I read an interesting article in History Today called American Pie: The Imperialism of the Calorie, describing the invention of the “calorie” as a metric for evaluating food, and the way that this invention guided American agricultural and foreign policy. It’s a tragicomic tale, as the article puts it: the enthusiasm of early 20th Century progressives for scientific measurement led the nascent food bureaucracies to obsess about caloric content to the exclusion of everything else, eliminating local cuisines, encouraging the consumption of unnatural “enriched” foods for their caloric content, promoting wheat over all other grains, and encouraging other food habits that now seem ridiculously unbalanced. When reading it, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry.
Nutritional science seems to have come a long way since the 1890’s.
Calories have been much on my mind lately, as this year I undertook a year-long diet program, which ended a few weeks ago when I reached 170 lbs, having lost 50 lbs from my previous peak weight of 220. I accomplished this using LoseIt, a web app and iPhone app that allows you to easily track your calories, and gives you a calorie budget for each day which will ideally bring you down to your goal weight.
LoseIt was the perfect weight loss tool for me. I had previously tried a few different diets, but they always foundered on the fact that they imposed inflexible requirements on what to eat, and were often too aggressive in how quickly they wanted you to lose weight. LoseIt makes no suggestions at all on the content of your diet, which means that I was free to eat basically whatever I wanted, just in somewhat smaller quantities so that it would fit into my calorie budget. (It helped that my diet was already pretty balanced, with relatively few sweets and meats, and lots of fruits, vegetables, and dairy.) The experience was fantastic. I lost my first twenty pounds without really trying, and I never suffered from low energy or constant hunger.
And as a result, now I look great.
Ah, vanity. That’s the real reason for doing any of this, of course. We tell ourselves it’s about health, but the health risks of being moderately overweight are very small, and I was never overweight enough for it to be a worry. My reasons were much more emphemeral. I didn’t like the way that I looked, so I decided to change it.
And if we’re honest, the aesthetic desire to look good is the motivation behind most of our obsession with thinness and our disgust with obesity. We have couched this in the language of health, because “health” is one of the few values by which people are still allowed to make public moral judgements, but for those who aren’t morbidly obese, health usually doesn’t have much to do with it. The fat-positive movement is right about this much: the ballyhooed health risks of obesity are often exaggerated to justify the existing social standard of thinness, and to reinforce preexisting systems of prejudice.
In this way, the current calorie obsession really isn’t very different from the old calorie obsession. In both cases, we have progressive elites trying to regulate our eating habits for our own good, and with the apparent backing of science–but in both cases, the demands of science and progress are suspiciously aligned with our existing cultural biases. According to the article above, in the early 20th century restaurants in New York put calorie counts on their menu at the urging of progressives. And here we go again.
Color me skeptical of the reiging assumptions about diet and health, and supportive of those who choose to buck the trend. But at the same time, I wanted to lose weight, so I did. If you’re interested in doing the same, I can’t recommend LoseIt highly enough.