When we say, "all time," we mean it. The news talks about obesity like it's a recent epidemic, but the truth is that fat people have existed throughout recorded history. Without modern inventions, people in earlier times had to work 10 times harder to get fat, but the extraordinary men and women of those eras persevered and managed, in many cases, to achieve spectacular obesity.
For as long as that has happened, those people have searched for ways to shed the pounds while avoiding "exercise and a sensible diet" at all costs. As you'll see, often it would have been better to just stay fat.
In 1087, England's William the Conqueror got really fat. Hurt by comments such as King Phillip of France's description of him as "looking pregnant," and despondent over his inability to ride a horse without breaking it in half, he took to his bed and drank nothing but alcohol in an attempt to lose weight.
One can only speculate the reasoning behind it (we know of several guys who tried this diet in college, but for different reasons), but the idea probably went something like this: Food makes you fat. To lose weight, you can stop eating food. But then you'll be hungry. You won't care if you're hungry if you're passed out from too much booze. The booze can't possibly make you fat, because it's a drink, not food. Right?
Wrong. Here is a rough breakdown of calories per gram for the various basic substances we eat:
- Carbohydrates: 4 cal/g
- Proteins: 4 cal/g
- Alcohol: 7 cal/g
- Fat: 9 cal/g
As you can see, William could not have been much worse off sipping lard.
On one hand, William was able to get back on his horse again. We know this because he died of complications by falling off of it. You could say he was successful, because he was able to get back on the horse, or unsuccessful because he had trouble staying on it.
Either way, he was allegedly too large to fit into his coffin at burial time and his body was said to have bloated in the afternoon heat and exploded from all the prodding, leaving a reportedly unbearable stench in the church. Any time your body explodes, it's typically the sign of a failed diet.
Yet, in 1964, Robert Cameron put William's philosophy into print with The Drinking Man's Diet, which emphasized cutting carbohydrates, but whose main attention-getter was its recommendation of alcoholic drinks, which generally contain very few carbs. While he neglected to emphasize that alcohol has almost twice as many calories per gram, and that it may not be the healthiest of substances to incorporate into your regular diet, this was brought up rather vocally by doctors at the time. We have to question Cameron's actual motivation here, just as people questioned ours when we came up with the Porn Diet.
The fact that "beer belly" is a common term in modern lingo goes to show that we've pretty much got the idea.
The practice of throwing up after a meal is actually older than Hollywood and photographic airbrushing techniques, although Julius Caesar's attached psychological issues may have varied slightly from those of young women today. From accounts such as Cicero's, which explained how Caesar escaped an assassination attempt by vomiting after dinner in his bedroom instead of in the bathroom where his assassins expected him, it seems this sort of practice was common enough in Rome that no one batted an eye. Then again, so was watching a prisoner and a bear fight to the death for fun.
Now, people keep quoting "fun facts" about how ancient Romans threw up so much that they had special rooms to do it in, called "vomitoriums." Not so. While they did vomit a lot, and they did have rooms called vomitoriums, they were actually unrelated. Vomitoriums were just hallways in large stadiums where people exited all at once (so they "vomited" people out onto the streets when the event was over). Although, if they had just come out from watching a bear tear a man's arms off, they might have actually vomited in the vomitorium, but that would just be coincidence.
The idea is straightforward enough--to get rid of the food before you have time to digest it and turn it into fat. In the context of the Romans, they seemed to really enjoy eating and thought of it as a way to make room for more. They were type-A, impatient people who had a continent to conquer and couldn't bother with waiting for it to go out the other end.
By now most people are aware of the health consequences of repeated vomiting. But, just for the record, it causes tooth decay, osteoporosis, heart problems, kidney problems, damage to the esophagus, and fainting from low blood pressure. You know how when you throw up, it sort of feels like you're dying? That's your body trying to tell you something. Despite that, people still do it and we call it bulimia.
Caesar was, as you probably know, murdered before any of these symptoms really had a chance to show themselves. As for others engaging in the practice at the time, we're not sure, since complaints about bulimia symptoms probably would have gotten lost in complaints about syphilis, gout, parasites and the other 5 million diseases people picked up by age 30 back then.
These days, we've figured out that the practice can make you die, so on the scale of sensible diet solutions it's about the same as sticking a bear in your kitchen to keep you from getting to the fridge.
In the 1820s, a somewhat insane Presbyterian minister named Sylvester Graham came to the conclusion that lustful desires were caused by diet, and that basically, a strict bland diet would stop people from thinking about sex.
Graham's reasoning was basically that eating meat and fat causes a person to become lustful, and sexual desires cause, as we all know, epilepsy, spinal diseases, tuberculosis and other serious diseases. If people couldn't keep their desires under control, they might even end up masturbating, which of course, causes blindness. Also, ketchup and mustard cause insanity. No doubt he had sound scientific backing for all this.
You know who eats a bland, strict diet? Sailors. Guess who also has a reputation for rampant whoring the moment they come ashore. Also? Prisoners. From them, you could make the case that a bland, strict diet causes both shankings and violent man-rape.
While a fair amount of people were pretty sure Graham was insane, others bought into his philosophy, which didn't cause much ruckus as long as they were only putting themselves on the diet. However, in 1840, the leadership of Oberlin College was convinced to adopt and enforce Graham's diet on its student body.
Dissatisfaction reached a turning point when one professor was fired for scandalously bringing a pepper shaker to lunch. Things went downhill after "Peppergate," as the press at the time would not have called it, and the grand experiment was canceled.
Graham's legacy was a bland, tasteless whole-grain cracker he invented as a staple of the diet, which became known as the "Graham cracker," a name so clearly evocative of delicious flavor that Nabisco later named its completely different, enriched-flour, honey-flavored cracker after it. Due to the extreme changes from the original recipe, modern-day Graham crackers no longer have the ability to cure lustful thoughts.