Fad diets and weight loss: An ancient history

The chances are, many of you will have tried a fad diet at some point. We’ve all been there.

Deep down, we know they’ll fail, but there’s something attractive about an unusual-sounding diet plan, especially when it has celebrity backing.

The allure of fad diets is strong — they promise quick weight loss and oodles of energy, and they come neatly wrapped in a thin veil of sciencey jargon.

The blood type diet, cabbage soup diet, baby food diet, magnetic diet, tapeworm diet, werewolf diet, five-bite diet, and cotton ball diet — all will fail and some might be dangerous, but the fads keep coming.

It’s always disappointing when people get sucked into the latest dietary trend by money-grabbing grifters. But there’s some solace in knowing that this temptation is as old as the hills.

Although the issue of obesity has skyrocketed in the modern era, people have been placing themselves on weird weight loss diets for a very long time. 

Looking back

In the distant past, obesity was a mark of status in some cultures. After all, only the very wealthy could afford enough food to put on excess weight. 

However, when the ancients first realized that obesity came with health issues, it signaled the beginning of a long history of weight loss interventions.

Below, we’ll outline some of the most interesting examples throughout the ages.

To be clear, we’re not mocking our ancestors. With little understanding of how the body works, it’s not surprising that their nutritional ideas went a little off-piste.

And, as you’ll see, some ancient ideas weren’t as daft as many of our modern efforts.

If we’re mocking anyone, it’s humanity in general — after all, even now that we have a pretty good idea of what’s going on inside us, we’re still easily suckered into sounds-weird-I’ll-try-it-anyway-even-if-it-might-be-dangerous diet plans.

We should also note that even in the distant past, people recognized that eating well and exercising might help them lose weight

If there’s just one thing you take away from this article, it’s that there’s nothing new under the sun. And that includes weight loss plans.

So, we’ve picked out the most interesting, relevant, or unusual methods. Scientists call this approach “cherry-picking,” and writers call it “building a narrative.”

Let’s start as far back as history will allow.

The first diets

According to experts, there are at least 15 documented dietary regimes from before the birth of Christ. 

Two are from India and 12 are from the Mediterranean region. One is from China, and this is the oldest diet plan on record.

The emperor’s new diet

Shennong was a Chinese emperor and, as the tale goes, a keen herbalist. According to legend, he personally tasted hundreds of herbs to gauge their potential medicinal uses.

In around 2695 B.C., Shennong wrote a book called the Divine Husbandman's Materia Medica — although no one knows for sure if he wrote it.

In the book, the author blames the nobility’s expanding waistlines on heavy, greasy food, so he wasn’t too far off the mark. And he recommended drinking green tea for weight loss.

Incredibly, almost 5,000 years on, scientists continue to investigate whether green tea might aid weight loss, although the evidence still isn’t great.

A Spartan diet

The oldest Mediterranean diet is called Lycurgus’s diet, or the Spartan diet. 

Lycurgus was a lawgiver around 900–800 B.C. According to some historians, he played a large part in turning the Spartans into a well-oiled and mighty military powerhouse.

The historian Plutarch wrote at length about Lycurgus, albeit around 1,000 years after his death. According to him, Lycurgus created “messes” where the population — rich and poor — would eat plain, simple food together to provide a sense of equality. 

Plutarch explains that this limited, basic diet made the Spartans grow tall because their “vitality” wasn’t “impeded and hindered by a mass of nourishment which forces it into thickness and width.”

Lycurgus also prescribed physical activity and despised laziness.

As with the green tea diet, we see echoes of Lycurgus in the modern day. You might recall the “300 Spartan workout” that was popular a few years back. 

This pummeling routine was designed to help actors in the Sparta-based movie 300 get in shape before filming. 

The author of one paper explains that the workout isn’t recommended for most people. It’s rather “for an elite few and those who like to think of themselves that way.”

A good sense of humor

Hippocrates was a Greek doctor widely considered to be the father of medicine. Born around 460 B.C., he also had weight loss tips

He invented the so-called humoral theory. This persisted for hundreds of years, and it stated that four humors circulate through your body: blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm. If the levels are out of balance, you get sick.

Hippocrates believed that obesity was caused by having too much of all four humors. In general, he recommended that people eat and drink less and exercise more.

He also suggested making changes slowly, ​​“For if the change of regimen be sudden, there is a risk that from that change, too, some disturbance will take place in the body.” 

So, his advice was much less wild than the cabbage diet, for instance. 

Also, in perhaps one of the earliest examples of time-restricted eating, Hippocrates recommended having just one meal a day.

Today, there’s growing evidence that time-restricted eating might be beneficial. Although one meal a day is perhaps a little extreme.

Some of Hippocrates’ ideas were slightly more left of field. He suggested that sour foods helped reduce weight, for example. Could this be the inspiration for the much more recent lemon detox diet? 

He also thought honey and old bread might be effective for weight loss. 

Bread and honey return

Interestingly, the bread diet came back into fashion in the 1930s, courtesy of a marketing push by the American Institute of Baking.

