A Brief History of Dieting

September 23, 2019

Healthy eating has a serious history behind it. Check out our brief history of food and ancient diets.

Interested in the history of food and dieting? It’s a crazy ride. Follow us on a whistle-stop tour through some of the craziest innovations in the history of healthy eating, from ancient man all the way up to the present day!

The power of garlic

While we don’t necessarily think of garlic as a healthy food, the ancient world certainly did! In a slightly morbid turn of events, the Egyptian pharaohs fed it to their slaves, believing that it would help to increase their productivity.
But Egypt wasn’t the only place to hold humble garlic in particularly high esteem. The Olympians of ancient Greece also had a penchant for garlic, eating it before they competed in the games, while garlic was a staple element of China’s ancient diet. They believed that it could be used to treat headaches, depression, and impotence!

Alcohol + starvation = weight loss?

William the Conqueror: military genius, historical powerhouse, massive foodie. Yep, the Conqueror was famed for his ground-quaking appearance, so much so that he decided to go on a diet. Good for him, right? Umm, yeah, about that. The “diet” that William elected to follow was an all-alcohol diet. He decided to stop eating, start boozing, and wait for the pounds to fall off. It worked, sort of. He didn’t die of starvation, at any rate, and modern science has shown that red wine may help to block the development of fat cells, so maybe he was a bit of a visionary. Hmm. Yeah, we’re not buying it either!
Oddly enough, this idea that an all-alcohol diet may have some sort of health benefit seems to have persisted throughout history. Luigi Cornaro, an Italian nobleman of the 16th century, followed a diet consisting of 14 ounces of wine and 12 ounces of food, while the apple cider vinegar diet appeared as late as the 1950s. While Cornaro supposedly lived to the ripe old age of 102 years old, it is our considered opinion that consuming nothing but alcohol is probably not going to be the shot-in-the-arm you’re looking for.

I want to drink your blood—no, really

The 15th century was a hotbed of crazy diet ideas. The craziest? Literal vampirism. A scholar and priest called Marsilio Ficino advised older people to “suck the blood of youth,” believing it to be a cure for old age. Now, if that sounds disgusting, bear in mind that Ficino recommended sweetening it with sugar. Sound better? Yeah, we didn’t think so. Sorry, Marsilio. It’s a no from us.

Swamps, and other places you need to steer clear of

How do you stop yourself from becoming obese? Cut out the calories? Nah. Hit the gym down at the local castle? Not exactly. Back in 1727, a guy called Thomas Short came to the genius conclusion that obese people live near swamps. Want to stay slim? Stay away from the swamp. We’re not too sure about this one either, and as far as we’re aware, there’s no evidence linking swamps with obesity. It would explain Shrek, though.

The world’s first popular diet plan

After a whole lot of dead ends, false starts, and straight-up falsehoods, we come to William Banting, the man who has one of the strongest claims for being the father of the modern diet. Born in 1797, Banting enjoyed the good life a little too much, and by the time he got to middle age, even tying his shoelaces was a bit of a chore. He happened to book himself an appointment with a guy called Dr. William Harvey, and that’s when things took a turn for the better.
Harvey, a devotee of Claude Bernard and his many dietary theories, essentially saw Banting as a guinea pig. And it’s a good thing he did because Banting ended up losing around 50 pounds on Harvey’s prescribed diet of beef, fish, vegetables, and tea. Understandably, Banting was thrilled and published a book all about his weight loss journey, entitled On Corpulence. It earned him fame and fortune, and his diet is now seen as a sort of precursor to the low-carb regimens that are so popular today. Ever toyed with keto or paleo? You might have Banting to thank for that!

Atkins and the war on carbs

Everyone and their mother has heard of the Atkins diet, haven’t they? First devised in 1972, this low-carb diet was initially considered to be unhealthy by health authorities. It was only after a boatload of scientific studies came to its defense that people really started to get the message: carbs can make you fat! It’s been a big hit with celebs like Kim Kardashian and Jennifer Aniston, indicating that Atkins could very well be here for the long haul.

So there you have it. From the ancient Egyptians to #cleaneating, the weird and wonderful history of food, healthy eating, dieting, and diet fads hasn’t always been smooth sailing. But hopefully, you’re now a little more clued in on where the whole concept comes from in the first place! Just remember not to take any of these ancient pearls of wisdom too seriously. If you’d like to discuss your diet with a trustworthy source, book an appointment with a doctor or healthcare professional.