11 of the Worst Pieces of Diet Advice From History

One of the diets involved a lot of molasses.
One of the diets involved a lot of molasses. / gabrielabertolini/iStock via Getty Images Plus

“I had lost upwards of sixty pounds of fat: I was feeling better in all ways than I had for twenty years,” Horace Fletcher raved in 1913. “My head was clear, my body felt springy, I enjoyed walking, I had not a single cold for five months, ‘that tired feeling’ was gone!”

Which cutting-edge miracle diet helped Fletcher achieve such fantastic results? His own, of course. “Fletcherism” was a diet fad from the turn of the last century, and just like many of the biohacking fads of today, it caught on with titans of industry eager to improve their own efficiency, including John D. Rockefeller. To find out more about “Fletcherism” and 10 other strange, voguish, and sometimes dangerous diets from the past, feast on the list below (and remember: it’s probably best not to try any of these at home).

1. Chew your food—a lot

Fletcher’s simple idea was to chew your food into pulp before swallowing. This would slow you down and encourage you to eat less and lose weight. There was also, of course, a strong moral component. “The first rule of ‘Fletcherism’ is to feel gratitude and express appreciation for and of all the blessings which Nature, intelligence, civilization, and imagination bring to mankind,” Fletcher, who earned himself the nickname “The Great Masticator,” wrote. “This utterance will be endorsed, I am sure, by the millions of persons who have found economy, health, and general happiness through attention to the requirements of dietetic righteousness.”

2. Cut out all sugar and starches

The principle behind William Banting’s diet (which he learned from the physician William Harvey) will sound not at all strange: avoid starches and sugars. Yet what this meant in practice in the 1860s might indeed sound bizarre. Consider, for example, Banting’s recommended breakfast: “four or five ounces of beef, mutton, kidneys, broiled fish, bacon, or cold meat of any kind except pork; a large cup of tea (without milk or sugar), a little biscuit, or one ounce of dry toast.”

3. Eat only Eggs, Steak, and Wine 

Speaking of breakfasts, the magazine editor who famously splashed sex across the pages of Cosmopolitan recommended the following in a 1962 bestseller for those wishing “to crash away six pounds in two days”: “1 egg any style, no butter, one glass white wine.” Lunch was a repeat with double the portions while dinner consisted of steak and the rest of the bottle. “I weigh 109, and people are quite snooty when I try to join a diet discussion,” she complained.

4. To fart easier, drink Milk and eat vegetables

George Cheyne is sometimes credited with starting the craze for diet doctors after promoting the benefits of his own “milk and seed” diet in the early 18th century. Cheyne championed a mostly vegetable diet and was particularly eloquent about its benefits on sleep. Combined with fasting and exercise, he was able “to throw off and discharge this Wind, Vapour, or sharp Steams” that distended his belly and kept him awake. He was, in short, better able to toot.

5. Eat only Lamb Chops, Pineapple, and black coffee

If meat and fruits are more your thing, 1920s film star Nita Naldi’s diet of lamb and pineapple might do the trick [PDF]. Consisting of nothing but lamb chops, pineapple, and black coffee (no sugar), Naldi reportedly dropped 20 lbs after the press criticized her weight. “If I don’t stop pretty soon, you’ll see my darling friend Rudolph Valentino making love to Nita Naldi’s shadow in his next picture!” she reportedly said.

Though the calorie-restricted diet helped shed the pounds, Naldi did recall being so hungry at one point that she nearly fainted during an interview. “The old saying that one must suffer to be beautiful is true, but it doesn’t tell all the truth. One must suffer Hades to be thin,” she said.

6. Eat molasses, brewer's yeast, and wheat germ bread

Another popular diet to come out of Tinsel Town was one recommended by Gayelord Hauser, friend and advisor to Hollywood royalty. Its unappetizing ingredients became the subject of parody in a 1950s novelty song featuring Jimmy Durante and Groucho Marx. The lyrics make it plain: “Black strap molasses and the wheat germ bread / Makes you live so long you wish you were dead.” What they don't mention, however, is Hauser's recommendation to eat brewer's yeast.

7. Smoke Yourself Skinny

Adman Albert Lasker coined the catchphrase that reportedly helped Lucky Strike become America’s best-selling cigarette by 1930: “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.” Obviously, never do this.

8. Take amphetamines

If nicotine didn’t work, doctors of the 1940s had another weight loss solution: speed. The diet pills, which came in a variety of bright colors, were marketed as Clarkotabs. Their main ingredient was amphetamine sulphate, the primary ingredient in a number of diet and performance-enhancing medications popular in the first half of the 20th century.

9. Eat nothing but cabbage soup

Eating just soup is a more traditional—though still inadvisable—method of weight loss. The diet's popularity rose and fell in the 1950s through the '90s. The reason for its popularity, however, was decidedly strange. It became known, in part, through a chain letter circulated by fax that wound up in schools, hospitals, offices, and pretty much any nook and cranny of society. The diet ended up being reported on in Cosmo, GQ, and The Washington Post. And, as The New York Times put it, no one really even knew where it came from.

10. Consume only liquid proteins

In 1976, osteopath Dr. Robert Linn published The Last Chance Diet, setting off a fad, a series of lawsuits, and a Congressional hearing about a number of reported deaths. The diet suggested participants consume nothing but liquid protein, which a number of products like Prolinn, GroLean, and Super Pro‐Gest provided. Needless to say, consuming only liquid protein is a terrible idea, a piece of common sense one manufacturer made clear to the Washington Post. “Listen,” they told reporter Larry S. Kramer, “if someone ate nothing but 300 calories worth of chocolate bars for two months, and then he died—which is a pretty good possibility, I guess—would the FDA propose a mandatory warning for chocolate bars?”

11. Fill Up on Regular Coke

Diet Coke, introduced in 1982, became an iconic brand for weight-conscious folks still craving something sweet. Yet Coca-Cola had been touting its own regular brand as a calorie-conscious pick-me-up as early as 1961. “There’s no waistline worry with Coke, you know,” says the spokesperson of one ad. “It keeps me from eating something else that might really add those pounds.”