The 7 Strangest Diets In History

by JR Thorpe

You think you know diets? Wrong. Before the Atkins, grapefruit diet, cabbage soup diet, baby food diet and whatever else you may have tried are centuries of slimming techniques, each more bonkers than the next. We've endured so many weight loss fads you'd think we'd be tired. But no: after the Fletcherism craze (where food had to be chewed hundreds of times per mouthful), the alleged tapeworm fad (later thought to be largely made up), even weight loss soap, the diet industry still isn't finished. More diets and healthy eating plans appear by the day. And history has some of the worst, strangest offenders.

Diets for weight loss generally only turn up in human societies where there's enough food for obesity to become a problem — or where thinness becomes an attractive attribute to prove piety and self-restraint, as in medieval Europe. Just because no evidence survives of a need to diet in, say, ancient Egypt, doesn't mean that Cleopatra wasn't doing some particularly weird stuff to keep herself slender for Caesar and Marc Antony.

And some weight loss plans appear to be less about practical advice than some kind of psychological torture — take the Greek physician Hippocrates' advice for overweight people to "walk naked as often as possible". That's not health, that's ritualized humiliation.

Here are seven of the strangest, most severe, frankly weirdest diets from history. Do not try these at home.

1. The Medieval Nun Diet: A Plate Of Vegetables A Day

Slimness in nuns in medieval Europe was a matter of life and death — literally. The Catholic saint Catherine of Sienna is now thought to be one of the first widely recorded sufferers of anorexia for her denial of food and gluttony in pursuit of holy penitence. Some didn't take it to this extreme, but being extremely wary of your food intake and its links to lust and appetite was a daily struggle for a medieval nun.

A medieval guide for anchoresses (women who withdrew from life to pursue spirituality) from around 1250 was exceptionally harsh: even in the winter months, the holy were not supposed to eat more than a small platter of vegetables a day. Then again, such meager eating would also probably stop their menstrual cycles, which were sometimes regarded as part of "Eve's curse."

2. The Charles II Diet: Weigh Yourself After Every Activity

The Royal Society in London is one of the world's oldest scientific societies, and takes meticulous minutes at meetings — and thank goodness for that, or we'd never know that King Charles II was obsessed with weighing himself at every opportunity.

Charles II, according to a report from a meeting in March 1664, "had the Curiosity of weighing himself, very frequently, to observe the several Emanations of his Body, before and after sleep, Tennis, Riding abroad, Dinners and Suppers: and that he had found he weighed less after Tennis, by two pounds three ounces (but the King drinking two draughts of Liquor after play, made up his weight;) after Dinner, by four pounds and an half." This was a man who stuck close to a scale — and ate a hell of a lot. Four and a half pounds of food?!

3. The Biblical Diet: Eat Only Legumes

This is an interesting one that's actually proved controversial. An episode in the Bible's Book Of Daniel has been taken as a kind of old-school diet recommendation about health and vegetarianism. The book tells the story of Daniel, a Jewish man, and his three friends, who are servants in King Nebuchadnezzar's palace. They accept every part of their life except the royal food. They eat only legumes, vegetables, and water for ten days — and at the end they are "healthier and better nourished" than anybody who'd been on the indulgent royal diet.

So is this a call for vegetarianism? Bible scholars disagree. Some believe it's actually meant to be a statement of defiance on Daniel's part, and it was only God's interference that made him and his mates look healthy after such a sparse diet.

4. The St Veronica Giuliani Diet: Spiders

Remember what I said about holy orders and women starving themselves? Well, take that to a further point for St Veronica Giuliani, an Italian Capuchin nun from the late 1600s. Her particular diet of choice? Spiders.

The dining on arachnids wasn't a matter of personal taste, however — it was meant as penitence. The nun was extensively "tested" by her confessors, one of whom ordered her to clean out a closet with her tongue, an order she fulfilled so devotedly that she added spiders and cobwebs to her diet. No word about whether she did this more than once, but I kind of don't want to find out.

5. The Hannah Woolley Diet: Bathe In Bird Grease And Red Wine

If you wanted to learn how to do basically anything as an English housewife in the 1690s, you'd turn to Hannah Woolley's The Ladies Dictionary . The book was a mix of all kinds of things, from biographies of mythical women to gynecology, but the bit we're interested in is the one about weight loss — and it's a doozy. Also, sticky.

Woolley emphasized that the best thing you could do for your weight was apply strange substances to your skin. At one point she recommends that you "bathe in claret wine infused with "wormwood, calamint, chamomile, sage and squinath"; another weight loss method involves rubbing a mix of chicken and goose grease, turpentine, pitch, and wax over your plump parts. Sexy.

6. The Avicenna Diet: Eat Suet And Almonds

Avicenna or Ibn Sina was an amazing man — a Persian-born polymath born in the 980s who wrote over 450 books on a huge variety of topics, from medicine to philosophy and mathematics. His additions to world knowledge are head-spinning, but his ideas about dietary science may have been a little tiny bit off.

According to Obesity: The Biography, by Sander Gilman, Ibn Sina's famous Canon Of Medicine contained an appetite suppressant to be eaten for ten days to dent hunger pangs. It involved a crushed mix of almonds, beef suet, marshmallow root, and oil of violets. Which basically sounds like a cake designed to sit in your stomach and rattle under your ribs. Do not ever sign me up.

7. The Elvis Presley Diet: Just Go To Sleep

The "sleeping beauty" diet, as this was known, was based on a pretty inaccurate idea about human metabolism — the concept that you could just go to sleep and wake up thinner. It was popularized by the hugely successful novel Valley Of The Dolls, but its biggest proponent (allegedly) was one of the most famous overweight people of all time: Elvis Presley.

The diet was based around a huge quantity of sedatives, enough to put you out like a light for at least a day. In theory, you'd wake fresh as a daisy and several pounds thinner. In practice, you'd risk killing yourself and wake up with a seriously hellish series of health problems.

Images: Wikimedia Commons (8)