Counting Calories

Wilbur Olin Atwater

Wilbur Otin Atwater, an early promoter of the calorie, praised caloric measurement as a prudent, scientific approach to eating. Image courtesy Wesleyan University Library, Special Collections & Archives.

Despite a personal appearance that betrayed a robust appetite, Atwater viewed calories and food in general from a resolutely utilitarian perspective. Disconnected from pleasure and social contexts, food was simply substances used by the body to build and repair tissue, and to fuel it in its daily tasks. Consequently, he regarded excess caloric intake and extravagant spending on food to be abominable crimes of consumption, especially if one possessed limited means. In a typical instance of superciliousness—however well-intentioned he might have been—Atwater dismissed the misfortunes of those less well off by saying that “the destruction of the poor is their improvidence.”

Atwater’s calorie manifesto never reached a wide audience. (The Century was a relatively highbrow publication not typically read by the masses.) And other turn-of-the-century references to calories remained largely confined to publications in physiology, agriculture, and home economics. So while ordinary Americans might have read or heard of the word calorie by World War I, many were uncertain of its meaning. Letters to the nation’s wartime food conservation agency, the U.S. Food Administration, show that some assumed it to be “a new type of explosive discovered by the War Department.” Others who wrote to the agency at least associated it with food, believing calorie to be “the name of a new breakfast food.” Still others required guidance on how to pronounce the French-derived term. One 1918 diet guide, for example, took care to enunciate the word—“Kal-o-ri.”

By the end of World War I the Food Administration had turned calorie into a familiar word. The organization published pamphlets and posters encouraging Americans to ration foods shipped off to allied countries, particularly meat, wheat, and sugar. A typical poster in 1918 told Americans that “Food Will Win the War . . . Waste Nothing.” The agency also instructed Americans that they could ration food and still obtain enough calories. To consume more calories than recommended by the Food Administration’s nutrition experts for one’s respective age, sex, and activity level meant undermining both the war effort and physiological efficiency. In New York City, restaurants eager to brandish their patriotism even featured calorie counts on their menus, next to entrée descriptions and prices. The calorie also became a means by which the agency taught Americans how to ration foods and find substitutes for what they would ordinarily consume. A Food Administration pamphlet might instruct Americans to reduce their caloric intake by 200 calories or to replace the 500 calories in a slab of beef with additional servings of beans, for example.

After the war the calorie continued to infiltrate everyday life. But rather than count calories to conserve food and demonstrate their patriotism, some Americans turned to calorie counting to conform to a new bodily ideal of slenderness.

Thin Is In

Until the beginning of the 20th century Americans associated plumpness with beauty and wealth. Thinness implied illness or poverty. During the Victorian era the hourglass figure with its cinched waist, full bust, and wide hips was the most sought-after feminine form. By the 1920s a flat-chested, narrow-hipped, long-legged figure epitomized feminine beauty among the fashion-conscious flapper set. Bulk, in contrast, suggested a mélange of unwanted and conflicting attributes—dominance, aggression, and masculinity on one hand, and matronly aging on the other.

Changes in women’s clothing and fashion complemented the shift in the ideal female body. Fashion became an even mightier force in the 1920s as images of the latest styles and featherweight models—real or illustrated—reached consumers via national advertisements, motion pictures, department-store displays, and traveling fashion shows.

The new thin body signified wealth and leisure, inspiring the affluent and aspirational classes to diet. Only those with considerable means could afford to reject food, after all. Reining in one’s appetite and rejecting food while surrounded by it demonstrated privilege and steely discipline—refusing food when the body craved it was to defy one of the most fundamental of human needs. Achieving a slender physique was also a means of signaling social status. Privileged women might cultivate a frail, willowy appearance to contrast the voluntary idleness of their own bodies with the distressed bodies of the working classes. Thinness, then, formed a visible difference between the working and leisured classes.

Despite the massage rolling pins, the thyroid extracts, and the exercise (though not as vigorous as that which today’s female workout warriors engage in), dieters chiefly shed pounds by regulating their food consumption. They stopped snacking between meals, skipped some meals altogether, replaced heavy foods with lighter fare, and experimented with a number of dieting fads.