Diet Fads Over the Years: What Do They Tell Us About Our Health?

From grapefruit bowls to bacon-wrapped scallops, the idea of “health food” shifts with the times.

Diet fads have been part of our health culture for nearly two-hundred years. These fads show us that as our beliefs about health have shifted over the years, so do our diet do’s and don’ts.

Let’s take a look at some of the most popular diet fads throughout history and the lessons they’ve taught us along the way. Then, let’s understand our current diet culture and consider a better way to lose the weight for good.

The Biggest Diet Fads Over the Years
1830s: The Graham Diet
The graham cracker we know today as the base of some of our favorite sugary treats actually has a “healthy” history. In te 1830s, a Presbyterian minister named Sylvester Graham was on a mission to cure sexual urges, lust, and alcoholism. He believed that the food people ate was at the root of these issues, particularly foods heavy in spice, meat, and dairy.

As a response, he created the Graham Diet, which consisted of simple, bland foods, whole grains (including his namesake cracker), fruit, and vegetables eaten in small portions twice per day. Spices, meat, alcohol, and tobacco, of course, were off-limits.

In addition to this sparse diet, Graham recommended regular bathing, drinking clean water, wearing comfortable clothing, daily exercise, and enjoying fresh air and sunshine. Not terrible ideas for a healthy lifestyle!

While the Graham diet frenzy burned out to the next fad, Sylvester Graham left a lasting legacy. Not only has the graham cracker survived the test of time (although much sweeter than its original), but such common household staples as granola and cornflakes were also inspired by Graham’s teachings.

What’s the Lesson?
The Graham Diet marked one of the first fad diets, but it highlights a theme common in every fad diet since: the desire to be better and the use of extreme measures to get there. While the Graham Diet wasn’t the perfect solution to society’s troubles, it did encourage the idea that food is medicine, and we can eat in a way that supports the lifestyle we hope to achieve.

1930s: The Grapefruit Diet (The Hollywood Diet)
Grapefruit has been a “diet” food for as long as most of us can remember! While grapefruits are highly nutritious, their claim to fame comes from the old Grapefruit Diet of the 1930s.

The Grapefruit Diet, also called the Hollywood Diet, recommends eating half a grapefruit before every meal (small portions only) or as a meal replacement, in addition to vigorous daily exercise. The belief was that grapefruit contained fat-burning acids that would help dieters (mostly housewives) keep a slim figure, just like the actors and actresses they saw in Hollywood.

Modern medicine has revealed the “secret” behind the Grapefruit Diet. Grapefruits are a great source of vitamin C, fiber, and antioxidants, but they don’t contain any magic weight loss properties. Any success with the Grapefruit Diet likely stems from its small meal portions, heavy exercise, and focus on fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, the Grapefruit Diet is neither a sustainable nor healthy diet to follow.

What’s the Lesson?
We are a results-driven society, always on the lookout for the next quick fix or easy solution. In the 1930s, people hoped that one single food could help them achieve a “perfect” figure. Since then, we have continued to put our faith in one food, one supplement, or one type of exercise to lose weight and finally feel good. But the truth is, there is no single food or magic pill for weight loss or health.

1950s-1980s: The Cabbage Soup Diet
The Cabbage Soup Diet promised two things that many Americans of the time (and even now) craved: a fat-burning miracle that’s all-you-can-eat.

The exact origin of the Cabbage Soup Diet is unknown, but it has resurfaced over the years with slight variations and names like “The Sacred Heart Diet,” “Military Cabbage Soup, “TJ Miracle Soup Diet,” and “Russian Peasant Diet.” On the Cabbage Soup Diet, you eat only a low-calorie cabbage soup and other light foods (like fruits, vegetables, and skim milk) for one week.

The Cabbage Soup Diet claims that followers can lose up to 10 pounds during their diet week, a quick fix for anyone, even if they’ve struggled with weight loss in the past. While there are several success stories with the Cabbage Soup Diet, many users quickly put on weight afterward.

What’s the Lesson?
In a way, the Cabbage Soup Diet offered a bit of hope to hungry dieters who were limited to tiny portions of grapefruit, cottage cheese, and iceberg lettuce salads. Much like the Grapefruit Diet of the ‘30s, the Cabbage Soup Diet also shows how our society pined for a quick-fix solution to health rather than a holistic lifestyle approach.

1970s-1990s: Low-Fat/Fat-Free Diet
Today, we understand that healthy fats can actually help weight loss efforts, but that wasn’t always the case. As early as the 1970s, people began seeking out foods that were low in fat or fat-free in an attempt to lose weight and protect their heart health.

The low-fat/fat-free craze brought items like skim milk and non-fat margarine to the grocery store shelves. While this new low-fat lifestyle may have made sense in the minds of dieters, the products themselves were no healthier than the originals. In fact, many were worse. To restore the taste and texture lost by removing fat, manufacturers had to load their products with more sugar, processed chemicals, and additives.

