Our 4 Billion Year History of Fad Diets & Food Rules

When you hear the word “fad diets”, what comes to mind? Weight Watchers and Slim Fast? Calorie counting?

Chicken and broccoli?

The word “diet” actually means NONE of these things.

Diet= “A Way of Life”

The word “diet” originally comes from the ancient Greek “diaita,” which means “the way of life.”

In Ancient Greece, a diet was about good health and it encompassed the various aspects of lifestyle:

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  • good food and drink
  • physical exercise
  • baths and massage
  • sun-therapy
  • sleep

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  • sexual practice
  • ‘passions of the soul’
  • habits
  • generally, the whole-person approach to leading one’s life

 

The ancient Greeks recognized the strong correlation and the link between the gut and total health—mind, body and soul—believing their diet not only ensured good physiological gut health, but also sound mental and emotional wellness.

They were on to something…

Your Gut is the Gateway to Health (Weight & Metabolism Included)

fad diets evolution

If your gut health is “off,” other aspects of your health are off too.

“Bad” or unhealthy gut bacteria can take over and produce toxins that weaken your immune response.

Imbalanced bacteria also interfere with the proper absorption of nutrients into your blood stream in the first place. It is possible to eat a nutrient-dense “high vibrational food” diet of real foods and still be nutrient deficient or suffer other side effects because of poor gut health.

Most popular fad diets and food rules today do not consider the roles that your gut bacteria play in reaching your body composition goals and determining the “best diet” for you.

Fad Diets: The History & Evolution

Here’s a complete overview of how the practice of “dieting” has dramatically changed over the years.

A key theme? The more time has gone on…the further away from “real food” and gut health we’ve gotten as a society for wellness!

Paleolithic Error (2600000 BCE-12000 BCE).

Until agriculture was developed, all humans got their food by hunting, gathering, and fishing. Meat and fish, nuts and seeds, plant oils (olives, coconut) vegetables, fruits and honey.

First Agricultural Revolution (10,000 B.C.).

The period of transition from a hunting-and-gathering society to one based on stationary farming. This revolution created a plentiful and predictable food supply, allowing farmers’ wives to bear babies in rapid succession—one every 2.5 years instead of one every 3.5 years for hunter-gatherers. A population explosion followed; before long, farmers outnumbered foragers. However, although farmers produced more babies, researchers have pointed out: you don’t have to be disease free to have children—hinting at the beginnings of a turn downward in human health compared to our ancestors.

Ancient Greek & Biblical Eating (2000 BCE-1700 AD+).

Agriculture was present in biblical times and ancient Greece, however, foods were fresh, real and simple. Sprouted and soaked grains, homemade leavened bread, vegetables, fermented foods, cultured dairy (milk, cheese, butter), legumes, fish, meats, some fresh fruits, olives, nuts, water and wine. The diet philosophy mimicked what we may call the “Mediterranean Diet” today.

Original Vegetarian Diet (580 BCE).

Pythagoras, a mathematician and independent thinker, popularized the abstinence from meat, teaching that all animals should be treated as kindred and a meat free diet propped better health.

All Liquid Diet (1050’s).

William the Conqueror became so overweight in later years that he went on a liquid diet consisting of almost nothing but alcohol to lose weight.

Agricultural Revolution 2.0. (1700’s, 18th Century).

During the 18th century, another Agricultural Revolution took place when European agriculture shifted from the techniques of the past. New patterns of crop rotation and livestock utilization paved the way for better crop yields, a greater diversity of wheat and vegetables and the domestication of cattle (milk/dairy and beef). Agriculture began to set the stage for mass production and expanding more borders with food supplies.

Industrial Revolution & Processed Foods (1760-1840).

The transition to new manufacturing processes in Europe and the US, leading to the processed food movement, starting with the advent of canned and pasteurized foods. The development of organic chemistry also transformed the legal definitions of food quality, making it dependent on whether it was real or organic food, but instead if a food scientifically was processed with certain vitamins, nutrients and minerals on a package label.

