The Incredible, Edible…Calorie? (Trigger Warning)

Believe it or not, before 1918, people lived without calorie counters. Yes, folks, you heard me: before the end of the first World War, it was possible to eat a sandwich without entering every morsel into Fitday.*

What happened? It’s not like once the calorie was discovered, it started infiltrating our food and making us fat, forcing us to begin counting in order to stave off weight gain.

A couple of things: First of all, we as first-world denizens started eating more processed foods and drastically increased the amount of sugar we consumed on a daily (and monthly and yearly) basis. Second of all, with the rise of the moving picture industry and its resulting stars, we started to become a nation focused on the importance of image.

Third, and most damaging, of all, we figured out that we could quantify ourselves and our food. And suddenly, the diet industry had a powerful tool that led to its quick explosion. In 1918, one Miss Lulu Hunt Peters published a little diet book that introduced the population to a new way of manipulating the body through food: by counting the “newly discovered” calorie.

 

How many calories per day for the average US adult

Says who?

Apparently, however, diet books published in 1918 don’t come with trigger warnings (so those of you who need one, please consider that before you read the following excerpt).

Because it was published in the teens (and therefore a few years out of copyright), Lulu Hunt Peters’ Diet and Health with a Key to the Calories is available as a free download through Project Gutenberg. So I downloaded it to my Kindle app and started reading. And within a few seconds, I had a good idea of how this incredibly influential diet book helped kickstart the current calories in/calories out-eat-and-workout-or-hate-yourself mindset.

From the first chapter (and I quote): “Are You Thin and Do You Want to Gain? Don’t read this.

Skip this chapter. It will not interest you in the least. I will come to you later. I am not particularly interested in you anyway, for I cannot get your point of view. How any one can want to be anything but thin is beyond my intelligence. However, knowing that there are such deluded individuals, I have been constrained to give you advice.”

Oh. My god.

Talk about body shaming! Please, if you can’t hear how absolutely sick this is, let me know, and I’ll help you locate a therapist. This simple paragraph epitomizes the voice of ED as it blares in your gym, your mother’s kitchen, your head…This book was the first to teach Americans how to quantify their food in calories.

She goes on to write:

“You should know and also use the word calories as frequently, or more frequently, than you use the words foot, yard, quart, gallon and so forth…Hereafter you are going to eat calories of food. Instead of saying one slice of bread, or a piece of pie, you will say 100 calories of bread, 350 calories of pie.”

But what the hell is a calorie, anyway? A calorie, as we modern Americans know it, is actually a measurement called the kilocalorie. A kilocalorie (or Calorie, big “C”) is “defined as 1,000 times the energy it takes to heat a gram of water from 14.5 to 15.5 degrees Celsius.”  That’s all it is. Not some insidious fat-building virus that proliferates upon introduction to your body, not a molecule that attaches to your belly and makes it bigger or morphs into thigh cellulite out of spite. It’s just a measurement of energy. That’s all.

  Calories real definition: "Tiny creatures that live in your closet and sew your clothes a little bit tighter every night."

And food contains energy. That’s why we eat it. Because we need energy in order to live. So, therefore, yes, food contains calories. That’s an inescapable fact of life.**

And living burns calories. We need a certain amount of calories just for our bodies to function. If you want your heart to beat or your lungs to expand, you need calories. Again: inescapable fact of life.

Now, it would stand to reason that, as a post-industrial society, eating food indiscriminately and also growing fatter by the year, we’d want to know if there were ways of controlling the sudden spike in tendencies toward overweight. So it made sense in the minds of people like Lulu Hunt Peters that, once we came to understand the concept of calories–how many exist in each morsel of food we eat, how they’re used and burned by our bodies–that we would all become masters of our physiques.

1920s Tapeworm Diet

Do tapeworms have calories?

That was 1920. And guess what? We’re not masters of our physiques. We have no idea how to deal with the complex machines that are our bodies. We’re anorexic, bulimic, overweight, underweight, obese, compulsively exercising, sedentary, snacking, bingeing, and restricting, and we’re no closer–as a population–to understanding why calories in/calories out doesn’t work.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s because every calorie is not the same. And if we could just come to eat the right ones, we’d stop having reasons to obsess about the others.

And maybe our Cheerios couple could stop living the disordered cycle of calories-in/calories-out.

-K.

*Although, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think Fitday came a little later…hehe.

**Unless you’re eating zero-calorie food-like products, but since they don’t contain calories–or pronounceable ingredients that can be found in nature–they’re not technically food.