Dieting since the 19th century


Alarmingly high levels of obesity in western nations means that dieting and weight loss programs feature heavily (pardon the pun) in our popular consciousness. Yet an obsession with weight goes back at least 150 years to a period well before the current obesity crisis.

Prior to the mid-19th century, carrying a little excess weight was seen as a good thing. In the age before vaccinations and antibiotics it was commonly believed that being fatter enabled people to better withstand infectious diseases. Weight gain was also regarded as desirable because most people were thin as the result of not having enough to eat. Being overweight was a marker of prosperity as it signified that a person had the means to buy plenty of food and indulge themselves. Only wealthy merchants, businessmen or members of the aristocracy would have been able to afford to become corpulent, hence dieting to lose weight was relatively uncommon in this period.

The mechanisation and prosperity that accompanied the industrial revolution brought with it weight gain and the beginnings of modern diet plans. Reduced energy expenditure and increased access to (often poor quality) food meant that obesity began to rise in the working classes. The trend of previous centuries became reversed as obesity was increasingly associated with the lower classes while physical exercise fads and a quest for thinness became prominent amongst the wealthy upper echelons of society.

The social and economic changes that contributed to rising obesity influenced the emergence of the field of nutritional science. In the late 1800s balancing proteins, carbohydrates and fats featured in government health publications. Vegetarianism began to be promoted for good health from the early years of the 20th century. The food pyramid was created during the First World War. Calorie counting and diet pills emerged the 1920s and vitamins designed to correct nutritional deficiencies resulting from restrictive diets were sold from the following decade. Weight-for-height charts similar to the BMI charts of today first appeared in the 1940s and doctors began to advise their overweight patients to cut down on saturated fats in the 1950s.

As you can see, a concern with weight control has existed for quite some time. For a more in-depth look at the history of dieting you can read Louise Foxcroft’s entertaining and informative book Calories and Corsets: A History of Dieting Over 2000 Years.

Image credit

Numa, P. (1833). A corpulent physician diagnoses more leeches for a young woman, who lies drained and bedbound [Image]. Retrieved from


Rao, N. (2011). Dieting since the 1850s. The Journal of Health, Ethics, and Policy, 10(9), 38-39.


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