When Candy Became Sin: Lulu Hunt Peters and the Invention of Dieting
Our national obsession with dieting and slenderizing is hardly new. The first best-selling diet book appeared back in 1918. It was by Lulu Hunt Peters, a medical advice newspaper columnist in Los Angeles. Her witty and accessible book, Diet and Health with a Key to the Calories (1918) instructs readers in the science of calories as a measure of food energy. Peters introduced to the American public the now-universally embraced idea of calorie counting as a means of reducing. Today everybody knows: cut calories to lose weight. But in 1918, calories were not widely known, and there were all sorts of theories about what caused weight loss and weight gain (actually, we’re coming around in a circle on that one, but that’s another topic).
So weight loss is self-control: count calories, reduce food intake, lose weight. Strength of character is reflected in a shinking waist line. And it is a matter of upright living as well. When someone asks of dieting, “Will I always have to keep it up?” Lulu replies:
The answer is,—Yes! You will always have to keep up dieting, just as you always have to keep up other things in life that make it worth living—being neat, being kind, being tender; reading, studying, loving.
What interested me when I looked at this book was what happened to Lulu when she fell off her diet wagon. Here is Lulu on the subject of chocolate creams:
If there comes a time when you think you will die unless you have some chocolate creams, go on a c.c. debauch. I do, occasionally, and will eat as many as ten or so; but I take them before dinner, then me for the balance of my dinner—
1 bowl of clear soup 25 C. 1 cracker 25 C. ——— Total 50 C.
And thus, you see, every supposed pleasure in sin (eating) will furnish more than its equivalent of pain (dieting) until belief in material life (chocolate creams) is destroyed.
This last part is intriguing: eating is sin. Dieting is pain. And chocolate creams are “material life” that must be destroyed. The problem with chocolate creams for Lulu is not just that they have calories. All food has calories, after all. And Lulu recognizes that she can offset the excess calories of the candy with a reduction elsewhere. But the language here is not just mathematical, it is religious: sin, punishment, an escape from the fallen material world. Diet is transcendence. Eliminating chocolate creams brings Lulu closer to salvation.
Calorie reduction and excess, weight gain and loss first take on an explicitly moral dimension with Peters’ book. The overweight are not just unfortunate or unwell, they are morally suspect. And this moral judgment extends, in Peters’ logic, to candy. When avoiding calories becomes a way of living virtuously, the surplus calories of candy become a temptation to a fall. Candy isn’t just sweetness or pleasure or fun. Candy is sin.
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