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(Part I) A Bridging the Gap Series: Origins of Dieting Culture and the Anti-Diet Movement

Updated: Jul 13, 2021

Part One: Moralization of Food and Body

Dr. Gabrielle Fundaro, CISSN, CHC

A Triumph of the Will

The Progressive Era was a period of social activism, political reform, and scientific advancement in the United States. Recent and rapid industrialization in the US expanded the availability of consumable goods such as shelf-stable food and ready-to-wear clothing, but modernization also brought about political corruption, environmental impact, and what some considered to be corporate excess. Between 1890-1930, the US would experience the First World War, prohibition, and a female constituency. Progressivist philosophy centered around the application of science, technology, efficiency, rationality, and purity at individual and policy levels to improve society at large. This era would also see some of the most significant advancements in nutritional science and shifts in public perceptions of food, energy balance, and bodyweight.[1] The intersection of Progressive Era ideals, nutrition science, and WWI food conservation agendas evolved into what we may recognize as a ‘culture of dieting’ today.

In 1899, the terms ‘overweight’ and ‘underweight’ came into existence based on the novel idea of a normal body weight. The “Quetelet Index,” named for the Flemish astronomer and statistician who developed it in the 1800’s, was an application of statistics to human characteristics.[2] Dr. Quetelet derived this formula—which would be adopted by Dr. Ancel Keys as the Body Mass Index over 70 years later—not as a metric of health, but to simply determine the characteristics of the ‘average’ man. For a time in the early 1910’s, fat was not reviled; in fact, weight gain and robustness were perceived in a positive way when associated with American prosperity and health.[1] Thinness, in contrast, was associated with poverty and malnutrition, especially by immigrants fleeing to the US to escape the deprivation of their native countries. Public opinion shifted, however, as underweight became less of a concern due to industrialization. Increased urbanization, transportation, food availability, wages, and sedentary time were shifting the energy balance of most of America. Emerging research on life expectancy and chronic disease prevalence—largely sponsored and circulated by life insurance companies—indicated a link between a person’s weight: height ratio and the risk of mortality after age 35.[3] Other newly available metrics, such as personal bathroom scales and sizes on ready-to-wear clothing, also informed Americans about their size relative to others. Not only were Americans becoming more aware of the relationship between their body size and their mortality, but they were also witnessing a change in what would kill them. For the first time, chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes—diseases of “lifestyle” or “bad habits”—exceeded deaths from communicable illnesses. Reformers often blamed the food industry, claiming that novel, rich, and out-of-season foods were tempting Americans into spending and eating too much, choosing based on taste rather than prudence.[3] Some even drew parallels between overeating and alcoholism; both were morally corrosive and physically harmful.

Though food calories were calculated for standardization in 1860’s, calorie counting gained public popularity in the 1910-20’s.[1,3] Calorie-counting embodied Progressive Era ideals; it was a modern, scientific, rational, and even moral way of acquiring nutrients. The American chemist Wilbur Atwater estimated calorie expenditure at various activity levels, though the application of this information was to fit a political agenda: he used this data to invalidate laborers’ rationale for higher wages, positing that they need only purchase cheaper, energy-dense foods. The US government used caloric content data to recommend intakes for Americans during WWI food conservation efforts. In this way, they empowered civilians to make rational decisions about food, replacing their familiar staples such as wheat with nutritional equivalents like barley or corn. For many Americans, food conservation was their opportunity to take an active and meaningful role in the war, elevating the country’s status as a global benefactor. Saving the calorie-dense dried goods for the Allied troops and US soldiers was a civic duty, and foregoing the familiar favorites was a “triumph of the will.”[1]

National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the U. S. Food Administration, Record Group 4 National Archives Identifier: 512499

Atwater’s contribution to the energy balance equation revealed the causative link between eating and weight gain, and before the end of WWI, body fat had fallen out of favor. [3] The robustness that was once a sign of American prosperity and abundance had become synonymous with food hoarding, “…in the shape of fat…”, whereas weight loss was a visible sign that one had fulfilled their patriotic duty.[1] Physical self-control—whether in the form of teetotaling or dieting—indicated a capacity for moral and political self-governance. Failure to do so was a sign of weak willpower and lacking self-control. Though the term ‘willpower’ is now used fluently in the diet industry, it was only about 40 years old by the 1910’s. It gained rapid popularity in the US and gave rise to a new genre of self-help books in the early 1900’s, fueling beliefs about the virtuosity and accessibility of successful weight loss efforts for anyone who could, “…get control of their will power.”[4]

