The Cotton Ball Diet and Other Regrettable Health Fads

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Have you tried the Whole 30 program? Are you following the Ketogenic diet? Maybe you’ve gone gluten-free, or always choose soy milk over dairy? There are as many ways to pursue a healthy diet as there are people concerned about their fitness.

And as long as humans have been watching their weight, there have always been new and sometimes bizarre diet and “health” fads, some of them ridiculous and others downright dangerous. From weird home exercise machines to diets that sound as if their ingredients were pulled randomly out of a hat, practically anything is worth a try for us to slim down and buff up.

Here’s a snapshot of the madness. It should go without saying, but don’t try any of these.

Vinegar and water diet

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Health fads come and go, and come again. You may know people who’ve recently started to swear by drinking apple-cider vinegar for various health reasons. (The Mayo Clinic says it’s mostly safe, but there are some risks.) But vinegar as a diet fad dates back to romantic poet Lord Byron, who was obsessed with thinness in the early 1800s. Some say he touted apple-cider vinegar mixed with water as a diet, while the BBC says he existed on “biscuits and soda water or potatoes drenched in vinegar,” and wore wool to sweat off still more pounds. Don’t do this: Byron died at age 36.


Vintage picture of man and woman smoking.
Everett Collection /

The evils of smoking are well-documented now, but back in more innocent days, doctors appeared in cigarette ads touting tobacco as an aid for weight-loss and other things. One Lucky Strike cigarette ad shows a plump man being replaced with a fit hurdler, with copy urging overeaters to “reach for a Lucky instead.” Actors and singers appeared in print ads claiming smoking was good for your voice and throat. Although smoking is still a tough-to-quit addiction for many, at least this kind of ad has gone up in smoke.

Cotton ball diet

cotton balls
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Cotton balls have many uses — they’re great for taking off nail polish or creating bunny tails on Easter cards. But don’t eat them. The cotton ball diet, as reported by ABC News in 2013, involves soaking cotton balls in orange juice or other sweet liquids, then eating them to fill up one’s stomach. Doctors told ABC this is no diet, it’s an eating disorder, and it’s terrible for you. For one thing, unless you’re dining on an expensive organic brand, most cotton balls are actually bleached, polyester fibers containing a lot of chemicals. Also, since they resist digestion, the practice might lead to an obstruction of the intestinal tract. Don’t cotton to this trend.

Vibrating belt machines

Everett Collection /

You may have seen these jiggling belt machines in old movies or magazines. You slip the belt around your waist, hips or other areas, turn on the machine, and it jiggles your fat, supposedly until it melts away. A BuzzFeed writer got her hands on one in 2016 for $50 and actually gained 3 pounds using it. That seems like a lot of time and energy, uh, “waisted.”

Grapefruit diet

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For decades, the easy cliche to show that a movie or TV character (almost always a woman) was on a diet was to show her sitting, usually sadly, in front of a plate with one sliced grapefruit half. Grapefruits are delicious and only contain about 100 calories — unless you’re the type that dumps a pound of sugar on them to sweeten them up. But a diet of nothing but grapefruit is severely restrictive and unhealthy, and will bore you silly long before you lose much weight.

Cabbage soup diet

Green cabbage
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Speaking of a bland diet … the cabbage-soup diet is famously dreadful. True to its name, cabbage soup makes up the bulk of the plan, with other foods added in as it progresses. WebMD warns that you’re unlikely to want to add in healthy exercise on this low-calorie meal plan, since “your body just won’t have enough gas in the tank for exercise.” How about eating a more diverse menu and making time for workouts? It’s better for you and not as boring.


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Victorian health-food enthusiast Horace Fletcher was obsessed with chewing, claiming that food needed to be chewed about 100 times a minute before being swallowed. He even told his followers to chew liquids, which is tougher than it sounds. Fletcher’s 1912 obituary in the New York Times reported that he had once lived on potatoes for 58 days. No doubt those were well-chewed taters, which just doesn’t sound that a-peeling.

Tapeworm diet

Woman holding her stomach

The tapeworm diet sounds like something out of a horror flick. The would-be dieter swallows a pill with a tapeworm inside it, giving the parasitic worm free rein in the gut. Once it sink the hooks on its head into your intestine, tapeworms start growing — some up to 30 feet long — by eating the food that’s supposed to nourish you. This can indeed cause weight loss and curb appetite, but the infection can be painful and might even kill you. Leave the eating of worms to creepy movies.

Heavy H2O consumption

Water delivery
LightField Studios /

Water is vital, and we all need it. But some dieters over the years have believed if they just keep guzzling H2O, they’ll safely drop pounds. As WebMD reports, replacing sugary drinks with water is great, but those who just think adding glass after glass of water to their diet while changing nothing else won’t see the scale go down. In fact, drinking too much water too fast can lead to water intoxication/poisoning — a potentially fatal disturbance in brain functions that results when the normal balance of electrolytes in the body is pushed outside safe limits.

Sleeping Beauty Diet

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Well, this one’s creepy. The Sleeping Beauty Diet is based on the idea that you can’t eat while you sleep. True enough, but some desperate dieters over the years have apparently turned to sedation so they’d have less waking time to eat. A 2017 Vice article claims this vintage diet is enjoying a second life thanks to pro-anorexia blogs, and that adherents take sleeping pills and sedatives to knock themselves out. Rumors are that Elvis Presley tried this in the 1970s, but there’s no definite proof of that, thankyouverrahmuch. This idea seems tired to us — don’t try it.

Corsets and waist trainers

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Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind” asked someone to pull her corset strings tighter so she’d have a visibly smaller waist. Most modern women give thanks that such painful clothing is as gone as the wind in the book’s title, but over the last couple of years, a certain famous family seems to be trying to bring them back. The Kardashians of reality TV fame have been seen wearing various corset-like “waist trainers,” which press in their flesh and squeeze the internal organs. As nutrition professor Stephan Ball told Life & Style, “you aren’t going to lose body fat by cinching the waist.”

Wrap yourself in plastic wrap

AlenKadr /

Plastic cling wrap works great to keep your potato salad fresh, or to cover a pan of brownies while you’re driving to the school picnic. But don’t think of it as a diet aid. Wrapping your belly area with plastic wrap and sweating up a storm may help you drip off some weight temporarily, but that’s water weight that will return as soon as you hydrate. Keep the plastic wrap for kitchen needs, not fitness goals. And that’s a wrap!

In case we haven’t been clear, these are pretty bad ideas — not an easy path to fitness — and the Mayo Clinic agrees:

“Fad diets aren’t a good long-term solution,” the Mayo Clinic warns. “For lasting results, your best bet is to eat a healthy diet based on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean sources of protein.”

Have you tried any of these diets or health fads? Share with us in comments or on our Facebook page.

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