise. Some even give fitness advice. New websites for dieters contain millions of listings for foods that include every bit of nutritional information about each one. You can even look up thousands of exact restaurant offerings.

Another Internet fad in the 2000s are cash rewards to those who lose weight. You pay to join and then by the month, and then you collect money if you lose weight.

2010 and into the Brave Future of Dieting

By 2015 some experts writing in various journals peg the obesity rate in the United States at 38%.  The obesity epidemic is also spreading throughout the world: by 2014 almost two billion adults were overweight and more than 600 million were obese.

Fashions around 2015 continued to be individualistic and casual.  “Business casual” was not just for Fridays in many offices. Very skinny pants and tights were being worn with tunics, long sweaters and button-less cardigans, all styles that worked for plus sized women. Everyone could also wear the make-up trend for bold lipstick and smoky eyes. However, an almost-naked style in red carpet gowns worked only for toned bodies.

In August 2015 Americans for the first time spent more money eating out in restaurants than they did in grocery stores, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.  Restaurant patrons were demanding healthier foods, including options for people allergic to gluten and peanuts. The buzz words in the restaurant industry were organic, locally grown, pesticide-free, vegan, vegetarian, and non-genetically altered foods. Expensive “craft beers” came in style around 2010, and within a few years certain bars and restaurants were specializing in them.

In 2014 the FDA passed a rule that any chain operating 20 or more food establishments selling the same items has to provide nutritional information on all their menus. The FDA also changed labels on grocery store foods, making the calorie count bigger.

In 2011 the U.S. government came up with “My Plate,” a diagram of suggested nutrition for each meal. The plate was half veggies and fruits, and one fourth grain and protein with a glass of milk at the side.  In 2015 a U.S. Advisory Panel suggested that Americans eat less red meat and sugar, and that “environmental factors should figure into a healthy diet.” In 2011 and 2015, Atkins fans immediately reacted to these government suggestions as ones that would make us even fatter.

In 2015 artificial sweeteners were linked to causing obesity in that they may kill off bacteria gut helpful to digestion and elimination.

Juice cleanses became popular.  You only drink fruit and/or green juices for 24 hours up to a week as a way to detox your system. 

Joining the parade of endless fad diets, the 2010s have seen the Baby Food Diet, the Clean Diet, Karl Lagerfeld, Pil-Sook, Five-Bite, Werewolf, Alkaline, Cotton ball, and KE.

The Baby Food Diet is what it sounds like. The Werewolf Diet, tried by Madonna and Demi Moore, makes you fast according to moon cycles. The Cotton Ball Diet, once used by 1950s models, has you eating them for filler.  KE is one of the more insane diets, in that you don’t eat food, you have it injected into your body through feeding tubes.

The future of diets is probably in three trends: nutrigenomics, prescription drugs, and more governmental intervention in the food supply.

American drug companies are frantically searching for a medicine to cure obesity. Some promising research is being performed in the way hormones regulate appetite. One of the few prescription drugs available now for reducing is Contrave, approved in 2011. This drug is actually an anti-depressant combined with naltrexone, a drug that reverses the effects of narcotic drugs and is used in rehab programs. So far Contrave has been proven to be only mildly effective.

Nutrigenomics is the theory that your diet should be based on your DNA.  People living in the Arctic, for example, eat a high fat diet full of whale blubber and remain slim, while people in the Tropics rely more on fruit and animal flesh.  Where your ancestors came from, therefore, could determine whether whale blubber or fruit is the best diet for you. Nutrigenomics could explain why some people do well on low-carb/high protein diets like the Atkins, and others fare better on an opposite approach like the Ornish Diet.

By 2015, it became possible to buy a DNA kit from online vendors who would in turn send you a personalized diet based on your heredity. The science behind this is by no means perfect and not expected to be accurate until 2020, according to an article in the journal Obesity.

Among the diets based on the theory of nutrigenomics are the Blood Type Diet, Body Type, Inuit Diet, the Noriska, Metabolic Type, and others.

The Weizmann Institute in Israel found vast differences in how some 800 people digested the same meal by monitoring their blood sugar levels and other factors. The researchers concluded that each person may need an individualized approach to dieting to succeed at it. This is the research direction that we seem to be taking now.

Just as nutrigenomics and digital weight loss aids are making weight loss more individualized, another major trend is to approach obesity as a societal problem.  First Lady Michelle Obama’s project, the Let’s Move! initiative begun in 2010, has the goal of “eliminating obesity in a generation” by focusing on a healthy start for babies and children.  The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation spent $1 billion since 2007 on the same problem. New laws made it mandatory for public schools and day care centers to serve more fruits and vegetables and less junk food. So far the childhood obesity rate in children ages six to 11 has leveled at 18% after years of increasing, and obesity in children two to five has fallen below 10% for the first time since the 1980s.

In 2011 an editorial in the Boston Globe called for federal intervention in the obesity epidemic that would use tactics similar to the ones used against the cigarette industry. For example, the government would limit advertising for junk food on television and take out public service announcements about its harmful effects. Another tactic is to tax colas and other sugary drinks. Three experts in nutrition and economics, writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association, have called for an across-the-board tax in the range of 10 to 30 percent on processed food, fast food and large chain restaurants.

In 2013 New York City Council made it illegal to sell soft drinks over 16 ounces but the New York Appeals Court threw the law out before it went into force.

Some research indicates Americans may be giving up on dieting.  In 1991, for example, 31% of adults were dieting, but in 2013 it was down to 20%. Only 23% of Americans said they believed that a certain weight would make you more attractive.

A few experts in the medical community are questioning whether you should put overweight patients on a diet when the long-term success rates are less than five percent.  As Dr. Asheley Skinner of the University of North Carolina wrote, “Research assumes thin people are healthy but if someone loses weight, they will always need fewer calories and more exercise.  Who knows what we are doing to their metabolisms.”

In 2015 Amazon was selling over 23,000 weight loss books, 19,000 diet books, 31,500 fitness books, and 10,000 weight loss cookbooks. The Atkins diet category alone had 482 books.

On January 1, 2015, Americans made their New Year’s Resolutions. At the top of the list was “to stay fit and healthy,” mentioned by 37%, and next was “to lose weight,” mentioned by 32%. The year before on January 1, 2014, 43% said they planned to lose weight, making it the perpetual No.1 New Year’s resolution for all Americans.