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(Randy Quan)
(Randy Quan)

Elizabeth Renzetti

Check out the fad diets from 1913: They’re no more bonkers than our own Add to ...

It’s the time of reckoning. The start of the new year. It may feel as if something died violently in your mouth over the holidays and you’ve only just noticed. Or you may sense the submerged monster of your liver trying to escape from your body like a creature from Loch Ness, though this beast is made of nine parts cheap champagne and one part crème de menthe.

The answer could lie in a brief stay at the Buffalo Restorium, which promises to help you “turn that New Year’s leaf right” with a three-day cure to eliminate the desire for alcohol. Okay, it involves visiting Buffalo, but there is an upside: “All vegetable remedies, no hypodermic injections.”

Except, sorry, you can’t visit the Buffalo Restorium because it’s probably now a bar selling chicken wings: That advertisement for the New Year’s cure appeared in The Globe on the first Saturday of January in 1913. In fact, a trawl through the pages of the New Year’s Globe from a century ago reveals that our late-Edwardian forebears, fewer than 50 years weaned from the bosom of Empire, were just as desperate for physical refurbishment as we are today – and just as hopeless at achieving it. And their fad diets were no more bonkers than our own.

Failing a trip to the Buffalo Restorium, a tosspot could always seek help through the Gatlin Treatment, advertised on Jan. 1, 1913, under the headline “Do You Drink?” Gatlin’s regimen “takes you back to Manhood and Ability in THREE DAYS … or the fee will be refunded FORTHWITH.” You want a rehab with a money-back guarantee.

It was in the realm of restoring the beautiful figure that things really got kooky and yet oddly familiar. If I may quote at length from an ad for a miracle nostrum: “If your stomach is sour and filled with 46 gases, your head aches or you are bilious, nervous, dizzy, half-sick, your tongue coated, your thirty feet of bowels clogged, don’t wait! Simply take a teaspoonful of delicious Syrup of Figs tonight.” Another potion, Tyrrell’s JBL Cascade, promised to cure “the ills of constipation, this blockage of the system of terribly poisonous waste.”

Ah, those Edwardian quacks! How could they have believed such things? And yet, how full of the same voodoo are the diet books that fill the shelves in the post-Christmas period? Wheat is an addictive substance akin to opiates, according to the mega-selling Wheat Belly diet books. (Though you likely won’t get murdered when you take your giant belly out to score a fix of Wonder Bread.) There are foods that are so full of “yang” energy that they lead to aggression and hypermaterialism, according to the MILF Diet. And no, if you don’t know what a MILF is, I’m not going to tell you. Don’t ask your mother, either. The MILF Diet is not to be confused with the Mom Diet, which, when I think about it, worked for me: When I gave birth to a 10-pound child, I found I’d miraculously lost 10 pounds.

Maybe it’s the narcissicism of each generation to think it’s cornered the market on self-improvement, although we only ever repeat the past. Modern diet books are all about “elimination,” “shedding,” “detoxing.” Like the Edwardian texts, they seem to view the human digestive tract like the spaceship from Alien, its dank corners concealing grotesque surprises around every bend. Health can only be achieved, writes the author of The Beauty Detox Solution, “when we have cleansed toxic material, the new sludge and the old sludge that accumulate constantly.”

On the contrary, doctors will tell you that, if you’re a reasonably healthy person, the main thing in your intestine is intestine, unless you’ve been doing silly things with snakes, in which case no diet book will save you. This will not stop billions of fellow humans from lining up to buy Gwyneth Paltrow’s new cookbook, Doctor G’s Purgative Elixir for the Houseproud Hausfrau. I lie: It’s called It’s All Good (although the book contains a recipe for hummus tartine, so how good can it possibly be?). Ms Paltrow’s recipes are based on an elimination diet – no dairy, meat, sugar, wheat, alcohol, coffee, joy or eggs. The cookbook is out in April. Get in line now.

It’s somewhat comforting to think that we’re fighting the exact same battles 100 years on. Though I’m a little sad that the Edwardians didn’t know that moderation in red wine is good for you, or that, as an extensive study showed this week, being slightly overweight could actually help extend your lifespan. Middling chubsters should not greet this news with too much joy, for the Grim Reaper will find us all in the end: His Google Map includes both Fat Street and Skinny Alley.

I’d like to ask someone from 100 years ago if they had any joy from their Millburn’s Heart and Nerve Pills, their Purgen, their Pape’s Diapepsin, but they’re all gone, hefty and slim alike, and their resolutions with them.

Editor's note: The original newspaper version and an earlier online version of this column referred to an ad published in 1913 in The Globe and Mail. In fact, The ad was in The Globe. The Globe and Mail began publishing in 1936 when The Globe merged with The Mail and Empire.


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