Weight Loss Advice from 1920: Does It Still Hold Up Today?

Published in the very first issue of Reader's Digest magazine, the article "How to Regulate Your Weight" is full of diet tips that are surprisingly forward-thinking—along with others that are woefully outdated. Here, key weight-loss lessons we can all re-learn.

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1920 Tip: “Each of us has an ideal weight which is perfectly easy to attain and still easier to retain.”

Reader\'s Digest Publication

2013 Update: The concept of a “set point” is scientifically valid, notes David Katz, MD, founding director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center and editor in chief of the medical journal Childhood Obesity. “There is a weight range that is normal for any given body, based in part on genes and in part on weight established in childhood.” But that set point will vary depending on your lifestyle and environment. For example, more exercise and more muscle mass will lower the amount of body fat as the set point, Katz explains.

It’s also not necessarily easy to maintain your ideal weight, notes New York City-based nutritionist Keri Glassman, MS, RD, author of The New You and Improved Diet. “Convenience foods, large portion sizes, more hours of work and lack of sleep and more stress have all contributed to increased weight.”

1920 Tip: “Obesity is much more common than underweight, and much more dangerous as we march into middle age.”

George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images

2013 update: The experts we interviewed noted that the first part is certainly still true today, but pointed out that some recent science calls into question the second half of this point. “The highest mortality rates at middle age and after tend to be seen among the underweight,” says Katz, “perhaps in part because serious chronic disease, poor diet, and social isolation all tend to cause weight loss rather than gain.”

1920 Tip: “The stout person must learn that he has both friends and enemies at the table. His enemies are sugar, bread, cereal, desserts, butter, cream, olive oil, bacon, cocoa, and rich sauces. Among his best friends are lean meats, unsweetened fruits and green foods.”

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2013 update: Samantha Heller, MS, RD, clinical nutrition coordinator at the Center for Cancer Care at Griffin Hospital, says this info is on the right track. A few notable exceptions: Weight-loss experts generally consider whole grain cereals, olive oil, and cocoa as friends, not enemies.

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1920 Tip: “Never let willful appetite or mistaken courtesy lead you to take a second helping of such starchy foods as rice, tapioca, macaroni, or potato.”

George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images

2013 Update: This seems to be advice about eating mindfully, which is a good idea no matter what the food choice, observes Katz. “If you finish your plate of food and realize you are still hungry, first wait a few minutes, since it usually takes your body about 20 minutes to realize it is full. If you’re not satisfied after waiting, get a second helping of vegetables rather than a starch,” recommends Glassman. “Veggies will keep you full whereas the rice or macaroni will have you craving that next meal sooner than you thought.”

1920 Tip: “Limit your sugar to three teaspoons daily.”

Chaloner Woods/Getty Images

2013 Update: This is very reasonable, but today most of the sugar we eat is already processed into our food. “With all the added sugars in foods that we consume on an everyday basis, there is no reason to be adding any extra sugar to any of your food or drinks,” says Glassman.

1920 Tip: “When the [average city dweller] goes out for a tramp or a few sets of tennis, the unwonted activity is more likely to increase his appetite than his legitimate demand for food.”

George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images

2013 Update: Definitely still exercise, all of our experts insisted. Some people will eat more calories after exercise than they burned or they need, but that’s why you need to fuel yourself with foods that will keep you satisfied without spurring weight gain, notes Glassman. Think a small protein-fiber combo, like an apple with a tablespoon of peanut butter.

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