America's Love Affair with Fad Diets: A Historical Perspective - DadBod 2.0

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America's Love Affair with Fad Diets: A Historical Perspective

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America's rollercoaster journey with fad diets extends far back, intertwining with the nation's history and evolving lifestyle choices. It all began in the 1830s with Sylvester Graham's warnings about the perils of consuming processed flours, leading to the development of his whole wheat Graham flour 1. This marked the onset of dieting in the United States, setting the stage for a long sequence of dietary fads aimed at improving health, enhancing energy levels, and addressing various health concerns, from psoriasis and migraines to obesity and heart disease 12. The pursuit of weight loss, alongside the desire for a healthy, balanced life, has propelled countless Americans to embrace diets ranging from low-carbohydrate to high-protein, and everything in between, including intermittent fasting and the ketogenic diet 1.

As we delve into the historical tapestry of diets that Americans have followed, from the grapefruit diet of the 1930s to the more recent trends like keto diet and paleo diet, we notice a pattern of constant evolution influenced by societal shifts, technological advancements, and a deeper understanding of human nutrition 1. This article aims to navigate through the decades, highlighting how each era's fad diet reflected the prevailing beliefs about health, food, and exercise. In doing so, it sheds light on our enduring quest for the perfect diet that promises not just weight loss and fat reduction but also a gateway to a healthy, vibrant life abundant in energy and devoid of ailments like migraines and heart disease 12.

From the 1920s to the 1930s: Smoking and Citrus Diets

In the vibrant era of the 1920s to the 1930s, the landscape of dieting began to take a more distinct shape, reflecting the societal changes and emerging health consciousness of the time. Here's a closer look at the notable diet trends of this period:

  • Smoking for Weight Loss

    • Tobacco Companies' Role: Women in the 1920s embraced smoking as a symbol of liberation. Tobacco companies, recognizing an opportunity, began promoting cigarettes for their appetite-suppressing benefits. The Lucky Strike cigarette brand famously advertised, "Reach for a Lucky instead of a Sweet!" capitalizing on nicotine's quality to suppress appetite 13.
    • Health vs. Style: This trend was not just a health-driven choice but also intertwined with the fashion of the time. The slim silhouette was in vogue, and smoking was marketed as a chic way to maintain or achieve this desired figure.
  • Citrus Diets

    • Grapefruit Diet: The 1930s saw the rise of the grapefruit diet, where consuming half a grapefruit before each meal was believed to aid in weight loss. This diet gained popularity, especially among Hollywood stars like Jean Harlow and Katharine Hepburn, further cementing its status in the diet trend hall of fame 2.
    • Daily Meal Plans: Diets such as the 18-day diet, published by the Daily Mail in 1929, exemplified the era's restrictive eating patterns. It recommended a stringent daily intake that included only half a grapefruit, one egg, one slice of Melba toast, six slices of cucumber, and tea or coffee for lunch 3.
  • Carbohydrate Concerns

    • Avoidance of Carbs: With the emerging evidence about the links between obesity and mortality, many diets of the time, including the Hay diet and “Slimming for the Million” by Eustace Chesser, focused on avoiding carbohydrates. This marked the beginning of a long-standing concern with carbohydrate intake in relation to weight loss and health 3.

These diet trends from the 1920s to the 1930s not only reflect the era's evolving perspectives on health and beauty but also set the stage for the diet fads that would follow in the decades to come. The intertwining of diet trends with societal changes, such as women's liberation and the glamorization of certain body types, underscores the complex relationship between culture and health practices.

The 1940s: The Master Cleanse

Emerging in the 1940s, the Master Cleanse, also known as the lemonade diet, was introduced by Stanley Burroughs as a detoxification and healing regimen. This diet, initially intended to eliminate toxins and harmful chemicals from the body, quickly gained traction for its weight loss potential 4.

Master Cleanse Overview:

  • Ingredients: The cleanse consists of a blend of lemon juice, maple syrup, water, and cayenne pepper. Participants consume 6 or more cups of this mixture daily 4.
  • Duration: It is recommended to follow the diet for 4 to 14 days, divided into three phases: Ease In, Lemonade Diet, and Ease Out, with the Lemonade Diet phase being the core component 6.
  • Supplementary Practices: To aid in detoxification, a nightly herbal laxative or a morning saltwater flush is recommended to ensure daily bowel movements during the Lemonade Diet phase 6.

