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This Doctor Pioneered Counting Calories a Century Ago, and We’re Still Dealing With the Consequences | Smithsonian

🌈 Abstract

The article explores the history and impact of Lulu Hunt Peters, a pioneering doctor and author who popularized the concept of calorie counting in the early 20th century. It examines how Peters' promotion of the calorie as a tool for weight loss shaped modern diet culture, as well as the ongoing debate around the validity and limitations of the "calories in, calories out" model of weight management.

🙋 Q&A

[01] Lulu Hunt Peters and the Calorie

1. What were Lulu Hunt Peters' key achievements and how did she become known for popularizing the calorie?

  • Lulu Hunt Peters was a pioneering female doctor who earned her medical degree in the early 1900s when few women were in the field.
  • She became the first woman to intern at the Los Angeles County General Hospital and later served as chair of the public health committee for the California Federation of Women's Clubs.
  • In the 1910s, Peters used her personal experience of losing 70 pounds to write the first diet best-seller, "Diet and Health With Key to the Calories," which introduced the concept of calorie counting to the general public.
  • Peters promoted the calorie as a revolutionary tool for weight loss and healthy eating, urging readers to "eat calories of food" rather than just food portions.

2. How did the cultural shift towards slimmer body ideals in the early 20th century contribute to the rise of Peters' calorie-focused approach?

  • In the late 19th century, a plump physique was seen as a sign of wealth and health, but by the early 1900s, slenderness became associated with affluence and status.
  • This shift was influenced by ideas from economists like Thorstein Veblen, who linked thinness to "conspicuous waste" and the ability to forgo food.
  • The emergence of new technologies like bathroom scales also gave people a way to quantify and obsess over their weight in a new way.
  • Peters capitalized on this cultural preference for slimness, framing calorie counting as a moral imperative and a patriotic duty during World War I.

3. How did Peters' approach to weight loss and her views on obesity reflect the attitudes of her time?

  • Peters used blunt, shaming language to describe obesity, referring to overweight people as a "joke" and a "disgrace."
  • She linked thinness to virtues like self-control, efficiency and ambition, while portraying fatness as a moral failing.
  • This moralization of body size was common in the early 20th century, when being fit was seen as an outward expression of one's character and values.
  • Peters also capitalized on this by connecting calorie counting to patriotism during wartime, casting overweight people as "hoarding" resources that should be sacrificed for the war effort.

[02] The Legacy and Limitations of Calorie Counting

1. How have modern researchers challenged the simplistic "calories in, calories out" model promoted by Peters and others?

  • Numerous studies have shown that the human body is far more complex than a simple calorie-burning machine, with factors like hormones, gut bacteria, and food processing all playing a role in weight regulation.
  • The mathematical equations used by Peters to predict weight loss based on calorie deficits have been found to be overly simplistic and often inaccurate.
  • Experts argue that the focus on just cutting calories, rather than considering nutrient density and macronutrient balance, may have contributed to the rise of obesity by promoting highly processed, calorie-dense foods.

2. How have attitudes towards obesity and weight loss evolved since Peters' time, and what challenges remain?

  • While overt fat-shaming language is now less socially acceptable, the moral judgment and stigma around obesity persist in more subtle ways.
  • Many people still associate thinness with virtue and self-control, even as new research highlights the biological complexity of weight regulation.
  • While some new weight loss drugs show promise, the "calories in, calories out" mentality remains deeply ingrained, leading many to continue blaming overweight individuals for a perceived lack of willpower.
  • Advocates are working to destigmatize obesity and reframe it as a complex, multifaceted issue rather than a personal failing.

3. How has Peters' legacy continued to shape modern diet culture and approaches to weight management?

  • Many of Peters' tactics, such as the focus on 100-calorie portions and the use of shame as a motivator, continue to be echoed in modern diet programs and marketing.
  • The obsession with quantifying and tracking various body metrics, from weight to BMI, can be traced back to Peters' promotion of the calorie as a key metric for health and weight control.
  • While the specific calorie-counting approach has fallen out of favor, the underlying belief that weight loss is primarily a matter of willpower and self-discipline remains deeply entrenched in mainstream diet culture.
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