Cannot Be Fat and Be Patriotic

After WWI, the unintentional weight loss that may have come about as a result of ardent food conservation took on new meaning. Thinness was equated with moral superiority because it implied more willpower, self-control, and ‘civilized restraint’—even patriotic accomplishment.[1,3] Though the end of a world war may seem an odd time to publish a diet book, the California-based medical doctor Lulu Hunt Peters did exactly that. Her book Diet and Health with Key to the Calories was published in 1918 and went on to sell roughly 2 million copies as the United States’ first diet book. As a testament to the virtuosity of dietary ascetism and weight loss, Peters asserted that, “…it is unpatriotic to be fat while many thousands are starving…”.[4] The vilification of body fat was overt in letters written to prominent women-centric magazines and the type of “investigative” journaling unique to this time period (known as ‘muckraking’). Writers questioned the loyalty and patriotism of the citizenry, with headlines and slogans such as, “Cannot Be Fat and Be Patriotic,” and, “Lay your double chin on the altar of liberty!”[1] The US had won the war overseas, but a new one was being fought at home: the war against “…repeated failures of the will, from spineless capitulations, day after day, to pleasure and appetite.”1 A strict diet would both reduce one’s “will-sapping fat” and enhance the strength of their willpower and self-control. Antoinette Donnelly, author of the 1921 diet book How to Reduce: New Waistlines for Old, stated in no uncertain terms, “Every pound lost by deliberate privation is a point gained in morale.”[5]

Dieting practices, fad diets, and fasting were not novel, but they had previously been niche, male and religious in nature.[1] Bodies became more visible in the 1920’s-1930’s due to more advertising with photos, motion pictures, and more revealing clothing. Concurrently, dieting became more of a privileged, white female activity in the 1920’s as thinness became associated with civility, patriotism, wealth, celebrity, and high-fashion (the latter of which was overtly anti-fat).[1,3] Though penny (paid) scales and bathroom scales became widely available around 1910, the New York Times reported more profit from penny scales than gumball machines in 1925. By 1927, schoolchildren and young girls were beginning to count calories and diet, and campuses of women-only colleges were noting significant changes in food purchases and dining habits. Women may also have practiced dieting to illustrate their capacity for rationality and self-control to transcend this perceived weakness as they grappled for political equality. In an era that presented bodies as decorative rather than functional, women were regarded as lacking both character and personhood if they gained weight. They were expected to lose weight in the ‘right’ areas, however, to assert their superior ‘modernity’ in contrast to previous generations that did not know they could control their weight as they aged. According to Donnelly, around the ‘dangerous’ age of 30, a woman would have to commit to ‘reducing’ or risk losing her career or mate to a younger woman.[5] “For after all,” she wrote, “Man is as old as his figure! And woman more so!”

Thinness Was Anyone’s for the Taking

The central themes of self-control, willpower, and discipline maintain their stronghold in the current diet industry, which may explain why advice from diet authors like Peters sounds strikingly familiar. Peters reinforced idea that weight was a choice, and weight loss was simple with the requisite tools: self-control, discipline, willpower, intelligence, and the knowledge of calories.[3,4] While Donnelly attributed weight gain to ignorance rather than gluttony, many writers of diet books and news articles assumed the causes were simply laziness and gluttony.[1,5] Refuting biological reasons for weight gain meant that anyone could become thin if they had the will, and the problem was simply that fat people did not have enough willpower. “If they could only summon the will to rein in their animal desires, thinness was supposedly anyone’s for the taking.”[1]

