Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

April 27, 2017
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The queen of calories

Dr Lulu Hunt Peters penned the first best-selling diet book ever when much of the world was slim on good sense

The North American weight-loss industry is booming, to put it mildly. Dieters spent well over 60 billion dollars last year trying to shed those extra pounds, and that may just be the tip of the iceberg. People are getting bigger, and their appetite for a quick fix seems as insatiable as their craving for fats and sugar.

South of the border, more than one third of Americans are considered clinically obese, but Canadians are far from immune to the problem of packing on the pounds. Close to one quarter of Canucks are significantly overweight (as well as over 30 percent of our kids) and the numbers are still rising. Obesity — and the long list of serious health risks that accompany it — is poised to overtake smoking as the leading cause of preventable death in North America.

No wonder patients are shelling out the big bucks to win the battle of the bulge. But long before there were paleo plans and master cleanses, treadmill desks and thighmasters, gastric bypasses and gluten-bashing, there was Dr Lulu Hunt Peters: a woman on a weight-loss mission, and the only voice of reason in a world of desperate dieters.

A PASSION FOR PUBLIC HEALTH

Lulu Hunt Peters didn’t start out as a passionate public-health advocate, but she did go on to pen the first best-selling diet book ever, as well as introduce the concept of counting calories to the world. Stunning accomplishments, to be sure, but even more amazing if you think she did it in 1918, a time when women were scarcely allowed to study medicine, let alone influence the waistlines of the world.

But wait! Were Americans already overweight a century ago? The short answer is yes, though certainly not to the extent they are today. As far back as colonial times, Americans grew taller than their European counterparts, due to healthier and more abundant crops. By the mid-19th century, there was an eight-centimetre height discrepancy between American and Europeans. Robustness was praised in body and mind.

It was an attitude that applied to women too; on this side of the pond, less restrictive corsetry and fewer fainting couches meant a heartier female ideal. Healthy mothers could till fields and give birth to strong babies more likely to survive diseases.

That’s not to say everyone valued a plump woman in 19th- century America, which led to several early attempts to encourage slimness. Notably, one of the first fat-shamers on these shores was an austere Presbyterian minister by the name of Sylvester Graham (1794-1851). His followers were active through the 1880s, promoting an extremely restrictive diet and lifestyle.

WAS GRAHAM CRACKERS?

During the 1830s, Graham admonished what he saw as the new American gluttony, singing the praises of a vegetarian diet instead and abstinence from alcohol as a way to reduce rampant lustiness. Most expressions of sexuality would result in disease of body and mind, he claimed. He also promoted his very own superfood: the Graham cracker.

This tasteless treat was the reverend’s bland replacement for virtually everything he despised, from spices to masturbation. He was a big fan of cold showers, and claimed that ketchup and mustard caused insanity. But he also preached a high-fibre diet of fresh vegetables and unrefined grain products, plenty of fresh air and exercise, and abstinence from tobacco.

Though he was a bit of a fringe figure, Graham and his many believers did spark in the American public the first inklings of the dangers of excess. Slowly, public mores began to shift. The West had been won, and the Industrial Revolution was changing the face of America. The frontier life was waning as cities were growing.

THIN IS IN!

And, yes, being overweight became increasingly shameful over the course of the 19th century. Where once bombastic, cigar-chewing businessmen men enjoyed memberships in “Fat Clubs” and sad, skinny girls of marrying age gobbled up weight-gain tonics in the hopes of snaring husbands, a different ideal was beginning to emerge. Unflattering words appeared in the language to describe the overweight, and plenty of “fat salts” and tonics hit the market promising to melt away the flesh.

To make matters worse, it turned out that being heavy was actually bad for one’s life expectancy, as the burgeoning field of actuarial science began to prove. Armed with statistics, physicians started advising their patients to keep their weight under control — with apothecaries and snake-oil salesmen taking full advantage of the demand created by the new prohibition against pudge.

Fashion followed suit for women in the early 20th century as corsets were replaced with a desire for natural slimness. When America entered WWI in 1917, the newly established US War Industries Board asked women to do their patriotic duty by giving up their corsets so that the metal might be used for the war effort.

