1950s housewife illustration with cabbages on a tray

History’s proof that people love a senseless health trend

In Food safety, Nutrition education by RebeccaLeave a Comment

I’ve heard of many bewildering ‘health’ trends during the last half-decade of study, and have learned that fads are nothing new. Let’s take a trip back through recent history and look at some of the things we mere mortals have tried all in the name of wellness.

2018 – “Raw” water

Raw water - it's like drinking water, but without all that annoying purifying.

For US$37 you can get yourself 10 litres of unfiltered, unsterilised, untreated water. This hopefully short-lived trend has been popping up in affluent areas of the American west coast based on a desire to avoid contaminants in the treated water supply,  some powerful marketing and endorsement efforts, and a solid dose of sheer nonsense from the likes of Mukhande Singh, owner of ‘Live Water’.

Yes, wanting contaminant-free water is wise. BUT “raw” water is not contaminant-free. Clarifying water is essential to rid it of dangerous bacteria, viruses, and parasites that cause a range of serious acute and chronic health conditions. Without water treatment, illness and death related to diarrhoea, typhoid, cholera, and dysentery would be a far more common occurrence.

A key marketing strategy for “raw” water suggests that it contains beneficial probiotics that tap water doesn’t. If you’re looking for more probiotics, there are far more effective and safer food-based options to consider. Leave water to do it’s most important job – hydration.

2017 – Breatharianism

Man with arms outstretched, facing the sun

Wow I’m so full after my breatharian breakfast of sun beams and air

Breatharians will tell you they survive solely on prana (aka the energy of the universe, ‘life force’, or air and light), not food and water like the rest of us plebs. Of course, this is utter nonsense. While they claim to live a ‘food-free lifestyle’, breatharians are most likely underestimating their ‘occasional snacking’ or are simply deceiving themselves and others about the practice. A downright dangerous and reckless claim.

2013 – Coffee enemas

Coffee beans

Don’t worry, they grind the beans up first

Ok so not technically a diet (diets tend to cover food and drinks you consume orally). I had to Google “Why do people do coffee enemas?” to even attempt to explain this one. Gerson Therapy followers do it because they believe it stimulates the liver to ‘detoxify’ the body and provides a wide range of other non-specific benefits. It may also used as a treatment for constipation (I can follow that logic). Whatever the motivation, the treatment has no current scientific evidence of effectiveness and carries a range of potential risks and side effects such as infection, inflammation, physical injury, electrolyte imbalance, and gastrointestinal upset. It’s also the least pleasant way I can think of to have my daily coffee.

2013 – Cotton ball diet

Cotton field

Cotton balls soaked in orange juice have been used to thwart appetite

You read that right. Soaking cotton balls in orange juice or another beverage and eating them before meals will allegedly fill you up so you eat less. Now, it should go without saying that cotton isn’t a food. It’s great for clothing, not great for our guts. Cotton balls are commonly synthetic, not actually cotton, so you’ll be ingesting non-food chemicals in the process. This practice also poses many risks like choking, intestinal obstruction, and malnutrition. It’s different to pica, which is a practice of eating non-food items that can occur during pregnancy. In this instance though, the intention is weight control, and sounds an awful lot like disordered eating rather than a fad.

1980s – ‘Scientific’ eating

A single banana

Don’t you even THINK about eating that banana with anything else!

The 80s were a time for complex rules about foods that should and shouldn’t be eaten together. The ‘Beverly Hills Diet’ is one example of this. To achieve “correct digestion”, fruits must be eaten alone, proteins and carbohydrates mustn’t be eaten together, dairy can be eaten with protein but not carbohydrates, etc etc. This is silly because foods are not simply one macronutrient or another. Cereals and grains contain carbohydrates, proteins, AND fats – so do dairy products. Humans eat food, not nutrients, and that’s why in dietetics we talk more about whole foods.

1970s – the Sleeping Beauty diet

Photo of an Elvis statue

Elvis reportedly gave the heinous ‘Sleeping Beauty Diet’ a go.

Cute name, but don’t be fooled – this diet is a heartbreaker. In short, promoters of this diet suggested that the best way to reduce your dietary intake is to sleep through mealtimes… so followers were sedated for several days at a time. Apparently Elvis gave this one a go? The terrible lengths people feel compelled to go to ‘achieve’ weight loss.

1950’s – Cabbage soup diet

1950s housewife illustration with cabbages on a tray

Not sure you’ll be smiling after a week of cabbage soup…

The cabbage soup diet might help you lose weight for a little while because you’re eating far fewer kilojoules than your body needs. BUT (and it’s a big but) it’s an extremely restrictive diet (duh) that is clearly not sustainable in the long run, and if you lost any weight, it won’t stay lost when you inevitably return to eating normally. It also lacks the vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients you need for health. Not to mention how boring it sounds. Throw this fad diet in the bin already, world.

1930 – Grapefruit diet

Cut grapefruit

Half a grapefruit – now synonymous with ‘diet’ thanks to this 1930s/1950s fad

This fad diet promised weight loss simply by eating a grapefruit at every meal. This one made a comeback in the 1950s, glamorously rebranded as the ‘Hollywood Diet’. This one builds on our innate desire for a single miracle treatment, a ‘silver bullet’ of dieting. All single food diets leverage this desire.

Early 1900s – Tapeworm diet

A vintage poster advertising the 'tape worm diet'

Don’t believe anything in this vintage tape worm diet advert

Let’s be clear – the tapeworm diet is the same thing as a tapeworm infection. The only real difference is that you deliberately ingest a parasite and perhaps don’t seek treatment as you become very ill from willingly providing a home for it. It’s thought that this ‘diet’ never gained widespread popularity, but the pills are definitely still available and stories do pop up from time to time… my friend was offered them at a pharmacy in Korea (she was after tablets to get rid of parasites, not to purposely ingest them).

Late 1800s – Fletcherism

Chatterbox toy

You’d need a mechanical jaw to handle Fletcherism

“Nature will castigate those who don’t masticate”, said Horace Fletcher (aka ‘The Great Masticator’) believed that people should be chewing their food more thoroughly for greater nutrition, and for weight loss. In fact, he believed we can eat whatever we like as long as we choose small amounts and chew each mouthful until it turned to pure liquid – 32 chews should do the trick. After reaching this miracle number, dieters were to tilt their heads back and let the food slide down their throat, spitting out any food that didn’t comply. Obviously, this is tiresome, unnecessary and ineffective. But also it presents a rather concerning pulmonary aspiration risk (where the food goes down into your lungs instead of stomach). No one needs a side of pneumonia with their slop diet. Bad bad not good!

An important note

I am the first to admit I believed all sorts of dubious health claims before I started studying nutrition. I wholeheartedly support people who seek to improve their health and wellbeing. However, I do not support people who knowingly take advantage of others, wooing people with pseudoscience (particularly if they’ve received a serious diagnosis, are vulnerable, are at their wit’s end, etc), negatively impacting a person’s ability to access and benefit from genuine health promoting treatments and approaches. My issue is solely with the fad pushers.

Further reading