Extreme Diets: Fads and Facts

Steven Rourke; Reviewed by Anya Romanowski, MS, RD


May 21, 2018

Sylvester Graham's Diet

The Presbyterian minister Sylvester Graham (1794-1851) approached diet as moral education, combining his strict religious beliefs with themes common to the temperance movement of the 19th century.[1,2,3,4,5] He derived dietary principles from his interpretation of the Ten Commandments[2] and envisaged the stomach as "the helpful minister of your body."[1]

Graham's diet, launched in the late 1820s, is considered by some to be the first "fad" diet.[4] It preached against the "overstimulation" of certain foods—specifically refined white breads and meats, which Graham believed to be the cause of immoral behavior, gluttony, and promiscuity.[2] He proposed a plain vegetarian diet; replaced meat with wheat[5]; and marketed a coarse wholemeal "Graham bread,"[6] which lead to the eponymous cracker.[2,3,4,5]

Graham travelled throughout the United States and wrote prolifically to promote his beliefs. His radical thoughts made him both a figure of ridicule and a famous man who inspired future diet creators (or "Grahamites"[5]), including John Harvey Kellogg.[4]

Despite claiming he could prolong life to 100 years, Graham died at age 57.[2,4] Among his legacies, he is considered one of the founders of the vegetarian movement in the United States.[3,4]


A "lecturer of singular charm,"[7] Horace Fletcher (1849-1919)—also known as "the Great Masticator"[1,8]—was a wealthy businessman and self-proclaimed nutrition expert whose diet became a social happening at the turn of the 20th century.[1,7,8,9]

According to Fletcher, food—to be eaten only when a person was "good and hungry"—necessitated prolonged mastication to avoid "intense putrification" in the gut and achieve weight loss.[1] Foods turning into liquid and pooling in the mouth after 100-700 chews were to be swallowed, whereas solids were to be spat out.[1] And although the diet did not restrict any types of food,[8] Fletcher himself was drawn to vegetarianism[7] (perhaps unsurprisingly, given all the chewing).

Fletcher was taken seriously by both the British and American medical professions and had a star-studded following, which included John Rockefeller and Franz Kafka.[1] However, by the 1920s, Fletcherism fell from favor—perhaps through the pressure of time, boredom, and the diet regimen causing extreme constipation.[7] After 5 years on the diet, Henry James, an early enthusiast, reported a "sickish loathing of food."[1]

As an interesting footnote, a small recent study using electromyography to monitor chewing behavior showed that "higher chewing counts reduced food intake."[9]


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