The George Cheyne Diet
Like many of his class, George Cheyne was grossly overweight. The Scottish doctor had swapped his native Aberdeenshire to establish a practice in fashion London. As was common at the time, Cheyne often visited his patients in the popular taverns of the town. Being a cheerful and witty man, he was well liked by his clients and so often joined them for food and drink- both inside and outside of working hours. Cheyne became, in his own words, the friend of “bottle companions, the younger gentry, and free-livers, “ because, like them, he enjoyed to “eat lustily and swallow down much liquor.”
However, this lifestyle caught up with him. By 1705 at the age of just 34, Cheyne’s health was in trouble. His rich diet of food and booze had caused him to balloon to 400 pounds in weight. Cheyne was depressed, short of breath and lethargic. He also nearly died from what he referred to as “vertiginous paroxysms” otherwise known as a heart attack or stroke. Cheyne realized he had to take himself in hand. Initially, he tried to lose weight with vomiting purges with little good effect. Then in 1707, he had a stroke of luck.
Cheyne made the acquaintance of a certain Dr. Taylor in Croydon. Dr. Taylor was the advocate of a most unusual way of life. He drank no alcohol and claimed to have lived on only milk for seventeen years. Taylor’s state of rude health impressed Cheyne, so he decided to follow a similar diet- with some adaptations. Although he gave up alcohol, Cheyne supplemented his milk-based diet with vegetables. The result was dramatic. Cheyne began to lose weight- and to feel much better. However, after a return to his bad old ways caused his health to decline, Cheyne realized his lifestyle change needed to be a permanent one.
In the 1720’s Cheyne moved his family and practice to the fashionable spa town of Bath. There his diet began to attract an array of fashionable- and influential clients. Cheyne advised aristocrats how to lose weight as well as the poet Alexander Pope, Samuel Richardson and the founder of Methodism, John Wesley. Cheyne’s premise was simple: no meat and limited alcohol and restful sleep between 10 pm and 6 am. Exercise and fresh air were also essential. For those in the towns who could not walk and ride, he recommended the use of a ‘Chamber Horse’ an indoor exercise machine that replicated riding by bouncing the patient up and down.
The upper classes flocked to Cheyne. However, other doctors were less than flattering. One doctor began to refer to Cheyne disparagingly as “Dr. Diet.’ However, this was quite true; for Cheyne had become the first diet doctor. His books and essays and his practice made him a wealthy man. Meanwhile, Cheyne’s methods encouraged the spread of vegetarianism amongst the literary classes. While amongst the rest of upper-class society, the concept of dieting took off. Fashionable newspapers now featured adverts for weight loss tonics and pills. Once uncontrollable eating had been the way to advertise your success. By the late eighteenth century, dieting was an equally popular method.