12 Crazy Diet And Exercise Fads In History, From Tapeworms To AirShorts

If you want to get healthy and fit, may I suggest some bile beans? How about a tapeworm? Would you prefer rolling around in a giant hamster wheel, or perhaps being strapped into a rubber corset? Health and diet fads throughout history have veered between the vaguely sensible and the completely crackpot — and I've collected 12 of the latter for your delectation.

The good thing about thoroughly bonkers health crazes is that it makes us look with relief at how simple things are nowadays. Just a Zumba class, a hormone-based diet, a juicer and a Gwyneth Paltrow cookbook, and we're all set. But how many of them will be the strange health fads of the future? Food (if not tapeworms) for thought...

by JR Thorpe


This one is a particular kind of exercise craze — the kind that turns murderous. Cauldron-lifting has a strong history in China: it seems to have been incredibly popular during the Zhou Dynasty (1066-771 BC), and literally involved lifting gigantic cauldrons, or ding , as a display of strength.

The practice understandably lost a bit of popularity when King Wu of Qin lost a ding-lifting competition and died from the exertion: a report of his death says that “blood came out of his eyes.” And you thought CrossFit looked hardcore.

Image: Wikimedia Commons


Breatharianism, or the notion that one can survive without food or water but purely on “life force,” has been around since at least 1670, when a French book said that the German physician Paracelsus had survived on nothing but Solar Quintessence. Life force, air, sunlight — it’s all a Breatharian gets.

It’s complete nonsense, obviously, but it’s had some vocal advocates, most recently in the 1990s. Wiley Brooks, the founder of the Breatharian Institute Of America, lost quite a bit of credibility when he was photographed leaving a Macdonalds in 1983 with a hot dog. He’s since said that occasional breaks in fasting for fast food are fine, and that Diet Coke is “liquid light.”

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images News/Getty Images


Fletcherism, a diet craze of the Victorian era, was driven by one great idea: chewing. And lots of it. Horace Fletcher, the founder, thought that every mouthful should be chewed at least 100 times, including liquids, to properly break it down and get the full benefits of its nutrients.

Fletcherism led to some incredibly boring dinner parties. Franz Kafka, the writer, was a Fletcherite, and apparently the sight of all his chewing made his father hide behind a newspaper at the dinner table.


The Byron Diet

While we now know him mostly for his verse (and for being mad, bad and dangerous to know), Lord Byron was actually one of the world’s first diet icons. A man with a clear complex about his body, he worked in near-starvation conditions to try and “keep his mind sharp.”

So how did Byron’s diet work? A very ascetic combination of biscuits, soda water, and potatoes absolutely sodden with vinegar. It sounds ridiculous, but it was highly popular: vinegar and rice, emetics, laxatives and wearing hot layers to sweat off weight were all crazes while Bryon was alive, some personally inspired.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Rubber Corsets

Waist-training isn’t new: before Lindsay Lohan and Kim Kardashian got on the bandwagon, it had a long history, including a brief and peculiar time in which waists and underwear were made out of vulcanized rubber, to “squeeze” the body thin.

This particular kind of rubber, invented by Charles Goodyear in 1844, was pliable enough to be made into clothing –—and it was deliberately horribly tight to cause the body to sweat off the pounds. You were meant to be a sticky puddle.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Tapeworm Diets

It’s rumored that Maria Callas, the famous opera singer, lost a huge amount of weight by deliberately swallowing a tapeworm (though it seems that she did have them, it’s likely she caught them accidentally).

Pills containing tapeworms for weight loss do appear to have been sold in the early 1900s with the intention of infecting the taker and making them both thin and incredibly ill — but none have survived, so we don’t know if they were either real or successful. Even if it wasn’t widespread, though, it’s disgusting.

Image: Abney Park/Flickr

Bile Beans

This was a “miracle pill” from the 1890s that purported to be made from a newly discovered plant with secret weight-loss qualities. It was actually made of the highly laxative cascara plant, with rhubarb, licorice, and menthol thrown in. Tasty and probably effective, but not entirely healthy or safe.

Still, you have to give the makers credit for imagination: they even invented a fictitious doctor, “Charles Forde,” who’d made the supposed discovery.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Obesity Soap

This must go down in history as one of the strangest weight-loss gimmicks around: a soap from the early 1900s that claimed to simply wash off fat. “Acts like magic,” ads for the obesity soap claimed, and provided no other explanation — which was intelligent, because there wasn’t one.

The best part, for my money, is that La Parle’s obesity soap was supposed to melt away only the parts it touched … so you could spot-reduce one thigh and not the other, for variety.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Lucky Strike Diet

In the 1920s, before we all knew that cigarettes were terrible for basically every aspect of your health, the bright sparks at Lucky Strikes Cigarettes came up with a marketing campaign for the ages: “Reach For A Lucky Instead Of A Sweet.”

Cigarettes do, of course, suppress appetite — but it’s safe to say that this was one fad that we now realize was pretty much guaranteed to leave you in a coffin instead of a bikini.

Image: Clotho/Flickr

Exercise Wheels

Wheel gymnastics is now something your resident guinea pig adores, but in 1920s Germany, it was a giant fad for health in humans. Attaching yourself to the inside of a wheel and trying to control its mad rolling might seem like the sort of thing you take out insurance for, but it was all the rage.

And it’s not dead these days, either: There’s a World Championship in wheel gymnastics, and Youtube is full of young Germans riding Rhonerads, as they’re called in German.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Matthew Peyton/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Vibrating Belts

The logic behind this one seems vaguely sensible: a belt attached to a machine vibrates you violently, jiggling the excess flesh away. Except, of course, that you do actually have to make an effort to lose weight, so these vibrating belt machines — which were popular from the ’40s to the ’70s — were actually completely useless.

Image: Gil Elvgren.


The 1970s brought a host of strange diet crazes, but one of the best — and silliest — has to be AirShorts, pneumatically pumped plastic shorts that were supposed to, er, compress your fat out of existence. I think.

The suggested uses included wearing while exercising and doing housework, and “shedding body moisture.” Alas, no cleaning instructions survive. What a shame.

Image: io9.