The Wildest Fad Diets Classic Films Stars Actually Followed

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Move over, tummy teas and juice cleanses! Modern celebrity fads have nothing on the dietary shenanigans from the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Definitely don’t try these diets at home!

Hollywood fad diets are nothing new. Ever since the first film stars graced the silver screen, they’ve been told to lose weight and get in shape. But to achieve those otherworldly standards of beauty, many actresses from the Golden Age of Hollywood had to resort to weird and potentially unhealthy diets.

Note: This post discusses extreme dieting and body image issues. If you find those topics to be triggering, then you might want to skip this one. Also, please don’t try these diets yourself. While not all of them are necessarily unhealthy, weight loss should always be undertaken with the advice and supervision of your doctor.

Clara Bow

The original “It” girl of Hollywood, Clara Bow was a major silent film star during the 1920s. She was a very popular sultry siren, starring in films like It (hence the nickname “It Girls”) and Mantrap. Before hitting Hollywood, Bow grew up poor while caring for her mother, who had suffered from a traumatic brain injury that led to epilepsy and violent mood swings.

Going hungry was nothing new for Bow, whose mother sometimes forgot to provide the basics of food and shelter for them. Sadly, her lifetime of deprivation didn’t end when she became one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Her contract stipulated that she had to stay under 118 pounds. According to It’s Rosy, “Bow only ate around 500 calories a day, typically consisting of orange juice for breakfast, toast and a salad without dressing for lunch, and a meatless dinner.”  

Marilyn Monroe

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Marilyn Monroe had one of the most legendary figures in Hollywood history—but it wasn’t easy to maintain those bombshell curves. In 1952, she told Pageant magazine that she started every day with a protein-packed breakfast. Her routine was to warm up a glass of milk while she was getting ready, then crack two eggs into the glass and whip it into a froth.

While raw eggs are packed with nutrition, most of us would think twice before chugging two of them for breakfast. The main issue with eating raw eggs is the possibility of bacterial contamination. Salmonella is the most common culprit, which can get into eggs through the shell. You can read more about the potential pitfalls of Marilyn Monroe’s signature breakfast on Healthline.

For dinner, Woman’s World reports that Monroe would eat a portion of meat—her favorites were steak, lamb chops, and liver—with a few carrots. However, she’d treat herself to a hot fudge sundae in the evenings. Everything in moderation, right?

Audrey Hepburn

In Laura Slater’s book Vintage Secrets – Hollywood Diet and Fitness, she explores how the most famous stars of the era ate and exercised to maintain their figures onscreen. She revealed Audrey Hepburn’s standard daily menu among many others. While modern diets tend to vary protein sources rather than relying on red meat, it’s not that different from a calorie-restricted meal plan today:

Breakfast: 2 boiled eggs, whole wheat toast, 3 to 4 cups of coffee
Lunch: Cottage cheese with yoghurt followed by raw vegetables.
Dinner: Red meat with cooked vegetables, occasionally a glass of wine.

Eggs, whole grains, cottage cheese, and veggies? Sounds good. A moderate amount of wine? I’m not mad about it! However, that’s a lot of beef and coffee, especially for such a petite woman. Unlike most of the diets on this list, you could probably eat like Audrey without doing permanent damage to yourself. She also liked to indulge in good quality chocolates from time to time, once saying “If I ate all I wanted, it just wouldn’t do.”

That statement feels especially poignant when you know that Hepburn survived the German occupation of the Netherlands during World War II and suffered from malnutrition.

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Jean Harlow

Jean Harlow, the first “Platinum Blonde” starlet in Hollywood, suffered a lot during her short life. Before dying at the age of 26 (of what is presumed to be acute renal failure), Harlow underwent a weekly bleaching process to achieve her distinct snowy locks. The formula involved peroxide, ammonia, Clorox, and soap flakes.

When she wasn’t being poisoned by the toxic mixture of bleach and ammonia, Harlow was on an extreme fad diet to maintain her slim figure. The “Four-Day Diet” became a sensation during the 1930s, which involved eating a lot of oranges, tomatoes, black coffee, and broiled lamb chops for four days.

On the fifth day, dieters were told to dose themselves with magnesium citrate, a powerful saline laxative that is now most commonly used before surgical procedures. They were also supposed to chug fruit juice on the fifth day.

