11 Completely Scientific, Not At All Dubious Diets From Our Recent Past

by Emily Morris

In 1918, Lulu Hunt Peters’ Diet and Health, with Key to the Calories introduced Americans to the concept of “calorie counting,” and the modern diet was born. Realizing that counting calories was no fun, America took the concept and turned it into a game to see who could promise the best results for the least effort in the shortest amount of time — while also making the most money off it! You know, the American way. Dieters in this country spend $40 billion per year on weight loss programs, many of them fad diets. Here are some of the most questionable to have appeared along the way; if any of them strike you as particularly whack, blame Lulu.

Name: “Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet”
Years Active: 1927
Method: Admittedly, not so much of a diet as an ad campaign. Still, why not just cut out the middleman, or “food,” all together?
Sample Meal: First- and secondhand smoke.

Name: The Grapefruit Diet
Aliases: Hollywood Diet, Mayo Clinic diet
Years Active: 1930s-40s
Method: The Grapefruit Diet consists of eating a grapefruit at breakfast, lunch and dinner, along with a vegetable or a scrap of toast. It was spoofed in this song by Weird Al (of course), as well as in the 1933 film Hard To Handle. In it, the main character, a grapefruit farmer named Lefty Merrill, begins the latest diet craze, called “The 18 Day Grapefruit Diet” (although, given that the diet in the movie is an exact replica of the real one, “spoofed” might not be the word). In the ’40s the plan became known as the Mayo Clinic Diet, though it was in no way affiliated with the actual Mayo Clinic. Iterations of the Hollywood/grapefruit/fake Mayo Clinic continue to exist, and probably will as long as grapefruits roam the earth.
Sample Meal: A grapefruit, an egg and black coffee. Add a piece of Melba toast if you must.

Name: The Cabbage Soup Diet
Aliases: The Mayo Clinic Diet (again), TWA Stewardess Diet, Dolly Parton Diet, and Model’s Diet. The name changes nicely reflect the decades in which this diet has re-appeared.
Years Active: 1950-present
Method: Along with the grapefruit diet, the cabbage soup diet is one of those ubiquitous fad diets that you always hear from people on weight loss surgery shows: “I’ve tried everything. Weight Watchers, Slim Fast, grapefruit diet, cabbage soup…” and they trail off because there are more, they just can’t think of them right now. In any case, it’s easy to fail the diet’s 7-day meal plan. Its strict, arbitrary rules lend itself to very little except driving yourself crazy.
Sample Meal: On day four of seven, you can eat “as many as eight bananas and up to eight glasses of skim milk” along with your soup. On day five, have a reasonable 10–20 ounces of steak and up to six fresh tomatoes.

Name: Regimen Tablets
Years Active: 1956–1960
Method: Like all the best diet pills, Regimen Tablets required neither “special eating” nor a doctor’s prescription. Pure science is at work here, as evidenced by item number 3 on the ad: the tablets “start traveling quickly through your blood stream, and you lose the TREMENDOUS URGE TO EAT.” What’s more, two whole doctors “Prove No-Diet Reducing.” While these advertisements created the template for diet advertising today, they’re still reminders of more innocent times. Lester’s testament is stamped by a notary public. And he’s wearing a shirt and tie in his “look, big pants” picture. Aww.
Sample Meal: Lester says you can eat anything you want, and I trust him completely.

Name: Ayds Reducing Diet Plan
Years Active: 1970s
Method: Sales for this unfortunately named “appetite suppressant chocolate” plummeted 50% in the mid-’80s. No one knows why.
Sample Meal: Anything healthy, as long as it’s preceded by an Ayds chocolate. Ayds go best with a hot drink.

Name: Cambridge Liquid Diet
Years Active: 1981–1985, still has a website

Method: Ads for the “Incredible” Cambridge Liquid Diet cut to the chase: “ACTUALLY REDUCES BODY FAT AS FAST AS FASTING OR COMPLETE STARVATION.” A precursor to Slim-Fast, the Cambridge Diet protein drink was flavored with Dutch chocolate and came in powder form. For some, the rapid weight loss led to heart failure, and the F.D.A issued a public warning on the label. The Cambridge System has since grown to include soups and “nutrition bars” in addition to their original drink. (Note: Cambridge Liquid Diet had the same manufacturer as the Mark Eden bust developer.)
Sample Meal: Choose between Chocolate, Vanilla, Strawberry, Eggnog, and Cappuccino flavors. Don’t worry, if you really can’t decide, there’s always your next meal, and all the meals after that for a month.

