This Is What a "Diet" Looked Like 100 Years Ago

Think the Ketogenic diet is weird? Take a look at these blasts from the past.

People go to crazy lengths to lose a few pounds, especially at this time of year. And for every warning we get from nutrition experts that "diets don't work," five new diet fads pop up like hydra-headed monsters, exhorting us to eat more of one thing and less of another, to cleanse ourselves or to return to our caveman roots.

But as wild as some of the diet strategies we use today may seem, they pale in comparison to the kinds of diets we were trying a century ago. Here are a few of the weirder ones. And for ways to get your diet back on track in the new year, know The Best Way to Lose Weight in Winter. 

The "Chew More" Diet

diet tips from 100 years ago

Your mother probably told you to chew your food more, most likely as a precaution to avoid choking. But Horace Fletcher, a Victorian industrialist who became a health enthusiast in his later years, saw chewing as the answer to weight loss and plenty of other health benefits. He would become known as "The Great Masticator" for his exhortation of everyone to chew their food more—a lot more. He believed that chewing food until it's been reduced to a pulp helps to better absorb it, leading you to eat less of it.

As he explained in his manifesto, the 1913 book Fletcherism: What It Is:

"It may be a sip of soup, or a bite of bread and butter, or a nibble of cheese, or perhaps a lump of sugar. It may be a piece of meat, though I doubt that a true appetite will call for such at the beginning of a meal. Never mind what it may be, give it a trial. If it be something that should be masticated in order to give the saliva a chance to mix with it and chemically transform it, chew it 'for all that it is worth.'"

Fletcher spread the gospel of his masticating through books and lecture tours. The approach garnered plenty of followers, including big names such as Upton Sinclair, Mark Twain, John D. Rockefeller, and Henry James all dabbled in Fletcherism.

Fletcher described his approach as a way to lose weight because the eater takes their time between bites, never eating too much too quickly. But it was also a refined way to enjoy the food itself. As his book puts it: "The first rule of 'Fletcherism' is to feel gratitude and to express appreciation for and of all the blessings which Nature, intelligence, civilization, and imagination bring to mankind." Now, chewing or not chewing, there's one thing we know: You shouldn't eat the 40 Worst Foods if You're Over 40.

The "No Water During Meals" Diet

diet tips from 100 years ago

In her 1918 diet book, Physical Beauty and How to Keep it, Annette Kellerman begins by outlining "the ideal form" of a woman, down to measurements of calf, forearm, and wrist. Sample points: "Too small an ear denotes avarice…Cheek bones should be neither too far apart nor so prominent as to attract attention."

But for those concerned that their figure is not measuring up are given a number of helpful diet tips and exercises to practice. "Shun water during meals," she advises. "It makes you eat more." Though she adds that you can drink as much as you like between meals. "[E]very fat woman should know that all alcoholic drinks make her fatter if she be fat and thinner if she be thin, thus serving no good purpose."

The exercises suggested by Kellerman for maintaining one's physique are pretty low key by today's standards: "Deep breathing, with alternate extension of right and left foot, and relaxation," followed by the same stretches of the right and left thigh, hand, arm, shoulder, chest, and abdomen. Once this rigorous stretching is complete, the woman does "Chinning Exercises" (generally crunches and squats) which "pull up the weight of the body by the arms; by means of a simple, fixed bar within the reach of the arms" and "prevent you from becoming round-shouldered."

"'Honest sweat,' not 'Turkish bath sweat,' cuts down on fat," she explains. "Not the sweat produced by rubber garments, hot bathing, or electric light cabinets, makes you less obese, but that of physical activity." And for a more modern take on keeping in shape, check out the Single Best Way to Stay Fit for Life.

The "Fat Is Evil" Diet

Eating all low fat things can back fire on you

In his book, Foods for the Fat: A Treatise on Corpulency and a Dietary for its Cure, author Nathaniel Edward Davies comes out swinging, explaining that "The power of enjoyment is limited in the corpulent person, as exertion is attended with breathlessness, which forbids active exercise…the temperament is proverbially easy-going, indolent, and lethargic, especially after meals, although very frequently interrupted by attacks of peevishness and irritability."

To avoid becoming such a peevish corpulent person, Davies sets out a pretty clear set of dietary restrictions that "an ordinary-sized person should take." This consists of:

4.5 ounces of nitrogenous food
3 ounces of fats
14.5 ounces of carbohydrates
1 ounce of salts

For breakfast, he recommends one large cup of tea or coffee, with two to three ounces of bread or dry toast, "very thinly buttered," and three to four ounces of "any light meat or fish." For lunch, "an ordinary dish of any soup," seven or eight ounces of roast or boiled meat, fish, or any meat dish, a "small plate of any non-farinaceous pudding" and five or six ounces of fruit. For dinner: six to eight ounces of light wine; dry toast; boiled eggs, fish, or any meat dish; a glass of whisky and water "with a few gluten biscuits." And if weight loss is your goal in 2018, know the 40 Best Ways to Keep New Healthy Habits. 

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Alex Daniel
A journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. Read more
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