In 1937, an article in the Sunday Times in Perth suggested a revolutionary new slimming diet: the bread and butter diet. Under the heading of Beauty Bureau by Evette, the article was headlined “Slenderising without fuss or bother – eat bread and butter for physical fitness”. The diet, which was to be followed for 21 days, prescribed the following:
consists of half a pint of milk with the two slices of bread and butter.
AT NOON, bread with butter
AT FOUR O’CLOCK, bread and butter with one cup of tea, which can be sweetened with one lump of sugar.
AT SEVEN O’CLOCK , bread and butter again, with milk or pure tomato juice as preferred.
ON RETIRING, bread with butter.
Between meals drink as much cold water as liked. Fresh butter is suggested rather than salt.
The bread, two slices at each meal, could be toasted twice a day if liked. The article quoted the examples of a secretary, a young housewife and a woman who had a large family to look after. They were reported to have lost 10lb (4.5kg), 10½lb (4.8kg) and more than 15lb (6.8kg) respectively, with other benefits such as clearer, smoother skin and a notable reduction in hip measurement. The busy mother reported that “her nerves were not in the least affected over the period”. There was a warning though. It should only be tried in the warmer months as it was “not safe to experiment with diets during the winter months, as the body needs a certain amount of extra energy and resistance”. No medical or dietary authority was identified as the source of this extraordinary eating regime.
While the bread and butter slimming diet was beyond strange, the desire to lose that excess flab wasn’t new. A look at the history of dieting shows that notables from William the Conqueror to Lord Byron struggled with their weight. William the Conqueror’s slimming diet evidently consisted of giving up food and consuming only alcohol – unlikely to be recommended today. As early as 1825, the first low-carb diet was proposed by the French epicure Jean Anthelme Brillat–Savarin.
In Australia, newspaper articles about diet regimes seemed to gather pace in the early years of the 20th century. In 1906, the advice was (mostly) fairly sensible:
Do not eat less than usual, but give up fat foods, those containing starch, sugar, and bread. Drink very sparingly of water at your meals, and never take alcoholic beverages at any time. Take your meals at regular hours and at your leisure. Very often fat is the result of nervous inactivity, superinduced by brain fag.
In 1910, an Adelaide newspaper reported on various diet crazes in London, including the replacement of sugar with saccharin, 40-day fasts, consuming nothing but milk, or going without breakfast and drinking sips of iced water. In 1914, “A diet for slenderness” recommended skipping dinner altogether. In the following year came a recommendation for eating only lean meat, vegetables and brown bread, along with completing “the swimming exercise”. This involved lying on your back on the floor “without your corsets” and performing swimming motions. In 1925 came the potatoes and milk diet which, fortunately for the dieter, only had to be followed for three days each week.
In 1933, the second issue of the Australian Women’s Weekly promised ‘The very latest slimming ideas”. Among these was the “one, two, three diet” which required the dieter to eat just one food at breakfast, two at lunch and three at dinner – although unlimited quantities of the chosen foods were permitted. The Weekly continued to be an exponent of the slimming diet in various forms and in 1969 published a lengthy article about the launch of Weight Watchers, the first of the large commercial weight-loss organisations. Then, in 1979 came my personal all-time favourite – Vogue’s Champagne diet.
Many of the diet fads of the past have their echoes in the present. Skipping breakfast? Today’s version is the “time-restricted eating” regime. Lean meat and vegetables? The classic low-carb diet. Cutting out alcohol? If only. But given what we now know about carbs and saturated fats, we’re unlikely to see a revival of the bread and butter diet any time soon.