The Resurrection Of Calorie Counting – Big Time!

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Vital Information

During World War II, there was not a lot of focus on dieting. People had other things to worry about, and there was rationing of many items, including food. There was less time to think about personal weight issues. Many women worked in factories and industry while the men were overseas. But when the war ended, things changed quickly. Large numbers of women left the workforce and returned to their homes, many as newly-wed housewives.

One of the economic changes that followed that was the rise of women’s magazines. Needing a constant source of subjects for articles, some of these magazines rediscovered the idea of calorie counting. They found that articles on diets, and personal accounts of diet success while following this or that dietary plan, materially boosted the circulation figures of the magazines. Most of the diet plans spoken about in the articles stressed counting calories, as it was interactive, requiring the reader/dieter to get involved. And a calorie-based plan fitted in nicely with another one of the magazines’ strategies, the recipe section.

A calorie-counting booklet suitable for pocket or purse came out in 1951 and sold for 25 cents. This little booklet has been a huge best seller ever since, selling some 17 million copies by 1973, and many times that amount since then. Although it no longer costs 25 cents, the booklet is still available at many checkout stands at the supermarket.

Talking About Diets

Interest in dieting in the burgeoning women’s magazines, or at least interest in talking about dieting, spawned more pop culture ideas concerning the cause of obesity. And it wasn’t very long before “psychological issues” became the cause of choice. In 1952, Newsweek Magazine published an article about the so-called Fat Personality. Newsweek said that, “rich sauces offer a delightful panacea for boredom, unhappy homes … and maladjustment.” (Panacea means cure-all.) Somewhat later, the New York Times Magazine told their readers that 90% of all obesity had its origin in “psychogenic problems.” (Psychogenic means ‘coming from the mind.’) Heavy people became more and more desperate to find an answer to their obesity, if for no other reason than to show they were not psychologically disturbed. By 1959 the American Medical Association was saying that dieting had become a “national neurosis.”

The National Neurosis

Dieting became obsessive. Quite a lot of people were even willing to try near-total fasts to lose weight. Some two to four million people, as we discussed in the last article, ate nothing, except a liquid protein concoction made of slaughterhouse by-products.

Although saccharin was invented back in 1879, it wasn’t part of mainstream dieting for a very long time. Used chiefly by diabetics, it began to be available for sweetening coffee and tea before 1950. There were fewer diabetics then than now, and the idea of artificially sweetening food was relatively new. Then in 1951, Tillie Lewis launched the first of the diet foods, her “Tasti-Diet” line of saccharin-sweetened peaches, puddings, jellies, and chocolate sauce.

Diets In A Can

Drug companies began to see that if they could come up with a product that could deliver a reasonable taste, while promising thinness, the sky was truly the limit. In 1960, the first in a long line of diet drinks in a can came on the market. It was called Metrecal.

Metrecal was a word coined from the phrase ‘metered calories’. It was originally sold as a powder, which the consumer mixed with a quart of water to make four, eight-ounce glasses. This was said to provide four “meals” a day, totaling 900 calories. The powder was made from milk, soy flour, starch, corn oil, yeast, vitamins, coconut oil, and either vanilla, chocolate, or butterscotch flavoring. A dieter could lose 10 pounds in a few weeks, and didn’t have to count calories. After a while, Metrecal was sold in a pre-mixed, liquid form for easy drinking right from the can. Mead Johnson drug company made over $10 million selling Metrecal in the first two years.

Other types of diet drinks came and went, including the so-called Cambridge Diet. Prior to 1981, an enterprising couple named Jack and Elaine Feather were selling hand-held electric contraptions advertised to increase bust size. They were indicted by the Federal government for mail fraud, and forced to pay over $1 million in fines for that little endeavor. So they decided to change directions, and in 1981 they put out an extremely low-calorie liquid protein drink as the basis of a multi-level marketing enterprise. Some three million people were enticed to try the Cambridge Plan. This was apparently the first product to be sold by multi-level marketing techniques.

We still see diets in a can today. A prime example is SlimFast. Whereas the earlier versions of diet drinks were too low in nutrients to be safe, these current liquid diets err on the other side. They are not much better than drinking an ice cream malt. Consider that the label on the SlimFast can shows that the number three ingredient is sugar, and that the full-can serving contains about 40 grams of carbohydrate. Other brands of diet drinks contain from 37 to 42 grams of carbohydrate in each can. Many of these products are promoted today on half-hour TV advertisements, a selling technique that didn’t exist before recent years.

The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same

Although the huge era of the Woman’s Magazine has passed, almost every magazine currently being published today that appeals to women, has articles every single month on diets and dieting, primarily from a calorie-counting point of view. It’s been fifty years, but the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Join me next time, when we’ll continue our history of diets and dieting with a look at mechanical devices.

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