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A Short History of Diet Pills and Weight Loss Drugs (Part One)

A Short History of Diet Pills and Weight Loss Drugs (Part One)


(This is the first article in a two-part series tracing the rise of diet pills and weight loss drugs and their influence on American society.)

It used to be that extra weight was considered attractive and a sign of prosperity. Rubenesque figures were things of great beauty, suggesting abundance like fecund acres of arable soil. Shifts in culture and technological advances, however, have changed the perceptions of desirable body types. This has inevitably led to the development of new diets, dieting fads and crazes, and a variety of dieting shortcuts.

When weight loss drugs were first introduced, they were touted as a quick-fix alternative to exercise and dieting. Diet pills epitomized the promise of the modern world, where phrases such as "our friend the atom" and "better living through chemistry" lighted the way to the future. Yet, in many cases, they made things worse.

Early Dieting Programs

One of the most interesting of the early dieting programs was developed in the early 19th century by Presbyterian minister Sylvester Graham. Graham's diet involved ingesting fruits, vegetables, and other high-fiber foods while abstaining from spices and meats.  The staple of Graham's diet was his own recipe called "Graham Bread," later known as the graham cracker. Yet rather than eliminating love handles, Graham's diet was originally intended to curb gluttony and to prevent impure thoughts.

Another early dieting fad of the 19th century involved rules on chewing. Dubbed "The Great Masticator," Horace Fletcher was the most famous proponent of such chewing diets. Fletcher's maxim was that food ought to be chewed 32 times before being swallowed. With Don King-like zeal, Fletcher noted that "Nature will castigate those who don't masticate."

Precursors to Diet Pills

The stuff of urban legend, there were "diet pills" in the late 19th century and early 20th century that claimed to contain tapeworms or tapeworm eggs. One particular advertisement poster depicts a woman pensively standing before a mountain of food. The text reads, "Fat. The enemy that is shortening your life banished! How? With sanitized tapeworms. Jar packed. 'Friends for a fair form.' Easy to swallow." There are even reassuring phrases in this ad that note that sanitized tapeworms are "guaranteed harmless" and have "no ill effects."

The legend of the tapeworm diet came back to public consciousness in the 1950s when newspapers accused opera singer Maria Callas of intentionally ingesting a tapeworm to lose weight. In reality, Callas likely contracted a tapeworm as a result of her fondness for raw meat and raw liver. But despite the false reports about Callas, there were people who intentionally gave themselves tapeworms to stay trim. In Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit: An American Legend, she notes that some jockeys gave themselves tapeworms to stay in shape. On a more lighthearted note, the tapeworm diet was one of the standout gags in the 2001 Cantonese comedy Love on a Diet.

According to a New York Times article from May 25, 1999, another precursor to the diet pill was the chemical dinitrophenol. Available in the 1930s, the chemical claimed to prevent food energy from being turned into fat. Approximately 100,000 Americans took dinitrophenol. It was later learned that dinitrophenol was actually poisonous and resulted blindness and, in some cases, death.

Early Diet Pills

The 1950s saw the birth of the nuclear family and a rise in post-war prosperity. Science and medicine were making strides throughout the decade, resulting in the first successful kidney transplant in 1954 and the development of the polio vaccine 1955. The promise of space exploration and new technologies resulted in futuristic utopian ideas, notions overshadowed by the Cold War with the launch of Sputnik 1 but brought back to light by the shimmering silver suits of the Mercury 7 astronauts. Television was born and thus a new image consciousness, an image consciousness that eventually cost Richard Nixon the presidential race to John F. Kennedy.

It was during this decade that doctors prescribed the first diet pills to patients. Unfortunately, the doctors were prescribing amphetamines, which were used extensively during Word War II to keep soldiers alert and to help them overcome fatigue. One of the side effects of amphetamine use was appetite suppression. The use of amphetamines led to substance abuse problems for many of these weight loss patients. Doctors eventually stopped prescribing amphetamines for weight loss in the 1960s.

In the 1940s, the Carlay Company of Chicago introduced an appetite suppressant candy called Ayds, which would come into greater prominence some 30 years later. Advertised on television, Ayds experienced good sales throughout the health-obsessed 1970s and early 1980s. The chewy candy cubes came in chocolate, chocolate mint, butterscotch, caramel, and peanut butter flavors. In a case of the wrong name at the wrong time, sales of Ayds plummeted as the media turned their attention to the AIDS epidemic. The candy was no longer on the market by the end of the 80s, though many Ayds commercials can still be found online.

The Rise of the Diet Pills

The diet pill and weight loss drug industry has been growing for the last four decades as people have become more health conscious and image conscious. The fitness craze blossomed in the 1970s and boomed in the 1980s. Charles Atlas and Jack Lalane gave way to Weight Watchers®, to joggers, to stationary exercise bikes, to Jazzercise®, to Jane Fonda, and, for better of worse, to the sweaty short-shorts of Richard Simmons.

A wide variety of diet pills and weight loss supplements flooded the market, many of which contained appetite suppressing drugs such as fenfluramine, phentermine, and phenylpropanolamine (PPA). The New York Times even reported that Ayds contained PPA. As time went on and alternative medicines gained in popularity, many herbal weight loss supplements rose to prominence. Weight-beneficial properties have been ascribed to food items and additives as diverse as green tea, guarana, and ephedra.

The main types of diet pills on the market are metabolism boosters, appetite suppressants, and fat / carbohydrate absorption blockers. Metabolism boosters help increase a person's ability to burn calories and often contain some sort of stimulant. Appetite suppressants decrease feelings of hunger and sometimes include a stimulant. Absorption blockers prevent a person's intestines from absorbing either fat or carbohydrates.

(Keep an eye out for the next article in this series, in which we follow the evolution of diet drugs into the modern day and consider their consequences, both in the present and the future.)

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