How Americans Got Hooked on Counting Calories More Than a Century Ago

A food history writer and an influential podcast host tell us how our thinking about health and body weight has—and hasn’t—evolved ever since Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters took the nation by storm

Emily Lankiewicz

In 1918, Lulu Hunt Peters—one of the first women in America to earn a medical doctorate—published the best seller Diet and Health With Key to the Calories, making a name for herself as an apostle for weight reduction in an era when malnutrition was a far greater public health threat than obesity.  She pioneered the idea of measuring food intake via the calorie, which at the time was an obscure unit of measurement familiar only to chemists.

A century later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 42 percent of American adults are clinically obese and that Type 2 diabetes is on the rise. With those who can afford it now turning to pharmaceuticals to help them lose weight, we’ll examine why and how calorie counting has failed to help Americans maintain a “healthy” weight.

In this episode of “There’s More to That,” we hear from food historian Michelle Stacey about Peters’ legacy—and from Ronald Young Jr., creator and host of the critically acclaimed podcast “Weight For It,” about how American society continues to stigmatize what he calls “fat folks” for reasons that have nothing to do with public, or even individual, health.

A transcript is below. To subscribe to “There’s More to That,” and to listen to past episodes on the complex legacy of Sojourner Truth, how Joan Baez opened the door for Taylor Swift, how machine learning is helping archeologists to read scrolls buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius nearly 2,000 years ago and more, find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

Chris Klimek: Michelle Stacey is an author and Smithsonian contributor who writes about the history of the American diet.

Michelle Stacey: I’ve written about food and food in America for years, and we have a long history of food fad-ism.

Klimek: She says that diet crazes are uniquely American.

Stacey: I mean, even back in the 19th century there were crazy fads. There was one thing that was called Fletcherizing, and it was the idea that you had to chew every mouthful of food hundreds of times, which is grotesque when you think about it. Most of the rest of the world really thought about food as first of all sustenance, but also largely pleasure, tradition, joy, sharing, and Americans have long wanted to discount that part of the equation.

Klimek: Michelle says that a big part of this is America’s fixation on the calorie, a unit of energy that somewhat nonsensically became the center of our food and diet world, but it didn’t really have to be that way.

Stacey: Our national way of looking at it is very numbers-oriented and very control-oriented. I was researching the history of the calorie, and I had an old diet book I’d picked up years ago, and I was flipping through it, and this little pamphlet fell out, and it was by Lulu Hunt Peters, and it was literally printed in 1929.

Klimek: When it comes to diet fads in America, movements have come and gone. Right now, Ozempic is the new craze, but Michelle says it all goes back to this woman named Lulu Hunt Peters. She’s the person who got America obsessed with calorie counting, but not without her own flair for personal branding, as Michelle could see in this pamphlet.

Stacey: It was called “Reducing and Gaining,” and in parentheses it said, “Petersizing.” And I thought, “Wow, this woman—she’s a marketer.” And it was like a sign to me that I had to write more about her. She was such a character. I really wish I could have met her. Her personality just leaps off the page in a very modern way. She was very well known in her time. She was a phenomenon. She wrote the first diet best seller ever, and then it stayed on the best-seller list for five years in the early 1920s, which was amazing. And hardly anybody knows who she is now.

Klimek: From Smithsonian magazine and PRX Productions, this is “There’s More to That,” the show where if you’re listening to this now, we think you look great just the way you are. On this episode, find out how America got hooked on calorie counting, and why the system continues to endure. I’m Chris Klimek.

Klimek: Michelle Stacey recently wrote a feature about Lulu Hunt Peters for Smithsonian magazine. We began our conversation by talking about Peters’ origins.

Stacey: She was born in New England. She went to college, a teaching college, which is what young women did around the turn of the last century. At some point she moved to California and became a doctor, got her medical degree in 1909, one of a tiny percentage of doctors at the time who were female. She was very active in all kinds of medical groups in Southern California in the 1910s and really very prominent in that world. She was the female head of the pathology lab at Los Angeles Hospital, stuff like that. But what she really wanted to be known for was that she had lost 70 pounds. She had been 220 pounds, and she ended up at 150, which by the way was not where she wanted to end up. She wanted to [weigh] even less, and she decided that the method that she had found everybody should know about. She was almost like a proselytizer for the calorie, and for calorie counting.

