Losing weight is rarely easy, but the science behind it is always simple: if you eat well and exercise regularly, weight, more often than not, will drop. While today’s diet and exercise plans certainly help people find solutions that work for them—and don’t feel like torture—that wasn’t always the case!
In fact, up until pretty recently, our ancestors employed some truly horrific weight-loss methods even the most proficient dungeon master couldn’t dream up on his best day. And while these techniques might have resulted in a few lost pounds, the side effects were usually terrible embarrassment, pain, or death. Worth it? You be the judge…
1.Tapeworms: Swallow an encapsulated beef tapeworm cyst and the pounds just melted away—at least, that’s what Victorian-era dietitians claimed. In theory, the parasite grew up to be big and strong by absorbing food that would have made its host fat.
Kristin Adair / NPR
In other words, the tapeworm ensured its host was malnourished just enough to lose weight. When dieters reached their desired weights, they swallowed an anti-parasite pill to kill the worm.
2. Enemas: Ever heard the name Dr. John Harvey Kellogg? He was the founder of the cereal powerhouse that put out brands like Frosted Flakes and Froot Loops. He also dabbled in health science, too. His weight loss trick? Special enemas.
Twin Cities PBS
More than just a cereal peddler, Dr. Kellogg operated a sanitarium (pictured). There, he treated patients with hydro- and electroshock therapies, as well as yogurt enemas meant to clean out and replace the “intestinal flora.” Healthy guts for everybody!
3. Arsenic: The best-case scenario after consuming arsenic? Headaches, cramping muscles, convulsions, maybe some diarrhea. The worst case? All of that stuff plus death. So it was only natural for Victorians to use the metalloid in weight-loss capsules, right?
Advertisers claimed their weight-loss pills sped up metabolism, and that the levels of arsenic inside were minuscule. But people who wanted a super-fast metabolism would often try to swallow a handful of pills—and you can guess what happened after that.
4. The chew-and-spit method: Horace Fletcher didn’t earn the nickname “The Great Masticator” by cutting any food out of his diet. Nope, he got that after he started chewing on anything he wanted… but then spitting it out.
The theory behind this early 1900s fad was simple: dieters could enjoy the taste of food and the experience of eating, but they didn’t actually swallow or digest anything. The pounds just fell off; then again, starvation and malnutrition tend to have that effect.
5. Cigarettes: When the Roaring Twenties rolled around, tobacco companies like Lucky Strikes advertised that taking a few puffs on their products would lead to unrivaled weight loss.
Of course, the claim wasn’t completely unsubstantiated—just disingenuous. Smoking cigarettes suppressed appetites, and that meant smokers ate less food. But that wasn’t exactly worth the, you know… cancer.
6. Music: If you wanted to go down in weight, who knew you only had to get down with a few specially made tunes? That was the case if you listened to 1920s medical expert Wallace M. Rogerson, at least.
Pounds allegedly just melted away if dieters popped a Wallace Reducing Record onto their phonographs. How? Well, the records’ advertisements claimed “the Wallace Method works with Nature,” which was similar to saying, “just trust us.”
7. Rubber corsets: One weight loss trick told aspiring dieters to slap on a rubber corset and let it do all the work. As wearers walked around town, the corset compressed their guts and crushed their rib cages, but hey—they looked thin!
Scientifically, though, there wasn’t a whole lot of weight behind these things. Corsets made people sweat because their skin couldn’t breath, and in sweating, they lost only water weight soon to be gained back.
8. Soap: La-Mar Reducing Soap made a bold claim: “Wash away fat and years of age,” the advertisement boasted. “Acts like magic to reduce double chin, abdomens, ungainly ankles, unbecoming wrists… or any superfluous fats.” Really?
As you might have guessed, the soap was invented by a chemist who didn’t know a thing about weight-loss science. Nevertheless, competitor fat-loss soap brands started popping up on store shelves—and people actually bought ’em!
9. Reducing salons: Without context, these salons might as well have been a Gulag punishment chamber. Women squeezed into machines with hoses and rolls and air blasters that promised weight loss.
These machines didn’t work, of course, but they claimed to essentially dissolve fats by shocking and shaking them into submission. One 1940s ad told women that, though they helped win World War II, they still had one last “Battle of the Bulge” to conquer.
10. Sauna pants: These were popular in the 1970s, and they were exactly what they sound like: a portable sauna that people wore as pants. Just put ’em on (one leg at a time) and start sweating like a summer pig.
The problem? Just like the corsets, these pants only promoted sweating. Sweating knocked off a pound or two, but a few glasses of water put it right back on, so the pants were pretty much useless. (They weren’t exactly fashionable, either.)
11. Vibration belts: One shaking machine that caught on with both men and women across America was the vibration belt. This fast fat-busting method was just as ridiculous as the science behind it…
Those wanting to lose a few pounds stood on the platform and put the belt around the target area. Then, the belt shook. And shook. And eventually, by some divine act, the weight just packed its bags and left. Riiight.
12. Sunlight and air diets: Known as the Breatharian Diet, this weight-loss technique featured regular meals of deep breaths and sunshine. That’s right—no food. A leading Breatharian figure, Hira Ratan Manek, also felt staring into the sun regularly would help.
This weird, human photosynthesis weight-loss method had spiritual and religious roots and was supposed to blast away fat (and, uh, deprive dieters of vital nutrients). Perhaps you’ll recognize the more mainstream name for this diet: starvation.
Good thing health science and weight-loss methods have improved enough to save us from yogurt enemas. Which of today’s diets and exercise tricks will be looked at with raised eyebrows in the future?
Share these historical weight-loss methods with your friends!