Origins of Calorie Counting

100 Calorie Portions of a Few Familiar Foods

  • 1886 – First public mention of “calorics”
  • 1887 – Calories as food energy first explained
  • 1896 – Birth of calorie counting concept
  • 1906 – Measure food by calories instead of weight
  • 1918 – First bestselling calorie counting diet book

You might be wondering, dear reader, as a person mildly to very interested in nutrition and health, why would you care about the history and origin of calories and calorie counting?

Well, maybe you’ve just wanted to know where it all started, but never had the time to dig deeply into the history and origins of calorie counting. Somebody must have been the instigator. Who was it? And what was the timeline of how calorie counting got rolling and continues to this day?

Unless you’re a nutrition historian, you may not really care about this subject at all. But if you are one of the few who do, this post is for you – the intersection of calorie counting origins, history, and science.

Calorie Counting Origins

For a timeline of historical documents related to the origins of calorie counting, see this page, Calorie Counting Timeline.

Edward Atkinson
Edward Atkinson

1886: Atkinson – The Food Question in America and Europe or The Public Victualing Department

  • First mention of “calorics” (calories) in public magazine, The Century
  • Inventor of the Aladdin oven, saving fuel, cooking effort, and food costs
  • Successful entrepreneur and executive of cotton mills
  • Interested in dietetics and home economics

it will appear in Professor Atwater’s future treatment of this subject that, although the standard rations which have been established as necessary to sustain a workingman in full vigor by several leading authorities in Germany, France, and England vary somewhat in the relative proportions of protein, fats, and carbohydrates, yet when reduced to calorics, or mechanical units, or equivalents of heat, they correspond almost exactly each to the other.

—Edward Atkinson, 1886, The Century magazine, The Food Question in America and Europe or The Public Victualing Department

Wilbur O. Atwater
Wilbur O. Atwater

1887: Atwater – The Potential Energy of Food; The Chemistry and Economy of Food III.

  • Public introduction of calories, calorimetry, calorimeters, and potential energy of food
  • Introduction of standard calorie values of protein, carbohydrates, and fats: 4.1, 4.1, 9.3, respectively—the original Atwater values
  • Professor of Chemistry, father of nutrition science in America
  • Seminal article on calories as fuel values of food and the conversion of potential energy into work and heat
  • Measuring food amounts in calories was initially a way to ensure food economy–getting enough food at lowest cost–in an era of widespread undernourishment

Modern physical science has taught how to measure the potential energy in combustible materials. The apparatus used is called a calorimeter, and the energy measured by the amount of heat produced in burning the substances with oxygen, the equivalent of the heat in terms of mechanical energy being quite definitely known. The amounts of potential energy in different food-materials have been measured this way. …

Since these German researches are very recent and have not yet been made accessible to English readers, I could hardly expect to be excused if I did not give at least an inkling of the details. …

Taking our ordinary food-materials as they come, and leaving out slight differences due to the differences in digestibility, etc., Dr. Rubner has made the following general estimate of the amounts of energy in one gram of each of the three principal classes of nutrients. The Calorie, which is the unit commonly employed in these calculations, is the amount of heat which would raise the temperature of a kilogram of water one degree centigrade (or a pound of water 4 degrees Fahrenheit).

Potential Energy in Nutrients of Food

—Wilbur O. Atwater. The Potential Energy of Food; The Chemistry and Economy of Food III., The Century Magazine, 1887

Edward Atkinson
Edward Atkinson

1896: Atkinson (again) – The Science of Nutrition, Treatise Upon the Science of Nutrition, Fourth Edition.

  • Birth of calorie counting concept — “we may even put the whole art of nutrition … into the common school arithmetics, in the form of examples of addition, multiplication and the like”
  • Introduced the Calorie as the “unit of nutrition”
  • “…at the very beginning of … a true Science of Nutrition”

…it has become apparent that we were at the very beginning of what will be necessary in order to establish a true Science of Nutrition…

When the chemical units of nutrition in all these various dietaries are computed in units of heat or Calories they are all substantially uniform–through this conversion the computation of standard dietaries becomes very simple and can be varied according to the age, sex and the kind of work for which the food is to supply energy.

If we may now adopt the Calorie as the unit of nutrition, it becomes a very simple matter to prepare rules and tables that shall be a true guide to intelligent persons in the purchase and in the consumption of food; not day by day, but by the adoption of standards corresponding in every way to the chemical elements and to the units of heat, say for thirty days. I think we may even put the whole art of nutrition by and by, into the common school arithmetics, in the form of examples of addition, multiplication and the like

The Calorie or mechanical unit of heat may well be adopted as the unit of capacity for work either mental or manual–either with hand or brain. …

In order to make allowance for unavoidable waste we may safely adopt 4,000 Calories as the average units of nutrition for a man at active but not excessive work for one day. …

This is a sketch of the elements of the science or art of nutrition which may perhaps be perfected and may possibly be taught in the common school arithmetics.

