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The Drunken Promises of ‘The Drinking Man’s Diet’

In the mid-1960s, a father-and-son duo helped the country delude itself into thinking that if everyone drank like Don Draper — but really cut back on bread — they’d lose all the weight they ever wanted

In late 1964, Robert Cameron and his son Todd — operating under the pen names Gardner Jameson and Elliott Williams — decided to publish something called The Drinking Man’s Diet and distribute 2,000 copies of it to bookstores in the Bay Area to see what would ensue. The elder Cameron would later admit that the main contents of the book were inspired by low-carbohydrate dietary advice that he had received from an Air Force pilot earlier that year. Pleased to have lost 17 pounds in five weeks, Cameron decided to try to sell his dieting plan to the masses.

It worked better than he could have ever imagined. All 2,000 original copies of The Drinking Man’s Diet were sold within two weeks, and the Camerons immediately printed and distributed another 115,000 copies around the nation, which touched off a media firestorm.

The allure of The Drinking Man’s Diet was that it drenched the low-carb diet in booze. Its central premise was that carbohydrates are fattening while alcohol had zero nutrient value, and therefore, contributed nothing to the nutrient mix that could be converted into fat. “The diet is based on eating less than 60 grams of carbohydrates daily,” reported the editorial staff of the Concord Daily Transcript on November 24, 1964. “A swinger should avoid goodies like Chinese food, bananas, watermelon and chocolate malts.”

The editors of the Transcript immediately pointed out that the authors of The Drinking Man’s Diet failed to segregate drinkers by beverage preference since an average 12-ounce beer contains 18 grams of carbohydrates. Three beers alone would place a dieter very close to the 60-gram threshold for daily carbohydrate intake, and beer was (and remains) the most popular alcoholic beverage in America at the time.

Dennis Powers of the Oakland Tribune also wrote during that same week, “Deploring the agonies of the skim-milk-dry-toast-carrot-sticks routine, they propose something different. Their diet is one — get this! — which would let you have two martinis before lunch, and a thick steak generously spread with Sauce Bearnaise, so that you could make your sale in a relaxed atmosphere and go back to the office without having gained so much as an ounce.”

Powers closed his column with a choice quote from The Drinking Man’s Diet: “Drinkers of the world, throw away your defatted cottage cheese and your cabbage juice; and sit down with us to roast duck and Burgundy. You have nothing to lose but your waistlines.”

Understandably, a diet that promoted diving head first into vice — or mouth first into Glenlivet — proved to be incredibly popular with much of the general populace. Within a month of the release of The Drinking Man’s Diet, the Santa Maria Times reported that the controversial pamphlet was well on its way to eclipsing 500,000 copies sold.

Dean Martin reading The Drinking Man’s Diet

It didn’t take long for medical professionals to begin striking back. In an article titled “Drinking Man’s Diet a Farce,” Dr. Frederick J. Stare of the Harvard University Nutrition Department panned the methodology, calling it “the most recent version of nutritional nonsense sweeping this country. Stay away from it.” “Alcohol provides more calories than carbohydrates — 7 per gram versus 4 for carbohydrates, and less than fat, which provides 9 per gram,” he continued, ridiculing one of the obvious flaws in the diet’s logic, namely the notion that alcohol possessed no caloric value. “Thus, an ounce of 85-proof whiskey or gin contains about 90 calories.”

In a later column from July 1965, Stare called out another of the excerpts from The Drinking Man’s Diet that he regarded as ludicrous: “Here is one of the better boo boos from The Drinking Man’s Diet — ‘Alcohol, by dilating the blood vessels in the skin and making them work harder, may step up metabolism to an extent which may compensate for some of the calories absorbed in your drinks.’”

While moderate alcohol production may temporarily expedite metabolic processes, this is largely owed to the fact that the body perceives alcohol to be a toxin, and prioritizes ridding itself of alcohol over the processing of other food. Overall, though, the presence of alcohol in the body increases the likelihood that beneficial nutrients will ultimately be stored as body fat.

This isn’t to suggest that nobody lost weight on The Drinking Man’s Diet. In June 1965, the advertising manager of The Suburbanite Economist, John Wilk, penned a firsthand account of how he’d lost 15 pounds on it. However, Wilk astutely pointed out the similarities in the booze-heaviness of The Drinking Man’s Diet and William Banting’s Letter of Corpulence from 100 years prior, and further opined that the consumption of alcohol contributed nothing of value to the weight-loss progress achieved through strict observance of the diet. 

In May 1966, someone known only as “Mrs. S” wrote in to the Chicago Tribune to lament the fact that her brother had lost 45 pounds while following The Drinking Man’s Diet for a full year, while she had netted zero pounds of lost weight over the same timespan. In response, Dr. T.R. Van Dellen of the Tribune advised Mrs. S to get off the diet, noting that weight reduction didn’t singularly equate to health, and that in his lifetime he had seen “far too many skinny alcoholics with cirrhosis of the liver.”

But how were some people like Mrs. S’s brother able to lose so much weight on The Drinking Man’s Diet? Well, it may have been solely dependent on what the alcohol was replacing in the man’s diet. If someone rewarded themself with four daily shots of Jack Daniels for eschewing a stack of pancakes with syrup, a bagel with cream cheese and a pile of mashed potatoes served alongside a dinner roll, that differential of more than 1,000 calories per day would certainly cause substantial weight loss over time. In fact, such a sharp decline in caloric intake could result in consistent weight loss of more than two pounds per week depending upon an individual’s starting point.

Robert Cameron essentially conceded this himself after his diet had surpassed the one-million-copies-sold milestone. In an interview excerpt shared in the Atlanta Constitution in mid-1965, Cameron said, “Of course we admit this is just another way of backing into calorie counting.” Similarly, the Wisconsin State Journal reported that Cameron also stated, “If a man eats and drinks heavily, he is going to gain weight and get drunk.”

Because all of this was so self-evident, throughout its brief reign as America’s most popular fad diet, The Drinking Man’s Diet was repeatedly lampooned, and it provided prime fodder for comedically-minded columnists. In the pages of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, for example, Doug Clarke shared the following anecdote: “At any party, the topic will invariably get around to weight. As the evening wears on, more and more persons recommend The Drinking Man’s Diet. In the wee hours of morning, everyone is convinced The Drinking Man’s Diet is the one for you. However, the next morning they tell you ‘never again!’”

Or as Faye Haney put it more succinctly in the Wichita Eagle: “I heard about a guy who went on ‘The Drinking Man’s Diet,’” explained Haney. “In three weeks he lost 15 pounds, his job and his wife.”

In the end then, it was really The Drinking Man’s Diet that was drunk.