Peters served as chairman of the Public Health Committee of the California Federation of Women's Clubs in Los Angeles. She is the author of the first bestselling American diet book, Dieting and Health: With Key to the Calories, published in 1918. Framed as a response to World War I (and dedicated to Herbert Hoover, whose claim to fame at that point was that he "fed starving Belgium") it set out obesity as a "crime to hoard food" for which one would be fined or imprisoned. "How dare you hoard food when our nation needs it?" (Peters 1918: 12). The book is said to have sold 2 million copies and was published in more than fifty-five editions by i939. As the model for recent modern diet books, it was directed and marketed primarily to women, written in a popular style, and included testimonials of successful weight loss. Unlike modern diet books, however, Peters included suggestions for weight gain as well as beauty tips, such as how to eliminate wrinkles.
Dr. Peters was "overweight" herself, apparently 220 pounds at her heaviest, and claimed to have lost 70 pounds following her own plan. She writes,
All my life [I fought] the too, too solid. Why, I can remember when I was a child I was always being consoled by being told that I would outgrow it, and that when I matured I would have some shape I was a delicate slip of one hundred sixty-five when I was taken [in marriage].
(Peters 1918: 13)
Her "key to the calories" was an extensive list of food portions adding up to 100 calories. On a 1,200 calorie per day diet, a dieter could have twelve i00-calorie units of food. Much of her book consisted of lists of foods and their caloric content. Her system was premised on the idea of an ideal weight, for which she provided tools of measurement. The formula consisted of taking the number of inches over 5 feet of one's height, multiplying that number by 5.5 and adding 110. The equation was meant to yield the ideal weight, in pounds, of a "normal" woman. The number of calories a dieter was meant to consume depended upon how far their actual weight exceeded the ideal for their height. Peters dismissed the notion that fat people (women) were overindulgent or lazy; rather, she divided the world into those whose metabolism quickly or slowly burned fat. She argued that even eating a bird seed if your metabolism was slow would add fat to your body. She admitted that there were those with pathologies, such as those of the thyroid, who became fat and could be cured by curing their illness, but
most fat people became fat from "overeating and under-exercising" (Peters 1918: 16). This destigmatizing position stressed the difference of obese bodies from those of individuals who were "naturally thin."
See also Calorie
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