‘Eat what you like and grow thin,’ claimed Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters, author of the 1918 diet book that introduced Americans to calorie counting. Peters preached portion control and exercise to a mostly female audience who’d come of age believing that a few extra pounds were a sign of health and abundance. The 1920s idealized whippet-thin flappers, and Peters’ Diet and Health, With Key to the Calories flew off the shelves, eventually selling 2 million copies and remaining continuously in print for 20 years. The good doctor, who’d earned her medical degree from the University of California in 1909, touted a 1,200-calories-a-day plan and backed it up with proven nutritional science. Detractors were put off by her militant insistence that being overweight reflected weakness of character, but Peters was on solid ground medically, linking weight to diseases like diabetes and arthritis. She warned against popular “anti-fat medicines” that contained mercury or arsenic and called “drastic purges” and “violent exercises” “unscientific and unsuccessful.” Fans were charmed by the book, which was illustrated by Peters’ 10-year-old nephew. His asking price? Twenty-three cents and an ice cream cone.


Originally published in the February 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.