—Edward Atkinson. The Science of Nutrition, Treatise Upon the Science of Nutrition, Fourth Edition. 1896 (original copyright 1892)

Irving Fisher
Irving Fisher

1906: Irving Fisher – A new method for indicating food values

  • Promoted measuring food by calories instead of by weight
  • Introduced the 100 calorie standard portion
  • Advocated his method of expressing food values visually in geometrical representation
  • Well-known Yale economist, perhaps most famous for proclaiming in 1929 that the stock market had reached “a permanently high plateau” just prior to the Wall Street crash

… Dr. J. H. Kellogg of the Battle Creek Sanatorium devised a table in which, instead of the percentages [by weight] of Atwater and Benedict, the number of calories of proteid, fat, and carbohydrate for each food-stuff is specified. In addition to this, he provided his patients with a menu card on which the weight of each food as served at the table, and the calories of proteid, fat, and carbohydrate are printed. All the weighing is done in the kitchen, and the patient needs merely to check on his menu the articles eaten. His physician then makes the remaining computation, which consists in adding the calories of proteid, fat, and carbohydrate, and totals.

The method to be presented in the present paper is designed to still further save labor and at the same time to visualise the magnitude and proportions of the diet. It is similar to that just described in that it measures the food by calories instead of by weight, but differs from it in that it substitutes for the ounce, as the fundamental element, a “standard portion” of 100 calories. In order to carry out this method, foods should be served at the table in “standard portions” or simple multiples thereof.

—Irving Fisher. A new method for indicating food values. Am. Journal of Physiology, vol.15, p.417, 1906
Lulu Hunt Peters
Lulu Hunt Peters

1918: Lulu Hunt Peters – Diet and Health with Key to the Calories

  • Physician, newspaper columnist, and author of first blockbuster diet book in America
  • Wacky, funny, outspoken popularizer of calorie counting as means of weight loss
  • How to calculate your normal or ideal weight
  • The most influential book on calorie counting

Now you know that a calorie is a unit of measuring heat and food. It is not heat, not food; simply a unit of measure.

You should know and also use the word calorie as frequently, or more frequently, than you use the words foot, yard, quart, gallon, and so forth, as measures of length and of liquids. Hereafter you are going to eat calories of food. Instead of saying one slice of bread, or a piece of pie, you will say 100 Calories of bread, 350 Calories of pie.

Can you see now why fats are valuable? Why they make fat more than any other food? They give off more than two and one-fourth times as much heat, or energy, as the other foods.

By the rule I have given, adults require 15-20 Calories per pound per day, depending upon activity. For example, if you have no physical activities, then take the lowest figure, 15. 150×15—2250. Therefore your requirement, if your weight should be 150, is 2250 Calories per day.

Now, if you want to lose, cut down 500-1000 Calories per day from that.

Five hundred Calories equal approximately 2 ounces of fat. Two ounces per day would be about 4 pounds per month, or 48 pounds per year. Cutting out 1000 Calories per day would equal a reduction of approximately 8 pounds per month, or 96 pounds per year. These pounds you can absolutely lose by having a knowledge of food values (calories) and regulating your intake accordingly. You can now see the importance of a knowledge of calories.

If you want to gain, add gradually 500-1000 Calories per day.

1 lb. fat 4000 C
1/2 lb. fat 2000 C
1/4 lb. fat 1000 C
1/8 lb. fat 500 C

Any food eaten beyond what your system requires for its energy, growth, and repair, is fattening, or is an irritant, or both.

Chapter 7 Exercise
It is practically impossible to reduce weight through exercise alone, unless one can do a tremendous amount of it. For the food that one eats is usually enough to cover the energy lost by the exercise.

Chapter 8 At Last! How to Reduce
Nature Always Counts
Usually, if you have gained when you think you ought not to, it is because Nature has been counting calories and you haven’t.

Maintenance Diet
The maintenance diet is one which maintains you at your present weight, i.e., you are not gaining or losing. You may be over or under normal, but are staying there. The intake equals the outgo.
When you eat less than your maintenance diet, you are going to supply the deficiency with your own fat.

Third Order
You Are Down to Business
Now you will have to reckon on the amount of food or number of calories you need per day. Review the rule I have given. You find for your age and normal weight that you will need, let us say for example, 2200 calories. You have probably been consuming twice that amount and either storing it away as fat or as disease. (It is surprising how small an excess will gradually add up pounds of fat. For instance, three pats of butter or three medium chocolate creams a day, if over the maintenance limit, would add approximately 27 pounds a year to your weight!) — And Maybe Diabetes

Now you are to reduce your maintenance diet—the 2200 calories we are taking for example—to 1200 calories—quite a comfortable lot, you will find.

You will be surprised how much 1200 calories will be if the food is judiciously selected.