What’s the Lesson?
When you’re trying to lose weight, it’s easy to pin fat as the enemy. Unfortunately, the attempts to shed pounds by removing fat from the diet only create new issues for many people. We have since realized that fat is a necessary nutrient for many of the body’s daily processes, including brain function, immunity, endocrine balance, and digestion. A diet rich in healthy fats can even encourage better metabolism and healthier body composition.

The lesson we’ve learned from diet fads like low-fat, low-carb, and others is that labeling one food or food group as the enemy – or the miracle cure – never results in long-lasting weight loss or health.

2000’s: Low-Carb/High-Fat (Atkins Diet/South Beach Diet)
The low-carb craze took off in the early 2000s with the release of Dr. Robert C. Atkins’ book, Atkins for Life. This book prescribed a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet that promised sustained weight loss and better health – a complete flip from the fat-free decades prior.

The main goal of the Atkins Diet is to put dieters in a state of ketosis. Ketosis occurs when the body doesn’t have any carbohydrates to use for energy. It resorts to dipping into fat stores and burning excess fat for energy instead. The diet also helps increase weight loss by reducing cravings and snacking. The diet is high in protein and fat, which keeps you fuller longer and helps to reduce overall daily calorie intake.

The South Beach Diet is a similar low-carb diet plan, but slightly less strict than Atkins. The South Beach Diet is a 3-phase program that restricts carbs, then gradually reintroduces them in small amounts to establish a healthier eating routine for life.

When the Atkins Diet came out, many dieters were thrilled with a plan that allowed them to eat steak, butter, and bacon. But the Atkins Diet is not without its faults or complications. While ketosis is a quick way to burn fat, it can cause side effects like dizziness, headaches, nausea, and dehydration when unmanaged.

One of the biggest complaints about the Atkins Diet is that it lacks balance. Researchers have found that the Atkins Diet does not support sustainable weight loss and that “the greatest health benefits are derived from diets low in saturated fats and high in complex carbohydrates and fiber that increase insulin sensitivity and reduce coronary heart disease risk.”

What’s the Lesson?
The Atkins and South Beach Diets realized that fats were necessary for health and should be part of our daily diet. But, like fad diets of the past, they also went to the extreme and demonized another food group: carbohydrates. This trend continues to show how our culture polarizes food into either good or bad. In reality, the only “good” diet is the one that supports your body’s individual needs in a balanced and sustainable way.

2010’s: Elimination Diets
In recent years, our quest for the ultimate healthy diet has continued. More fad diets, along with some promising ones, have surfaced in an attempt to give us the answers to our most significant health question: what should we eat?

Some of the more notable diets of the past ten years include the Paleo Diet, Keto Diet, and Whole 30:

Paleolithic Diet:
The Paleolithic Diet, or “Paleo,” was developed to mimic the hunter-gatherer diet of our ancestors with the belief that this would provide the best nutrients for human health. In general, the Paleo diet consists of meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, healthy fats and oils, herbs, and spices. Sugar, grains, dairy, and processed foods or chemical additives are entirely eliminated.

Ketogenic Diet:
The Ketogenic Diet, or “Keto,” is similar to Atkins and other low-carb diets that stimulate the body to enter ketosis to burn fat. While there are variations, the classic Keto Diet aims for 70% fat, 20% protein, and 10% carbohydrate. This diet has been shown to improve insulin resistance and may be helpful for those managing diabetes. Keto is also a favorite diet among many bodybuilders and athletes for maintaining low body-fat levels.

Whole 30:
The Whole 30 Diet is a strict elimination diet that lasts for 30 days that promises weight loss as well as better overall health. On the diet, participants eliminate all sugar and artificial sweeteners, alcohol, grains, pulses, legumes, soy, dairy, and any processed foods or additives.

What’s the Lesson?
In the past few years, our diet fads have become more balanced, well-researched, and focused on whole food sources. This is a good sign that our interest is transitioning to finding long-lasting solutions to our weight and health, rather than short-lived results or quick fixes.

While the newer diets and diet fads do have some promising research behind them, it’s important to remember that no single diet will work for everyone. Working with a functional medicine practitioner is the most reliable and holistic way to find out which foods will help your body thrive.

Food is Medicine, Not a Fad
Diet fads come and go, but true health lasts a lifetime.

Our functional medicine approach skips the fads and quick fixes in favor of treatment plans tailored to you. At Seattle Functional Health, we’ll help guide you in finding the diet and lifestyle that best supports your health for today and the future.

Are you ready to finally find a diet plan that works for you? Schedule your personalized consultation to take the first step towards better health with Seattle Functional Health!

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