Person: Lulu Hunt Peters – the Los Angeles Physician Who Played a Major Role in Popularizing the Use of Calorie Counting for Weight Loss

Standing before a room of women in Los Angeles, Lulu Hunt Peters wrote a word on a blackboard that she said held the keys to empowerment. It was a word most of her audience had never heard before. Peters insisted it was just as important as terms like “foot” and “yard,” and that if they came to understand and use it, they would be serving their country and themselves.

The word was “calorie.” It was 1917, and although the calorie had been used in chemistry circles for decades — and is often credited to scientists such as Wilbur Olin Atwater and Nicolas Clément — it was Peters who was responsible for popularizing the idea that all we need to become healthier is knowing how much energy is in our food and fervently cutting back the excess. But her teachings weren’t all academic. She also referred to overweight people as “fireless cookers” and accused them of hoarding the valuable wartime commodity of fat “in their own anatomy.” Nevertheless, Peters’ weight-loss program has become so popular that some experts worry it now eclipses more important aspects of nutrition.

Yet while Peters’ concept of calories has managed to stick around for 100 years, few have heard her name. As one of a handful of female physicians in California at the turn of the 20th century, Peters occupied a tenuous role as a health authority. After initially opening up her own private practice, she struggled to feel satisfied with her career. It was only after America entered the first World War that Peters had the opportunity to find her voice — first as a leader of a local women’s club and finally as America’s most enduring diet guru.

‘Hereafter, you are going to eat calories of food’

Lulu Peters was the picture of 1920s fashion. She wore her dark hair in the flapper style, bobbed and adorned with glittering headbands, and sported luxurious furs. Her ears were decorated with gleaming pearls. She wasn’t rail thin, as the social mores of middle-class white America said she ought to be, but she was 70 pounds leaner than she had been when she’d graduated from medical school — a point she emphasized with pride in a pamphlet she sold for 25 cents and later turned into the world’s first best-selling diet book.

When it came to the science of nutrition and weight loss, Peters was in many ways decades ahead of her time. While ads in local newspapers pushed women to try everything from smoking (“Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet!”) to wearing medicated rubber garments to lose weight, Peters was breaking down complex scientific concepts like metabolism into accessible ideas that could be used to slim down.

In 1910, when the average life expectancy was 49 years, most Americans had never heard of things like calories, proteins, or carbohydrates. Even the science of vitamins was a fledgling endeavor characterized by a great deal of pseudoscience. Through her newspaper columns and clubhouse talks, Peters introduced hundreds of people to these ideas, and even began to link unhealthy eating with specific diseases. She went so far as to recommend intermittent fasting for those struggling to lose weight, a topic that is only now beginning to emerge in the scientific literature.

Still, it is what Peters taught her followers about calories that has endured the longest, that all you need to do to lose weight is consume fewer than you burn.

”Instead of saying one slice of bread, or a piece of pie, you will say 100 Calories of bread, 350 Calories of pie,” she wrote in 1918. “Hereafter, you are going to eat calories of food.”

‘How dare you hoard fat when our nation needs it?’

In 1909, Peters was one of about a thousand women across the country to graduate as a doctor of medicine. War and its demand for medical workers had helped temporarily ease some of the barriers blocking women from entering universities, and in 1910 the percentage of women physicians was at an all-time high at 5%. Shortly after receiving her degree from the University of California, Peters got a job leading the Los Angeles County Hospital’s pathology lab. Several years later, even as the percentage of women medical school graduates receded to below 3%, she secured a role as the chair of the public-health committee for the California women’s club federation of Los Angeles, a position that a local newspaper described as having “more power than the entire city health office.”

Still, she occupied a tenuous position in a society led by men. Even as a leading physician with two medical degrees, most of Peters’ roles were unpaid, including a one-year stint with the American Red Cross in 1918 during World War I. Many of the public-health events she attended were derided in local newspapers as nothing more than “supper parties” for “female physicians.” And these roles, which were already constrained by gender, were made even more exclusive by the fact that they were volunteer-only. Women who didn’t have access to money — many of them women of color — were simply barred from participating. Those who did attend made a show of their wealth. With her high-society flapper fashion, Peters was no exception.

Whatever signs of excess she displayed when it came to clothing, however, Peters made up for in her approach to eating.

After having struggled with her weight for years early in her career, Peters lost 70 pounds by carefully restricting the amount of food she ate. Her diet was a seemingly logical extension of basic chemistry: If you want to “reduce,” you need to put less energy into your body than it uses up. To do that, a unit of measure she’d applied frequently as a student of child nutrition at several Los Angeles hospitals, was key. She and her peers had relied upon calculating the caloric content of baby formula to ensure premature babies and other infants under their care were properly nourished. Now, the measure seemed an easy way to calculate the energy needs of adults.

As a leading member of the women’s club federation, Peters became a diet guru, frequently sharing bits of her dieting wisdom with her fellow members. One day, shortly before leaving for her World War I service with the Red Cross, she delivered a talk about weight loss. In order for her audience to understand how she lost weight, she had to introduce them to the unit of measure at the foundation of her plan. The calorie, she explained, was a measure of what she called “food values.”

“You should know and also use the word calorie as frequently, or more frequently, than you use the words foot, yard, quart, gallon, and so forth, as measures of length and liquids,” Peters said.

Losing weight wasn’t merely about meeting societal expectations, though, at least in the way Peters chose to present it. Being severely overweight was also linked with chronic illnesses such as heart and kidney disease, she wrote. At the time, it was an idea that was just beginning to circulate among scientists. More important, Peters offered calorie counting as a moral, patriotic duty. Hungry troops at the front lines, Peters explained, needed the calories that women like her could do without. What was fat, she said, if not a high-energy resource that should be distributed to the soldiers abroad?

“In war time it is a crime to hoard food, and fines and imprisonment have followed the exposé of such practices,” Peters wrote. “Yet there are hundreds of thousands of individuals all over America who are hoarding food, and that one of the most precious of all foods! They have vast amounts of this valuable commodity stored away in their own anatomy.”

Peters even went so far as to describe the discomfort of dieting as a physical reminder of their American loyalty and an easier way to deal with rationing. If the food they didn’t eat didn’t go directly to the troops abroad, their leftovers could be used to feed their children: “That for every pang of hunger we feel we can have a double joy, that of knowing we are saving worse pangs in … little children, and that of knowing that for every pang we feel we lose a pound.”

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