Sales plummeted instantly; the iron redirected from corsetry production alone was said to have been enough to construct two entire battleships. Relieved women everywhere stopped lacing up and turned to diet instead to achieve the look they wanted. Before too long, the waifish, flat-chested form of flappers was in and the stage was set for a “reducing” revolution.

FOR THE LOVE OF LULU

Lulu Hunt Peters (1873-1930) was born in Maine but moved to California in her youth. She was always overweight, and when she didn’t outgrow her baby fat as she had hoped, she set about researching the problem that was so personal to her. After earning her medical degree at the University of California at Berkeley in 1909, she began devising a solution to the problem of being overweight. Through a sensible regimen of calorie-counting and self-control, Peters lost 32 kilograms and began a public-health campaign to educate women about healthy diet, exercise and weight loss.

Peters compiled the latest dietary research from a wide variety of sources and set about putting it all into layman’s terms. Diet and Health: With Key to the Calories was released in 1918. Amazingly, her nearly 100-year-old advice is not too far off today's best-practice weight-loss methodology. Simply put, her plan was successful because it was based on the tried-and-true wisdom that in order to lose weight or maintain it, calories taken in must never exceed calories burned. She devised a fairly accurate way to determine the amount of calories in food, as well as a method for calculating one’s ideal weight very similar to today's body-mass index standards.

Interestingly, Diet and Health was geared almost exclusively towards women in the way it was conceived and written. Part of the reason Peters’ voice appealed to so many was that she took a subject that had until then been considered dull and relatively clinical and somehow turned it into a great read filled with wit, humour and general wisdom.

MEET MRS. IMA GOBBLER

Peters infused her text with fictional dieters sporting names like Mrs Tiny Weyaton, Mrs Natty B. Slymm and Mrs Ima Gobbler. She also had her nine-year-old nephew do all the illustrations. Women found they could relate well to Peters, who’d struggled with her own size, admitted to frequent chocolate binges, and truly knew the pitfalls of dieting and understood the self-control required to lose weight. The book also discussed many previously unspoken-of psychological aspects of weight loss, such as jealous husbands and passive-aggressive friends rooting for the dieter to fail.

The good doctor had an innate understanding of what made dieters tick. Though much of her advice was practical – she included lists of 100-calorie portion sizes of common foods, and put forth a carefully thought-out regime of physical activity – Peters also seemed to embody a somewhat prescient weight-loss philosophy: “How anyone can want to be anything but thin is beyond my intelligence... if there is anything comparable to the joy taking in your clothes I have not experienced it.”

Now, nearly a century later, hopeful dieters still repeat the mantra that nothing tastes as good as being thin feels.

BEST-SELLING BOOK

Thanks to its chatty style — and the effectiveness of the diet — Peters’ unassuming little book slowly began to garner a following. Diet and Health climbed non-fiction best-seller lists across North America and there it stayed for more than four years. It all came as a huge shock to the author, who’d moved to Bosnia to work for the Red Cross immediately after she finished writing it. When Peters returned to the States from the Balkans two years later, she was shocked to find her book a best-seller and herself somewhat of a celebrity.

Peters’ success spread rapidly along with Diet and Health. Her newspaper advice column of the same name became nationally syndicated. The so-called Queen of Calorie Counting was arguably the most well-known female physician in America during the 1920s. She used her fame to promote healthy dieting practices, and also railed against dangerous ways to lose weight, like over-exercising and purging.

She was particularly hard on what she called "freak reducing diets." If you thought the grapefruit or cabbage-soup diets were bad, the tapeworm-pill craze of the early 20th century was even worse. It's doubtful any of the hungry little critters were actually present in the capsules being hawked in magazine ads, but the mere fact that so many women were willing to try them was seriously concerning.

Parasites aside, Peters wisely warned that even more innocent-sounding diet pills contained dangerous ingredients like arsenic and mercury. With no federal oversight demanding safety in food and drugs, it was up to the consumer to make wise choices — no easy matter when all manner of ridiculous options with outlandish claims were available at every turn.

Various accounts list total sales of Diet and Health somewhere between 800,000 and two million copies sold — an amazing feat, even by today’s standards. Even more impressive is the fact that the book is still in print, still racking up positive reviews. One can only hope that, 96 years after her book’s initial release, the wise words of Dr Lulu Hunt Peters might one day sink in and spare some of the many millions weighed down by the scourge of obesity.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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