Historical essay
The Cultural Logic of Calories and Body Types

The Cultural Logic of Calories and Body Types

We were promised calorie labels. New York City has required them in chain restaurants since 2008 and California since 2009, but the Affordable Care Act mandated them nationwide. In April 2016, the FDA issued a “final rule” on the calorie-labeling requirement, resolving questions like whether movie theaters and alcoholic beverages were included (they were), and setting a compliance deadline of May 2017. As that date approached and the threat of ACA repeal loomed, the FDA quietly extended the deadline another year. Assuming the May 2018 deadline stands, the provision will likely be a decade old before we have any idea whether it will work as intended.

Skeptics point to studies where labels were associated with only slight reductions in what customers ordered, had no effect, or perhaps encouraged young men to order more. Industry lobbying groups complain that it’s expensive and burdensome. The labels are sometimes inaccurate and customizable items have large ranges, like the 350-970 calorie Chipotle burrito. Labels might also have negative effects on people with eating disorders. Advocates say it’s a good policy anyway. In a NEJM op-ed published shortly after the ACA passed, Marion Nestle acknowledged “logistical problems and modest benefits,” but insisted “calorie labeling is well worth the trouble. Here, at last, is help for explaining the relationship of food energy to body weight. Calories are otherwise impossibly abstract; they cannot be seen, smelled, or tasted.”

The promise of clarity and weight control has been central to the appeal of the calorie since it was first adopted as a measure of nutrition around 1890. Being able to quantify food energy was supposed to make weight-loss as simple as balancing a checkbook. The belief that anyone can get thinner by eating fewer calories than they burn, sometimes referred to as the “energy balance paradigm,” is dominant again today. However, from the 1930s to the 1970s, energy balance and the weight-loss diets that relied on it fell out of favor as many Americans embraced a competing paradigm: somatotype theory, which claimed that body types were inherited and largely unchanging.

What explains the rise, fall, and return of energy balance and the “slimming” diets associated with it? In my book, Discriminating Taste, I argue that the aspirational food trends that became mainstream in the 1980s, including the dramatic rise in weight-loss dieting, represent the re-emergence of food ideals that were last dominant during the Gilded Age. In the periods of high inequality that bookend the twentieth century, the professional middle class used food to distinguish itself from the lower classes, and claim moral authority over the corporations and super-rich who had eclipsed them in wealth and power.1

From roughly 1930 to 1980, as the middle classes made significant gains relative to the rich, their status anxieties changed. These changes were reflected in shifts in the popular understanding of the body, including how desirable and universally achievable thinness was imagined to be.

The Body as a Factory

The nutritional calorie was introduced to the American public by USDA Chemist Wilbur Atwater (father of Helen Atwater) in a series of Century magazine articles published in 1887-8. The articles made Atwater “the most famous scientist in America,” and they’re widely credited with inspiring the first rise of weight-loss dieting.2 However, the articles suggest that the slimming fad was well under way before the theory of energy balance had been fully worked out.

Atwater’s initial series was devoted primarily to composite analysis, or explaining how much of the weight of common foods consisted of water, protein, fat, carbohydrates, and minerals. He also introduced the calorie, and explained that a gram of fat supplied more than twice as much energy as a gram of protein or carbohydrate, but his dietary recommendations were based on the prevailing idea that food essentially replaced their corresponding components in the body.

Photo of an article page showing composite analysis of an average man and an average sirloin of beef
Atwater’s first articles for Century in 1887-8 focus on composite analysis. (W. O. Atwater, “The Chemistry of Food & Nutrition,” Century Illustrated Magazine 34 (May and June 1887): 67 | Public domain)

Protein was the most important nutrient because it was thought to rebuild muscle used up in work. Atwater’s first Century article featured a table of the components of a 148-pound human body on the same page as a chart detailing the compounds of sirloin beef, and concluded, “Our bodies and food consist of essentially the same kinds of materials…. The different nutrients have different offices to perform in the nutrition of the body…. Health and pecuniary economy alike require that the diet should contain nutrients proportioned to the user.”

In 1895, Atwater got USDA funding to construct a respiration apparatus and calorimeter, designed to measure how much energy people used in different activities and the energy released by burning food (or excrement, or whatever else you set on fire).3 One early finding was that if a subject drank the amount of alcohol in a typical bottle of wine over the course of a day, it would be oxidized and replace fat or carbohydrates as fuel, which conflicted with the temperance movement’s claim that alcohol had no nutritive value.4

In 1897, Atwater published another Century article describing the new experiments. This time, some charts featured an additional column for “fuel value” measured in calories. The conclusion also points to a shift from the concern with replacing muscle to achieving “balance” and the dangers of excess: “We are, I think, justified in believing that the diet of a very large number of people is out of balance. It contains an excess of food material, and this excess is largely due to the eating of fat meats, sugar, and the starchy foods. These results of accurate observation and experiment thus accord with and explain the current opinion of hygienists as to our ordinary habit of overeating.”

