New Year, New You: The Colorful History of Diet Books and Ephemera in America

With the arrival of each new year, many people make resolutions to improve their diet and overall health, and predictably, books abound that cater to the universal desire of living better. Nutrisystem, Atkins, Weight Watchers—the list goes on, but the trend is nothing new; diet and wellness books have a long and colorful history in print. Whether they ever did what they claimed to do is another story.  

“A diet is the magic pill. This is finally the thing that will turn everything around,” said Brooklyn-based bookseller Lizzie Young when asked why people are perpetually drawn to diet and health books. A specialist in historical food and diet books (among other topics), Young has seen practically every diet fad from the past century appear between hard covers.  

Cigarettes were touted as healthy appetite suppressants as early as the 1920s when Lucky Strike first ran a series of “Smoking Diet” advertising campaigns advocating lighting up as a healthy alternative to mindless eating: “Light a Lucky and you’ll never miss sweets that make you fat,” reads one. Advertisements promising trimmer figures with the help of nicotine appeared in magazines right through the 1980s. Young’s inventory includes several examples of such spirited cigarette ads. 

Image courtesy of Lizzyoung Bookseller

Prewar 1930s and 1940s housewives gobbled up the gelatin diet, provided courtesy of Knox Gelatin company’s widely circulated Mrs. Knox's "Be Fit Not Fat" Recipes. The idea was that you would feel full by just eating gelatinous cubes; Knox pamphlets encouraged women to “Stay Fit” by consuming massive quantities of the stuff. The pamphlet included intriguing recipes like Jellied Custard, Cranberry Temptation, and Golden Easter Pudding, whose ingredients may have attracted and repelled diners in due course. Recipes for Jell-O-salads and gelatin-encased lamb chops might have helped diners lose weight by the mere sight of these concoctions. 

The American consumer of the 1950s was introduced to many varied diets. Domino promoted the Domino Sugar Diet as a novel way of losing weight. One advertisement shows a woman explaining to her husband, “Sugar in your tea all day long gives you fewer calories than your half grapefruit!” The tagline of the ad concludes: “It's smart to stay slim and trim and get Domino's Energy Lift too!”  Other popular diets focused on eating a single type of food, like the Cabbage Soup diet and the Grapefruit Diet. Reverend Charlie Shedd promised weight loss through prayer in his Pray Your Weight Away (1957) . 

Tastes changed in the 1970s when eating whole foods was all the rage. In particular, Young notes that diet books published in this era were “touchy-feely,” citing Joyce Goldstein’s lengthy title from 1976 as a perfect example:  FEEDBACK:  How to Cook for Increased Awareness, Relaxation, Pleasure & Better Communication with Yourself and Those Who Eat the Food: How to Enjoy the Process as well as the Product. How to use the Kitchen as a Source of Nourishment: Emotional, Physical, and Sensual.  

Low-carb, high protein regimes like the Scarsdale Diet were fashionable in the 1980s, as were celebrity-driven volumes like Elizabeth Taylor’s 1987 ode to odd eating habits, Elizabeth Takes Off. (Cottage cheese with sour cream, anyone?) 

Image courtesy of Lizzyoung Bookseller

Image courtesy of Lizzyoung Bookseller

Whether the trend was to go meat-free or whole-hog, the vast majority of books were consistently marketed to women. Two notable exceptions were Robert Cameron’s bestselling Drinking Man’s Diet (1964) and follow-up,  Drinking Man's Diet Cookbook (1965)—both promising quick and “manly” weight loss fueled by a steady diet of lobster, steak, and loads of booze. Naturally, both books were immediate bestsellers.  

Young finds that collectors tend to pick up these books for fun or as part of a larger specialized collection. Diet books and ephemera published in and around the last century range from $10 to $350, depending, as always, on rarity, desirability, and condition. 

Overall, Young finds the diet genre to be fairly cyclical. In fact, she’s not surprised that the Scarsdale Diet (rebranded as Whole30, Paleo, and Keto) is trendy once again in 2019: “It all goes back to the whole magic pill thing. People want a perfect solution to an imperfect problem. We need to eat. It's part of living.”