Diets Through the Decades: What Advice Still Applies Today?

For practically as long as there has been food, there have been diets. Many of them have been wacky or downright dangerous. In 1820, Lord Byron popularized the Vinegar and Water Diet as one of his obsessive attempts to stay thin. In the early 1900s, some people turned to the Tapeworm Diet as a disturbing shortcut to weight loss. Then there was the Sleeping Beauty Diet of 1970, which involved being heavily sedated to avoid cravings and prevent eating (rumor has it that Elvis Presley tried that one).
But other diets, although somewhat unconventional, weren’t all necessarily “bad.” Even if they’ve since fallen out of favor, many old-school programs contained some nuggets of usefulness that still carry weight (pun intended) today.
Before you start searching for the next newfangled diet to help you achieve your dream physique, maybe it’s worth taking a look in the rearview mirror to see if any historical diets might be your cup of tea. After all, who says you have to reinvent the wheel before starting down the road to weight loss?  


The Grapefruit Diet
Also known as “The Hollywood Diet,” this program was around as early as the 1930s, but then was re-popularized in the 70s and 80s. It involved eating half a grapefruit (or drinking four ounces of grapefruit juice) with each meal, under the premise that the fruit contains a special enzyme that helps burn fat faster. In addition to the grapefruit, the diet included a meal plan centered around meats, vegetables and eggs, with a scarce 800-calorie limit.
Although the original grapefruit diet falls into the “fad” category, Dr. Christen Cupples Cooper, a registered dietitian and founding director of the Nutrition and Dietetics Program at the College of Health Professions at Pace University, says it’s not a bad idea to include grapefruit in a weight loss strategy—as long as it’s a part of an otherwise well-rounded nutrition plan that is in a healthier calorie range than the original diet.
“Grapefruit has its merits like any other whole food,” says Dr. Cooper. “It has vitamin C, numerous other vitamins, minerals and fiber, but as the sole form of sustenance over weeks and months, it is obviously not a good choice for every single meal. It fails to provide the protein and healthful fats that the body needs for optimal functioning.”
The Slim Fast Diet
Anyone with a TV in the late 70s and 80s can probably still recite the Slim Fast tagline: "A shake for breakfast, a shake for lunch, then a sensible dinner." The SlimFast diet is still around today as a seller of protein and meal shakes, although its initial rush of popularity has dwindled.
In "100 Years of Dieting," nutrition blogger Caitlin Hendee points out that there's no reason that shakes can't be a part of a well-rounded diet plan, as long as they're not the only addition. "Drinking one now and again when you’re in hurry for breakfast is fine, but count it like you would any other meal, based on its calorie and nutritional content," recommends Hendee. "Drinking SlimFast shakes alone is unlikely to result in sustainable, long-term weight loss."
Sparkpeople’s registered dietitian, Becky Hand, says you’ll probably lose weight using shakes as meal replacements, but sipping shakes does very little good when you return to the real world of food. She recommends asking yourself this question: “After I lose the weight, what resources does the company provide as I start using conventional foods again?” If the company has nothing to offer, walk away. If the company has a solid plan, go ahead and dive in.


