For almost as long as people have been eating food, diets—or at the very least, specific methods of eating—have been popular. Women especially fall on the receiving end of many cultural expectations about weight and shape. While supple curves were once considered a highly-desired trait, thought to be significant of fertility and riches, the last two hundred years have seen a decided preference for slim and trim body types.
For every sensible eater who counts calories and exercises more, there are a dozen who want to lose weight quickly and are willing to go to extremes to achieve that goal. Below are the most dangerous, previously trendy or just overall goofy fad diets of modern history. Let many serve as a warning that, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Related: 30 Habits Healthy People Live By
25 fad diets from the past 200 years
The Tapeworm Diet (origin unknown)
Perhaps the most notorious fad diet is also the oldest. With no known date of origin, people in search of weight loss—and especially women—have made jokes about swallowing tapeworm eggs for over two hundred years. While this parasite, which takes up residence in the host’s intestines, may indeed lead to rapid weight loss, it can also cause organ failure and even death. Luckily, the actual use of the tapeworm diet today seems to be mostly anecdotal. Though that doesn’t keep the kids from mentioning it on TikTok, however!
The Graham Diet (1830s)
Created by fundamentalist minister Sylvester Graham, the eponymous diet consisted of mainly overcooked vegetables with no spices or dressings. Flour-based baked goods were verboten, as were salt, pepper and butter. According to Graham, the more enjoyable food was, the more likely it was to “overexcite” the digestive organs. In an age where cholera was running unchecked with no known cause, Graham’s claims to health were viral. Graham was also concerned with minimizing sexual lust and deviance, and his very bland diet would supposedly fit the bill.
Horace Fletcher, a “nutritionist” with no formal education, rocked America with his diet idea to chew every bite of food 100 times to lessen hunger and save money on groceries every month. It is a known fact that people who eat slowly gain less weight, and studies have shown that chewing up to 35 times per mouthful can lower food consumption by 12%. Even so, all that excessive chewing was just that—excessive.
The Cigarette Diet (1920s)
Before the public associated cigarettes with lung cancer, heart disease and bad breath, smoking was considered rather glamorous. Ads for Lucky Strike cigarettes in the 1920s urged women to “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.” Basically, instead of putting something yummy in your mouth, you’d smoke a cigarette instead. While smoking cessation is associated with weight gain, doctors do not recommend nicotine as a weight-loss drug nowadays due to its many negative side effects.
The Hollywood Diet (1930s)
The Hollywood Diet was probably the first celebrity-endorsed weight loss plan. Based on the (mistaken) belief that grapefruit had excellent fat-burning properties, adherents would eat half a grapefruit three times a day before every meal. Although it now may sound like the height of silliness, sex symbol Marilyn Monroe swore that the diet kept her waist trim—perhaps because grapefruit is still a nutritious choice as part of a healthy diet.
The Master Cleanse (1940s)
Surely you’ve heard about how Beyonce got into perfect shape for Dreamgirls by gulping a concoction of hot water, lemon juice, cayenne pepper and maple syrup? This diet, which has had staying power, began in the 1940s when Stanley Burroughs came up with what he called “The Master Cleanse.” Obviously, any kind of liquid- or partial-liquid diet will make you drop pounds (temporarily)—but with few calories and almost no nutritional value, many health experts would argue that this diet is unsafe.
The Cabbage Soup Diet (1950s)
Like so many deceptive fad diets over the years, this very particular diet lured women in with the premise that they could eat as much as they wanted … as long as they consumed nothing but cabbage soup. At least three bowls of cabbage soup were to be consumed daily on this diet, although some variations allowed for the addition of lean poultry. People did lose weight on this regime, but excessive flatulence was a significant problem for participants.
Nowadays, you might grab a SlimFast if you want a meal replacement shake. In 1961, however, there was Sego: a compound made of baby formula mixed with different flavors like chocolate malt, vanilla and banana. Advertisements bragged that Sego shakes could help dieters through “the Temptation Hours.” At only 225 calories a pop, it’s understandable why this once trendy diet did not last long.
The Vogue Diet (1962)
Helen Gurley Brown, the eventual editor of Cosmo, touted a diet that would make women feel sexy and young. It consisted of an egg apiece for breakfast and lunch, washed down with black coffee and a glass of white wine. Dinner was a steak and what was left of the bottle of wine. Lacking many necessary nutrients, this fad diet was left in the ’60s.
The Drinking Man’s Diet (1965)
While most fad diets are aimed squarely at women, this one targeted men looking to slim down and up their macho quotient. Ideally, participants would consume “manly” proteins like steak and lobster, along with large amounts of booze. It was, if you squinted right, a predecessor of modern low-carb diets.
The Sleeping Beauty Diet (1970s)
It sounds like the ultimate dieting hack: If you’re sleeping you can’t be hungry, right? It made sense to medical doctors in the 70s—the height of diet pill mania—who prescribed handfuls of sedatives to homemakers so that they could sleep off their cravings. Elvis was a fan of this form of weight loss, which is no longer practiced.
The Cookie Diet (1975)
Who doesn’t love cookies? That was the basis of a creative diet plan by Dr. Sanford Siegal, who concocted prescription-only low-fat cookies that claimed to have a proprietary “hunger controlling” formula. The cookies were costly ($179.99 for a month’s supply), and participants were limited to just 500-700 calories of other food per day. While people successfully lost weight and this calorie-restrictive fad diet is still around, the calorie intake falls below most accepted recommendations for healthy weight loss and has understandably waned in popularity.