Despite its popularity, especially after celebrities like Beyonce and Ashton Kutcher endorsed it, the Master Cleanse has been critiqued by nutritionists for its lack of essential nutrients. The diet is deficient in protein, fatty acids, and other vital vitamins and minerals, relying solely on carbohydrates for calories. Such deficiencies can lead to electrolyte imbalances, disruption of the gastrointestinal microbiome, and in extreme cases, severe metabolic acidosis 5. Moreover, the cleanse's low calorie intake (600 to 1,200 calories per day) and the absence of exercise recommendations contribute to potential health risks, including dizziness, fatigue, lightheadedness, malnutrition, and even gallstones 67.

Given the potential health risks and the lack of scientific evidence supporting the Master Cleanse's efficacy in toxin removal, it is not recommended for individuals with a history of disordered eating. The cleanse may also cause dehydration due to diarrhea induced by the nightly laxative tea, further emphasizing the need for caution among those considering this diet 7.

The 1950s: Cabbage Soup Diet Craze

The 1950s heralded the emergence of the Cabbage Soup Diet, a regimen promising rapid weight loss, which quickly captivated the dieting world. This diet, characterized by its simplicity and the promise of losing up to 10 to 15 pounds within a mere seven days, became a sensation not once but twice, first in the 1950s and then seeing a resurgence in the 1980s 89.

Key Aspects of the Cabbage Soup Diet:

  • Core Principle: The diet revolves around a specific recipe for cabbage soup, which participants are encouraged to consume in unlimited quantities. This soup serves as the primary food source, supplemented by a strict daily menu tailored for each of the seven days 8.
  • Nutritional Content: The soup primarily includes cabbage, onions, tomatoes or tomato juice, celery, and carrots. Cabbage, being a cruciferous vegetable, is rich in vitamins E and C—antioxidants known for cell protection. Moreover, its high fiber content aids in weight loss by promoting a feeling of fullness, potentially lowering cholesterol and alleviating constipation 10.
  • Caloric Intake: The diet's caloric provision is notably low, offering fewer than 1,000 calories on the first three days, approximately 1,000 or slightly more on the fourth and seventh days, and over 1,200 calories on the fifth and sixth days. Such a drastic reduction in caloric intake is aimed at facilitating rapid weight loss 10.

Despite its popularity and the allure of quick weight loss, the Cabbage Soup Diet has been met with criticism from health professionals, including the American Heart Association. Concerns primarily revolve around its safety and efficacy, given the diet's high salt content and the risk it poses to individuals with hypertension and kidney disease. Additionally, the diet's severe caloric restriction may lead to weakness, fatigue, muscle loss, and a host of other side effects such as dehydration, headaches, and nutrient deficiencies. It's also worth noting that most weight lost is likely water weight, with a high probability of regain once normal dietary patterns resume 91011.

In conclusion, while the Cabbage Soup Diet offers a quick-fix solution to weight loss, its potential health risks and the likelihood of weight regain post-diet highlight the importance of approaching such fad diets with caution and prioritizing long-term, sustainable eating habits for health and well-being 91011.

The 1960s and 1970s: The Emergence of Low-Carb and High-Protein Diets

The 1960s and 1970s marked a pivotal era in the evolution of diet trends, witnessing the rise of low-carb, high-protein diets that reshaped America's dietary landscape. This period introduced diets that emphasized protein while minimizing carbohydrate intake, reflecting a growing awareness of macronutrient impacts on weight loss and health.

  • Early High-Protein, Low-Carb Diets:

    • The Drinking Man's Diet: This diet combined the pleasure of drinking alcohol with weight loss, allowing for steak and martinis while limiting carbohydrates.
    • Stillman's Diet: Focused on lean meats, eggs, and low-fat dairy, this diet was one of the first to prioritize high protein and low carbs for weight loss.
    • Atkins Diet: Introduced by Dr. Robert Atkins, this revolutionary diet featured four phases, from induction to lifetime maintenance, emphasizing a significant reduction in carbohydrate intake to shift the body's metabolism from burning glucose to burning stored fat 1213.
  • Diet Pills and Risks:

    • In 1979, Dexatrim was introduced as a popular diet pill, promising an easy route to weight loss. However, it contained phenylpropanolamine (PPA), later linked to an increased risk of stroke, highlighting the potential dangers of quick-fix weight loss solutions 13.
  • Historical Context:

    • The Banting diet, dating back to 1863 by William Banting, laid the groundwork for low-carb, high-protein diets. Its early 20th-century popularity underscored a long-standing interest in dietary approaches focusing on protein while limiting carbohydrates 3.

