From Cabbage Soup to Keto: The Most Popular Diets Through the Decades


It's hard to spot the difference between a fad diet and a legit one, especially at the height of its popularity. Some of the telltale signs that a diet is nothing more than an empty promise: Entire food groups are eliminated, results sound too good to be true, the program relies on selling expensive supplements or the diet severely restricts calories. Here, dietitians and nutritionists (myself included) weight in on the most influential diets from the '60s until today. Spoiler alert: Some of these diets seem too ridiculous to be true.

1. 1960s: Cabbage Soup Diet

Healthy vegetable soup close up on the table. horizontal
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This diet is exactly what it sounds like: It consists entirely of eating cabbage soup for seven to 10 days. "This was a popular diet trend for brides-to-be in the 1960s," explains Mandy Enright, M.S., RDN, RYT, creator of the couples nutrition blog and podcast Nutrition Nuptials. It may have been effective for quick weight loss, but what you lose is primarily water weight. Unfortunately, once the cabbage soup regimen is over, the weight just comes back.

Expert Opinion: Enright warns that this very low-calorie diet is not realistic as a long-term weight-management strategy. More immediately, the general lack of protein and calories can lead to fatigue, light-headedness and getting hangry (and also unpleasant gas). Enjoy cabbage in slaws, stir-fries, tacos, kimchi and more as part of an overall balanced diet. But as far as subsisting on cabbage soup alone? This is one you should definitely skip.

Read more: Side Effects of the Cabbage Diet

2. 1960s: Weight Watchers

Whole grain pasta with portobello mushrooms and tomatoes
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Started by New Yorker Jean Nidetch in 1963, Weight Watchers remains one of the most popular diets in America today, thanks to its flexible, nutritionally sound plan. The diet's points system was designed to guide participants toward healthier options, but allows them to choose the foods they want within their points "budget." It also has built-in emotional support for members, helping them stay motivated to stick to their healthy eating goals.

Expert Opinion: "Weight Watchers is like that classic black dress that sits in your closet and never goes out of style," says Dr. Joan Salge Blake, Ed.D., RDN, clinical associate professor at Boston University and author of "Nutrition & You." "It is, and has always been, a healthy, well-balanced eating pattern that emphasizes less sugar and saturated fat and approves eating more fruits and veggies."

Read more: How to Get Started on Week 1 With Weight Watchers

3. 1970s: Sleeping Beauty Diet

woman sleeping with eye mask

The premise of the Sleeping Beauty Diet of the 1970s was to curb calories by sleeping instead of eating anytime hunger struck. After all, if you were sleeping, you wouldn't be eating. At its worst, it included the aid of sleeping pills.

Expert Opinion: "This diet is extremely dangerous and unpractical," says Brynn McDowell, RD at The Domestic Dietitian, noting that the potential for addiction and eating disorders is all too real and that "oversleeping disrupts the body's natural cycles and can lead to a number of side effects, such as fluctuations in blood sugar levels, increased inflammation, cognitive impairment and weight gain." The sliver of wisdom here is that a healthy amount of sleep does help regulate hunger hormones, appetite and metabolism for the better, but that's not what the Sleeping Beauty Diet is about, unfortunately. Do get a good night's rest, but don't go down the path of the sleeping beauty diet.

Read more: 10 Proven Tips for a Good Night's Sleep

4. 1970s: Grapefruit Diet

Hands of a young woman holding a red grapefruit healthy food concept
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While the Grapefruit Diet was hugely popular back in the 1970s, it can be traced back as early as the 1930s, at a time when women idealized movie stars with lean frames like Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo. This high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet was built on the promise that you'd lose 10 pounds in 10 days because of grapefruit's miraculous fat-burning enzymes. Therefore, eating grapefruit before each meal allegedly made it OK to eat fatty foods like steak and fried chicken. Calories were restricted to a mere 800 a day, making exercise nearly impossible.

Expert Opinion: "While the weight may come off quickly due to low calories, it won't stay off," according to Enright. On the bright side, she says, "Research has shown that while grapefruits alone won't cause fat loss, eating high-fiber foods and increasing water intake can help manage weight." Feel free to enjoy grapefruit because it contributes to your daily fruit, hydration and antioxidant needs, but please eat more than 800 calories per day, and make it a part of a diet that can support an active lifestyle.