Klimek: So more than the fact that she was one of the first women to become a medical doctor in the United States, it was her dramatic weight loss that she wanted people to know about.

Stacey: Yeah, absolutely. It was her greatest triumph, the way she writes about it. She wrote in her book about how when she got her first jobs in medicine at the hospital, she was still so fat, and she felt like she should have repaid some of her salary because she couldn’t have been that good a worker if she was so fat then.

Klimek: Wow.

Stacey: Yeah, very judgmental! And the funny thing about her is when she writes about weight and diet and the calorie, which is her obsession, she is so open. She will tell you how she hated herself when she was fat and how she goes crazy for candied nuts and eats 4,000 calories at one time, but the rest of her life is a real secret.

Klimek: Do we know what her personal story behind her weight loss was?

Stacey: Well, after the book came out, she ended up writing a syndicated newspaper column for years, and the title of one of her columns was “A Disgrace to Be Fat.” And she felt like this was completely a personal choice. You could be fat or you could be not fat. So when she learned about the calorie, which was a very new concept at that time, mostly it was something that scientists and chemists knew about, and it was something that was being discussed as a way to figure out: What’s the perfect diet for humans? How can you eat just the right amount for the least amount of money? That was the approach. She came across it in medical school and she learned about the calorie and flipped it around. She thought, “Well, if it’s good for fighting hunger, then what about if you’re fat? Maybe it’s good for getting rid of extra weight.”

So she used these brand-new calorie charts to make herself eat between 1,000 and 1,200 calories a day, which is very low, and the weight just kept coming off, and she lived that way the rest of her life. And then she felt like this was her mission, and she would write about it with such fervor. She would address her readers as if they were sitting in the room with her and say, “I know you don’t want to be fat. I know you’ve tried to lose weight for years. I was the same way, and it can be done.” She would speak almost like a minister. She would say things like, “Verily only food maketh fat.” And “Yea, I will save you even as I saved myself, I will save you.” And she got this huge following. People would write letters to her when she was doing the newspaper column, and she would write back to them in her column and say, “Mary, I’m so proud of you. You’ve lost 20 pounds. I know you can do more.”

Klimek: So how did Dr. Peters popularize the calorie?

Stacey: First, she started giving lectures, and then she wrote this book. It came out in 1918. Again, she was a great marketer, and the first thing she did was she serialized the book in a newspaper before the book came out. So it really raised its profile and it was well reviewed, and people were talking about it as this new way of thinking about food that was so cool. And then the first World War ended, and she ended up going to the Balkans for two years on a Red Cross journey, and she came back, and her book had been selling like crazy. So her publisher said, “Well, why don’t you write a new chapter at the end, and we’ll reissue it?” And then it just built from there. I think the first year she was on the best-seller list was 1922. The extra chapter she did was so funny because it was all about how she gained all this weight and she was in the Red Cross because she ignored her own teachings and she thought, “Oh, I’m working so hard and I’m riding donkeys over rough trails, and so I can eat whatever I want.”

And then she finally gets in front of a full-length mirror for the first time in months and she’s like, “Oh, my God,” and starts starving herself again. Her struggle with weight was a huge part of the story that she was telling.

Klimek: Who was Dr. Peters’ book popular among?

Stacey: Women.

Klimek: Okay, women, all right. Tell me more.

Stacey: I mean, women were the ones who were writing to her. They were the ones who were engaging with her, and it’s not like there weren’t some men out there who wanted to lose weight. Every now and then in her book she’ll mention men, but it is really about women, and it was women who were just snapping up the book right and left and reading her newspaper column.

Klimek: What is the tone of the book overall?

Stacey: It’s hard to describe. It’s so unusual. What’s so funny in her book is that she had her 10-year-old nephew, who she called “the little rascal,” do all these little stick-figure drawings throughout the book. They’re so funny. I mean, it was just part of her folksy approach. I mean, it’s really like having a conversation with her. But, no, her whole message is, “You can do this, you can do this, absolutely. Anybody can do this if you just count your calories, and it doesn’t matter which foods you’re eating, all that matters is the number of calories.”

