Counting Calories

A sign from the U.S. Food Administration during World War I.

“Meatless,” “wheatless,” and “porkless” days were considered patriotic duties during World War I. Image courtesy Library of Congress.

In a letter dated 1922 one admirer of Peters’s column testified both to Peters’s popularity among dieters and the communal nature of calorie counting: “I can’t tell you how many of my friends are on your diet; in fact, it is one of our main discussions. Don’t we antifats love and dote on you!”

Not everyone embraced the new dieting culture of the 1920s. Some young women warned of the pernicious effects of “reducing.” At Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, three students fired off a letter to the editor of the student newspaper in 1924. They cautioned that “if preventive measures against strenuous dieting are not taken soon, Smith College will become notorious, not for the sylph-like forms but for the haggard faces and dull, listless eyes of her students.” Physicians similarly assailed the so-called thinness craze among young women, maintaining that dieting jeopardized women’s physical and mental well-being as well as their looks. But physicians were also disgruntled that when women bought Peters’s Diet and Health and myriad weight-loss remedies, they circumvented medical authority by failing to consult their doctors.

But these voices of opposition did little to mitigate the fledgling cult of thinness. The practice of calorie counting proliferated among legions of dieters, as the early 20th-century social forces that enabled the calorie’s transfer from nutrition laboratory to factory to everyday dieting continued through the rest of the century and into the 21st. When Lulu Hunt Peters and other experts seized upon knowledge of the calorie as central to weight loss, the calorie ceased being a relatively obscure term denoting heat value. It had metamorphosed into a body-shaping tool central to dieting.

Chin Jou is a DeWitt Stetten Jr. Postdoctoral Fellow in the History of Biomedical Sciences and the Technology of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.