The Diets that Time Forgot – new TV series challenges modern diets


A pioneering six-part Channel 4 series examines which plan works best; is it the Banting diet, first published in the 1863, the ‘chew chew’ diet of the early 1900s or the first calorie counting Lulu diet, one of the best selling non-fiction publications of the 1920s? The first programme airs at 9pm on 18 March.

Obesity is a major problem today, but if you think diets are a recent invention, think again. Nine 21st century slimmers spend 24 days taking part in a unique historic experiment testing the weight loss diets and fitness regimes that were popular in the Late Victorian and Edwardian periods and the ‘roaring’ Twenties.

Three teams of slimmers are confined to a turn of the 20th century health farm, ‘The Institute of Physical Culture’, presided over by ‘Institute Director’ Sir Roy Strong (historian, author and former director of the National Portrait Gallery and the V&A). At 72, Sir Roy works out and jogs five miles daily, and is in very much better shape than the younger people in his care. Sir Roy: “We live in the golden age of the slob. I don’t believe in going back, but I do believe there are serious and practical lessons to be learned from the past that could help us conquer the obesity epidemic of today.”

‘Matron’ is Jane DeVille-Almond, a SRN of the starched uniform and no nonsense variety and a Trustee and Director of the National Obesity Forum. She manages and monitors the slimmers’ health and general well-being as they are undertake exercises and treatments ranging from cold water plunges to native dancing, pony carting and callisthenics. “This experiment is not only proving beneficial in terms of weight loss, but we’re rediscovering lost wisdom about how to maintain a healthy body and a healthy mind.”

‘Professor of Physical Culture’, Peter Radford, currently Professor of Sports Sciences at Brunel University, takes them through their exercise regimes exactly as they were done at the time. “The idea of ‘no pain no gain’ is a very modern notion and one that’s not helpful to people who are trying to lose weight and find gyms intimidating. What’s more, the old exercises had the added benefit of training the mind as well the body. They involve no expense and can all be done in the home.’

The first popular diet, The Banting Diet, is in essence today’s Atkins diet by another name. People who subscribe to the latest fitness craze, ‘spinning’, may be astonished to learn that there was a ‘spinning’ machine in the gym on the Titanic. While enjoying these comparisons, the series also looks at the influences that have shaped our relationship to food: “Now we just eat anywhere, eat anyhow, eat anything – the consequences are that we’re all getting fatter”. This series demonstrates that when it comes to what we do to our bodies, we have a lot to learn from our grandparents. It offers practical solutions to a problem that’s across the front pages of all today’s newspapers, as well as taking us on a hitherto unexplored journey into the past.


VICTORIA – Banting

– This is a low-carb diet, cutting out starchy & saccharine foods.
– Avoid bread, butter, milk, sugar, beer.
– NO salmon, herring or eel
– NO pork or veal.
– NO Potatoes or root vegetables

On rising:
A tablespoon of a special alkaline corrective cordial in a wine-glass of water.

5-6oz beef mutton, kidneys, broiled fish, bacon or cold meat NOT pork or veal
large cup of tea or coffee (without milk or sugar)
A little biscuit, or 1oz dry toast (generally taken with a table spoonful of spirit to soften it).
Total: 6oz solid, 9oz liquid

5-6oz any fish, NOT salmon, herrings or eels, any meat NOT pork or veal
Any vegetable except potatoes or root vegetables
1oz dry toast
Unsweetened fruit out of a pudding (i.e. cooked)
Any kind of poultry or game
2 or 3 glasses good claret, sherry or maderia.
Total: 10-12oz solid, 10oz liquid

2-3oz cooked fruit,
A rusk or two
A cup of tea without milk or sugar
Total: 2-4oz solid, 9oz liquid

3-4oz meat or fish, as at lunch
A glass or two of claret, or sherry and water.
Total: 4oz, 7oz liquid

Nightcap if required a tumbler of grog – gin, whisky, or brandy without sugar, or a glass or two of claret or sherry.