One historian that I talked to about Lulu said that at that time and writing from the point of view that she was writing, which is, “I’ve been there, I’ve done this, I know it can be done,” she felt it gave her a pass to be … I mean, this historian used the word “bigotry,” to just be bigoted about fat people. And she makes up derogatory names, silly names like Mrs. Sheesasite and Mrs. Tiny Weyaton and stuff. And yet people, they didn’t take it personally, I guess. They felt like, “Well, I don’t want to weigh a ton.” Every chapter ends on a “now I’m going to tell you how to do it” tone. But, yeah, the way she talks would be so unacceptable today. But the thing that strikes me in thinking about her is that we’re still very, very judgmental about weight. We just don’t admit to it as easily.

There was an article in the Economist in the last year or two, and it was about the economics of slenderness, especially with women much more than with men. Literally, you will earn more money if you are not fat. We are still penalizing being heavy even while the majority of Americans now qualify as overweight. But it’s very hard for people to change their weight. And it is possible, but counting calories has been studied and tested for decades and very rarely leads to permanent weight loss.

The story of dieting for weight loss over the last century, which has really, since it’s been a thing, is that when it fails, the dieter is always blamed, and she blames herself or he blames himself. And, in fact, our government guides have been telling us for decades that it’s our fault. The calories are the biggest count on the nutrition label, and all of the dictums from the USDA over the last few decades, many people feel very misguided to cut fat, to not worry about carbs. And, in fact, we’ve seen a huge surge in obesity since they started giving that message. Again, it’s not working. But people tend to blame themselves.

Klimek: To pull back a little bit here, what is a calorie? What is it actually measuring?

Stacey: It’s measuring heat. Various Europeans have been circling around this, but it’s generally credited to Nicolas Clément, a French chemist and physicist. At least he seems to be the first one to mention it in scholarly articles [in the 1820s]. And it was actually—you can’t really say invented—defined, I suppose, having nothing to do with food. It had to do with steam engines. And the early researchers wanted to have a measure of how much fuel it took to produce X amount of energy. And so what it measures is how much fuel it takes to raise a certain amount of water one degree.

And very early on after it was defined, more European researchers, and these were mostly in Germany, started saying, “Well, our bodies are kind of machines. Food is our fuel like our coal that makes the steam, and it runs our body and it heats our body.” So these researchers started measuring foods. They would set it on fire, basically, and see how long it took to raise this amount of water by one degree centigrade. And they started assigning values to all these different foods based on how they incinerate.

Klimek: They are burning foodstuffs and measuring the resulting temperature of water around it?

Stacey: Yeah, they’re putting food in a little incinerator thing. It was called a calorimeter. And then they started creating these things called respiration calorimeters, which are when you put an animal or ultimately a human into this chamber where everything is regulated, and they’re measuring what goes in, what comes out, oxygen, carbon dioxide, but also what food is going in, what food is being excreted. I mean, these were experiments where they would weigh feces. And what that was looking at was what happens to this food when it’s in the body? And so they got more refined about what a piece of bread was worth in calories.

Klimek: So are calories an effective way of measuring what we eat?

Stacey: Yes and no. I mean, when I tell people the calories don’t count, and people say, “What? I count my calories all the time,” people still do this all the time, they count in a macro way. If you eat 10,000 calories’ worth of food for a period of time, you will gain weight. And if you cut your calories way back for a period of time, you will lose weight. But it’s not the whole story at all, which is why many calorie-restrictive diets don’t work, because your body is not a steam engine. It is way more complex. Steam engines don’t have hormones, and hormones affect how hungry we are, our metabolism, how fast our little motor is running. It affects our satiety, when you feel like you’ve eaten enough.

Klimek: So prior to Dr. Peters’ idea of we should count our calories and restrict them, what was weight loss like before that? What were people trying?

Stacey: There was not much of an effort before that. One reason that Lulu got so popular was that fashions were really changing. And until the first decade of the 20th century, having a little extra—I mean, nobody wanted to be fat, but having a little extra poundage was actually seen as a sign of privilege and comfort, and it was also seen as feminine. So as long as you had a nice strong corset to give you a waistline, all your other clothing was covering all ills. And a bunch of things started to change at the beginning of 20th century that made people want to be more slender.

