Belly Laughs at Early Fad Diets

Centuries before the world obsessed over the sudden weight loss of Lindsay Lohan and Mary Kate Olsen, there was William the Conqueror, who apparently got so fat he had trouble staying on his horse.

In the years after his triumph at the Battle of Hastings, the French royal grew so rotund that he devised his own weight-loss technique: He confined himself to his room and consumed nothing but alcohol.

Poor William subsequently died of abdominal injuries in 1087, when he fell from his saddle at the Siege of Mantes. He was so obese, clergy had trouble fitting him into his stone sarcophagus, and the stench of his body filled the chapel with a foul smell.

At least his horse must've felt some relief.

Nearly a millennium later, humanity is still vexed by fad dieting, forever searching for that painfree formula for slimming down. While there's a general consensus about the basic rule of the metabolism -- that the calories you burn must exceed the calories you consume -- achieving that goal is up for debate. And of course, a new diet scheme comes out all the time.

One minute diet gurus are saying, "Eat no carbohydrates." Then it's "Watch your fats." Just when you think the Atkins and South Beach diets are here to stay, the Sonoma Diet comes along.

And what of the diets of yesteryear? The Scarsdale Diet, the Cabbage Soup Diet, the Astronaut's Diet, the F-Plan and the Zone have all come in and out of fashion, and some people still swear by them.

Remember back in 1988, when Oprah Winfrey dragged a wagon piled with 67 pounds of fat before her audience, announcing she had lost that much with Optifast? Later, she became an advocate for good eating and portion control.

Celebrities can offer the worst weight-loss examples. In the mid-1970s, when Elvis Presley was squeezing into those white jumpsuits, he had reportedly tried the "Sleeping Beauty Diet" in which he was heavily sedated for several days, hoping to wake up thinner.

Sadly, the King's waistline was overwhelmed by his famed weakness for peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches deep fried in butter.

From Vision Dieter Glasses to Breatharians

In the last 25 years, it seems we've seen it all: Vision-Dieter Glasses to make food look less appealing; The Mini-Fork system to help people take smaller bites; even a cultish group called the Breatharians, who claimed that ancient yoga practices could remove the need for eating altogether.

Then there are books, some with titles like "The Three-Week Trance Diet," "The Blood Type Diet Encyclopedia" and "More of Jesus, Less of Me," that have sparked endless debate in the diet world.

"One thing you'll always see is that people are always looking for magic, and they're surprised when you tell them otherwise," says Dr. Sanford Siegal, a Miami diet book author who has treated obesity for 40 years.

"Many of the new diet schemes today are actually just warmed-over fads from yesteryear, but people still want to believe."

Many believe that dieting is a relatively new phenomenon. Up until the 20th century, food was so scarce that corpulence was a sign of affluence. The Fat Man's Club of Connecticut -- once a proud group of businessmen -- didn't close its extra-wide doors until 1903.

1903 might have marked a turning point in fat status. It was that year that 355-pound President William Howard Taft -- the most well-rounded commander in chief in history -- got stuck in the White House bathtub and vowed to reduce.

Nevertheless, fad diets and popular diet books even predate bathroom scales. On Siegal's bookshelf is "The Causes and Effects of Corpulence" by Thomas Short, who, in 1727, advised overweight people to move to more arid climates, observing that fat people were more likely to live near swamps.

"It's really no crazier than some of the things people have come up with in recent years," Siegal says.

If you're confounded by the mixed messages brought forth by each new fad diet, sink your teeth into these tasty morsels from the history of dieting.

Tasty Morsels From Diet History

1830: Graham's "Cracker" Diet -- Gluttony is not only bad for your health, it could make you sexually promiscuous and morally corrupt. That was the opinion of one of America's first avowed vegetarians, Presbyterian minister Sylvester Graham, who is best remembered as the namesake of the graham cracker.

At his health retreats, Graham preached the virtues of a bland, meat-free diet. He urged his followers to swear off coffee, tea, tobacco and alcohol, and to eat plenty of whole-grain breads and crackers.

Perhaps it was Graham's preaching that inspired the practice of leaving crackers by the Christmas tree. It might be our subconscious way of saying, "Hey, Santa, maybe you ought to think about lightening the reindeers' load."

