How George Cheyne Created First Fad Diet, the Georgian Diet

Dieting and weight loss seem like a very modern phenomenon. Since the twentieth century, our obsession with our weight and shape has continued to grow, spawning a whole range of diets designed to give us the perfect figure. The Cabbage Soup Diet, the Atkins Diet, Intermittent Fasting and Paleolithic style eating are just a few of the diet fads touted to help people lose weight fast. But despite appearances, dieting is not such a modern trend. For the first recorded diet occurred three hundred years ago in Georgian England.

The rise of the British Empire and the Industrial Revolution were two events that marked the Georgian period. They were events that substantially increased the wealth of the governing elite. As a result, Society became ever more decadent, and one of the symptoms of this was overindulgence in rich food and drink. The upper classes found themselves becoming increasingly obese and unhealthy. So, in the 1720’s Scottish doctor George Cheyne devised a diet to help combat the worst of these excesses. Cheyne’s diet advocated food restriction and exercise. It sounded surprisingly modern in design. But did it reduce the waistlines of Georgian Britain?

Caricature by James Gillray showing a large Georgian Lady having tea. C 1802. Public Domain Image. Wikimedia Commons.

The Excesses of the Georgian Upper Classes

 The Georgian Period was a time of revolutionary change. During the period between 1714 until 1837, Britain’s Empire began to grow and spread. The loss of the American colonies was compensated by the discovery of Australia by Captain Cook and Clive of India’s securing British dominance over of vast swathes of lucrative south Asia. Also, from 1770, Britain became the world’s first industrial nation. Rural life became more mechanized, and the growth of urban manufacturing began. While these changes brought mixed advantages to the general populace, for the landed gentry and commercial elite, it was a boom time.

With little to do except let their agents handle their affairs,  the Georgian upper classes concentrated on enjoying their wealth. Conspicuous consumption rocketed. The elite built new country houses in the popular neo-classical style and indulged themselves with innovative furniture designs from the likes of Thomas Chippendale. They began to drink their tea from the fine china of Wedgewood and dress in silks and jewels from the east. And then there was the food and drink that was now available to them. For Georgian food rich, exotic and lethally calorific- for the upper classes at least.

A caricature of William Pitt and the Regency by James Gillray, 1792. Google Images.

Trade had made tea and coffee readily available, as well as spices, wines, and exotic foodstuffs – for those who could afford it. Meal times changed to suit the new, leisured lifestyles of the wealth and newly emerging middle classes. Breakfast became a late meal, taken at 10 am, replete with tea, coffee, and hot chocolate, hot and cold rolls, butter and pastries. Luncheon may have been light but dinner more than made up for it, with several courses rich in meats, and puddings made of butter, cream, eggs- and sugar from the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. Then, to round off the day, there was supper, which consisted of yet more pies and savories. And all of this was washed down with large quantities of wines and liqueurs.

The waistlines of the upper classes began to expand to match their bank balances. Their deep pockets allowed for them to be fat of fetlock and red of cheek was a sign that you had made it because you could afford to sit back and enjoy the good life. However, it quickly became apparent that there were disadvantages to all this excess. Diseases like gout increased and heart attacks and strokes began to grow more prevalent. Quite suddenly, it became apparent that the class that regarded themselves as the helmsmen of the nation was at risk.

Since our wealth has increased and our navigation had been extended, we have ransacked all parts of the globe to bring together its whole stock of materials for riot, luxury and to provoke excess,” noted one Scottish gentleman, “the tables of the rich and great (and those who can afford it) are furnished with provisions of delicacy, number and plenty, sufficient to provoke and even gorge the most large and voluptuous appetite.” That gentleman had noted the effects of this ‘excess’ on his own body and had taken measures to curb it. His name was George Cheyne.