Photo of an article page showing multiple tables breaking down the energy in common foods
Atwater’s 1897 article shifted the focus to food energy and calories. (W. O. Atwater, “How Food is Used in the Body: Experiments with Men in a Respiration Apparatus,” Century Illustrated Magazine 54 (June 1897): 250 | Public domain)

His claim that dieticians were already complaining about overeating before the results of his pioneering experiments were widely known supports the arguments others have made that weight-loss dieting didn’t follow the science, but preceded and shaped it.5 As Atwater suggested, his experiments were seen as conveniently confirming the “current opinion” about overeating.

But the calorie offered an appealing new rationale that shaped many subsequent weight-loss and health reform efforts. Energy balance was a way to apply the same universal logic thought to govern the laws of physics and the market to the body. As Hillel Schwartz puts it: “The calorie promised precision and essence in the same breath. It should have been as easy to put the body in order as it was to put the books in order for a factory.”6

Physique as Destiny

In 1931, the director of the Carnegie Institute’s Nutritional Laboratory wrote that the popular interest in weight reduction had “finally receded a bit.”7 As the streamlined flapper gave way to the return of more voluptuous beauty ideals, many Americans began to embrace a new theory of the body popularized by William Sheldon.

Sheldon was a psychologist specializing in Anthropometry, the search for objective external measurements that would reveal the inner nature of the person. He identified three types: the thin ectomorph, fat endomorph, and muscular mesomorph, named after the three layers of tissue in mammalian embryos. Sheldon’s theory was that the more of a given kind of tissue was present in the embryo, the more traits of that body type the person would have.8

Illustration showing 7 men of various somatotypes as understood in 1951, with the heading Measure Your Temperament
Illustration of somatotypes from June 1951. ( Robert Coughlan, “What Manner of Morph Are You?” Life Magazine 30 no. 26 (June 1951): 72)

Sheldon’s types resemble the early modern belief in different constitutions based on the humors, but his theory gave the idea of different inborn characteristics a new scientific gloss and appealed to World War II-era nationalism. Noting that Christ was traditionally portrayed as an ectomorph, supposed to be cerebral, Sheldon argued that America, as a Christian nation, would have a military advantage over the Nazis, whose mesomorphic bodies indicated arrogance.9

Similarities between somatotype theory and eugenics attracted increasing criticism after World War II, but the idea that physique was destined remained popular. In 1951, Life magazine claimed that Sheldon’s influence rivaled Freud’s or even Hippocrates, and declared, “He has shown that character and physique are closely related, and that the first, like the second is to a considerable extent a product of heredity.”10

Popular magazines like Ladies’ Home Journal published quizzes designed to determine “your man’s” type or quoted doctors who used Sheldon’s types to explain why some people are “born to be overweight.”11 Many Americans embraced the idea that some were naturally “husky” while others were slender, and there were limits to how much diet or exercise could change that.

The Meritocracy of Thinness

By promising that anyone can be thin if they simply eat less than they burn, energy balance makes body size into a meritocracy and thinness into sign of knowledge and virtue. In periods of high inequality, this ideology appeals to people in search of ways to distinguish themselves. During the Great Compression in inequality, Americans turned instead to an ideology that would naturalize and justify inborn differences. If calories ever actually make it onto menus nationwide, we will have the return of Gilded Age rates of inequality to thank.


  1. Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014): 151. Return to text.
  2. Marion Nestle and Malden Nesheim, Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012): 26. Return to text.
  3. Jessica Mudry, Measured Meals: Nutrition in America (Albany: SUNY Press, 2009): 36. Return to text.
  4. Ibid., 95-6. See also, “The Controversy as to the Nutritive Value of Alcohol,” The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal vol. 142, no. 10 (March 8, 1900). Return to text.
  5. See also Nancy Fraser, Losing It: False Hopes and Fat Profits in the Diet Industry (New York: Plume, 1997): 17. Return to text.
  6. Hillel Schwartz, Never Satisfied: A Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies and Fat (New York: Anchor Books, 1986): 135. Return to text.
  7. Ibid., 183. Return to text.
  8. William Sheldon, William Tucker, and Stanley Stevens, The Varieties of Human Physique: An Introduction to Constitutional Psychology (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1940): 6. Return to text.
  9. Schwartz, 223. Return to text.
  10. Patricia Vertinsky, “Physique as Destiny: William H. Sheldon, Barbara Honeyman Heath and the Struggle for Hegemony in the Science of Somatotyping,” Canadian Bulletin of Medical History 24 no. 2 (February 2007): 308. Return to text.
  11. Earnest Hooton, “Is Your Man Normal?” Ladies’ Home Journal 64 no. 4 (April 1946): 167-170; Patricia and Ronald Deutsch, “Were You Born to Be Overweight?” Ladies Home Journal 83 no. 9 (September 1966): 60, 135-6. Return to text.

Margot Finn earned her Ph.D. in American Culture from the University of Michigan, where she now teaches as a lecturer in the Applied Liberal Arts. She is the author of Discriminating Taste: How Class Anxiety Created the American Food Revolution and tweets @smargot_finn.