The History of Diet Culture


If you have been following us, you may have seen the phrase “diet culture” thrown around, and, if you are new here, prepare to hear it plenty more. That being said, we have yet to clearly define what diet culture is and where it originated. 


Diet Culture Definition

“A conflation of weight and health including myths about food and eating, and a moral hierarchy of bodies derived from patriarchal, racist, and capitalist forms of domination.” 


Basically, it is a system of beliefs that idealizes smaller and thinner bodies by promoting unhealthy weight loss through excessive exercise and fad diets. Diet culture has been around for centuries so it is no wonder it can be hard to dodge as it still lingers around today.


In this blog post, we are going to provide a brief overview of the history of diet culture and some of the most common/popular fad diets that are still talked about in today’s society. Before we get started, it is important to reiterate the ineffectiveness of restriction on long term weight or weight loss. The below is for informational purposes ONLY and we do not endorse any of the following diets in any shape or form. 


The Origins of Diet Culture (8000 BCE)

Diet culture can be traced back all the way to Ancient Greek Society, (8000 BCE). Back then, health was considered to be a condition of perfect equilibrium in which the Pythagoreans (religious group) maintained harmony and perfect balance. At this time. regulation and moderation of food intake were promoted as a means to attain “calmness” and a marker of self-control, which was highly valued. Regulation and moderation of food intake were also encouraged as a means of attaining a “healthy” and aesthetically pleasing body. 


Diet Culture Emerges (1800s)

Around the 1800s, clothing became very tight for individuals to wear. Women were seen most often wearing tight corsets. In order for women to fit into these tight clothes and look the “ideal” way, they would have to undergo various fad diets at the time as well as starvation. One of the fad diets that were very popular at this time was introduced by a famous poet, Lord Byron who drank vinegar several times a day with water and swam excessive amounts every day. Does this sound familiar to today’s fad of drinking apple cider vinegar for weight loss? 


The Keto Diet (1863)

In 1863, the first weight-loss book was published by William Banting in Great Britain. This book promoted what is known today as the Ketogenic Diet which focuses on the “benefits” of eating low-carb. Banting was not a scientist, however he came up with this diet after his own lived experience of being considered overweight and being told by a doctor to give up bread, sugar, beer, and potatoes in order to lose weight. Eventually, Banting did lose weight and documented his progress in an open letter in the form of a personal testimonial called Corpulence, Addressed to the Public. His book became so popular that he sold the third edition to the public. 


Calorie Counting (1920)

Calorie counting became popular in the 1920s after a Doctor named Lulu Hunt Peters published a book titled, Diet and Health: With Key to the Calories. This book contains a lot of harmful guidelines for reducing food intake, which should not be followed. For instance, it recommends eating 1,200 calories per day, which is actually the minimum recommendation for a child. The whole idea behind calorie counting, which is still present today, is the exact opposite of intuitive eating and learning to honor your hunger and fullness cues


Weight Watchers (1961)

Jumping on the bandwagon of calorie counting, we have Weight Watchers more recently called “WW,” which disguises calories as points. This program started in 1961 after a lady named Jean Nidetch began her own weight loss support group. Since then, this billion-dollar company has targeted many individuals that may be struggling with weight or body appearance with the purpose of “inspiring healthy habits for real life.” Although WW has branded as a “flexible” way of eating, touting that you can still eat pizza and lose weight, it still promotes restrictive and unsustainable eating habits. 


Additionally, the program promotes body distrust by encouraging people to ignore internal hunger/fullness cues, and follow an external point system as a way of eating. Dieting strips away the joy that food can bring and creates rigidity where social functions or special occasions are unable to happen with ease because we have not “saved” enough points for them. It promotes obsession and control rather than flexibility and kindness. 


The Atkins Diet (1972)

Developed in 1972 by Robert Atkins, similar to Banting’s low-carb diet, came to be after his own weight-loss experiments. Atkins published the book Atkins’ Diet Revolution, which sold tens of millions of copies to which he wrote a follow-up book in 2002 due to popularity. The Atkins Diet consists of eating low-carb and eating as much protein and fat as you want which takes place in four phases. To this day you can still find Atkins products in grocery stores such as protein bars, protein chips, and protein shakes.


Intermittent Fasting (2012)

Fasting gained popularity in 2012 after Dr. Michael Mosley took part in a documentary regarding the “health” benefits of fasting. Intermittent fasting involves only eating during certain times in the day while the other is fasting. There is also the 5:2 approach which involves eating normally five days a week and limiting yourself to one high-calorie meal on the other two days. There are many approaches to fasting, none of which we would recommend as it is important to provide the body with adequate energy at all times of the day and eat when you are hungry. 


So, there you have it, a crash course on some of the most popular diets from diet culture and the origins behind them. A common finding in all the origins of these diets is that it worked for one person and they tried to profit on their one-size-fits-all approach. When eating is so different for everyone, this can only promote guilt, shame, and feelings of being a failure when we cannot sustain restrictive ways of eating. Next week we will get into the knitty-gritty of the billion-dollar diet industry. 


Sources: (2019, January 15). William Banting.

Embodyhealthlondon. (2021, June 23). Where does diet culture come from? Embody Health London.,the%20highest%20virtues%20%5B4%5D.

Evolution & history of WW program. (2019, May 27). Weight Watchers.

Jovanovski, N., & Jaeger, T. (2022). Demystifying ‘Diet culture’: Exploring the meaning of diet culture in online ‘Anti-diet’ feminist, fat activist, and health professional communities. Women’s Studies International Forum, 90, 102558.
Saner, E. (2017, September 20). A history of diets – from Byron to 5:2. The Guardian.

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