The Scarsdale Diet (1978)
Dr. Herman Tarnower of Scarsdale, NY, created a sensation with the Scarsdale Diet in the late 1970s—the heyday of the fad diet. Tarnower’s plan suggested a minimal calorie consumption for all dieters, regardless of sex, size or age, along with a diet rich in protein that also eliminates many healthy foods like nuts, avocado, sweet potatoes and whole grains. It was meant to be followed for two weeks at a time, which also encouraged yo-yo dieting.
The Beverly Hills Diet (1981)
This diet, which consists of eating nothing but fruit for 42 days (an updated version of the diet recommends 35 days), has been referred to as among the most dangerous plans of all time due to the inevitable loss of lean body mass and potassium. It also negatively impacted participants’ blood sugar. The “new” version of this diet is similarly considered a fad diet that unnecessarily restricts calories.
Ayds Candy (1980s)
Consume a few of these “delicious” treats, and enjoy a marked decrease in hunger! The Ayds candies actually developed quite a following, but due to their unfortunate name, they fell off the market amidst the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.
The Liquid Diet (1988)
Oprah endorsed this diet plan, also called the Optifast Plan, in which dieters consumed no solid food. Just specific (and expensive) shakes were ingested. Oprah claimed that she lost 67 pounds on this plan—every one of which she gained back, plus some, as soon as she started eating regular food again (which she attributes to her metabolism being “shot” by the end). Unfortunately, this story of rapid weight loss and subsequent weight gain was ubiquitous among liquid dieters, and this fad did not last long.
Low-Fat Mania (1990s)
Hating on fat was faddish in the diet industry at the end of the last century. Low-fat food like SnackWell’s cookies was all the rage. However, what people didn’t realize was that fat wasn’t the enemy, especially when “low fat” foods were stuffed full of added sugars to make them taste better. Mark this one up to a massive misunderstanding about the way that weight loss works.
The Blood Type Diet (1996)
Could your blood type influence how you digest food and what nutrients you need? Peter D’Adamo, a naturopath, thought so. The idea was that certain foods contained “lectins” that conflicted with a person’s blood type, causing inflammation and even cancer. For example, people with Type O blood were said to digest meat well, while other types weren’t. Unfortunately, there was no actual medical validity to these claims. Also, the “typed” diets were each missing crucial nutrients.
The Subway Diet (1999)
Who can forget Jared Fogel, who rose to fame with his claims of losing 245 pounds by eating two meals a day at Subway? Although the sandwich chain embraced Fogel, placing cardboard stand-ups of him in lobbies and using him to promote their healthier offerings, Subway claims that they never endorsed their eponymous diet and encouraged customers to eat “balanced” meals.
The Baby Food Diet (2000s)
Celebs like Jennifer Aniston swore by this once trendy diet, in which participants ate about fourteen jars of baby food a day. Since there is an extreme calorie deficit, this diet definitely causes weight loss. However, since baby food nutrition is formulated for infants and not for adults, it also causes nutritional deficits.
The Raw Food Diet (2007)
Raw foodists claim that food loses “life force” when cooked. As the diet name suggests, raw foodists espouse eating nothing but raw whole foods. Not only is this diet incredibly restrictive, but it also has no bearing in actual science.
The HCG Diet (2010s)
Folks who have undergone fertility treatments are familiar with hCG, human chorionic gonadotropin. It can help a pregnancy “stick,” but a few years ago, people would inject themselves with a daily shot of this hormone and consume 500-800 calories a day. Not only were the calorie goals overly restrictive, leading to malnutrition, but the FDA eventually banned hCG for weight loss, citing a number of negative side effects.
The Five-Bite Diet (2010s)
Another fad diet that didn’t last long, the Five-Bite diet was actually endorsed by a physician—Dr. Alwin Lewis, of Burbank, California. The diet is simple: You can eat anything you want, but only five bites of it at lunch and another five at dinner. No breakfast. This “diet” leads to a massive, unhealthy and unsustainable calorie deficit for participants. As with any diets recommending limited intake of nutritious foods and severe calorie restriction, this is diet does not stand up to scientific study and often leads to weight regain.
The Breatharian Diet (2010s)
A concerning lifestyle trend, this diet espouses consuming nothing but sunlight, fresh air and, for some, tea. Breatharians have died from this fad diet, and no medical doctors and mainstream sources recommend this form of dieting. While intermittent fasting does have science to back it up, abstaining from all food and water does not.
The Cotton Ball Diet (2013)
Astoundingly dangerous, the Cotton Ball diet was one of the first fad dieting trends popularized by social media. Participants dipped up to five cotton balls in a juice of their choice and then consumed them in the hopes of making their stomachs feel full. Since cotton balls are not meant to be eaten, this diet has had dire consequences, including bowel obstruction.
As you can see, fad diets are far from a thing of the past. With the prevalence of social media, it is actually easier than ever to be influenced into diets backed by little scientific evidence. Luckily, the internet has a silver lining: It is easier than ever to research types of diets and find the eating plan that can help you reach your happy weight!