Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters, the ‘Queen of Calories,’ wrote a breakthrough diet and fitness book nearly 100 years ago

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 seems to have laid out all the good and bad points about weight-loss and fitness a century ago. The good: Treating weight loss and fitness as a problem that is solvable with the application of achievable and moderate techniques. The bad: The religious zeal about weight loss and fitness.

Losing weight and getting fit can be transformative, not because of the physical transformation itself but because it’s difficult to do, takes a long time, and relatively few people manage it. If you succeed at something like that, then you’re likely to emerge as a changed person. But you’ll still have all the problems, virtues, and flaws that you had before the change. You’ll be different but the same. I’m having difficulty articulating what I’m trying to say here.

And failing to get thin is … well, it’s not failure. Eat better, lose some weight, move more, and you’re better off than you were before, even if you never hit your goal weight. Or hit it and gain some of it back.

Also, mad props (as the young people no doubt are no longer saying) to Lulu for being a successful physician at a time when women didn’t have a lot of career options.

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