Thorstein Veblen in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class wrote about conspicuous consumption and conspicuous waste. Conspicuous consumption was mansions on Fifth Avenue and Rhode Island cottages. And the conspicuous waste was that if you were wealthy enough, you didn’t have to worry about food, therefore you could worry about being slender for the next ball gown you’re going to slip into. And so then the leisure class became more associated with slenderness, and this was happening at the same time that fashions were really changing. And the Gibson Girl, which was a famous series of illustrations around the turn of century, very buxom girl, hourglass figure, the fashions around that started to change in the first decade of the 20th century.

And you started having these very slimmed-down skirts that were called hobble skirts that you could hardly walk in, they were so slim. But for that, you really had to have a pin-like physique. You no longer had the big bustle or the big hoop skirt to cover your behind, so to speak. So fashions and socioeconomic changes worked together, and then by the time we got to the ’20s, you had legs being exposed, you had the flapper look, which was the opposite of curvaceous. So all of that pushed it in that direction.

Klimek: Where did Dr. Peters go once her book becomes a best seller and she gets her syndicated column? What’s the arc of her career?

Stacey: Well, the arc of her career was sadly cut short. She was very big in the ’20s. She was traveling the country giving speeches all the time, and then she got on a boat to England for a medical conference. She got sick on the boat and arrived in London deathly ill and died of pneumonia in 1930.

Klimek: How has the narrative around body weight changed in the century or so since?

Stacey: In some ways it’s changed very little. I think that’s why aside from the fat-shaming stuff Lulu sounds so modern. She talked about 100-calorie portions of things. Her whole book was set up in terms of: This much chicken is 100 calories, this much applesauce is 100 calories. You go to the grocery store, and there’s all packages that are 100-calorie. A 100-calorie granola bar, a 100-calorie whatever. I think she influenced decades of how we’ve dealt with food and even forecast a lot of things.

In her book, she talks about getting little clubs of women together to lose weight together. And because this was during World War I, she called them Watch Your Weight Anti-Kaiser Classes, because she felt it was a patriotic act to not be fat, because that food should be going to the troops, and it was a patriotic thing to not hoard fat in your own body. But when she describes these classes, they sound identical to Weight Watchers, which started in the ’60s. Lulu had said, “You should weigh yourself once a week in this little group and trade tips and talk about what you’re doing and how you’re counting your calories.” And, decades later: Weight Watchers.

Klimek: The advent of drugs like Ozempic runs counter to Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters’ vision. In a way, they have the same outcome, meaning it can make people thin, but the mechanism is a lot different than calorie counting.

Stacey: They work on, it seems like, a hormonal basis. And what these drugs point to is that it’s the opposite of the calorie. The calorie assumes that we all have control over our eating, and what Ozempic and these drugs point to is that eating is subject to way more than just our conscious control, and it involves how those hormones affect how quickly we digest our food, which apparently is one of the tricks of these drugs, is just that the food moves more slowly through your digestive system, and you just don’t feel like eating for hours. I don’t think we know yet, but I think it’ll be interesting to watch how attitudes may change and approaches may change.

Klimek: For some context on the legacy of Lulu Hunt Peters, I called up my friend Ronald Young Jr. He’s the host of a podcast called “Weight For It,” where he examines how he and others feel about weight and body image.

Ronald Young Jr.: I felt like there was a lot of stuff that I wanted to talk about personally when it came to weight, especially how I feel about my own weight and the conversations that we’re not having in society when it comes to weight. The more I thought about it, the more I thought about the connection between the idea of waiting to enjoy the life that you want because you are waiting to lose weight. Once I had a name in mind, it made it pretty easy for me to decide what types of stories I wanted to tell about weight, and that’s how the podcast was born.

Klimek: What were the strategies that you used when you wanted to lose weight?

Young: I mean, the standard, man. Just do the cardio. You lift the weights, you eat a lot of chicken and brown rice and raw almonds and try to get that eight hours of sleep. Wash, rinse, repeat every day. What I found for me is, one, it just feels like the mental game sometimes that people are locked into feels different. For instance, you haven’t brought it up, but I’ll break it up. I remember the first time somebody told me about Ozempic, and I remember one thing that they said is that they say it quiets the food noise in your mind. And I remember saying that is probably one of the few positive things that I like about Ozempic, which is that it acknowledges that there are people whose brains work differently from others, which means that if you are saying to Ronald, “Well, you’re just not locked in,” and you’re a trainer and you’re ripped, and you’re saying, “Well, I’m locked in, that’s why I’m ripped,” no, you don’t have any food noise in your brain, and I do. You know what I mean?