EDWARDIAN – Fletcherism

– All food to be chewed until liquid, anything not liquefied to be spat out.
– Meals will be varied and generally the same as a typical middle/upper-class Edwardian diet.
– Food will be served in smaller quantities, as dieters will find it impossible to eat as much as normal.
– Dieters will be unable to eat large quantities of meat, so there will be no huge platters of meat, or enormous roasts and Fletcher anyway warns of the dangers of consuming too much animal protein.
– In the Edwardian era meat would have been considerably less tender than it is today – making it harder to chew fully.
– Fibrous vegetables will also be hard to eat, requiring prolonged chewing.
– Fletcher had a very sweet tooth and enjoyed cakes, candy & sugar lumps. He drank very over-sweetened coffee. There should be a bowl of candy or sugar lumps in the middle of our Edwardian dining table.
– Fletcher drank substantial quantities of cream, which would be thinner than regular double cream.
– Fletcher does not consider breakfast that essential, dieters might go without or eat far less than the vast cooked breakfast normal in Edwardian times – perhaps just toast & fruit.
– Dieters can eat what they want, when they want, so if they feel like an apple pie in the middle of the night, they can have one so long as they chew it properly.
– Oysters are very popular in the Edwardian era and should feature on our menus, given their texture they will be particularly unpleasant to chew.
– Wine will be served, but because it must be swilled around the mouth it will taste very vinegary and so will be consumed only in very small sips.
– Generally Fletcher believed that one got the full value out of those foods which dissolved quickly & thoroughly.
– Fletcher cut out of his diet those foods which tasted unpleasant.
– Fletcher is a big fan of cereals, which could be consumed with full cream milk and probably lots of sugar.

MODERNIST – Lulu Hunt Peters

– Calorie counting is key, dieters consume 1200 calories a day.
– So long as you count the calories you can eat what you want.
– Include lots of leafy vegetables – cabbage, cauliflower, celery tops, lettuce, onion, Swiss chard, turnip tops etc, which contain vital minerals, are good for sluggish bowels and kidneys and low in calories.
– Recommends consuming some milk or its products.
– Advises against cutting out fats, sugars and starches – diet should be balanced.
– 200 – 300 of the daily calorie intake should be protein.
– Recommends 100 calories for breakfast, 350 for lunch, 100 for tea and 650 for dinner. The calorie amounts for lunch and dinner can be reversed.
– If you splurge and eat lots of chocolates (or other high calorie food) then this should be balanced by a dinner of a bowl of clear soup (25 C) and a cracker (25 C).
– Hunger pangs can be treated with dry lemon or orange peel, aromatic breath sweeteners or a cup of fat-free bouillon, half an apple, or other low calorie food.

Sample Menu

On rising
2 cups hot water with a little lemon juice.

Coffee or postum with cream or sugar
Or 10 ozs. skim milk
Or 1 of the 100 C breakfast options
Total: 100 C

1 medium sized head lettuce1/3 lb (25 C)
1 tbsp. mayonnaise (100 C)
1 med. sweet pickle chopped for mayonnaise (25 C)
1-1/8 inch cube cream cheese melted or 3 ozs. cottage cheese (100 C)
1 Toasted French roll (no butter) (100 C)
Total: 350 C

3 crackers with tea and 1 tsp. sugar and 1 slice lemon
Or 10 ozs. skim or buttermilk
Or 100 C. fruit
Total: 100 C

Creamed dried beef on toast (245 C)
Dried beef 4 thin slices 4 x 5.(100 C), cut fine and crisped in frying pan with 1/2 tbsp. butter (50 C) and 1 tbsp. flour browned with above (25 C) add 1 cup (7oz) skim milk (70 C) cook gently.
2 slices crisp toast (pour above over) (200 C)
1 large serving raw celery or raw cabbage (15 C)
1 large baked apple with 1 tbsp syrup (120 C)
1 glass (7oz) skim milk (70 C)
Total: 650 C