Peters pioneered calorie-counting for the purpose of weight loss, believing that knowledge of energy balance would lead people to change their eating habits.[1,3,4] She posited that the disciplined application of this knowledge was the most precise and effective way to lose weight. This was (and arguably still is) considered to be empowering. Though calories, macronutrients, and vitamins were relatively new and incredibly abstract, the public heeded the ‘expertise’ of diet authors whose recommendations resonated with Progressive Era values around science, technology, and metrics. Peters encouraged dieters to reframe the way they thought and spoke about food, replacing qualitative perceptions with the objective data of caloric content. She argued that a food’s ‘identity’ was incomplete without an awareness of the calories it contained. Furthermore, though she ‘allowed’ some ‘high-calorie’ foods on occasion, she asserted that dieters should equate the caloric content of the food with the equivalent amount of body fat—or even to imagine that the food itself had affixed to the dieter’s most maligned body region in the form of fat. Peters warned of social saboteurs: the dieter’s husband who does not prefer thin women, the dieter’s sister who implies that her weight loss makes her look older, and the dieter’s friends who assure her that she is already just right the way she is. Peters reminded dieters of the joy of “…a corset coming closer and closer together…”, a joy that she found incomparable to any other.[4] Peters and others insisted that calorie counting would need to last forever, and they would always have to keep up dieting in the same way they would have to, “…keep up other things in life that make it worth living—being neat, being kind, being tender; reading, studying, loving.”[1,3,4] The difficulty of dieting only added to its prestige. Dieting writers claimed that any lapse meant self-defeat, and that a return to old habits would mean a return to their ‘old bodies.’[3] Nina Putnam, who authored Tomorrow We Diet in 1922 after losing 50 pounds, implored dieters not to lapse; this would be akin to a lapse in, “ethics or true religion.”[1] Excess weight was thought to impede blood flow to the brain and pad nerves, leaving fat people unable to experience true happiness or find love.[3,4,5] Weight loss and thinness would invariably lead to greater energy, efficiency, intelligence, sex appeal, marital satisfaction, ambition, earning power, and happiness.[1,3,4] In what may be the 1920’s version of the popular modern rhetoric about “wanting it badly enough,” Donnelly wrote, “Now, knowing what you want and wanting it with sufficient wanting capacity, you may be in a receptive frame of mind for a few hard facts on the subject of fat and how to get out from under it.”[5]

Donnelly, A. (1921). How to Reduce: New Waistlines for Old. D. Appleton and Company.

In addition to these familiar themes and beliefs, many dieting fads of the 1920’s-30’s bear a striking resemblance to those we see on social media and magazine stands today. Peters promoted fasting (to ‘discipline’ and ‘shrink’ the stomach), recommending hot lemon water in lieu of breakfast.[4] Donnelly included a chapter that guided dieters to a loss of six pounds in 36 weeks.[5] Peters warned dieters about the likelihood of headaches, fatigue, and hunger, which could be quelled by drinking water or fletcherizing—chewing food at length until it was dissolved and automatically swallowed. In stark contrast to the food conservation efforts encouraged by Progressive reformers, Peters recommended discarding foods that might sabotage a diet. These practices were not entirely incongruent, however, as both espoused the virtues of dietary ascetism and thus existed in strange harmony. Because Peters acknowledged that dieters may not be able to resist ‘forbidden’ foods, she offered a simple solution: the debauch, or a period of overeating one’s desired food (chocolate cremes, in her case) followed by a very low-calorie compensatory meal. Though Peters acknowledged the importance of the psychological aspects of dieting, guilt and shame were her recommended instruments of motivation. Donnelly, on the other hand, espoused vanity as, “…an excellent reducing motive.”[5] These ideas are still leveraged as motivational tools for behavior change with modern memes asking, “What’s your excuse?” and reminding us that abs are made in the kitchen.