1800’s: Original Vegetarian Diet.

A meatless diet was referred to as a “Pythagorean diet” for years, up until the modern vegetarian movement began in the mid-1800s.

1820: Apple Cider Vinegar Diet.

Lord Byron’s Vinegar & Water Diet (Apple Cider Vinegar mixed in water).

1900: Chewing Diet.

Overweight businessman Horace Fletcher slimmed down and made dieting a pop culture phenomenon with his Chewing Diet, recommending chewing food until it became liquid to prevent overeating.

1910: No More Backyard Gardens.

Iceberg lettuce revolutionized the produce Americans consumed nationwide—no longer needing a farm in their backyard. Lettuce creators used California’s endless growing season, state-of-the-art refrigeration technology, and an extensive rail system to make iceberg one of America’s most consumed vegetables, setting the stage for other vegetables and fruits to be shipped nationwide. This same year, Oreo’s, Aunt Jemima syrup, Nathan’s hot dogs, Hellman’s mayonnaise, Crisco and Marshmallow Fluff hit shelves.

1918: First Diet Book Published.

Lulu Hunt Peters published Diet & Health: With Key to the Calories. She urged her female readers to consider food in terms of calories and not to consume more than 1200 a day (to put this in perspective, the consensus today is for 1600 to 2500 kcal a day, depending on age, physical activity and health).

1925: The Cigarette Diet.

Lucky Strike Cigarette’s campaign “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet” (this was obviously before we knew tobacco was harmful to our health).

1940’s: Spike in Convenience, Packaged & Fast Foods.

The first Dairy Queen and McDonald’s fast food restaurants opened. Due to the war and food rations to feed fighting soldiers, as well, farmers began using fertilization, pesticide killers and irrigation to increase crop yields, decreasing the vitamins and minerals in those plants.

1950’s: The Tapeworm Diet & Cabbage Soup Diet.

Opera singer Maria Callas’ 65 lbs. dramatic weight loss was attributed to the Tapeworm Diet (swallowing a parasite packed pill). Around this same time, the Cabbage Soup Diet made a splash in celebrity culture. This diet involved consuming nothing but soup for seven days. The original recipe called for cabbage, vegetables, water and dry onion soup mix, but other renditions added ingredients like fruit, skim milk and beef.

1953: TV Dinners Come to the Table.

The original TV Dinner by Swanson & Swanson was released consisting of a Thanksgiving meal of turkey, cornbread dressing, frozen peas and sweet potatoes. It came frozen in an aluminum tray and was heated in an oven. Fast food restaurants were also now everywhere, and the popularity of television, the invention of the remote control and the introduction of the first microwave for home use didn’t add to America’s health.

1963: Weight Watchers Begins.

Weight Watchers was founded by Jean Nidetch (an “overweight housewife obsessed with cookies”).

1970s: Sleeping Beauty Diet.

The Sleeping Beauty Diet involved sedation and the use of sleep to avoid hunger.

1977: Slim Fast Secret Sauce.

Slim Fast hit shelves to replace breakfast and lunch.

1978: Atkins 1.0.

A doctor (Herman Tarnower) published the “Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet,” one of the first diet books written by a doctor.  The diet was similar to the Atkins Diet, prescribing high protein and low fat and low carbohydrates, but also emphasized fruits and vegetables.

1982: Low Fat & Aerobics.

The birth of the fitness icon Jane Fonda in videos and the Jazzercise group fitness, aerobics movement. Also the beginnings of the “low fat” diet and “move it or lose it” (calories in, calories out) approach. The development of specific nutritional qualities (fortified, low-fat) gave the impression that processed food manufacturers were improving their products.

1985: Paleo Research.

The early rising of the paleo diet. Boyd Eaton, a physician wrote a paper for the New England Journal of Medicine, entitled Paleolithic Nutrition. He expanded his theories into the first book on paleo: The Paleolithic Prescription.

1992: Atkin’s Diet Comes Back.

