ConsultantLouise Foxcroft Medical historian

Dieting from past to present

Ever since people have had relatively easy access to food we have been trying to understand how food impacts our body and shape.

Our ancestors have approached diets in some strange and irrational ways but at times ate better than we do today. Our knowledge is greater than ever but many diets are just as extreme and irrational as the most unusual weight loss methods in history.


All Greek to them


Roman mosaic

People have been consciously dieting since the ancient Greeks. Our word 'diet' comes from their word diatia – meaning a lifelong regimen for health.

They understood the principles of eating reasonable amounts of varied, plain food and taking moderate exercise, which has been the basis of all sensible dieting throughout history. They also believed that having a sensible diet was a civic responsibility to ensure a healthy society, and gluttony was frowned upon. However, they also embraced a trial and error approach to weight loss and ancient Greek methods included wrestling, avoiding sex and walking around naked.

You should eat to live, not live to eat.

Ancient Greek aphorism

5th to 15th Century AD

Medieval meals

De Agostini Picture Library

Bayeux tapestry feast

Detail of a medieval feast on the Bayeux tapestry.

In Britain, the diets of the rich and the poor were very different.

The wealthy could afford meat and luxuries. This led to illnesses like gout and bowel disease. Diet methods included fasting, though this was more a demonstration of religious fervour than a weight loss technique. Excess flesh was seen as a sign of prosperity. Conversely, peasants ate a well-balanced diet, including bean and cereal pottage and bread, with no access to the sugar and fat of the wealthy. Food was needed for stamina and excess calories were burnt off during physical labour.

BBC article: Medieval diet aids healthy eating message


The art of the best seller

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Luigi Cornaro

Luigi Cornaro, author of The Art of Living Long, 1558.

In 1558 Venetian merchant Luigi Cornaro became the first diet guru when he wrote The Art of Living Long.

Cornaro's book came during the renaissance, which profoundly influenced European thinking. He portrayed old age as worthwhile. He also recommended a high fat, low carbohydrate diet taken in small, measured quantities. He wrot:e “I accustomed myself to the habit of never fully satisfying my appetite, either with eating or drinking.” His first rule was to regain self control over what you eat. He lived to be around 100 years old. His book is still in print.

Full text of the Art of Living Long


Diet for the masses

Digital Vision/Getty

Sugar Cane

Cheap sugar entered the diet of poor Britons from the 1600s.

The peasantry began to move away from subsistence farming to living in cities. As infrastructure improved, the variety of food increased.

Choice was now possible for the poor. Making decisions about diet was no longer the preserve of the elite. However, in the 18th Century sugar consumption increased by 20 times as the trade boomed. Diet for many became less healthy. Doctors advised things we still consider sensible - eating little and often, eating meat in small quantities and lots of bran and vegetables, with moderate exercise. They also recommended reading aloud and sprinkling the body with hot sand to sweat out fat.


The first celebrity dieter

De Agostini Picture Library

Lord Byron

Lord Byron starved himself to look pale and interesting.

Celebrity dieting is not a modern phenomenon. Romantic poet Lord Byron was obsessed with being pale and interesting.

In the early 1800s he popularised a diet consisting mainly of soda water, biscuits and vinegar. According to records from wine merchants Berry Bros & Rudd of St James's, London, he shed five stone (32kg) between 1806 and 1811. Doctors were critical of Byron’s diet and his powerful influence on the dieting habits of others who also wished to look fashionably thin and pale. One doctor wrote young women were starving themselves out of fear of criticism from Lord Byron's disciples.

BBC News: Lord Byron: The celebrity diet icon

“Fashion has joined hands with superstition... through fear of looking gross or healthy… ladies live all their growing girlhood in semi-starvation.”

Physician George Beard, 1871

Victorian Era

Parasites and poisons

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Michael Mosley deliberately ingested tapeworm cysts in IInfested! Living with Parasites.

By the Victorian age, society had become more concerned with image over health. They were devoted dieters, influenced by magazines and fashion.

Diet adverts began to appear in newspapers and chemist shops. Diet drugs became big business and many of these so-called “miracle cures”, the ingredients of which were not always advertised, contained lethal substances such as arsenic. Some risked eye problems, epilepsy and dementia by swallowing beef tapeworm cysts. Even in the 20th Century tapeworm dieting was still practised. Opera singer Maria Callas was reputed to have had a "pet parasite".

BBC news: Michael Mosley infests himself with tapeworms


Diet Drugs

Figuroids advertisement

Drugs continued to be big business. Miracle cures were offered in place of sensible diet.

Diet drugs had catchy names – Figuroids, Gordon's Elegant Pills, Bile Beans, Corpu-lean and Slim. Many drugs were laxatives and most – but not all – were harmless. Some drugs did cause weight loss but had dangerous side effects. These included the industrial chemical dinitrophenol, which raises body temperature and can cause blindness. Drugs based on thyroid extract increase the body's rate of energy burning but cause heart problems. Deaths were reported from both.


Counting calories

Gayelord Hauser's book

Gayelord Hauser published around 20 nutrition and self help books for over 30 years.

In the 1920s, the US government became concerned about a possible slimming mania and the influence celebrities had on the choices of young people.

The growth in Hollywood celebrity encouraged women to emulate stars such as Greta Garbo. She followed diet guru Gayelord Hauser. He was criticised by doctors as being unqualified and considered to have no proof to back his theories which included over-consumption of vitamin B. Also, the notion of food groups emerged and calorie counting began. Diets included or excluded certain foods. For example, only eating carbohydrates or protein in any one meal or trying to balance acidic and alkaline food.


Group slimming

Jean Nidetch

Founder of Weight Watchers Jean Nidetch in 1972.

In 1961 New York housewife Jean Nidetch set up a support group for her overweight friends. Two years later she founded Weight Watchers.

Stick-thin models Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton were Swinging Sixties sensations. Weight Watchers arrived in the UK in 1967 and was closely followed by other slimming clubs. Group dieting works by providing routine and support from other members. They advise healthy eating and moderate exercise. The companies which run them have grown hugely since the 1960s. Since 2007 the NHS has referred overweight patients to slimming clubs, which are effective according to a British Medical Journal study.

BMJ study on commerical slimming programmes


Fad Diet



The cabbage soup diet involves a lot of cabbages and not much else.

By the 70s the diet industry was firmly entrenched and looking for new and more diverse ways of promising weight loss.

Promoted by the publishing industry who sold books on the latest trend, fad diets quickly became popular. Increasingly, people wished to lose weight fast. Food fads defy conventional guidelines on balanced diet. Some involve very restricted options, such as the grapefruit or cabbage soup diets. Fad diets often involve short-term weight loss but no long-term plan for maintaining this lower weight. They are a novelty quick fix and dieters often end up abandoning them for the next fad.

NHS choices page on fad dieting


Diet as an industry

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The Men Who Made us Fat. Ever since food has been plentiful obesity has been an issue because of our evolutionary response to food.

The diet industry has been growing for the last 200 years, constantly adapting and becoming more diverse.

The UK diet industry is worth £2bn, £60bn in the US, and is still growing. Products span publishing, pharmaceuticals, food and more. High protein diets, such as the Atkins and Dukan, and the fasting 5:2 diet now have millions of followers. Celebrities sell diets as part of a money-making industry. Despite this, 64% adults are overweight. While we search for a quick fix solution for weight loss, business and science will continue to deliver new ideas to fulfil that desire.