Office Calisthenics, Anyone?

Customer Service and Quality Control Laboratory, Althouse Chemical Plant, 1952.

Customer Service and Quality Control Laboratory, Althouse Chemical Plant, 1952. Scientific jobs, like those across all industries, have seen a drop in physical activity over the past 50 years. James Feeman Image Collection, CHF.      

Think fast! A “calorie” is:

A) A unit of energy, most commonly applied to foodstuffs
B) The name of a tasty new breakfast cereal
C) A type of explosive recently discovered by the government

I’ll give you a minute to – what’s that? Don’t even need a minute? Well okay then.

Congratulations, you all got it right. Of course, to anyone who has ever glanced at a food label, skimmed a newspaper’s health section, or mysteriously lost a weekend to marathon reruns of The Biggest Loser, Options B and C are pretty laughable. But your grandparents and great-grandparents weren’t so certain; breakfast cereals and explosives were real conjectures the letter-writing public made around the word in the early 20th century. Though a Google search reveals 3,280 English-language news articles about calories in the last 24 hours, before the 1920s the concept was confined mainly to science and industry.

Counting Calories,” one the recent features in Chemical Heritage magazine, provides the whole story of the calorie’s journey from scientific obscurity to national obsession. Within industry in particular, the calorie was first studied and promoted as a tool to maximize physical efficiency among laborers. (Actually, it was animals first, then laborers. Feel good about yourself?) Find the number of calories the body needs, the logic went, and a diet could be created to “promote the largest production of brick per man at the lowest cost to the employer.” But as you may be aware, America doesn’t make a lot of bricks anymore. I revisited “Counting Calories” after seeing this post on the New York Times’ Well blog, which summarizes a new report linking long-term shifts in the job market with a corresponding rise in obesity rates. The hypothesized trigger? Occupational calorie use – or lack thereof.  

The study, in a way, is a reversal of early nutritional research: as opposed to calculating caloric needs in response to job-related exertion, researchers looked at drops in workers’ physical activity and calculated the number of calories…well, not needed. And since you all aced that quiz above, you probably know that consuming calories not needed will most likely result in gaining pounds not wanted.

Of course, weight is more than a matter of calories in, calories out, and reducing it to such ignores hereditary, social, and economic factors. But as one of the doctors quoted in the Well post points out, people – and studies – tend to focus on calories either eaten in food or burned at the gym. Given the positive response the report has received, it may be that the (drastically changed) workplace will soon return to the table.   

"Trouble Dieting? Chemistry to the Rescue" [Periodic Tabloid]

Posted In: History | Technology

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