From keto to paleo to hay-o ("unlock your inner god with the cleansing power of bales"), it’s hard to tell what diets are actually good for you and which are excuses for Instagram influencers to buy more cocaine off-camera. The good news is, stupid diets have been around for ages, and through the benefit of hindsight, we can definitely spot the ones from the past that are most likely never going to make a come back. For example …
When you take a big whiff of pure vinegar, your body recoils, almost as if it’s asking, “Are you sure you want to consume this dirty-ass brine of Adidas?” And the one thing you never ever considered doing is pouring that crap straight down the hatch. Unless you’re famed Romantic poet Lord Byron (1788-1824). Byron was terrified of becoming overweight and would try just about anything to keep the pounds off. Which sounds better than your average keto dude, who would probably do the world a whole lot more good locked in their room writing flowery poetry instead of spending every waking second talking about keto.
Eventually, Byron’s maniacal quest to stay skinny led him to vinegar. He basically replaced his water intake with vinegar because ... well ... that part was pretty unclear. Mostly because he believed that it would help him keep the pounds off, despite not having a very concrete scientific reason as to why. In fact, sometime around switching over to his vinegar diet, Byron is said to have started feeling worse than ever, with what were likely ulcers. With his insides bubbling like a science fair volcano at all times, Byron was not magically shedding the pounds. Perhaps most cruelly, Byron fell ill with a fever and died in his mid-30s. Again, I’m not a scientist, but I’d like to think that a big part of this was his body huddling together like players on a team with a drunk coach and deciding to walk off the field before the next game instead of confronting whatever inane dietary hell Byron would pour down his gullet next.
If I had a time machine, I'd drop a gorgeous personal trainer from Instagram into wartime America, say the Oxblarp, Wyoming post office in 1944, and force to them to ask the townsfolk what they do. “I’m a milk sucker,” says one fellow. He notices the confusion on the trainer’s face. “I suck milk straight from the cow because that’s the best way we got to do it, then I spit it into a glass jar and deliver it to every home in town by foot until the sun comes up and I get back to suckin’.” The influencer forces a smile, terrified, they turn to the next soot-covered post office patron, who tells them, “I just inhale metal dust and carry it in my mouth to the factory and dump it onto the metal pile and run back to the metal dust pile and repeat that until the new metal dust pile at the factory is bigger than the metal dust pile at the pickup location.” The room begins to spin around the influencer, until the postman asks what they do. “Me, oh, I film myself doing bicycle crunches on my telephone and get paid to promote Belly-No, or ersatz amphetamine from Turkmenistan.” The people close in on the influencer, who is quickly stripped down for parts and sent to help the efforts overseas.
With all of that said, I’m starting to think that I’d rather just have a tapeworm rolling around inside of me than one of those a-holes on my screen, which is what a Victorian-era diet focused on. Perhaps no era until the modern one was so focused on beauty standards as the Victorian days, so it makes some sense why an ingestible tapeworm could have possibly popped up during this time. Allegedly, once swallowed, the tapeworm would go to work gobbling up whatever you ate, so that you could just pour melted butter in and not worry about the consequences. (Well, besides having a sci-fi alien roaming around in your gut, swimming back and forth waiting for its scraps and doing God knows what when the tank isn’t full.) Not surprisingly, getting the tapeworm out would have also been hell at this time, with most methods involving the need to lure it out via a cylinder in the digestive tract.
We now know that cigarettes are pretty damn awful for you. It’s common knowledge. So much so that seeing someone smoking a straight-up cigarette today is the kind of historical relic that can bring a tear to my eye. Like spotting a classic car on the first nice day of spring, there’s just something comforting about someone puffing on a dart with their back against a convenience store wall like it’s 1987 or something. But it wasn’t always this way. In fact, smoking used to be presented as a lifestyle, an almost-healthy habit that you’d be weird not to do. So it’s no surprise that smoking and fad dieting became linked during this tobacco heyday in the mid-1920s. Most popular for Lucky Strike’s tagline, “When tempted, reach for a Lucky instead,” it was the perfect moment in time to link up impractical body standards with the new wave of dubious advertising sweeping the nation.
Now that we know about the dangers of smoking, this tagline and its message are even worse. These are hardly comparable activities in the least. Think you need a bite of that bread to stay alive and function? Nope! Throw that stupid bread in the trash and suck down a cigarette, baby! It makes you wonder what other insincere marketing campaigns of the time tried a similar tactic. “About to sneeze? Try mousetrapping your nose and mouth shut instead!” “Do you need to urinate? Forget it. Use Jack’s Quickcrete and seal that business up for good!”
Some of history’s dumbest ideas for staying slim don’t just center on what you’re putting, or not putting, into your body. They also center on location as well. Take 17th-century physician Thomas Short’s hypothesis that hanging around near swamps makes you fat. Writing in his treatise, A Discourse Concerning The Causes and Effects of Corpulency, Short asserted that the reason for your new male breasts might not have to do with the chicken wings, but it’s probably because you just had to go and set up shop in a swamp. Classic dumb guy move, over there in your cool swamp mansion, eating buffalo wings like a swamp lord on your swamp throne, not even taking one moment to consider that the reason you have love handles is because you just had to buy swamp property. Such an idiot!
This one is from the era where you had to have essentially no scientific backing behind any claim you wanted to make, and if you were a “writer,” you could just pen a book as the authority on the subject. Spent the last few nights starring at the stars? Grab the ink pen and within no time, everyone will be reading, and believing, On Farts: How Our Celestial Neighbors Above Are Probably Just Fart Dust From Your Butt Farting When It Has A Turd Incipient. Short pulled the same kind of logic when he happened to notice that a lot of fat people were hanging around swamps and decided to throw out a theory. He just maybe didn’t stop to consider that the reason there were so many fat people around swamps is because the only way to get some enjoyment out of your life as a swamp person would be to eat a lot.
Not every fad diet from history has to be about losing weight. They can also come for the one thing that’s just as enjoyable: beating it wildly. Sylvester Graham was a 19th-century minister that was laser-focused on eliminating joy from people’s lives. His main track was towards masturbation and sexual desire, which he believed were partly the result of a fatty, rich American diet that steered the consumer towards wanting to not just do something fun like eat tasty things, but then go on to do something cool like jerk off. His solution? Graham crackers. Graham came into the idea that white flour was one of the main culprits for making Americans so immoral, so he took all of the fun out of eating bread.
Armed with his new, boring-ass crackers, Graham was under the belief that a stripped-down, blander diet would help men focus more on things other than pounding their parts. In Graham’s mind, dudes were basically just running around chomping on Wonder Bread until they got so turned on that they just had to rub one out, before repeating the process. Honestly, if this were the case, we’d probably be better off as a society. Seriously, let the maniacs get the venom out and come back to us as functioning, actual adults (or at least until they see a bakery).
While some of the diets mentioned before were actively harmful to the body, this one is even more damaging in the way that it goes for the soul. The essence of being. Because if you are forced to live a life where you can’t get off and the only thing you can eat are Graham crackers, you’ve earned yourself far more than a diet. You’ve given yourself absolutely no reason to live. So when you’re scrolling through Instagram later and the latest fad diet or workout jumps into your feed, just remember, that guy or company is no different than the anti-crankin’ minister or the tapeworm pill. Enjoy your Bagel Bites, take the regret that follows, and know that you’re having a hell of a lot more fun on this ride than they are.
Top image: Mythja, Crevis/Shutterstock