Ads claimed that the bread diet was a “safer way to gain alluring slenderness” and that you can “do an hour’s ironing on two slices of bread.”

Also, a quick Google search shows that some folks think the honey diet works. People have even published books about it in recent years. 

In 2013, one of the United Kingdom’s less reliable newspapers claimed that you can “drop a dress size for the party season by having a spoonful of honey before bed.”

Despite honey being almost entirely sugar, the newspaper called it a “near-perfect weight loss food.”

Anyway, back to the oddities of the past: To lose weight, Hippocrates recommended that people “refrain from bathing, lie on a hard bed, and walk lightly clad as much as is possible.”

He was also a fan of purging to remove excess humors. This was mostly through vomiting, urinating, pooping, coughing up phlegm, bleeding, and sweating. 

He also recommended that people make themselves vomit after drinking alcohol or eating certain meats, sweets, and fatty or cheesy foods.

Of course, none of the above is an effective or sustainable way to lose weight.

After the 1st century

As we move into slightly more modern territory, history provides us with an ever-growing selection of dietary advice.

The perils of bread

An Egyptian document called the Papyrus Insinger, written in the 2nd century A.D., provides 800 general rules and principles to guide you through life. Among them is this tidbit of nutrition advice:

“He who eats too much bread will suffer illness.”

Despite its age, there’s a kernel of truth in that blanket statement.

Mustard, cheese, and rocks

Born around 40 A.D., Pedanius Dioscorides — a Greek doctor, botanist, and pharmacologist — is considered the father of pharmacology. His remedies for weight loss included unsalted cheese and mustard. 

And yes, before you Google it, some folk have recently claimed that adding mustard to your diet can “help you lose belly fat FAST.”

Dioscorides also praises the use of a stone that he refers to as an Asian stone, which looks a bit like pumice, apparently. 

A salty residue gathers on the outside of the stone. This residue, he suggests, helps you lose weight if you smear it on during a bath.

The first weight loss surgery

Claudius Aelianus, a Roman born in 170 A.D., writes about a much more disturbing way to lose weight. 

The procedure in question was endured by an important statesman called Dionysius of Heraclea in around 400 B.C.

According to Aelianus, Dionysius was ashamed of his obesity, so he lived in a tower, only popping his head out of the window to bark orders at those below.

Aelianus provided the first written account of a surgical weight loss procedure. Here’s the description. It’s a little gory, so feel free to skip the coral section below if you're not keen on grizzly details.

“As a cure for this complaint, the doctors prescribed (so it is said) to prepare very long, thin needles and to push them through the hips and belly of Dionysius when he had fallen into a deep sleep.” 

“The doctors themselves accomplished this operation and inserted the needles from top to bottom into the insensitive (and, so to say, alien) flesh of the tyrant; but Dionysius had no reaction, just like a stone.” 

“But when the needle reached a point that was healthy and part of his system which was not insensible owing to the excess of fat, then he reacted and woke up.”

Sadly, we don’t know the outcome of this procedure. 

Persian methods

Around 1000 A.D., Abu Ali Ibn Sina was a prominent Persian physician, astronomer, and philosopher.

He recommended three quite sensible pillars of weight loss: exercise, lean food, and sleep. 

He also suggested that sweet almonds, beef suet, violets, and marshmallow root could suppress appetite. 

Bringing it back to the modern world, the almond diet is apparently a thing. According to a review written by a member of the Almond Board of California’s Nutrition Research Committee, almonds can aid weight loss. Overall, the evidence isn’t too compelling, though.

Similarly, beef suet is enjoying a renaissance thanks to the increasingly popular carnivore and keto diets. The violet diet also exists, although it’s about eating purple things rather than just the flower. 

It seems that marshmallow root is currently out of vogue in the dieting world. We predict a comeback in 2023.

Living forever?

Finally, we’ll briefly mention the Venetian noble Luigi Cornaro. 

Cornaro recommended consuming a frugal 12 ounces (340 grams) of food and 14 ounces (414 milliliters) of wine each day. 

He called this eating pattern the immortality diet. He died in 1566 A.D. at the age of 82 — or 98, or 102, depending on your source. As Cornaro got older, he exaggerated his age for effect.

What to make of it all

Fad diets are ancient and will probably continue as long as humanity has abundant food. 

If nothing else, we’ve learned here that modern society recycles ancient “wisdom” and repackages it. 

Human biology, health, and nutrition are highly complex. Today, scientists are getting an ever-tighter grip on what makes us tick.

But there are still gaps in our knowledge. Understanding how foods interact with humans in the real world is challenging.

Sadly, snake oil salespeople are always eager to fill those gaps with shonky advice and worthless weight loss “hacks.”

At ZOE, we know there’s no magic bullet for weight loss. We also know that everyone responds differently to food. So, finding the right way to eat for your body is the key to reaching your long-term health goals.

Focusing on one food is never the answer — eating a diverse range of plant-based foods is key.

And if someone suggests a diet that sounds too weird or too good to be true, you can guarantee that it is.


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