We Have Her to Thank, or Blame, for Calorie Counting

A profile of Lulu Hunt Peters
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted May 26, 2024 9:01 AM CDT
We Have Her to Thank, or Blame, for Calorie Counting
   (Getty Images / Ekaterina Minaeva)

Someone had to invent the concept of counting calories as a way to lose weight, and that someone was Lulu Hunt Peters. As Michelle Stacey writes in a fascinating piece for Smithsonian, Peters had quite the science CV for a woman of her time. She graduated with an MD from the University of California in 1909 and ran the pathology lab at Los Angeles County General Hospital for a period. When she first started writing about calories, the word was foreign enough to most Americans that she had to explain how to pronounce it. Peters had a story—her own 70-pound weight loss—which she used as the basis for what Stacey calls the "first diet best seller in history."

In Diet and Health With Key to the Calories, Peters lays out an approach to "reducing" that will sound more than familiar to modern ears. "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." The method "had a novelty and simplicity," but as Stacey explains, Peters also had good timing. While ample curves were viewed as a sign of wealth and femininity in the late 1800s, "slenderness became counterintuitively a sign of affluence and status" in the new century, and fashion shifted from hoop skirts and bustles to flapper frocks. But while "generations of Americans have adopted Peters' idea to count calories," the results haven't been so hot. (Read the full story for much more.)

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