Fad diets aren’t a new thing. But whether it’s The Zone or Paleo, at least today’s diet trends are scrutinized by health experts, the general public, and often, the hosts of the Today Show. In centuries past, though, there was little in the way of nutrition science, and most significantly, the Today Show wasn’t on TV yet. So there was no way for us to know how healthy the latest fad diet was. We could only try it ourselves, and if we got sick, we’d know that we’d been duped again.
But it wasn’t all The South Beach Diet back then. Through process of elimination, the application of primitive science, and sometimes simple luck, there are a few people from history who managed to come up with eating regimens that could result in sustainable weight loss or health maintenance.
1. The First Low-Carb Diet
Obese undertaker William Banting spent a good chunk of his adult life literally burying English royalty. He conducted the funerals of three kings, two Dukes, two Princes, and one Queen before he became a dietician.
It all happened for Banting after a conversation with his physician, who observed that farm animals were fattened up using primarily starches. He got to thinking about that, and eventually penned an intake regimen he called “Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public“.
Banting’s diet eliminated four primary foods that almost everyone at the time considered healthy and essential: sugar, starches like potatoes and pastas, beer, and most dairy. He lost forty-five pounds on it. Back then, though, eliminating carbs was considered certifiably insane, and Banting certainly had no scientific backing for it.
After he spread his low-carb gospel, rumors spread that the diet had ruined his health. On the contrary, Banting lived to the very old (then) age of eighty-two, and is currently considered one of the great pioneers in the field of nutrition.
2. The No-Carb Diet That Wasn’t
If you’re familiar with the Atkins Diet, which stresses meat consumption over all common sense, you might be surprised to know that there is an all-meat diet that provides your body with sufficient vitamins and carbs, without the shock to the body Atkins causes. It was “discovered” by Canadian explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson circa 1906.
Stefansson was an eccentric ethnologist who studied native cultures, and spent considerable time with the Inuit. He observed that they basically only ever ate meat: organs, skin, fat, brains. Every bit of their diets consisted of the stuff for six to nine months at a time—with a much less significant portion reserved for berries and seaweed during the short summer months when it could be gotten—yet Inuit appeared perfectly healthy.
When Stefansson relayed his findings back to the American scientific community, nobody believed him. In fact, they thought it was impossible, mostly because they didn’t think meat had carbs and that if you ate it all the time you’d get scurvy.
But the reason the Inuit thrived on this food regimen was because they were eating most of their meat raw, which preserved not only its Vitamin C, but also its carbohydrates (in the form of glycogen) which cooking destroys.
Having spent 10 years with the Inuit, Steffanson not only flourished, he lost weight.
Unlike the Atkins Diet, the Inuit diet provides both ample carbs and vitamins, but only because the meat is eaten raw. The specifics of this wouldn’t be well understood until years after the Inuit diet was discovered.
And then there’s this guy, who drinks blood.
3. The Mediterranean Diet
Search for this diet on Amazon and you’ll find over 5,000 books. Given its commercial success and recent popularity, it more than qualifies as a modern “fad” diet. However, it’s an eating regimen that people have been following for thousands of years, and is considered healthy by doctors across the globe for its moderation and lightness. In fact, a recent German study showed that people on the Mediterranean Diet lost an average of eleven pounds over twelve weeks. It was pioneered by Hippocrates, known as the Father of Western Medicine, who said “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” which preceded the modern day mindset that food can help prevent illness.
Well-aware of the ill effects eating an improper diet, Hippocrates stressed greens, nuts, and grains as the basis for healthy eating. Seafood should be eaten a bit less, and red meat and sweets were to be eaten sparingly. The diet delivers lots of nutrients while staying away from large amounts of animal fat and empty calories.
So what is today considered a fad diet is really just a modern version of a diet eaten by the millions of people who lived in ancient Greece, invented by the Michael Jordan of doctors.
4. The Rise of Caloric Restriction
Luigi Cornaro, who lived in the 15th and 16th centuries, wasn’t one to limit his consumption. He was a wealthy man from the upper class of Venetian society, and like most of his peers, he didn’t deny himself the pleasures of eating and drinking. But unfortunately, he was overweight, felt sick all the time, and couldn’t seem to get better.
But then Cornaro completely shifted his diet using the concept of caloric restriction (or something like it—the “calorie” had not yet been discovered), and landed on a regimen 350 grams of food and 414 mL of wine per day.
This diet would have been highly controversial, at least among Cornaro’s peers. All super rich people were fat back then; his pivot into severely limited consumption in the face of such affluence was likely to be really weird to the people around him.
Cornaro detailed his diet in a book called How to Live 100 Years, of Discourses on The Sober Life. He’s now viewed as a pioneer of individualizing the diet, noting that it is important to match what the stomach likes with what the pallet craves.
In his old age, his family nagged him endlessly, believing that by continuing to restrict his calories he was shortening his own life. Cornaro lived to be ninety-eight years old, an unheard of age even today.
So right now you might be asking yourself—why haven’t I heard of any these? Labelling an intake regimen that works as a “diet” instantly gives it a shelf life. Instead, these “diets” are lifestyles that have survived throughout history precisely because they have successfully sustained humans. Where fad diets create fanatical followers that tend to last no more than half a year, these old ‘fad’ diets were early forays into nutrition and how it affected human health. And despite the fact that there was no Today Show back then, these diets’ success still stick around today.