Diet Culture: A Brief History

We’re always looking for new and better ways to maintain our health, whether through technology or diet. Over the years, the diet industry has experienced massive growth. Like any other aspect of our culture, our diet constantly changes and evolves. However, with the rise of social media, dieting and exercising have become a culture in itself. So why do diet culture norms seem to change every day? 

What Is A Diet?

To talk about the evolution of diet culture, we must first trace it back to its origins. The term “diet” refers to the total amount of food and drink consumed. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that the term came to mean a restricted food intake to lose weight or change the physical physique.  

Before modern food preservation and refrigeration, people ate exclusively local foods that were in season and available. Because of this, people’s nutrients and diets ranged massively depending on where in the world they were. Before grain cultivation, diets existed exclusively on what they could find and/or hunt off the land. It wasn’t until modern transportation, and food preservation did people stop eating simply to survive. With the introduction of more options, people began to care more about what they were consuming. 

The first ideas of being “fit” and “healthy” origonated in Greece. Ancient Greeks were big on fitness and health as they believed having a healthy body meant having a healthy mind. In addition, ancient Greece was the birthplace of the modern Olympics, and fitness was a large part of their culture. However, the “ideal” body of the Greeks was not based on a person’s visual physique but instead on their physical abilities.  

Ancient Greecian Fitness

Fad Diets in History

The first diet book came out in 1558, and it is still in print today. Italian Luigi Cornaro wrote The Art of Living Long. It advised readers to limit themselves to 12 oz of food a day and 14 oz of wine. In 1614, The Fruits, Herbs, and Vegetables of Italy heavily criticized the sugary and meaty diet of the British. It became the source material for today’s Mediterranean Diet.

The next real diet book came out in 1730, titled The Natural Method of Curing the Diseases of the Body. The book recounts the struggles of its author Dr. George Chyne, who describes his diet of exclusively milk and vegetables. After his return to normal foods, the shed weight was regained at once and became a lifelong vegetarian.  

The idea of “ideal body types” arose in the mid-1800s, and beauty became reliant on the visuals of a person’s body. The thin ideal and form-fitting clothing of the mid-19th century was so prevalent that the first “diet influencer” emerged. Lord Byron was considered the most beautiful man in the world by the Victorians. Everybody wanted to look like him. He recounted his diet of starving himself and then binge eating, after which he would try to sweat off any gained weight under many layers of clothing. He is also the inventor of the vinegar diet (a diet that we see even now with the popular practice of consuming a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar before meals), where he regularly would drink vinegar with water and eat vinegar-soaked potatoes. Lord Byron’s vinegar diet became so popular that there are records of women in the 1800s dying from drinking pints of vinegar.  

1900s Vanity Poster

The frail and thin image of the victorian era was popularized by the Empress of Austria, Elizabeth Amelie Wittelsbach, a.k.a Sisi. She worked all day to keep her small, frail physique, taking long hikes, horseback riding, gymnastics, starving herself, and using emetics (to induce vomiting) to keep her weight down.  

It wasn’t until 1825 that the first low-carb diet came onto the scene. In The Physiology of Taste or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy, Billat-Savarin argued against obesity being a disease but a byproduct of lifestyle. In his book, he documented the idea of avoiding bread, flour-based foods, and sugary and starchy foods like potatoes. His diet advice became the blueprint for the extremely popular Paleo, Keto, Atkins, Caveman, and other diets that we see and hear of today. 

Other than the instrumental diets that became blueprints for many of the diets we see today, hundreds of insane fad diets have been prevalent over the years. One of the weirdest diets taking America and England by storm in the early 1900s was “Fletcherism.”. People chewed every mouthful 32 times (or until liquid) and spat out the rest.

Protective Foods Book Cover

Where Are Diets Today?

Today, the word “diet” is lost to popular culture. Instead of its original meaning, the word refers to different ways one can restrict food intake. The silliness of formerly popular fad diets reminds us of the dangerous diets of today. Though it may not seem like it, pop culture and social media have made fad diets more prevalent in society; think juice cleanses, liquid diets, and pre-workout. When looking to lose weight, it’s better for people to adopt a more balanced and diverse diet and regular exercise instead of spending even more money on the next miracle diet (that doesn’t work). 

The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook Cover

Written by: Timandra Rowan


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