Name: The 5 Day Miracle Diet (and 1-, and 3-, and 4-Day variations…)
Years Active: 1996
Method: There are a host of plans that boast quick weight loss in just a work week (or less.) Most are standard low-carb, good-fat, grapefruit-slinging affairs, but my favorite is one published in 1996 by Adele Puhn under the name “The 5-Day Miracle Diet,” where she calls out the “fathead” as the source of emotional eating:”Once you’ve lost the physiological needs that are 75 percent of your problem, I will show you how to deal with the remaining 25 percent. That makes up your fathead…” The book’s introduction is titled “I Was Born In A Box of Cookies.” This diet was probably an inspiration for 90% of all “Cathy” strips.
Sample Meal: Salad with tuna fish, lite yogurt, green tea. I’m assuming you’re supposed to repeat this diet. Every 5 days. Over and over. Forever.

Name: Master Cleanse
Aliases: Lemonade Diet, Maple Syrup Diet
Years Active: 1990s — present
Method: Originally created by alternative medicine practitioner Stanley Burroughs, the Master Cleanse was promoted heavily by Peter Glickman in the 1990s. The lemonade, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper mixture is said to rid the body of various “toxins,” though it’s primarily used as a quick weight-loss fix. Beyoncé famously

“detoxed” with the Master Cleanse in order to play Deena Jones in Dreamgirls.
Sample Meal: Meals are for the weak.

Name: Atkins
Years Active: 1972- present; resurgence in early 2000s
Method: “Atkins” became an all-inclusive term for the high-fat, low-carbohydrate (or no-carbohydrate) diet trend of the early aughts, where a bacon-topped meatloaf was preferable to a slice of bread. The introductory chapter of Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution, published in 2001, anticipates the question “What’s Wrong With Carbohydrates?” and answers, “If you mean what’s wrong with a spear of broccoli or a bunch of spinach, the answer is nothing, they’re magnificent foods.” Oh, snap. You told bread. Atkins seems to go out of fashion whenever adherents a) have heart attacks from the amount of red meat they’re consuming or b) realize that their love for pasta is not optional, only to be resurrected again in the next cycle of branding. It’s due for a comeback any day now.
Sample Meal: Cauliflower “Potato” Salad, for when you want to disappoint everyone at your barbeque.

Name: The GenoType Diet
Years Active: 2007 — present
Method: The book The GenoType Diet (2007) begins with a Freud quote: “Anatomy is destiny.” Uh oh. Its premise is that everyone can be divided into one of these six types: The Hunter, The Gatherer, The Teacher, the Explorer, the Warrior, and the Nomad. Measurements from your legs, torso, index finger and ring finger, as well as your fingerprint pattern, determine your type and the meal plan you should follow.
Sample Meal: Depends on your type. The Teacher, for example, should stay away from all poultry except for emu, ostrich, squab and turkey. The Teacher should also note that while eggs from chicken are fine, herring roe is OUT OF THE QUESTION.

Name: Human Growth Hormone
Years Active: 1990 — present
Method: According to WebMD, Human Growth Hormone (HGH) is produced naturally by the pituitary gland to “fuel growth and development in children,” maintaining bodily functions like tissue repair, brain function and metabolism. Ding ding ding! That tidbit of science prompted the New England Journal of Medicine to publish a study in 1990 showing that “injections of synthetic HGH resulted in 8.8% gain in muscle mass and 14% loss in body fat without any change in diet or exercise.” This sci-fi diet has since been denounced by several more studies, including one by the New England Journal of Medicine in 2003. Yet synthetic HGH continues to be sold as a weight-loss tool on the Internet (as Sylvester Stallone can attest).
Sample Meal: ChickieNobs, followed by your daily injection.

Emily Morris is a summer Awl reporter.

Lucky Strike ad via clotho98; cabbage photo by La Grande Farmers’ Market.