History shows fad diets are nothing new

Today it's: Eat no carbohydrates. Yesterday it was: Eat no fat.

Today it's South Beach. Yesterday it was Scarsdale.

And once upon a time, it was consuming molasses or apple vinegar and chewing each mouthful of food 50 times.

Americans have a long history of eating badly -- that is, of jumping from one fad diet to another in a scramble to lose weight or gain health. Here's a sampling of weight-loss history:

In the 1860s, London undertaker William Banting was unable to lose weight until he eliminated sugar, starch, root vegetables and pork from his diet. His success in shedding pounds prompted him to promote a low-carb, high-protein style of consumption.

"Banting" became a weight-loss strategy across the Atlantic in America, and his best-selling book Letter on Corpulence opened the floodgates to diet mass-marketing.

In the 1830s, minister Sylvester Graham railed against overly refined flour and preached vegetarianism, abstinence from alcohol, tea and coffee. But his real legacy was the coarse-flour flatbread we now call graham crackers.

In 1890, diet guru Horace Fletcher insisted one could chew his way to a perfect weight. Each mouthful of food must be chewed into liquid oblivion; "Fletcherizing" meals insured that no more food would be taken in than was absolutely necessary.

Fletcher, dubbed "the Great Masticator," also called for lower meat consumption and higher carbs and vegetable intake.

Cereal innovator and health guru John Harvey Kellogg took up the cause of Fletcherism, inventing a "Chewing Song" for patrons at his nutritional sanitarium in Battle Creek, Mich. Kellogg also insisted vegetarianism and, of course, his own invented cereals, would bring perfect weight and perfect health.

Perhaps the first dietician to the stars was Gayelord Hauser, who developed a diet plan of natural grains, vegetables, blackstrap molasses, yogurt, brewer's yeast, wheat germ and powdered skim milk. His book, Look Younger, Live Longer was a 1951 hit and his followers included Greta Garbo and Paulette Goddard.

In 1938, Dr. George A. Harrop declared skim milk and bananas to be an ideal diet food, few in calories but high in making people feel full. The subsequent milk -- or liquid -- diet has since taken various forms, finally producing Metrecal in 1959. And Metrecal begat Carnation's Slender.

Dr. Robert Atkins introduced a low-carb, high-protein diet in 1972.

Herman Tarnower pushed for high protein and low calories with his Scarsdale diet in 1978.

Low-fat was the key to Nathan Pritikin's formula in 1979.

It was all fruit, all the time in Judy Mazel's "Beverly Hills Diet" in 1981.

Dean Ornish pushed extreme low-fat with a vegetarian twist in the early 1990s.

In the mid-1990s, Barry Sears' "The Zone" plan and other sugar-busting diets started the carb backlash; by the early 2000s, Atkins was back in favor.

Over the decades, certain foods acquire -- and lose -- near-mystical properties. In recent years it has been cabbage soup (the mainstay in an extremely strict diet that emerged around 1996); grapefruit (enzymes in grapefruit are supposed to attack fat cells); and apple vinegar (romantic poet Lord Byron allegedly lost weight by eating food drenched in vinegar).

Likewise, certain foods have become public enemy No. 1. Fear of cholesterol sent egg consumption plummeting by one-third from 1950 to 1983.

Of course, we know these truths to be self-evident: Eat less. Exercise more. Lose weight.

But that seems so un-American.


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