Back in the 19th century there were many people who came to the conclusion that the rich, fatty diet of westerners was causing physical, moral and social decay and that we could be healthier living in a state closer to our prehistoric ancestors or indigenous hunter gatherers.
In August 1913, American magazine and newspaper illustrator and writer Joseph Knowles began an experiment to prove the theory. For two months he lived naked in the wilderness in Maine and subsisted (allegedly) on a diet of whatever he could forage from the land.
American wilderness man Joseph Knowles in 1913 after emerging from two months in a Maine forest. He emerged from the forest in October wearing clothing he made from animal skins and bark. A doctor checked him over and pronounced “forced to eat roots and bark at times, and to get whatever he could eat at irregular hours, his digestion is perfect, his health superb”.
Knowles’s book Alone In The Wilderness sold 300,000 copies and inspired many people to eat more nuts, berries and wild game, although most would not have been able to strictly stick to the regimen of two months in a forest.
Decades later other writers would revisit the idea of eating like cavemen, including Laurence Cordain, whose 2002 book The Paleo Diet was a bestseller.
But this week a recipe book of meals for babies and children based on the popular diet became the subject of controversy as health experts warned that some of the recipes could be dangerous.
Popularised by books like Cordain’s, the paleo diet is based on the notion that prehistoric humans adapted to a diet high in protein, fresh fruit and vegetables but modern diets have too much grain and processed foods, to which we are ill-adapted.
Like many fad diets over the centuries, Knowles’ wilderness diet and the paleo diet are based on over-simplifications that sound logical. Many other fad diets in history also sound logical, but some have been based on false assumptions, spurious logic or no logic at all.
The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates took a more practical approach. He believed that it was mostly a problem of too much food in and too little exercise. He said people should eat more fat, because it was more filling, and that obese people should exercise while hungry then eat their food while still out of breath, with a side of diluted wine.
Modern science has found that there was some logic to ancient Chinese dieting fads involving certain kinds of tea. Some teas acted as a laxative, some suppressed hunger, but the semi-fermented tea oolong has been found to contain polyphenols that inhibit the absorption of fats.
When he became too fat to get on a horse in 1087, medieval king William the Conqueror had a bizarre dieting regimen that involved locking himself away and eating nothing, drinking only alcohol. It helped him get back on a horse but then he fell off his horse at the battle of Mantes, suffering an abdominal injury and dying after five weeks of agony.
A bizarre and dangerous pseudoscientific cure for obesity in the 19th century was the practice of introducing tapeworm eggs to your system and then taking a worming tablet once you had reached your ideal weight. It could cause more medical problems than it solved.
Some quacks also advertised electric devices like corsets meant to shave off the pounds, trim the figure and even help cure bad backs into the bargain.
One strange, slightly repulsive dieting fad was started by American Horace Fletcher in about 1900.
He believed people should extract the goodness from their food by chewing it for long periods and then spitting out the remaining mass. Known as fletcherizing, a term invented by one-time supporter Dr John Harvey Kellogg, it attracted some famous devotees including author Franz Kafka.
Dr John Harvey Kellogg (left), hosting Irish author George Bernard Shaw, rejected the strange fad for fletcherizing. Source: Supplied
Kellogg would later reject the diet because he believed the fibre that was spat out was actually a highly beneficial part of the diet and he went on to invent Kellogg’s Corn Flakes as part of his vegetarian dieting regimen.
There have also been many attempts to market external obesity cures. A 1903 advertisement offered “obesity soap” that “reduces fat without dieting or gymnastics”.
People were still selling it in the 1920s. One advertisement extolled the virtues of “reducing soap” meant to “Reduce any part of the body without affecting any other parts”.
Over the decades other fads would come and go, including eating cabbage soup or grapefruit at every meal and even smoking cigarettes to fend off food cravings.