1864: Banting -- The floodgates for diet-book publishing opened when the first popular diet book was written by William Banting, a rotund English casket maker who was so fat he had trouble tying his own shoe and had to ease himself down steps by going backward.

Banting's "Letter on Corpulence" documented how the 5-foot-5 author shed 50 pounds on a diet of lean meats, dry toast, unsweetened fruit and green vegetables. Early editions of the book sold 58,000 copies and, for decades after, English dieters referred to the battle of the belt buckle as "Banting."

1857: Zander Rooms -- Dr. Gustav Zander of Sweden helped usher in an age of mechanized exercise equipment with the first belt-driven fat massager -- a device that would wrap around your body and giggle you to perfection. For decades to come, health spas offered "Zander Rooms."

Training films of Babe Ruth showed baseball's ultimate heavy hitter trying to shake off his 12 hot dog lunches. Of course, the Yankee great hit a lot of homers but took his time waddling around the bases. Who knows how many more he would have smacked had he not missed a good portion of the 1925 season with what the sports world dubbed "the bellyache heard round the world."

1903: The Great Masticator -- San Francisco art dealer Horace Fletcher is better known in the fad diet world as "The Great Masticator" for advocating a weight-loss technique that involved incessant chewing -- but absolutely no swallowing.

In 1898, after being denied health insurance because of his girth, Fletcher claimed that he slimmed down from 205 pounds to a svelte 163 by chewing each morsel 32 times -- once for each tooth -- and spitting out the remains. By his way of thinking, your body would absorb the nutrients it needed, and you'd get to enjoy the flavor of the meal without gaining weight.

Fletcher became a celebrated author, and spittoon sales must have skyrocketed, although you could hardly be surprised if he didn't receive many dinner invitations. Among his famous followers who wore their jaws out singing his praise and following his advice were novelist Henry James (whose dense writing is hard to digest) and oil baron John D. Rockefeller (whose business tactics some considered unpalatable).

Another proponent of "Fletcherizing" was John Harvey Kellogg, better known as the father of the corn flake. He ran a sanitarium in Battle Creek, Mich. (where cereal eaters would one day send box tops), and to inspire patients to Fletcherize, he wrote a "Chew Chew" song.

It was Kellogg's younger brother who added sugar to breakfast cereal, causing sales to explode, along with a few waistlines.

1917: Calorie Counting -- By the early 20th century, kitchen scales became commonplace, and Lulu Hunt Peters accurately predicted that "Instead of saying 'one slice of bread' or 'a piece of pie,' you will say '100 calories of bread,' '350 calories of pie.' "

Peter's landmark book, "Diet and Health, With Key to the Calories," sold more than 2 million copies, promoting a 1,200-calorie-a-day regime. While calorie counting is still the principal method of mainstream dieting, diet mavens would still argue over the proper amount of calories for weight loss and the proper food combinations for appeasing hunger. And, of course, there has always been a parade of contrarians.

1925: The Cigarette Diet -- In the age before tobacco advertising restrictions, several cigarette companies hailed the appetite-suppressing qualities of their products. One ad for Lucky Strikes urged smokers to "Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet."

1928: The Inuit Meat-and-Fat Diet -- The dietary preaching of arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson -- author of such books as "The Fat of the Land" -- could make the most ardent Atkins follower look like a vegetarian.

After living among the Inuit in the frozen tundra of the north, Stefansson raved about the salubrious effects of an all meat-and-fat diet. The Inuit still amaze anthropologists by their ability to live on a diet consisting of caribou, raw fish and whale blubber, with less than 2 percent of their diet coming from fruit, vegetables and other carbs.

To prove his point, Stefansson checked himself into New York's Bellevue Hospital in 1928, where doctors monitored his health for several months, and he claimed to have finished the year on his special diet.

While doctors still chew over the results, legions of protein proponents would sing his praise. Another pre-Atkins meat advocate, New York cardiologist Blake Donaldson advocated Inuit-style diets well into the 1960s, advising some patients to go to their butchers and ask for fat -- preferably kidney fat. His appropriately titled dietary tome was called "Strong Medicine."