Read more: Benefits of the Ruby Red Grapefruit

5. 1980s: Jenny Craig

Chicken Fettuccine

The Jenny Craig diet started in Australia in 1983, landed in America in 1985 and remains a popular commercial weight-loss program today. It offers a diet plan, weekly counseling and prepackaged meals and snacks. The biggest drawbacks are cost ($99 to enroll, at least $19 a month to maintain, plus the cost of food, $15 to $23 per day) and that it lacks flexibility for eating out, food allergies and sensitivities, lower sodium options, halal or kosher. It also recommends a supplement to meet nutrient needs, rather than providing all the needed nourishment through food.

Expert Opinion: I can appreciate that the Jenny Craig diet removes the hassle of meal planning, and there is some research suggesting Jenny Craig dieters lost more weight than those on other commercial diet plans (e.g., Nutrisystem, Medifast, Weight Watchers). Bottom line: Despite the cost, the Jenny Craig diet is one of the easiest ways to lose weight, it's safe and you'll meet your macronutrient needs.

Read more: Jenny Craig vs. Weight Watchers

6. 1980s: Diet Pills

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In contrast to the reasonable Jenny Craig program, the same decade also saw the continued popularity of diet pills and the promise of fast weight loss. Many of these appetite suppressants contained phenylpropanolamine (PPA), which was later linked to stroke in young women. The FDA removed PPA from all drug products in 2000.

Expert Opinion: I think the lesson here is that there are no quick fixes for weight loss. It's a journey. My recommendation is to focus on making healthy choices a part of daily habits. It's not as sexy as a magic pill, sure, but much more effective (and sane) in the long run.

Read more: The Best Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner to Lose Weight

7. 1990s: Atkins

Grilled Beef Steak
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The Atkins diet, named after cardiologist Robert Atkins, took the high-protein, low-carb concept to another level, with a complicated four-phase plan that starts off with very few total carbohydrates (including those from fruits and vegetables), but no cap on saturated fat. In better news, it limits added sugars and refined grains, which is in line with Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020.

Expert Opinion: The severe restrictions on carbs "furthers the misconception that carbohydrates promote weight gain and advocates a prolonged state of ketosis, which can be both unsustainable and harmful for long-term health," explains Denine Marie, M.P.H., RDN, founder of Healthy Out of Habit. Although short-term weight loss is likely on the Atkins diet, your heart-health, general nutrition and sanity are better served by a less restrictive diet plan.

Read more: 10 Low-Carb Breakfasts That Will Fill You Up

8. 1990s: Zone Diet

Tasty Sandwich With Poached Egg and Avocado
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Remember the Zone Diet, made popular by "Friends" star Jennifer Aniston? The Zone Diet restricts daily calories to 1,200 (for women) or 1,500 (for men), which includes three meals and two snacks, all of which must be 40 percent carbs, 30 percent protein and 30 percent fat. Breakfast must be within an hour of waking up, and you have to eat every five hours.

Expert Opinion: A published paper in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition concludes that while weight loss on the Zone Diet is likely, it's due to calorie restriction, not the magic of the ratio. My advice is that even though there are no major safety red flags, you could probably do better by looking elsewhere for a healthy diet.

Read more: The Pros and Cons of the Zone Diet

9. 1990s: Ornish Diet

Man Serving fish
credit: Halfpoint/iStock/GettyImages

The extremely low-fat diet, advocated by Dean Ornish, M.D., allows for no more than 10 percent of calories from fat and emphasizes whole grains, vegetables, fruit and fish, along with omega-3 and multivitamin supplements. There is academic research backing its heart-health benefits, showing that it has the potential to reverse signs of heart disease, including lowering LDL cholesterol and high blood pressure.

Expert Opinion: Even though there are documented benefits, an eating plan is only as good as the degree to which its followed. I imagine that the Ornish Diet is a difficult plan to follow because it requires a lot of planning to meet the low-fat limits and ends up cutting out foods that also provide satiety. Such a low-fat diet may not provide enough vitamin E and other essential fatty acids, and triglycerides may go up due to high carbohydrate intake. There are other ways to achieve cardiovascular health: Abundant research shows that a moderate-fat to high-fat Mediterranean eating pattern is also healthy for the heart.

Read more: The 14 Best Foods for Your Heart

10. 2000s: Juice Cleanses

Master Cleanse Detox

The juice cleanse of the aughts was a re-emergence of the Master Cleanse, a diet of hot water, lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne pepper. It's the diet that Beyonce reportedly used to drop down to her "Dreamgirls" weight, a film in which she played an underweight singer with drug-abuse issues. Not exactly the picture of health, but it's easy to wonder if there is some real magic behind that hot lemon-water concoction, especially when celebrity proof is involved.