This era's diets, characterized by their innovative approach to reducing carbohydrate intake, not only catered to the growing demand for effective weight loss solutions but also sparked a debate on the long-term health impacts of such dietary restrictions. The introduction of diet pills like Dexatrim further complicated the landscape, introducing concerns about the safety and efficacy of supplements in weight management. As these diets gained popularity, they paved the way for future dietary trends, emphasizing the importance of understanding the nutritional and health implications of dieting choices.

The 1980s and 1990s: Fat-Free and Low-Fat Diet Trends

In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, the dietary landscape in America underwent a significant transformation, driven by emerging scientific research and public health campaigns. The era was marked by a fervent shift towards low-fat and fat-free diets, spurred by studies linking dietary fat to heart disease and obesity. This period saw the rise of several key trends:

  • Shift in Dietary Focus: The identification of dietary fat as a primary concern for health led to widespread public health messages advocating for reduced fat consumption. This was epitomized by the USDA's food pyramid, which recommended abundant consumption of bread, rice, and cereal, while advising that fats and oils be used sparingly 69.

  • Food Industry Response: In response to the growing demand for low-fat options, the food industry embarked on a reformulation spree, substituting vegetable fats for animal fats and adding sugars to low-fat products to maintain flavor. This, however, kept the calorie content of these products much the same, inadvertently contributing to the obesity epidemic 37.

  • Consumer Misunderstanding: A significant outcome of the low-fat diet trend was the misunderstanding by consumers, who focused solely on reducing fat intake without considering the caloric and nutritional impact of carbohydrates. This led to an increase in consumption of high-sugar, low-fat products, further exacerbating weight gain and obesity issues 45.

The low-fat craze of the 1980s and 1990s, despite its well-intentioned beginnings, illustrates the complexity of dietary health and the unintended consequences of focusing on single nutrients. The era's emphasis on reducing fat intake, while ignoring the broader nutritional profile of foods, underscores the importance of a balanced approach to diet and health. As we moved into the 2000s, the understanding of fats became more nuanced, recognizing the differing health impacts of various types of fats. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee's recommendations to limit saturated fat intake to no more than 10% of energy intake and to eliminate trans fats highlight the evolving understanding of dietary fats and their role in health 1011.

The 2000s: The Rise of Clean Eating and Superfoods

The 2000s marked a significant shift in dietary trends, with the emergence of the clean eating movement and the rising popularity of superfoods. These trends were influenced by a variety of factors, including celebrity endorsements and the growing awareness of health and wellness. Here's a closer look:

  • Clean Eating Movement:

    • Origins and Popularity: The clean eating movement, which emphasizes the consumption of whole or unprocessed foods, gained traction in the 2000s. This movement was not rooted in scientific evidence but was propelled by a belief system that criticized mainstream dietary habits as impure 18.
    • Role of Social Media: Platforms like Instagram and Facebook played a pivotal role in popularizing clean eating, allowing it to reach a wide audience and positioning it as a counter-narrative to traditional diets. The movement's success was also partly due to its appeal to a challenge against conventional eating practices 18.
    • Criticism and Concerns: Despite its popularity, clean eating has been linked to eating disorders and has been criticized for the propagation of bad science. Many wellness gurus have been called out for making unfounded claims about the health benefits of certain foods and diets, raising concerns about the movement's credibility 18.
  • Superfoods:

    • Definition and Benefits: Superfoods refer to nutrient-rich foods considered especially beneficial for health and well-being. These include a variety of roots, chocolates, coffee, grains, and fruits known for boosting the immune system. Superfoods are lauded for their potential to increase energy levels, improve physical and mental health, strengthen the immune system, and offer protection against diseases, including cancer and heart disease 19.
    • Market Position and Demand: Positioned between food and medicine, superfoods have been marketed as providing additional insurance for health. The demand for these nutrient-packed foods saw a significant uptick, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, with consumers increasingly seeking out products that boost immunity 20.
    • Changes in Consumer Behavior: The pandemic also influenced consumer behavior, with a noticeable shift in orders through supermarkets and online retail channels like Amazon. Products containing immune-boosting ingredients such as quinoa in chocolate, coffee, and energy bars saw increased popularity. Additionally, the exercise industry's demand for home exercise products contributed to the consumption of fruits and vegetables, indicating a broader trend towards health and wellness in consumer choices 20.