Dr. Atkin’s hit book shelves with his high-protein, low-carb diet plan (Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution)

1999: Baby Weight Be Gone.

Victoria Beckham stunned fans and followers with her dramatic (overnight) weight loss (the “blink-it’s-gone” baby weight trend).

2002: Paleo Becomes Popular.

Loren Cordain, a Ph.D in exercise physiology, found Eaton’s papers on the paleo diet and became a self-taught expert in evolutionary biology, writing a book called “The Paleo Diet” ( His broad research and vision led to the creation of the paleo autoimmune protocol.

2004: The Biggest Loser.

The “Biggest Loser” launched its first episode to curing and offering hope to an ever-growing obese and overweight world with a low calorie and frequent workout routine.

2006: Master Cleanse.

Beyonce touted the “Master Cleanse” (hot water + lemon juice + maple syrup and cayenne pepper) for helping her drop 20+ pounds for “Dream Girls.” The Master Cleanse or Lemonade Diet was originally created in 1941 by health enthusiast Stanley Burroughs to eliminate cravings for junk food, alcohol, tobacco and drugs.

2014: Autoimmune Protocol Rises.

Coined the “breakout year for AIP.” In January, Sarah Ballantyne’s complete guide to AIP was released, The Paleo Approach, and went on to become a New York Times Bestseller later that summer. In March, the print version of The Autoimmune Paleo Cookbook came out.

2012: Weight Watchers Comeback.

Jessica Simpson shed 60 pounds of baby-weight on Weight Watchers. A few years later (2015), Oprah bought 10% stock in the company and made Weight Watchers cool again.

2016: Intermittent Fasting (IF).

alarm clock, spoon and knife, table, intermittent diet, fad diets

IF is a weight loss approach that has been around in various forms for ages, but became highly popularized in 2012 by BBC broadcast journalist Dr. Michael Mosley’s TV documentary Eat Fast, Live Longer and book The Fast Diet, followed by journalist Kate Harrison’s book The 5:2 Diet based on her own experience, and subsequently by Dr. Jason Fung’s 2016 bestseller The Obesity Code. By 2018, IF had more “rules” around it based on research showing that eating within an eight hour window was best for human health.

One study by the University of Alabama with a small group of obese men with prediabetes, compared a form of intermittent fasting called “early time-restricted feeding,” where all meals were fit into an early eight-hour period of the day (7 am to 3 pm), with eating spread out over 12 hours (between 7 am and 7 pm). Both groups maintained their weight (did not gain or lose) but after five weeks, the eight-hours group had dramatically lower insulin levels and significantly improved insulin sensitivity, as well as significantly lower blood pressure. The best part? The eight-hours group also had significantly decreased appetite. They weren’t starving. 

2018: Keto Madness.

No/low carb diets and high fat are all the rage, even though the ketogenic diet’s origin dates back to the 1920s when doctors began using it to control seizures among patients with epilepsy, however it was soon abandoned with the rise of pharmaceuticals. The diet’s name comes from ketones, molecules produced by the liver in response to an absence of sugar, which the body then burns for fuel. An entirely unintended side effect for people with epilepsy on the diet is that, without glucose, the body turns into a fat-burning machine. Unsurprisingly, it eventually became a weight-loss trend about 100 years later. Thanks to Instagram, YouTube, podcasts and a health conscious nation, this diet is no longer focused on just “therapeutic” use, but promoted for fat loss and blood sugar rewiring.

Today.

What’s next on the horizon for our diet culture? For sure, a couple of new fad diets will become popular soon.

Although fad diets will continue to come and go, and come back again (from vegan and vegetarian, to carnivore, to Keto and Keto-tarian, to low calorie, low fat and beyond) there really is no one-size-fits-all approach to determining the “perfect” diet.

Instead, if you focus on optimizing your gut health and eating a variety of nutrient dense real foods, you may actually find, you never need any diet rules again.

 

Written & Scientifically Reviewed by Dr. Lauryn, PhD, OTR/L.

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