Six Mad Fad Diets From History You Definitely Shouldn’t Try

It’s a sad fact of life that, for many people, common sense goes out the window when it comes to losing weight. Deep down, we know that there really isn’t a substitute for exercise and eating a balanced diet in moderate portions – and yet when someone offers a quick-fix solution, no matter how bizarre that solution is, people jump on board without a second thought. And this is not a new phenomenon, as this selection of mad, bad diets from history shows.

The Chew and Spit Diet

Here’s an appealing idea – you can eat absolutely anything you like and still lose weight. The catch? You have to chew the holy hell out of food and then spit it out, thus (supposedly) getting most of the nutrients from the food but none of the bulk.

The diet – if you can call it that – was popularised by Horace Fletcher in the Victorian era. Fletcher, also known as the Great Masticator, was an art dealer. Which is fine. Art dealers should be your first port of call for dietary advice. If they’re busy head straight to your local shoemaker.

We won’t argue with the idea that chewing food thoroughly is advisable, if only to stop you choking on it. In fact, if you chew a lot you’ll slow yourself down, and may end up eating less overall as you give the body time to realise you’re full. But do swallow the food at some point. To avoid starvation.

The Vinegar Diet

This one has been around since at least the 1800s, when Romantic poet Lord Byron took to drinking vinegar daily as well as eating potatoes drenched in the stuff in an attempt to maintain his trademark thin, pale look.

That look was probably largely down to the fact that side effects of the vinegar diet include such delights as nausea and diarrhoea, which is not a strong long-term strategy for weight loss. Restrict your vinegar use to chips and salad dressing.

The Grapefruit Diet

This fad diet has been knocking around since the 1930s, which just goes to show that once a diet becomes ingrained in the public’s consciousness, it can be very hard to get the message out that it’s bobbins. The long-term error involved here is believing that eating grapefruit alongside other foods causes you to burn off the fat from those foods, so having the sour citrus fruit as a side dish with every meal must be a shortcut to weight loss.

There are a lot of reasons to eat grapefruit. It’s a good source of vitamins A and C, and half a grapefruit counts as one of your five-a-day. It does not, however, magically melt body fat, so scoffing one with every meal is only worthwhile if you really like grapefruit.

The Cabbage Soup Diet

Another crash diet that has been around for decades, the cabbage soup diet, like the grapefruit diet, is self-explanatory – you eat cabbage soup for every meal. Stick that out for a week and you’ll almost certainly have lost weight – and probably the will to live.

Cabbage soup is not a bad dish to add to your menu, maybe once a month, but having it several times every day is not a shortcut to a healthy weight. It’s low in carbs, protein, vitamins and minerals, all of which are useful for living, and – depending on your recipe – likely to be high in salt. It’s also just too much cabbage. No-one wants to eat that much cabbage.

The Sleeping Beauty Diet

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That really is the entire plan. Take sleeping pills for a few days, wake up slim. Elvis Presley tried this, apparently. FFS Elvis.

The Cotton Ball Diet

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Oh, come on.

This hit the headlines as recently as 2013, although fashion models have apparently been dipping cotton balls in juice and swallowing them in order to feel full for some time. As well as the immediate risk of choking on the cotton balls, this “diet” can block the intestines and cause malnourishment, since there’s not a whole lot of nutrients in cotton balls.

Nick Harris-Fry
Senior writer

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.