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The 9 Weirdest Diets in History

From the poet's faddish potato diet to the Atkins, Dukan and current favorite the 5:2 fast, the search for effective weight-loss programs has been going on for centuries.

Pre-20th-century diets

In Calories & Corsets: a History of Dieting over 2,000 years, Louise Foxcroft shows that worrying about our food habits, and trying to change them, isn't a modern phenomenon. "Hippocrates understood that the underlying principles of health were food and exercise," she writes. From early Christian asceticism to the 1558 "bestseller" The Art of Living Long, Lord Byron's "fad diet of potatoes flattened and drenched in vinegar"and the French physician Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's low-carb diet in the 19th century, the desire to lose weight has been a constant. "One of the earliest low-carbohydrate diets to reach a major audience," Foxcroft points out, was published by William Banting, an undertaker, in 1863. "It soon became so well-known that "Banting" – as in  "I am Banting" – became a synonym for dieting in the UK and America well into the 1920s."

1. Fletcherism, early 1900s

At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, Horace Fletcher, an American entrepreneur, gained the nickname  the Great Masticator. His diet, which Foxton called a "chewing craze", involved eating as much as you liked, but each mouthful had to be chewed a minimum of 100 times (the idea being that the food would become liquid, and weight gain could not result from undigested food).

2. Calorie counting, 1920s

The fashion for thin, boyish figures for women took hold in the 1920s, and so did fad diets, such as the cigarette diet (one Lucky Strike advert read  "reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet"). Numerous products, such as diet pills, chewing gum, laxatives and contraptions made outlandish fat-reducing claims. But the idea of counting the number of calories in food took off after  Doctor Lulu Hunt Peters published Diet & Health: With Key to the Calories, in 1918. It sold millions of copies throughout the 1920s, becoming the first diet bestseller. She urged women to view food as calories, and not to consume more than 1,200 a day.

3. Hay diet, 1930s

The diet established by William Hay, an American doctor, became one of the most famous early fad diets. It was based on Hay's idea that food was either protein, starch or neutral – protein and starch, he believed, should not be eaten in the same meal. Famous followers included Henry Ford.

4. Cabbage soup diet, 1950s

The creator is unknown, but its popularity has continued to the present day, even though it appears to be nothing more than a recipe for flatulence. Usually a seven-day diet plan, consisting of mainly cabbage soup, supplemented with fruit and vegetables and a small amount of meat. Other soup diets have become popular in the decades since, such as the watercress soup diet.

5. The Atkins diet, 1972

Robert Atkins devised the diet based on his own weight-loss experiments, and by the late 1960s it was gaining attention. In 1972 he published Dr Atkins' Diet Revolution, which would go on to sell tens of millions of copies. Thirty years later, his follow-up book, New Diet Revolution (2002), made the Atkins diet more popular than ever – it was made more famous by the number of celebrities supposedly on it.

6. The Beverly Hills diet, 1981

The book, published in 1981, showed people how to follow a highly restrictive six-week food-combining regimen and turned its author,  Judy Mazel, into a Hollywood diet "guru". Mazel, clearly inspired by William Hay, believed that the order in which we ate food was the main problem, "confusing" the enzymes in our bodies that digest the food and leading to weight gain. She advocated the eating of rather a lot of "fat-burning" pineapple. For the first 10 days of the diet, only fruit was permitted; gradually other foods were introduced, but protein and carbohydrates were eaten separately. It sold more than a million copies and attracted celebrity fans including Linda Gray and Liza Minnelli.

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