Before the food industry figured out how to leech fat from snacks and pump up beverages with added caffeine, eaters who wanted to lose weight or gain energy had to craft their diets from what they found in their pantries. Here, a guide to forgotten health foods from a century ago.
In the years before World War II, almost every menu included a tall glass of cool buttermilk. Buttermilk believers said the drink made them strong, energetic and healthy. Perhaps they were right: Earl Cruze, the celebrated Tennessee buttermilk maker, claims men worried about their virility wouldn't need pills if they drank more buttermilk.
2. Corned beef
Corned beef was a staple of early 20th century diets: Health guru Bernard Macfadden, an outspoken advocate of cold plunge baths, long walks, natural childbirth and carrots, sold a 12-cent corned beef plate at his health food restaurant in 1910. Amelia Summerville, author of "Why be Fat?", published in 1916, urged her readers to breakfast on corned beef hash, a dish she defended as lean and nutritious.
3. Sarsaparilla soft drinks
Sarsaparilla, extracted from a tropical trailing vine, still shows up in some root beers, but the flavored oil was the main attraction back in the nineteenth century. A popular syphilis treatment, sarsaparilla sodas were also promoted as pick-me-ups. "That tired feeling can be totally overcome by taking Hood's Sarsaparilla," an 1885 newspaper ad promised.
4. Stale bread
Anti-obesity crusader Summerville was a fan of stale bread, which presumably saved dieters the trouble of toasting. "That perhaps does not sound like a strikingly inviting repast," a writer for a South Carolina newspaper conceded in an 1892 story entitled "Getting Lean: Helpful Hints for Men Who Carry too Much Flesh." But, he added, a dinner of cold meat, poached eggs, stewed fruit, stale bread and tea "will reduce the weight of a stout man."
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President Taft in 1916 dispelled any notions that he'd lost 75 pounds by playing golf, instead attributing his weight loss to a restrictive diet of beef, fowl, mutton and vegetables (other than potatoes). "Above all, you ought to be examined by the best physician you can get," he advised fellow fat men interested in replicating his strategy. "Don't get a quack."