The history of healthy eating: part one

25 Oct 2017
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Josie Burt
Food trends
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If you’re anything like me, you like to try and lead a relatively balanced lifestyle (I say relatively - like seriously who has the willpower to stick to healthy eating 100% of the time?!). But then again, what is healthy eating? What constitutes as a healthy diet? Who is selling us these health trends and more importantly, who are we, as the public listening to?

If we begin this two-part journey of discovery, I’d like to have a look back through history and what constituted as healthy eating throughout the ages. I’ll keep it relative - I’ll skip the slightly more alternative trends such as swallowing diet pills made of arsenic which was popular in the 1880s and move straight to the more renowned healthy eating advice provided by governing bodies, plus the “fads” which were popular during the same time.


It was during this era that the concept of a healthy diet was one which was high in fat and low in fibre. Milk and meat which were touted to be protective against all sorts of diseases. Whereas carbohydrate-based foods were deemed starch laden and fattening. In Italy, Futurist poet Filippo Tomaso Marinetti even called for pasta to be outlawed! Thankfully he was unsuccessful!

It was also during the 30s that we were first introduced to the Grapefruit Diet. The idea was to cut back on carbs and sugars and increase your protein intake (such as eggs, pork and red meat) while consuming a grapefruit or grapefruit juice with each meal.


We saw a bit of a shift during the 40s as to what was considered a balanced dinner. Protein rich foods such as red meats and milk were still seen as the most important food group. Yet it was during this time we saw the widespread introduction of vegetables onto our plates and suddenly carbs were back on the table. (Rejoice!)

Our 40s fad may sound familiar to many, as recently Beyonce claimed it had helped her shed a few pounds, namely the Master Cleanse. This concoction includes lemonade with cayenne pepper and maple syrup. It comes at a cost though, as reported side effects include headaches, vomiting and fainting.


This little chunk of history saw the introduction of the dirty word – cholesterol. It all began when the American Heart Association brought the concept of “heart health” to the public. The public were urged to reduce their intake of fat, saturated fats, and cholesterol.

The big diet craze in the 50s is possibly our least appealing yet – a diet solely comprised of eating cabbage. Flatulence springs to mind ….


The 60s saw a revolution not only socially but also in terms of health and how we perceive that notion. It was during this decade that the term “lifestyle” first emerged. It was used to describe that not only the food on your plate contributes to your health but also your daily habits. During this time, the popular conception adopted in the 50s was challenged. Framingham Heart Study published that fat did not increase your risk of heart disease. This was based on a study of men under 50 with elevated cholesterol were at greater risk of heart disease. It concluded that instead they were more likely to smoke, be overweight and not exercise; their lifestyle caused more damage than their dinners. It was also agreed that carbs were once again the enemy (sob!).

Another legacy we saw born in the 60s stemmed from our flower power relatives, who deliberately adopted a diet of poverty munching on brown rice and lentils, these foods slowly weaving their way into the mainstream market.

The quick fix fad that spawned in this area is equally alarming as it is dangerous. Coined The Sleeping Beauty diet participants partook in voluntary sedation to lose weight. Unfortunately, the side effects could be life threatening so thankfully this craze died out (pun not intended) quite quickly.


During the 70s we began to see the first blurring of what the public accepted as a fad and what our health organisations or governing bodies deemed as healthy. It was during these years that the public were urged to focus more on foods that were not good for them, rather than foods that were. We were advised to reduce our fat, sugar, and salt intake.

Around the same time saw the rise of one of the longest standing “healthy eating” trends of all, the Atkins diet. This advocated a high fat diet for weight loss and is still to this day seen as a highly controversial weight loss method.

This seems like a good place to take a break. In part two, we’ll cover the emergence of diets and health fads that gripped the nation with no real evidence to suggest they worked, which pathed the way for one of the most radical changes in the health food industry to date!


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