If we also acknowledge that difference, then maybe you would be talking to me differently when you were trying to get me to work harder in the gym or get me to be motivated. When I think about the things that worked for me and the things that “didn’t work,” it never takes into account the differences in our genetics and in our minds when it comes to trying to lose weight for people or trying to, again, get to this amorphous area of perfection that we’re likely never going to get to because we are genetically different. And that’s not to say that there’s not people out there who have, again, “worked hard and kept it off.” You know what I mean? Which I always struggle with because I’m always like, “Does that come with any sacrifices? And what does that actually look like?” It’s not just a success story where they just ride off and they’re happily ever after. What do they have to consistently do in order to keep it off?

That’s what I did to lose weight. But oftentimes—and, again, I’m using so many air quotes, this is audio—I “failed at it.”

Klimek: The idea of “failure” goes back to Dr. Peters’ conflation of weight loss and morality. I asked Ronald what he thought about her writings.

Young: I mean, it’s a story for its time. It’s just not surprising that of that era here we have yet another story of people trying to solve fat. You know what I mean? And I think what you’ll find is, especially in the United States, there are sinister strategies and policies that serve to keep the status quo as much as possible. So when you think about the idea of the ways in which we connect being fat to being less than, it’s just not surprising that you keep having scientists and social scientists coming up with strategies in order to solve for fatness. And in those days, you could be louder about something that was utterly disrespectful. You know what I mean? Today, they know you can’t just say, “Get those unsightly pounds off, you look terrible. Get out of here.” You can’t really say that anymore. But you could say things like, “Hey, you want something that’s going to flatter your body, and this helps you get your body to a place where you feel good about yourself.” There’s just different language.

And I feel like that’s something we’ve been wrestling with as Americans probably even globally, but definitely as Americans for a long time, which is: How do we actually address this distasteful thing that we don’t like? And at that time, it was fat.

Klimek: Do you think we are any more sympathetic or nuanced in our thinking about this now a century later? Or do we just learn to hide our prejudices better or use some softer-sounding euphemisms?

Young: I think you’ve already answered your question, Chris. Because one of the hottest stories is: Who in Hollywood is using Ozempic right now? And even amongst my peers and colleagues, someone already asked me if I’m going to start taking Ozempic. You think about how that language has changed. Now that we’ve made obesity a disease, it’s like, “Oh, well then medicine cures disease.” You’re still trying to cure fatness. You know what I mean? So, yeah, our language has changed, but the intent hasn’t changed at all. We’re still trying to do the same thing we’ve always done, which is just get rid of these unsightly people that we find distasteful, especially knowing that Ozempic is supposed to be for diabetics so that they’re more effective in their use of insulin. So to know that that’s the case, and now it’s this crazy side effect that everyone’s homed in on, I don’t know, it just doesn’t sit right with me.

To be clear, I think if people want to use Ozempic for whatever reason, I think that is perfectly fine. You really have to make your own choices for yourself. But what makes me struggle is the ways in which we’re talking about it as this miracle catch-all drug that will get us to a destination that I think we need to be, again, doing some large self-interrogation, saying, “Is this a place that we all really need to go as a society?” I think the answer is no, but I don’t know that as a society we’ve answered that way.

Klimek: In “Weight For It,” Ronald discusses bariatric surgery at length, sometimes called gastric bypass surgery. This is a measure that some people take when they want to lose weight that involves making physical alterations to the digestive system, but the procedure comes with serious risks, and Ronald sees it as another medicalized, potentially dangerous option presented as a cure to fatness similar to Ozempic.

Young: We haven’t done enough studies on Ozempic to talk about the long-term effects of being on Ozempic. We’re talking about something that if it’s turning off the food noise in your brain, and when you go off it, it stops doing that, then are you just going to be on Ozempic the rest of your life? I’ve talked to people who have used Ozempic who are just like, “Yeah, I’m fine. I’ll take a shot and then once I get in gear, I’ll lose the weight, and then I’ll be fine. I’ll go off Ozempic and I won’t need to do it anymore.” And I’m just like, “That’s not a solution. And, also, if that is a solution, is that how you want to solve it?” It still feels equally drastic in terms of you plunging yourself in the unknown rather than accepting your body as it is and demanding that the world be more progressive and change.