Expert Opinion: Denine Marie, founder of Healthy Out of Habit, brings us back to earth: "While some people do lose weight on a juice cleanse, it's usually the result of eating fewer calories in general." The juice cleanse craze remains to this day, now in the form of fresh-pressed juices, with the same inadequate daily calories. "Juice cleanses are not necessary to 'detox' your body or promote health," Marie explains. "Your kidneys and liver naturally detoxify your body, so focus on eating nourishing foods regularly rather than using juice cleanses to compensate for inconsistent or poor eating habits."

Read more: Does cranberry juice prevent UTIs? FDA says nope

11. 2000s: Gluten-Free Diet

zucchini noodles in ramen
credit: Delicious

A gluten-free diet is meant to treat people with celiac disease or gluten intolerance, for whom eating gluten (a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and its derivatives) causes an allergic reaction and/or unpleasant side effects like gastrointestinal distress. It's essential for the small percentage of the population affected by these conditions to follow a gluten-free diet.

Expert Opinion: "The rest of us don't need to go gluten-free," says Michelle Dudash, RDN, Cordon Bleu-certified chef and creator of 4Real Food Reboot, adding, "there's simply no scientific evidence to support going gluten-free solely for weight loss." She notes that any weight loss could be attributed to restrictions and cutting back on less-healthy, calorie-dense foods like breaded and fried foods, cakes, cookies and crackers. Final word: Don't go gluten-free unless your physician and registered dietitian advise you to follow this diet.

Read more: Bread Myths Busted By Science

12. 2010s: Keto Diet

Healthy breakfast. Avocado stuffed with eggs
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In another take on low-carb diets, the Keto diet is not just low in carbs, it's also a high-fat diet. It's rooted in the clinical ketogenic diet, which is a therapeutic diet used by neurologists in specific cases; for example, in children with hard-to-control seizures.

Expert Opinion: "It could create health challenges for people who it is not medically necessary for," cautions Seattle-based registered dietitian Ginger Hultin, M.S., RDN, CSO, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "There is a possibility of kidney damage, nutritional deficiencies and side effects, including constipation, dehydration, fatigue and nausea." As with any diet that cuts out so many foods in such an extreme manner, it may be hard to stick to. The final word from Hultin: "This one is best done if medically necessary and under the supervision of a doctor." Still, the Keto diet has millions of avid followers and is growing in popularity.

Read more: This Cheesy Cauliflower Loaf Is the Perfect Keto Treat

13. 2010s: Plant-Based Diet

Vegetarian breakfast bowl with spinach, arugula, avocado, seeds and sprouts
credit: Foxys_forest_manufacture/iStock/GettyImages

The plant-based diet is more of a concept than a prescriptive diet plan. According to Sharon Palmer, RDN, The Plant-Powered Dietitian, "The true definition of a plant-based diet is one that focuses on plants, and it could include a diet where the meals are based on foods like whole grains, pulses, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds." That leaves room for diets that are all plants (vegan), nearly all plants (vegetarian) or mostly plants (80 percent plants and 20 percent other).

Expert Opinion: Vegetarian and vegan diets are recognized by most health experts as a healthy way to reduce the risk of obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. In addition, "Plant-based diets are also more environmentally sustainable than diets rich in animal products because they use fewer natural resources and are associated with much less environmental damage," shares Hultin. Eating a plant-based diet can be a very healthy way to nourish the body and gets the thumbs-up from the majority of nutrition experts.

Read more: Is Drake Vegan? We've Got the Beet on the Rapper's Diet

What Do YOU Think?

Grilled salmon salad
credit: Muratani/iStock/GettyImages

Have you tried any of these diets? How did it make you feel, and did you keep the weight off? Let us know in the comments below!

9 Unhealthy, Even Dangerous Weight-Loss Diets


It's hard to spot the difference between a fad diet and a legit one, especially at the height of its popularity. Some of the telltale signs that a diet is nothing more than an empty promise: Entire food groups are eliminated, results sound too good to be true, the program relies on selling expensive supplements or the diet severely restricts calories. Here, dietitians and nutritionists (myself included) weight in on the most influential diets from the '60s until today. Spoiler alert: Some of these diets seem too ridiculous to be true.


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