Early 1930s: The Hay Diet -- Unfortunately, the Hay Diet, a Depression Era rage, didn't allow followers to eat like a horse without gaining weight. Dr. William Hay -- who developed his diet philosophy to cope with his own high blood pressure -- was the first to promote the virtues of separating your food, arguing that the human body couldn't adequately cope with combinations of proteins and starches at the same time, and warned of "digestive explosion."

Several miracle diets in the decades to come bore similarities to Hay's oft-debated theory of "harmonized food selection," including Judy Mazel's "New Beverly Hills Diet."

Hay advised patients to consume fruit, meat and dairy at separate meals, separate from bread and potatoes, and also recommended enemas several times a week, if not daily.

Early 1930s: Slimming Soap -- Just in case you thought late-night TV gave birth to the craziest diet products, slimming soaps were the rage in the 1930s, with products like "Fatoff" and "La Mar Reducing Soap" that were nothing more than hand soap laden with potassium chloride and other impurities.

The advertising for "Fat-O-NO" on display at Minnesota's Museum of Questionable Medical Devices, promises a tablet that "Helped over 100,000 women to their normal weight" and was purportedly "recommended by doctors and chemists everywhere" and required "no starvation diets or strenuous exercise."

1935: Early Diet Pills -- When doctors noted weight loss among workers at a munitions factory during World War I, heavy research into dinitrophenol -- one of the first heralded miracle diet drugs -- had begun. The chemical was used in the manufacture of dyes, insecticides and explosives. But doctors found that it raised the body's metabolism, making it easier to burn calories.

The Russian Army was experimenting with dinitrophenol as a way to keep soldiers warm. But in America, by 1935, an estimated 100,000 dieters had tried the pill for weight loss. Three years later, several cases of blindness -- and a few fatalities -- were linked to the drug, and it was taken off the market.

Dinitrophenol continued to be used as a weed killer and as an illegal performance-enhancing drug by athletes seeking rapid weight loss.

1954: The Tapeworm Diet -- Years before the diet secrets of Hollywood stars became a national obsession, rumors spread of a tapeworm diet. Supposedly, a pill existed that allowed a very rich person to ingest the same sort of parasite that a very poor person would suffer from by eating uncooked meat.

As the tapeworm fed off your innards, you'd lose weight, and you could apparently take another pill to keep you from dieting your way into an early grave.

According to urban legend, obese opera star Maria Callas lost 65 pounds with the help of the tapeworm diet. But historians say the stout soprano's fondness for raw steak and raw liver may have accounted for an unwelcome guest residing in her intestines.

A few years after Callas lost all that weight, she left her husband and began dating famed shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. Of course, he ultimately left her for former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, only proving that losing weight doesn't always bring happiness.

1961: The Calories Don't Count Diet -- Dr. Herman Taller, an obstetrician, claimed you could eat as much as you want of a high protein diet, provided that you washed it down with three ounces of polyunsaturated vegetable oil, delivered in a pill he provided. The doctor was eventually convicted of mail fraud for peddling safflower oil capsules, said to be essential to his diet but of questionable value. Still, his "Calories Don't Count" book sold more than 2 million copies.

1964: The Drinking Man's Diet -- Raise a glass to the man who said it's possible to wash down a juicy steak with a martini and still manage to lose weight. Robert Cameron's "The Drinking Man's Diet" -- another best-seller -- was a sensation tailormade for the swinging '60s, offering a weight loss scheme shagadelic enough for Austin Powers.

Title notwithstanding, Cameron and his co-authors weren't advising that you drink yourself silly until you fit into your favorite Speedo. Actually, it was just another tome expounding carbohydrate control while pointing out that gin and vodka are low-carb indulgences. The book gave birth to a cornucopia of even more outrageous clones, including "The Martinis and Whipped Cream Diet."

If nothing else, "The Drinking Man's Diet" suggested that William the Conqueror's twisted logic wasn't completely out of step with dieting nine centuries later. And even today, people are falling off the horse, falling off the wagon, and tipping the scale to the side of desperation.

Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at "The Wolf Files" is published Tuesdays.