The 2000s were a decade of transformation in the dietary landscape, characterized by a move towards healthier, more natural eating habits. The clean eating movement and the popularity of superfoods reflect a growing societal emphasis on wellness and prevention, despite facing criticism for lack of scientific backing and potential health risks.

The 2010s and Beyond: Keto, Paleo, and Plant-Based Diets

In the journey through America's dietary evolution, the 2010s heralded a significant shift towards diets focusing on specific macronutrient manipulations, with the Keto, Paleo, and Plant-Based diets leading the charge. Each of these diets has carved out a substantial following, driven by promises of weight loss, enhanced energy, and overall better health. However, they also come with environmental and health impacts worth considering.

  • Keto Diet:

    • Description: A very low-carb, high-fat, and moderate-protein diet introduced initially for epilepsy treatment, the ketogenic diet has gained popularity for its potential to promote rapid weight loss. It operates by shifting the body's metabolism from burning glucose to burning stored fat 12.
    • Health Impacts: While it may lead to short-term side effects such as vomiting, nausea, and alterations in lipid profiles, concerns have been raised about its long-term effects on blood lipids, potentially impacting heart health negatively 1221.
    • Environmental Impact: The diet's mean carbon footprint is notably higher than other diets, generating almost 3 kg of carbon dioxide for every 1,000 calories consumed, which is four times the carbon footprint of a similarly-sized vegan plate 2122.
  • Paleo Diet:

    • Description: Marketed to improve health and cure diseases by eliminating processed foods, dairy products, grains, and legumes, the Paleolithic diet encourages eating as our ancestors did 12.
    • Health Impacts: Similar to the Keto diet, the Paleo diet has been associated with adverse effects on lipid profiles and may lead to long-term nutritional inadequacies 1221.
    • Environmental Impact: The Paleo diet's carbon footprint is substantial, associated with 2.6 kg of carbon dioxide per 1,000 calories consumed, higher than vegetarian diets 2122.
  • Plant-Based Diets:

    • Vegan Diet:
      • Health Benefits: Vegan diets have not shown significant differences in diet quality from other diets when assessed by the HEI but score better than Keto, Paleo, and omnivore diets when assessed by the AHEI, indicating potential benefits for heart health 21.
      • Environmental Benefits: Vegan diets boast the lowest carbon footprints, suggesting a shift to meatless eating would be beneficial for the environment. If just a third of omnivores adopted a vegetarian diet, it could equate to eliminating 340 million passenger vehicle miles on an average day 22.
    • Pescatarian and Vegetarian Diets:
      • Diet Quality: The analysis revealed that the best quality diet was pescatarian, followed by vegetarian and vegan diets. These diets tend to score better than Keto and Paleo diets, which were the lowest ranked 23.
      • Environmental Impact: The vegan diet had the lowest carbon footprint, followed by the vegetarian and pescatarian diets. The omnivore, paleo, and keto diets had a far higher carbon footprint, with that of the keto diet more than four times greater than that for a vegan diet 23.

The exploration into these modern dietary trends reveals a complex interplay between the pursuit of personal health benefits and the broader environmental impacts. As we continue to navigate the evolving landscape of nutrition and sustainability, these insights underscore the importance of making informed dietary choices that align with both individual health goals and environmental stewardship 212223.