Elizabeth Taylor

I don’t like to judge anyone’s dietary choices, but Elizabeth Taylor’s favorite “snack” sounds absolutely vile. In fact, her 1988 celebrity memoir featured a diet plan that could help anyone lose weight—if the alternative to eating some of this stuff is going hungry, then I know what I’m going to choose.   

Taylor struggled with her weight and body image throughout her career. There’s a story that Debbie Reynolds actually taped a picture of Taylor at her heaviest weight to the fridge to remind Reynolds not to overeat. That’s cold!

But onto the diet. In Elizabeth Takes Off, she recommended starting most days with a piece of dry toast. However, if she was feeling indulgent, she’d mix up a special treat of sour cream and cottage cheese mixed together and served over fruit. Um, no thank you? She also ate a peanut butter and steak sandwich often enough to include in her diet plan. I truly don’t know how to feel about the idea of a PB&S sammie.

Although she was very open in her memoir about her struggles with weight and her search for a diet that would keep off the pounds, Taylor didn’t think we should waste our time gossiping about it. “When you are dieting, be discreet. You don’t have to report to your acquaintances as though they were the commanding officers of your Great War Against Fat. Even your most supportive friends can become bored,” she wrote.

Joan Crawford

In a 1929 issue of the gossip rag Photoplay, a journalist named Katherine Albert took Hollywood to task for its promotion of unattainable body types. She claimed, “the players are from ten to fifteen pounds underweight, according to medical standards.”

Albert continued:

“This means that they have starved themselves for pictures, for personal whims, or to be fashionable until they have lowered their physical resistance to the danger point and are unfit to do the strenuous, nervous, emotional work required of them!”

She called out one star in particular for her diet of little more than a few spoonfuls of soup and a few crackers. “I have seen Joan Crawford make an entire luncheon on a few tablespoons of cold consomme, a dish of rhubarb and a half a dozen crackers thickly spread with mustard,” Albert wrote.

However, Photoplay’s recommendation for a better diet sounds equally unappealing. Apparent, we should start the day with a piece of codfish, enjoy a glass of buttermilk with lunch, and eat cantaloupe for dinner….

Grace Kelly

Before she became the Princess of Monaco, Grace Kelly was one of Hollywood’s most popular stars. She started each day with a hearty bowl of oatmeal, then followed up with a snack of raw celery and carrots, along with dried apricots when she needed a boost of energy before lunch.

Kelly wasn’t a fan of simple carbs, preferring whole grains over sugar, white bread, and white rice. She ate a lot of simple salads and raw fruit, and she also drank plenty of water. Kelly didn’t eat much meat and tended to eat more whole grains and veggies instead. While Marilyn Monroe was enjoying hot fudge sundaes and Audrey Hepburn was drinking five cups of coffee a day, Grace Kelly maintained a dessert-free lifestyle. Her biggest indulgence was a cookie with a cup of tea.

Her diet doesn’t sound so different from modern meal plan advice, thanks to its emphasis on whole grains and fresh produce. You might not want to try one of her infamous three-month raw food cleanses, though.

Greta Garbo

The enigmatic Swedish film star Greta Garbo had at least one thing in common with Grace Kelly, other than their silver screen stardom. Both actresses were fans of Gayelord Hauser, an early Hollywood diet guru. Hauser was the one who encouraged Kelly to do raw food cleanses, but in Garbo, he found an even more devoted dieter.

Garbo, who was already fanatical about cutting calories after producer Louis B. Mayer told her that she was too fat for American audiences, embraced Hauser’s extreme diet with open arms. In fact, Hauser even moved in with Garbo for a time.

Hauser advocated eating brewer’s yeast, wheat germ, and molasses as “wonder foods” that could help you live to a hundred years old. (Hauser lived to be 89, and Garbo passed away at the age of 84.) The recipes from his books tended to be vegetarian, with burgers made from rice and hazelnuts and something called “celery loaf” that does not bear thinking about.

Similar to Marilyn Monroe’s breakfast, Garbo would sometimes have two raw eggs whipped in orange juice. Journalist Rebecca Harrington tried to follow Garbo’s diet for a week, and she described this drink as tasting like “[i]f pneumonia were a food.” And perhaps worst of all, Garbo once ate nothing but spinach for 21 days in an attempt to drop weight quickly.

While some of the foods Garbo and Hauser ate aren’t awful in theory, this level of restriction can’t have been healthy or pleasant.

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