Low-Fat, High-Carb Diets
The 1980s ushered in the low-fat era, which many dietitians suspect is to blame for our nation’s seemingly insatiable appetite for processed foods today. “All fats were rigidly classified as ‘bad’ and ‘fattening,’ and ‘fat makes you fat’ was the motto of the day,” says Dr. Cooper. “Meanwhile, refined carbohydrates were revered as ‘energy foods’ and ‘power foods,’ essential for fueling exercise.”
Meanwhile, as “fat” became a four-letter word, food manufacturers began adding more sugar to make things taste good without the fat. “A particularly famous example was the Snackwell cookie, which was marketed as a healthy, low-fat dessert but had a lot of sugar,” says nutritionist Claire Martin. “But in reality, this was just a different kind of unhealthy.”
Of course, we now know that healthy fats play an important role in a well-balanced meal plan, and that eating a very limiting low-fat or no-fat diet can actually put your health at risk. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans distinguishes between saturated fats/trans fats and unsaturated fats, recommending that saturated fats are limited to less than 10 percent of calories per day by replacing them with unsaturated fats.
However, Hendee says there is a valuable takeaway from the low-fat diet trend: It taught us the very important differences between bad fats (saturated and trans fats, like butter) and good fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, like avocado and olive oil). "It’s more than okay to cut down on foods laden with saturated and trans fats, as they lack real nutritional value and can pump up the waistline," says Hendee. "But there’s plenty of evidence to show that healthy fats are not only okay to eat, but can actually help boost your metabolism and keep your heart going strong."
That said, it's best to avoid low-fat alternative versions of processed foods, as they are almost always packed full of sugar, salt and other additives to make them taste good without the fat.
Martin points out another key takeaway from the low-fat craze: low-fat desserts. “A lot of fruits, like apples, peaches and strawberries, are low on the glycemic index, have no fat, have naturally occurring sugar and make great healthy desserts,” she says. “You can even cook them to help caramelize their naturally occurring sugar and make them sweeter.”


The Zone Diet
In 1995, Dr. Barry Sears published The Zone Diet, which was touted as a way to reduce inflammation, lower the risk of chronic disease, enhance physical and mental performance and lose weight along the way. The plan calls for eating smaller meals five times a day to stay full and satisfied, with a ratio of 30 percent proteins, 40 percent carbs and 30 percent fats.
"Dr. Sears based many of his dietary principles around inflammation caused by diet and lifestyle," says nutritionist and author Stella Metsovas. "His main therapy for creating anti-inflammation in the body was through the intake of beneficial fatty acids and polyphenols found in fruits and vegetables."
According to Metsovas, the principles behind The Zone Diet still hold true more than 20 years later. Keeping your body fueled throughout the day with healthy fats, lean proteins and healthy carbs–while sticking to a specific calorie intake–can be an effective strategy for weight loss and overall health.


Low-Carb Diets
As the Atkins diet swept the nation in the early 2000s, low-carb became all the rage. Created by cardiologist Dr. Roger Atkins, the program focused on limiting carbohydrates, suggesting just 20 carbs per day during the first phase, with most meals consisting of high-fat, high-protein foods.
South Beach was another popular low-carb plan, which promoted a three-stage diet low in simple carbs, instead favoring vegetables and proteins for weight loss. The diet had mixed results for people trying to lose weight and lacked dietary fiber, a key ingredient that helps with weight loss.
"These high-fat, low-carb diets tended to be successful," says health and wellness blogger Daniel Powers. "They put the body in a state of ketosis, which means that it starts pulling energy from fat stores instead of from carbohydrates stored in the body."
Although the low-carb craze has dwindled somewhat as people learn that carbs aren't all bad, Martin says it left behind an important lesson: Not all carbs are created equal. "Complex and fiber-rich carbs are healthier than refined, sugary carbs," she says. "Eating whole wheat was healthier than white bread, whole-grain cereal was healthier than Frosted Flakes and brown rice was preferable to white. Blood sugar levels were less impacted by complex, fiber-heavy carbs, making them a healthier choice than refined high-sugar carbs."

Where Do We Go From Here?

As we approach a brand-new decade, Martin believes we're headed toward a healthier, more enlightened consciousness when it comes to food and diets.
"Yes, many Americans are still chasing the latest product that promises thinness, the latest fad diet or 'fat-burning miracle food,'" she says. "However, many are returning to balance. Evidence is pointing to the importance of slowing down to enjoy a balanced meal, one that consists of fat, carbohydrates and protein, but also includes good people and good flavor."
Perhaps, Martin suggests, we are coming full-circle, learning that the body needs nutrients, but also needs nurturing. "More people are beginning to understand and appreciate the comfort and care that goes along with nourishment, and that food has meaning beyond its scientific components," she says.
For more insights, Hand suggests checking out this Fad Diet Timeline from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.