The Role of Social Media in Diet Trends

Social media platforms have emerged as a significant force in shaping diet trends and influencing individuals' perceptions of health and body image. The clean eating movement's success, for instance, owes much to social media's ability to broadcast its principles to a vast audience, challenging traditional dietary norms and promoting a vision of purity in consumption 18. However, the impact of social media on body image and eating habits is complex and multifaceted, with both positive and negative dimensions:

  • Negative Impacts of Social Media on Body Image and Eating Habits:

    • Body Image Concerns and Eating Disorders: Social media usage has been linked to body image concerns, eating disorders, and poor mental health, with mechanisms such as social comparison, thin/fit ideal internalization, and self-objectification playing mediating roles 24.
    • Influential Social Media Exposures: Certain types of social media content, including trends, pro-eating disorder content, and appearance-focused platforms, amplify the risk of negative outcomes. This is compounded by activities that emphasize investment in appearance 24.
    • Perceived Norms and Disordered Eating: Social media can establish perceived norms around food and body ideals, guiding consumption patterns and potentially leading to disordered eating behaviors 25.
  • Counteracting Negative Influences:

    • Protective Factors: High social media literacy and body appreciation serve as protective factors, mitigating the adverse impact of social media on body image and eating behaviors 24.
    • Educational Content: Expert culinary influencers who promote healthy eating experiences through educational content can encourage good habits and expose audiences to a range of well-balanced meals. This approach has the potential to build credibility and foster informed dietary choices 26.
  • Content Trends and Dietitian Responses:

    • The "What I Eat in a Day" Trend: This trend, with over 15.9 billion views on TikTok, has drawn criticism from dietitians for its potential to negatively impact mental and physical health, especially among teenagers at a high risk of developing eating disorders 27.
    • Dietitians' Counter-Narrative: In response to harmful diet trends, dietitians are offering balanced perspectives on nutrition, challenging unrealistic portrayals of food presentation, and addressing misconceptions perpetuated by diet culture. This approach aims to provide a more realistic understanding of nutrition and health 27.

The intricate relationship between social media and diet trends underscores the need for a nuanced approach to navigating these platforms. While social media can inspire positive changes in eating habits and promote healthy lifestyles, its potential to foster body image issues and disordered eating patterns calls for increased awareness and education. By emphasizing protective factors and credible educational content, individuals can better navigate the complexities of social media and its influence on diet and health.


Tracing America's dietary journey from the advent of fad diets in the 1830s to the clean eating and superfood trends of the 2000s, and into the latest preferences for keto, paleo, and plant-based diets, reveals a fascinating evolution of nutrition and health consciousness. Each era's popular diets reflect broader societal shifts, advancements in nutritional science, and changing attitudes towards health and wellness. Despite the varying approaches and philosophies, the enduring search for the optimal diet—promising not only weight loss but also a pathway to a vibrant and disease-free life—remains a constant theme throughout the decades.

The exploration of these dietary trends, alongside the influence of social media in shaping perceptions and practices around food, highlights the complex interplay between nutrition, culture, and technology. As we move forward, the lessons drawn from the historical and present-day diet phenomena underscore the importance of holistic and sustainable approaches to health. Embracing a balanced diet, informed by scientific evidence and mindful of environmental impacts, emerges as a key takeaway in our ongoing quest for wellness and longevity.


What's the Background of Fad Diets?

Fad diets have been around since the 19th century, initially known as "foodie" diets. A notable figure, Lord Byron, was particularly interested in these diets, creating the "vinegar and water diet" in the 1820s due to his concern over gaining weight.

Can You Explain the Origins of the Hollywood Diet?

The Hollywood Diet, also recognized as the Grapefruit Diet, emerged in the 1930s. This diet plan emphasizes consuming grapefruit with every meal. By the 1950s, another diet, the Cabbage Soup Diet, gained popularity, claiming to help lose 10 to 15 pounds within a week through a diet that includes daily consumption of cabbage soup.

Why Do Americans Gravitate Towards Fad Diets?

Fad diets allure people with the promise of a quick and effortless way to lose weight. The appeal lies in the simplicity of the solution offered to a complex issue. Nonetheless, health professionals advocate for a balanced approach to weight loss, involving a variety of nutritious foods and regular physical activity.

What is the Grapefruit Diet's History?

The Grapefruit Diet, initially known as the "eighteen-day diet," was introduced in the 1930s, with its earliest form appearing in 1929. This diet plan included a strict regimen of grapefruit, orange, toast, vegetables, and eggs over 18 days, with a total caloric intake of approximately 500 kilocalories (2,100 kJ).


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