The Weirdest and Most Harmful Fad Diets in Recent History


In this article:

  • Extreme diets have been around since at least the 19th century.
  • Whether it’s taking pregnancy hormones or intentionally swallowing a tapeworm, people will go out of their way to achieve the beauty ideal of the day.
  • These fad diets can be extremely harmful to your health and never lead to permanent weight loss since it is impossible to maintain them for more than a few weeks.

Extreme diets are nothing new. According to Louise Foxcroft Calories & Corsets: a history of diets over 2000 yearssociety has been obsessed with quick fixes since at least the 19th century.

Lord Byron, a romantic poet, built a reputation not just on his lyrics, but on his commitment to reducing his figure. Once a portly man, he subsisted on a diet of pickled potatoes and wore several layers to sweat off the extra pounds.

Person holding tape measure around stomach

As a girl who grew up alongside magazines and billboards and then the internet, fad diets have always intrigued me. Young, impressionable minds like mine easily fall in love with the fastest ways to slim down or achieve the figure considered ideal at the time.

When so much media tells you to look a certain way, weird diets of liquefied meals, bland cabbage soup, and vinegar-dipped potatoes don’t sound so weird. They seem like necessary fixes.

The reason these fad diets are unsustainable, however, is that they are so extreme as to be harmful to our health. So do those weird ways people eat to lose weight.

hCG diet

Close-up of pregnant woman's belly

Injecting or ingesting hormones is usually done when the body lacks one of the ones you need. For example, some premature babies need extra levels of growth hormones, while women on fertility treatment are prescribed reproductive hormones.

But some people also take hormones they don’t need to lose weight. Specifically, they take human chorionic gonadotropin, or hCG.

hCG is a pregnancy hormone, produced by the placenta and is essential to support fetal growth. It is this function that an endocrinologist in the 1950s, Albert TW Simeons, thought he could use to lose weight.

Simeons concluded that the hormone turns fat into an energy source for fetuses, which is how hCG supports their growth in the womb. His theory was that if your body had access to this hormone, even when you weren’t pregnant, you could continue to burn fat effortlessly.

The science is murky at best—no studies have verified Simeon’s too-good-to-be-true theory—and, as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) later warned, fraudulent at worst.

It is misleading to claim that hCG is even the cause of the weight loss that people experience. The hCG diet places followers on a very low-calorie diet (about 500 calories) for three to six weeks. Those who claim success and praise hCG for being, quite literally, a magic pill only lose weight because of this restrictive nutritional plan.

There are side effects to eating so little for a long time. These side effects include dizziness, fatigue, and mood swings. Basically, expect to be very hungry on this diet! Taking hCG can also cause nausea, abdominal or pelvic pain, and even depression. Plus, the pills and injectables are expensive, which makes the diet really unsustainable.

Master cleanse

When Beyonce lost 20 pounds for her role in Dreamgirls, everyone naturally asked what her secret was. The singer-songwriter revealed that it was the Master Cleanse diet that did the trick.

Many people are already familiar with this juice cleanse which consists of drinking fresh lemonade with cayenne pepper and maple syrup. The diet lasts ten days, at most, and followers can repeat the cycle every few weeks.

Person squeezing lemon into water

The Master Cleanse Diet claims that weight loss is just a natural side effect, but its main purpose is to “detoxify” the body of harmful substances. This is arguably one of the most popular detox programs. Celebrities in the early 2000s credited him with feeling more energized, “cleansed up” and, of course, helping them shed extra pounds.

As much as we like to think we can trick the body into eliminating toxins, it’s not that simple. In fact, experts explain that the body itself filters waste through the gastrointestinal tract, liver, and kidneys.

A better way to eliminate harmful substances is to follow a lifestyle that does not harm these organs. For example, moderate your alcohol intake and eat more gut-healthy foods. This way you can keep your natural detoxification system running smoothly.

When it comes to diets, you might not think that’s the weirdest thing, but that’s probably because you’ve been desensitized to terms like “juice clean” and “detox.” It therefore does not seem extreme for a person to consume only liquids for a week or more.

When you strip away the hype and take a closer look at the Master Cleanse, you’ll see that it’s nothing more than extreme starvation. Any weight loss you experience on a juice cleanse is due to the drastic reduction in the number of calories you consume. And, just like if you were on an hCG diet, you won’t be very happy with it.

Sleeping Beauty Diet

There are many tricks people use to curb their appetite or, in the case of the Sleeping Beauty diet, avoid eating altogether. In a nutshell, this diet is based on one basic principle: Sleep more, eat less.

At first glance, the diet looks like other weight loss strategies like intermittent fasting (IF). People on IF typically skip breakfast or dinner and eat only during a strict meal window. However, IF does not require being unconscious during meals to avoid them.

person napping under a blanket on a sofa

The screaming red flag here is that the diet encourages — or, at least, doesn’t discourage — the use of sleep aids to help you sleep during times when you would normally eat. According to dietitian Amy Shapiro, it is simply a manifestation of eating disorders, which can easily become a slippery slope to drug addiction.

There are also other things you miss, apart from meals. If you spend more than 20 hours sleeping, how much time will you have for work, school, and relationships? Diet can become very isolating, even more so for people who already live with mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and eating disorders.

tapeworm diet

Most people would cringe at the thought of having a parasite living in their gut. However, some people are desperate enough to purposely swallow tapeworm eggs in an effort to lose weight.

tapeworms inside a digestive tract
Tapeworms are a species of parasitic flatworms. They live in the digestive tract of vertebrates.

Yes, you read that right. The tapeworm diet, which is more of an artificial infection than a diet, originated in the Victorian era. However, he was still touring in the early 2000s with TV hosts like Tyra Banks giving airtime to women who would swallow the parasite to lose weight.

The goal is for the pill eggs to hatch. The parasite will then eat the food you put in your body. The tapeworm withdraws from your diet, consuming most of your nutrients, so you can eat whatever you want without gaining a single ounce.

It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: you really shouldn’t swallow tapeworm eggs.

The serious risks of having a parasite living in your body far outweigh the supposed benefits. For one thing, you don’t know exactly where it will end up residing. Tapeworms can attach to organs and cause an invasive infection. There are even cases where the parasite finds its way to the brain, where it can cause severe neurological damage.

The Bottom Line: Avoid Fad Diets

Having tapeworms in your gut is perhaps the most bizarre of all the fad diets in recent history. That being said, all of the fad diets discussed here carry obvious physical and psychological risks.

Any time you severely restrict calories, whether by drinking juice instead of eating a well-balanced meal or by sleeping through meals, you invite several acute and long-term side effects. You may experience a range of physical symptoms like nausea and stomach pain, or psychological symptoms like mood swings and depression.

And, inviting a parasite to live in your body means you’re not the one who benefits from the nutrients you consume. You surrender the reins of weight loss to a microscopic creature, hoping that you can eat whatever you want because it will perform its parasitic function anyway.

person standing on a scale

All of these diets are short-lived because they are dangerous and, more often than not, counterproductive to weight loss goals. You are probably losing water weight and muscle mass, not fat.

Anyone who goes on a crash diet knows it’s not forever, and when they go back to their old eating habits, they regain the lost weight and more. This is called the yo-yo diet. It slows down your metabolism making it harder for you to maintain weight or lose it no matter how hard you try.

Fad diets seem promising, but they’re nothing more than a quick fix. As is often the case with those magic pills, weird diets aren’t the most sustainable way to reach your goal weight or become healthy.

Instead, aim for lasting habit changes: Eat well; exercise and lead an active lifestyle; sleep a normal number of hours; and avoid tapeworms.

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