Lord Byron's Obsession with Dieting

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Whether it’s low-carb, low-calorie, or a lemon juice and cayenne pepper concoction, the diets of the rich and famous often influence our own eating habits—and it’s been that way for centuries.

It’s famously been said that 19th-century poet George Gordon Byron, better known as Lord Byron, was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” The latter was particularly true—because of his popularity, Byron’s harmful diets and strange relationship with food rubbed off on everyone around him.

Byron was terrified of becoming fat, believing that it would result in lethargy and stupidity. So much so, some historians argue that he battled anorexia nervosa. When he wanted to keep his weight down as a student at Cambridge University, Byron dined almost exclusively on biscuits and soda water, though he also occasionally “enjoyed” potatoes drenched in vinegar. The poet told friends he would rather "not exist" than be large, and wore up to six coats while exercising in an attempt to sweat out excess water.

In 1816, Byron made it through the day on a slice of bread and a cup of tea for breakfast, then vegetables and seltzer water mixed with a bit of wine for dinner. He smoked cigars to curb his appetite. Just two years later, however, Byron's worst nightmares had apparently come true. In 1818, a visiting friend wrote that the poet had become “pale, bloated, and sallow. He had grown very fat, his shoulders broad and round, and the knuckles of his hands were lost in fat.” In response, Byron restricted himself to a menu of red cabbage and cider; his apple cider vinegar and water concoction became a popular way to drop pounds in 1820.

Unfortunately, Byron didn’t just impose these restrictive beliefs on himself—he was of the opinion that women who regularly ate real food were terribly uncouth. In a letter to former lover Caroline Lamb, he complained about how much his new wife ate: “I only wish she did not swallow so much supper—chicken wings, sweetbreads, custards, peaches and port wine; a woman should never be seen eating or drinking, unless it be lobster salad and champagne, the only truly feminine and becoming viands.”

Some historians think the constant ups and downs may have taken a toll on his health, prematurely wearing his body out. In 1824, Byron fell ill with a fever, possibly due to a relapse of malaria, and died. He was just 36.