You may be hungry at first, but you will soon become accustomed to the change. I find that dry lemon or orange peel, or those little aromatic breath sweeteners, just a tiny bit, seem to stop the hunger pangs; or you may have a cup of fat-free bouillon or half an apple, or other low calorie food. (Count the calories here.)

One thousand calories less food per day equals four ounces of fat lost daily—approximately 8 pounds per month. If you do not want to lose so fast, do not cut down so much.

Fourth Order
You may eat just what you like—candy, pie, cake, fat meat, butter, cream—but—count your calories! You can’t have many nor large helpings, you see; but isn’t it comforting to know that you can eat these things?

You will be tempted quite frequently, and you will have to choose whether you will enjoy yourself hugely in the twenty minutes or so that you will be consuming the excess calories, or whether you will dislike yourself cordially for the two or three days you lose by your lack of will power.

Count your calories.

Every once in a while you hear that the caloric theory has been exploded. There is no caloric “theory.” Therefore none to explode. Calories are simply units for measuring heat and energy and never will be exploded any more than the yard or meter “theory” will be exploded. Foods must contain essential salts and the growth and health maintaining elements. These cannot be measured by calories. The quantity of heat or energy production but not the quality of the foods is measured in calories, and one must have a knowledge of the qualities also. No scientifically educated individual has ever thought otherwise.

—Lulu Hunt Peters, A.B., M.D. Diet and Health with Key to the Calories. The Reilly and Lee Co. Chicago. 1918.

Now you know where calorie counting came from, who started it, and when.


4 thoughts on “Origins of Calorie Counting

  1. I had to laugh at this: “Well-known Yale economist, perhaps most famous for proclaiming in 1929 that the stock market had reached “a permanently high plateau” just prior to the Wall Street crash”

    The thing is, using calories as a measurement seems extremely logical and it is very easy to grasp, if you don’t mind grasping only a partial truth; no wonder it has taken over the nutrition world.

    This is a cool post, worth keeping around for the snapshot of the beginning of the counting trend. BTW, if you could make that graphic at the top a little bigger, the text would be legible – on my system it is pretty hard to read because of the low resolution of the linked image.

    1. Thanks much, Tyrannocaster. I initially heard about Fisher in a tiny reference in a text by nutrition scientist and chemist Chittenden, also of Yale. When I looked into who Fisher was, I was surprised to find out he was a famous economist whose theories apparently can also be tied somewhat to our recent 2008 financial crash. You can’t make this stuff up!

      The thing about calorie counting is that there’s no harm in believing that excess calories will make you gain weight when no one is overweight and the real problem for most is getting enough food, not eating less. It’s only once you get the obesity epidemic that having the right theory of weight loss matters. I will be exploring this much more in the future.

      After poking around on your blog, I see how visual and artistic minded you are, so I’ll have to be more careful with my images. 😀 I dug up a better version from the US National Archives, just for you. Click on it now, should be much more readable.

  2. That newer one is more easily deciphered; to me, it looks like the original used an odd typeface that would require a pretty high-res image to reproduce it well. But at least now somebody can figure out what the numbers are saying, so thanks for the change.

    I just got the first copy of The Big Fat Surprise from our library; I have already read it in epub form, but my wife has not, so she’s reading it now. I think this book is going to have a pretty big influence on the popular dialog, not least because Teicholz herself is an attractive woman, whereas Gary Taubes seems to come off as a wonk to the general public – this is a shame, as his books are just as important, but I’m betting that because of the way our culture is, Teicholz will just seem more accessible to people. Aside from feeling a little like Taubes may not get all the credit he deserves, I’m just pleased to see people show interest in her book.

    All of which is just a long-winded way of saying, once again, that a change is gonna come. And it’s about damn time, too.

    1. “…a change is gonna come. And it’s about damn time, too.”

      Yes, but “still I wonder, who’ll stop the rain?” Sometimes I think we’re moving forward toward real change, but then I remember the giant monster that still hovers over us all. If you haven’t read Adele Hite’s In the face of contradictory evidence: Report of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans Committee it’s a powerful takedown of the current guidelines. As long as they are in place as the official government advice, we’ll have a hard battle.

      It’s sad that many people will do much better by ignoring the official government nutrition advice.

      Don’t listen to experts. Listen to yourself. Test stuff out. See what works. Confused by the daily stream of nutrition and health advice that changes all the time? Simple, don’t believe any of it, even what you want to believe (confirmation bias).

      I’ve not read Teicholz book, and maybe I should since everyone keeps mentioning it and I somehow seem to find myself writing a nutrition themed blog. I have heard her interviewed on a few podcasts. I think she does have a more accessible style and lighter tone to her speaking, which can be an advantage or not depending on the audience.

      The recent Time magazine “Eat Butter” cover and “Ending the War on Fat” cover story had to have Gary Taubes smiling. 🙂

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