The History of Dieting

Did you know that Americans spend more than $61 billion a year on diet products? If this is the case, why do you think most people continue to struggle in achieving a healthy lifestyle if they spend so much on diet books, diet pills, meal replacement products, diet foods, and diet fads that can help them lose weight?

The importance of fitness and health has often been forgotten due to an all-consuming need to look a certain way or weigh a certain amount. One proof of this is that 78% of Americans are either overweight or obese, and those percentages keep on increasing even though people jump from one new diet fad to another.

When you open the television, read magazines, and browse the internet, you will see a lot of diet dreams and articles about losing weight. There are also lots of diet books available at bookstores in the present time.With the many diet gimmicks thatwe have today, have you ever wondered when dieting started? If you want to know, read on as we are going to tell you about the history of dieting.

Dieting in the Ancient Times

Well, cave people did not know how to write, so there is no record of whether or not they practiced dieting. But most likely, they ate when they had food because that was how they survived during those times by hunting food. On the other hand, the early Greeks and Romans did left evidence on how they felt about this issue.

For the Greeks, people who have a healthy body also have a healthy mind. For them, your body was as healthy and beautiful as a Greek god, which meant your mind was healthy, too. With this, being fat was not only ugly it also meant having mental unbalance. The Greeks are into fitness. In fact, the rich people back in those times would spend more than eight hours a day working out in a gymnasium. There were also beauty contests held for women.

A Greek physician named Hippocrates, who lived around 400 BC, believed that fat people suffered from aches, pains, flatulence, unhealthy sleep, and constipation. He recommended them to follow a strict diet, increase exercise, and as well as vomit. The ancient Greeks loved ideal bodies, but their ideal was chunkier and more muscular compared to the skinny ideal we have today.

person on a weighing scale

Holy Anorexia – Achieving Holiness by Not Eating

Holy anorexia or anorexia mirabilis is an eating disorder that was common but not restricted to the Middle Ages in Europe, which has affected Catholic nuns and religious women. During the first few centuries after Christ, a lot of Christians thought that the physical body was the adversary of the soul. Did you know that St. Anthony, St. Augustine, the early Desert Fathers, St. Jerome, and St. Basil all struggled with food issues? They sometimes starve themselves to be more holy. In fact, their hallucinations and other strange mental slates may have been due to anorexia mirabilis or holy anorexia.

Pope Gregory, around 600 AD, defined gluttony not just as eating too much but also eating eagerly or eating between meals. Aside from that, he also said that picky eaters and gourmands were also guilty of this deadly sin. This was taken to an extreme by St. Catherine of Sienna. When her parents desired her to marry her sister’s widower, she found out that she could refuse food to get her own way. With that, she started eating only Communion wafers. She got sick to the point that she couldn’t even swallow water. Eventually, her legs stopped working, and she died of starvation.

The idea of being fat as a sign of not being spiritual still continues today, when fitness experts couch everything in quasi-religious terms.

Liquid Diet by William the Conqueror

The very first liquid diet was introduced around 1066 AD, when William the Conqueror became fat and unable to mount his horse. One time, he fell off and landed headfirst and just pretended that he was kissing the ground in joy. After this, he gave up food and went on a drinking man’s diet. However, all he consumed at that time was alcohol.

After dieting, when he mounted his horse again, the saddle horn caught in his gut. With this, he died of infection. His diet was not also that successful because he wasn’t able to fit into his coffin. The priests tried to stuff him into it, which caused his intestines to burst.

The Beginning of Modern Dieting

person measuring waist

The 19th century was when modern dieting started. During the mid-1800s, thin and romantic was the ideal of both male and female beauty. Clothing became more form-fitting for both genders, which was bad news for overweight people.

In the 1820s, Lord Byron was the world’s sexiest man. Almost all people wanted to look like him. However, he gained weight easily and had to work hard to remain slim. With this, he starved himself and then binge and try to sweat it off under layers of clothing. He’s also the one who invented the vinegar diet. He drank it with water several times a day to flush off his fat. Aside from that, he also ate potatoes that were drenched in vinegar.

A lot of people, particularly women who died from drinking pints of vinegar in imitation of Lord Byron. In the present time, there’s a variation of this diet called the Apple Cider Vinegar Diet, which is done by drinking a tablespoon of it in water before every meal.

Between 1850 and 1900, women practiced a form of self-imposed starvation in order to look thin and frail, which was called “Victorian Anorexia.” Elisabeth Amelie Wittelsbach, Empress of Austria, was the ideal woman of these times. She was popular for her 16 inches waist, and she worked hard to keep it. She went on long hikes, did gymnastics, went horseback riding, and ate very little. Aside from that, she also used laxatives and emetics to keep her weight down. She would take around 3 hours a day to get dressed with the help of her maids because lacing here into a leather corset took a lot of time. She was also moody and withdrawn, probably due to starvation.

From 1850 to 1920, dresses for women required a tiny laced-in waist. Men, on the other hand, wore tights or breeches with tight-fitting jackets. This continued until around the end of the 19th century, when looser pants came in style. During these times, a slim figure was ideal, and fat people were ridiculed and called immoral. In fact, a book from 1881 even advised governments to capture and imprison fat people.

The 19th century also brought the world the first low carb diet book, the first diet diary, and the first scientific research on metabolism.

The Banting Diet

In 1860, William Banting, an English undertaker, weighed 202 pounds on a five-foot five-inch frame. Just like other people who were into dieting, he also tried everything to lose weight, including the use of laxatives, swimming, and eating lighter foods. Finally, he lost 50 pounds on a diet that he created himself. After that, he went on and published it in a pamphlet called “Letter on Corpulence.” It sold thousands of copies worldwide, and a lot of people were on it. During those times, the term “I am banting” meant that you’re on a diet.

This diet includes lots of calories, which was more than 2800 compared to modern diets that only has less than 1200 a day. It also focused on protein, fat, and roughage. Based on his diet, five ounces of meat was required at breakfast with a small biscuit or toast. For lunch, five ounces of fish with vegetables, one ounce of dry toast, and unsweetened fruit. For dinner, four ounces of meat, three ounces of fruit, and a small glass of wine. The banting diet avoided foods like potatoes, salmon, pork, butter, milk, sugar, beer, and starches. The banting diet was probably the first diet with mass appeal.

First Calorie Counting Book

In 1918, the first-ever calorie counting book was published. Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters once weighed 2020 pounds and was probably the first-ever person to count calories and to advise other people to do the same. Her book was called “Dieting and Health: With Key to the Calories.” More than 2 million copies of this book were sold, and it had 55 editions.

Dr. Peters declared that being fat is sinful, and self-control is key to slimness. With this, she suggested a diet of 1200 calories a day for women to be eaten in 100-calorie units. To be able to find your ideal weight, she advised getting the number of inches you are above five feet in height then multiply it by 5.5.

After this, it was estimated that more than 1000 weight-loss diets have been developed up to 2014.


From the 19th century up to the present time, a lot of diet trends have been tried by people all over the world, which we will be talking about more in another post. However, even though there are lots of different weight-loss diets out there, many people today still suffer from being overweight or obese. With this, we think that as long as there are people who are searching for ways on how to lose weight, others will continue to invent a diet fad that everyone else would eventually try. We hope the information we shared here gave you an idea of how dieting started.