History of the Calorie in Nutrition

Most people with eating disorders know a lot about calories--at least how to count them. But I found an article in the Journal of Nutrition called "A History of the Calorie in Nutrition" that was fantastically interesting.

The calorie, as it were, was defined as a unit of heat "sometime between 1787 and 1824." The first definition (in French) appeared in 1845 as "la quantité de chaleur nécessaire pour élever 1 gramme d'eau de 1 degré, et que l'on appelle unité de chaleur ou calorie." Translated roughly: a calories is the amount of heat necessary to raise the temperature of one gram of water one degree Celcius.

Not a hint of morality. Maybe this is why French Women Don't Get Fat?

Food calories, however, are actually kilocalories, or kcal, or Calorie (capital "C"), and it was first used to measure energy in food in the 1940s. It's use as a unit of human energy needs first appeared in an 1894 human physiology text by JH Raymond. However, Raymond's contribution wasn't the most important in terms of the popular understanding of the Calorie. Rather,

The Calorie began to enter popular American vocabulary after Atwater explained the unit in his 1887 article in Century magazine. The most important avenue was probably the USDA Farmers' Bulletins, which provided the first U.S. food databases to be used in dietetics. Then, as now, American audiences were interested in managing weight, and the Calorie was soon introduced in articles and books. For example, Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters' best-selling "Diet and Health with Key to the Calories" specifically cited Farmers' Bulletin 142 as a source of information. Eventually, the Calorie was adopted for the nutrition facts panels on U.S. food labels. At present, there does not seem to be a movement by policy makers in the US to replace the Calorie with the kJ on nutrition information panels.

It was Dr. Peters' book, however, that ultimately turned a Calorie from a unit of energy into a unit of morality. A wave of Calorie-counting hysteria swept the nation, and hasn't really left. Of course, people weren't content to only count calories- they started counting carbs and fat grams and fiber and sodium and cholesterol, until your day's worth of food can seem more like an Excel spreadsheet than an enjoyable experience.

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toctoc said...

Concur--absolutely fascinating. There's a bit in Joan Jacobs Brumberg's Fasting Girls about the popularization of the subject. But she points out (rightly) that a proper anthropological/sociological history of dieting/calorie counting (insofar as they're synonymous) has never really been written...

Carrie Arnold said...

There's a book called "Losing it" that addresses the subject somewhat. I forget the author, but it was really interesting and eye-opening.

sarah-j said...

Oohh, I agree, so interesting! I read a little bit about this before and it kind of blew my mind a bit. Because calorie counting is (often) such a huge, sacred, unquestioned part of your life when you have an ED, it was so, so strange when I thought about it sociologically and realised that calories have not even always existed, they're not the ultimate truth and they're not necessarily the best thing to organise your life around or to devote all your head space to.
It's not great that I was so shocked because I'm a sociology student!I'm finished college in a month and what with the dum,dum dum- recession and all, I'd love to try and write a book. Maybe I should try and write the book that toctoc mentioned :p judging how long it's taking me to write my last assignments though, the history of the calorie would have to encompass the 21st century as well

this is way too rambly, i'm sorry :)

sarah-j said...

arrgh... I meant 'judging BY how long...' maybe I shouldn't quit my day job!

Gwen said...

I remember watching Super Size Me and there was a portion of the movie where people were asked what a calorie was. Nobody really knew, but most of the responses were along the lines of "Something that's bad for you" or "something that makes you fat". It made me sad to think that people look at innocent, life-giving calories as something evil, something to fear. I mean, I've felt that way before. But I was SICK with a serious illness.

PTC said...

If only we never knew what a calorie or a fat gram was. Some of our lives would be so much better.

Carrie Arnold said...


Most of our lives would be better, I think.

It's not knowing what a calorie is, though, that does most of us in. It's equating calories with morality and self-worth that's the kicker.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote


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