“‘Actress Jean Harlow promoted a diet of lamb chops, steak, Jell-O, and tomatoes to lose six pounds in four days,’ writes culture and food historian Adrienne Rose Bitar in her new book, Diet and the Disease of Civilization. Elizabeth Taylor and Debbie Reynolds, meanwhile, promoted Hollywood Special Formula bread, which promised miracle results at just 46 calories a slice. Consider it the proto Dukan diet.
In 1984, Merla Zellerbach, a San Francisco socialite and editor of the upper-crust chronicle the Nob Hill Gazette, published Detox, a diet book based on her theory of eliminating toxins. ‘Zellerbach’s promotion of detox was unusual for her social station,’ Bitar writes in Diet and the Disease of Civilization. ‘The diet itself was complicated: Foods were divided into families, and then each family followed a specific rotation every four days. All these foods could be cooked only with spring or filtered water and in specific materials. Stainless steel, glass, porcelain, and cast iron were permissible, but aluminum, nonstick, and plastic cookware were prohibited.’
Bitar also notes that Zellerbach “was among the first diet book authors to include wheat and meat alongside cocaine and alcohol as addictive substances.” Her message may have been scary, but the timing was right, and the book’s environmental message made it a hit among the gilded granola set on both coasts.”