What Health Nuts Ate In Every Decade Since The Turn Of The 20th Century

Eating healthy foods is a bit of a relative concept, especially with the gift of hindsight. What was once considered healthy may now amount to one of many food fads that continue to enter the diet landscape. The Atkins diet, paleo diet, and other low-carb diet options have come and gone for decades, and while many have reappeared in different forms, they often claim to be a healthy alternative to mainstream eating habits. Within vintage grocery stores and modern markets alike, it was always possible to find fad health foods.

Food fads over the past century reveal a lot about how people viewed their relationships with food, the availability of information about eating, and how resources and preferences may not have always aligned. Nutrients, weight loss, strength - these have all been factors in determining the best foods to eat. The history of health food is as complicated as any assessment of the past, but it's obvious consumers, foodies, and advertising professionals throughout the 20th century have considered many foods healthy.


  • 1900s: Tapeworms, Bile Beans, And Excessive Chewing

    Though this diet trend began during the Victorian era, using tapeworms to stay trim was marketed en masse during the first decade of the 20th century. During the 1900s, it became popular to swallow tapeworm cysts or eggs in pill form to load up one's intestines with tapeworms that would then eat ingested food. The introduction of tapeworms also brought on vomiting and diarrhea which resulted in weight loss as well. Once a person lost the weight they wanted, the individual could take a pill to eliminate the parasite. It's unclear exactly what happened to the tapeworm once it was excreted, a process that could be physically damaging to the worm and host alike. 

    Tapeworms weren't the only anti-absorption method used during the 1900s; bile beans, first marketed as a laxative during the 1890s, were pills that contained a gelatinous substance to induce diarrhea. Supposedly invented by Australian chemist Charles Forde, bile beans included a mix of bile from roots and plants in concentrated form. In truth, bile beans were the creation of Charles E. Fulford, a Canadian businessman, who combined laxatives and flavors such as menthol and licorice into a coated pill. Marketed as a cure for "biliousness" and excess in all forms, the pills were later said to cure ailments like influenza and headaches. Bile beans remained popular through the 1930s and 1940s and only fell out of circulation in the 1980s when the "obsession with purgation and inner cleanliness" as a means to lose weight waned.

    Among pills and laxaives, there were dietary methods. Fletcherism, named after creator Horace "the Great Masticator" Fletcher,  suggested that one chew each bite of food at least 50 times - if not 100. The idea behind extreme mastication was that food in what was essentially liquid form would not be absorbed by the body and result in weight gain.


  • 1910s: Fruit, Vegetables, Milk, And Calorie Counts

    1910s: Fruit, Vegetables, Milk, And Calorie Counts
    Photo: Lulu Hunt Peters / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    With the discovery of vitamins in 1912, people began to look at food differently. As a result, fruits, vegetables, and milk - all rich in vitamins - were favored over other foods that were not considered as full of nutrients. As researchers such as Casimir Funk and Frederick Hopkins put forward ideas about the best foods for health and flourishing, people responded by adopting more vitamin-rich foods into their diets. The identification of vitamins B1, B2, C, and D and their connections to disease prevention and cures were combined with necessary food rationing during WWI, making "nutrition...a political issue" as well. 

    The increased understanding of how food contributed to the human body also led to the idea of the calorie. Scientific understanding of calories began during the early to mid-19th century, but when Lulu Hunt Peters published Diet and Health With Key to the Calories in 1918, it was full of guidelines about how many calories to eat in a day. The best seller explained which foods to eat with details on how much fat, protein, carbohydrates, and minerals went into daily meals. The book promised that people could eat what they liked "and grow thin" with persistence, effort, and most importantly, the knowledge of what was making them gain weight to begin with. 

  • 1920s: Canned Tuna, Grape Nuts, And Cream Of Wheat

    1920s: Canned Tuna, Grape Nuts, And Cream Of Wheat
    Photo: George D. Buckley / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Non-food items like cigarettes were used as appetite suppressants on a large scale during the 1920s; they were even advertised as such by Lucky Strike in 1925. In terms of food, the increased emphasis on food processing and "progress" led to manufactured items like white bread and canned fish becoming the norm. Sliced bread, which was supposedly invented in 1928, was both food and art and provided a convenient option for meals. There was still a strong contingent of consumers and clinicians who advocated for the health benefits of brown bread, however, claiming that over-processed white bread was devoid of nutrients and fiber content.

    Canned tuna became the most popular fish in the United States, perhaps tangentially linked to the so-called Inuit Diet. The Inuit Diet, in many ways similar to the ketogenic diet, included low-carbohydrate foods like whale blubber and raw fish. 

    Cereals like Grape Nuts purported to pick up where fruit, vegetables, and the like left off by providing individuals valuable "iron, calcium, phosphorus, and other mineral elements that are taken right up as vital food by the millions of cells in the body." During the late years of the decade, Cream of Wheat and Quaker Oats sold themselves as full of what was needed for energy to work and play. Cream of Wheat even offered instructional manuals and advertising campaigns for how to improve child behavior and nutrition to teachers and parents alike.

  • 1930s: Grapefruit, Bananas, And Seaweed

    The grapefruit diet, a fad that has reappeared several times in history, was practiced as early as the 1930s. Also known as the Hollywood diet, the eating plan was thought up by William H. Hay who believed grapefruit contained fat-burning enzymes. Hay's diet called for proteins, fats, and starches to be eaten separately but also limited the types of foods people could eat. As a low-calorie food, grapefruit was also high in vitamin C and fiber, making it an ideal staple food for losing weight. 

    During the 1930s, bananas took the United States by storm. Companies like the United Fruit Company (better known as Chiquita) sold their fruit as a nutritious and delicious food that was good for people of all ages, later going so far as to instruct people how to store and eat them. In 1934, bananas were combined with milk for a doctor-approved anti-diabetes diet, one that was low in calories but failed to give people enough nutrients to survive.

    Other low-calorie diets featured seaweed and a drink mix that combined powdered protein with chocolate, starch, wheat, and bran. Called Dr. Stoll's Diet Aid, the product was one of the first diet drinks to enter the market.