The other thing that I think is I think people forget that you will gain and lose weight your entire life for a variety of reasons. There’s probably ways and methods that you could be healthier or you could take care of yourself in a way that was advantageous to you without you having to make these huge sacrifices or drastic sacrifices that require you to spend the rest of your life committed to a weight-loss journey. I just feel like Ozempic is more of that. You know what I mean? Ozempic is bariatric surgery. I just feel like they are of the same brand, if you will.

Klimek: We also asked Ronald about the state of the body positivity movement in America. Body positivity began as a pushback to toxic diet culture but, like other movements, has become complicated over time. Ronald spoke about companies that play into this dynamic.

Young: Capitalism always morphs, man. They’re going where the money is, and if the money and the buzz is toward “body positivity,” then that’s the adjustment that businesses are going to make. So it’s not surprising to see people with a lot of half-baked body positivity ideas, especially these companies that are doing it in some ways. But you walk into the store and you can’t even get all the sizes in the store. So they’ll be like, “We’re doing this plus-size campaign,” and then in some cases, they’ve been quietly retracting them and putting the regular sizes back in the store. I know that’s happened with a couple of retail stores. So there’s a lot of businesses out there that are willing to make changes if you’re still going to spend your money, but the minute the money moves and the interest in the culture moves, then those changes will often retract back unless we’ve really moved forward as a society and decided that this is something that needs to be here and we’re going to put our dollars behind it.

Klimek: Thank you, Ronald, for this conversation. It’s a joy to talk to you, buddy.

Young: Thanks for having me, Chris, and congratulations on your podcast as well. I love it.

Klimek: To read Michelle Stacey’s reporting on Lulu Hunt Peters and the origins of the calorie, head to We’ll also have a link in our show notes along with a link to Ronald Young Jr.’s podcast, “Weight For It.”

Klimek: Before we end our episode, as always, we have a dinner party fact for you, but this one also comes with a dinner party game.

Nina Goldman: Hi, my name’s Nina Goldman, and I am a copy editor here at Smithsonian magazine, and we recently ran an excerpt from Sabrina Sholts’ new book, The Human Disease. She talks about hands and their role in disease transmission, but to get there, she talks about hands in general. I learned something new. I mean, I knew that we have opposable thumbs. Everybody learns that in school, and we know they’re important, but I never thought about why they’re called opposable thumbs. Did you know, Chris?

Klimek: I mean, I just assumed it was because they’re facing your other fingers.

Goldman: Exactly. It’s because you can put them in opposition to the pads of your other fingers, which allows us to pinch things and manipulate them a lot more easily than our other mammalian relatives, I guess. But some other primates do have opposable thumbs, but they’re not as powerful as ours for a bunch of reasons, one of which is that they have very long fingers, and so it’s harder for them to get the tips of their fingers to touch the tip of their thumb. We’ve got stubby little fingers compared to a chimpanzee, and so that’s one of our evolutionary advantages.

So I learned this fact while I was working on the article, and I’ve enjoyed telling it to people, because it immediately makes them do silly things with their hands, trying to get the pads of their index and pinky finger to touch, which you can’t unless you’re super double-jointed. And so I thought if you’re at a dinner party and you want to share this fact, you could get people to try to eat with a fork and knife without their thumbs—or chopsticks. So that’s why they’re called opposable thumbs.

Klimek: “There’s More to That” is a production of Smithsonian magazine and PRX Productions. If you like this show, thank you. Also, please consider leaving us a review on Apple Podcasts. It really helps other people find our show.

From the magazine, our team is me, Debra Rosenberg and Brian Wolly.

From PRX, our team is Jessica Miller, Genevieve Sponsler, Adriana Rozas Rivera, Ry Dorsey and Edwin Ochoa. The executive producer of PRX Productions is Jocelyn Gonzales. Our episode artwork is by Emily Lankiewicz. Fact-checking by Stephanie Abramson. Our music is from APM Music.

I’m Chris Klimek. Thanks for listening.

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