Not all of Peters’ or Donnelly’s information was so harmful, though. While Peters took an absolutist stance about including high-calories foods in one’s diet, she did clarify that it was calories alone—not any specific food—that accounted for weight change.[4] While explaining the method for calculating one’s caloric needs, Peters warned dieters not to lose weight too quickly, aiming for no more than two pounds per week. She also explained the importance of macronutrient balance and the role of vitamins for health, even expanding on the pros and cons of omnivorous versus vegetarian diets. Though recreational physical activity was a new hobby mostly reserved for men, both Donnelly and Peters recommended engaging in exercise with the important caveat that exercise alone was not effective for weight loss.[4,5] Peters presented some surprisingly useful information that would dispel even modern-day myths and dismantled many of the diet fads of the era, from Epsom salt baths, to diet pills, to ‘reducing’ soaps and shimmy chairs sold to ‘jiggle away’ fat. With an air of frustration, Peters was obliged to amend her diet book with a reminder about the “caloric theory” of energy balance that we still see in memes today: “There is no caloric ‘theory.’ Therefore none to explode. Calories are simply units for measuring heat and energy and never will be exploded any more than the yard or meter ‘theory’ will be exploded.”[4]

Donnelly, A. (1921). How to Reduce: New Waistlines for Old. D. Appleton and Company.

Diet books such as Peters’ might have been indistinguishable from modern-day diet guides if not for the overt vilification of fat people and political implications of one’s weight. “In war time it is a crime to hoard food...,” wrote Peters, before asking, “…you are now viewed with distrust, suspicion, and even aversion! How dare you hoard fat when our nation needs it?”[4] In the voice characterizing a potential dieter, Donnelly asks, “Why, when the slender figure is in the ascendent should I wax rotund and globular, steamy, stodgy and short-breathed?”[5] As increasing numbers of Americans internalized these messages and achieved weight loss, a culture of bigotry in the form self-deprecation began to emerge. Individuals who had once been overweight sought to elevate their current status as ‘normal’ weight individuals, disparaging their former figures in testimonials and letters to newspapers. Remarkably, the idealization of thinness lasted through the Great Depression; except for the extremely poor, most white Americans were still concerned with maintaining a slim figure as a result and representation of their economic austerity. Cookbooks boasted recipes that would suit both, “…the family purse…and the bathroom scale.”[1] Others, like Paul C. Bragg’s Personal Health Food Cook Book and Menus, stated cruelly that, “…there was “no room for the fat woman in this age.””[1]

Today, food and body weight are still moral and sociopolitical issues. Obesity is considered a matter of national security by some groups, including the Defense Health Board, a Federal Advisory Committee to the Secretary of Defense.[6] Discussions around weight management and obesity are more nuanced and scientific, and the verbiage is more politically correct. Weight stigma, however, still exists in the form of weight-based disparities in pay, job evaluations, hiring, media representation, and negative attitudes and perceptions in healthcare, maladaptive eating behaviors and poor body image.[7] Debates about food sustainability, accessibility, and superior dietary patterns have evolved with the food system, though they closely resemble Progressive reformers’ concerns about the influence of industrialization on food choices. Perceptions have shifted in what seems a more charitable direction by recognizing the influence of socioeconomic and environmental factors on weight gain. However, this perspective still assumes that everyone is equally tempted by hyperpalatable foods, so, “…those who resist it must have heightened powers.”[1] Thus, the successful avoidance of obesity—and furthermore, the achievement of a sculpted physique—is still lauded as an act of self-control, discipline, and willpower. As Putnam stated succinctly for her readers, “You can get as slim as you want to…” as long as you possess, “…two little eenty weenty things: self-control and intelligence.”[1]

[1] Veit, Helen Zoe, Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013 [2] Nuttall F. Q. (2015). Body Mass Index: Obesity, BMI, and Health: A Critical Review. Nutrition today, 50(3), 117–128. [3] Jou, C. (2019). The Progressive Era Body Project: Calorie-Counting and “Disciplining the Stomach” in 1920s America. The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, 18(4), 422-440. doi:10.1017/S1537781418000348 [4] Peters, L. H. (1918). Diet and Health with Key to the Calories. The Reilly and Lee Co. [5] Donnelly, A. (1921). How to Reduce: New Waistlines for Old. D. Appleton and Company. [6] Anderson, G, Baldwin J, Bullock M, Carroll B, et al. (2013). Defense Health Board Implications of Trends in Obesity and Overweight for the Department of Defense “ Fit to fight , fit for life .” Healthmil. [7] Puhl, R. M., & Heuer, C. A. (2009). The stigma of obesity: A review and update. Obesity, 17(5), 941–964.

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