What’s Cooking Wednesday: Giving thanks for the calorie?

A poster giving information on what 100 calories looks like, from the Records of the Office of Education (ARC 5838434).

Congratulations to Sheila Fisher, whose comment on last week’s post, “A fire place with hickory wood burning and crackling. Nothing makes a house smell more like a home than a wood burning fireplace on a frosty winter morning! MMMMMM” was randomly chosen by Patty Mason, the editor of Eating with Uncle Sam. The Foundation for the National Archives will be sending you a copy!

Wilbur Olin Atwater would make a terrible Thanksgiving guest.

Chances are after you stuffed yourself with turkey, gravy, rolls, and green beans covered in fried onions bits, he would invite you sit in his calorimeter.

Would you decline? Or would you agree to be a (stuffed) guinea pig for science? W. O. Atwater wasn’t one to mince words: “The evils of overeating may not be felt at once, but sooner or later they are sure to appear—perhaps in an excessive amount of fatty tissue, perhaps in general debility, perhaps in actual disease.”

In fact, Wilbur Olin Atwater is the reason that we count calories in the first place.

Atwater was born in 1844, and the results of his research are still being felt over 100 years later. In fast-food restaurants, you can look at a chart listing fat, protein, carbs, and calories for each food—a quantification of food pioneered by Atwater. He was the Special Agent in Charge of Nutrition Investigation in the Office of Experiment Stations, and he conducted the first federally funded research in nutrition.

"Subject Reading in Respiration Calorimeter" from the Records of the Bureau of Human Nutrition and Home Economics, ARC 5729290

His subjects agreed to spend time in a respiration calorimeter, which looked like a large box. While inside, they sat still and read, did moderate activity and ironed, or exercised more vigorously on a stationary biciycle.

For each activity, Atwater and his team measured how much heat each individual produced as well as metabolic rate. Atwater used this information to calculate how many calories a person needed to consume.

This was cutting-edge technology in the 1890s. It was also expensive, with a yearly operating cost of $10,000.

But it marked a turning point in how Americans thought about food. Eventually his findings were translated for the public in 1916 by home economics specialists. By then, food was no longer just food, but it had new meaning and new numbers attached to it.

While we worry now about consuming too many calories, there have been times when the government has urged us to eat more. During World Wars I and II, civilians at home rationed meat and sugar to make sure that soldiers in the field were getting enough to eat. Decades after these conflicts, the military is still concerned with feeding its soldiers in the field: at a recent noon lecture in the National Archives, scientists from the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development, and Engineering Center revealed that cold-weather rations supply fighters with 4,500 calories per day!

But if you wish to be truly thankful this Thanksgiving, take a better look at the poster above. We are all familiar with the idea of the 100-calorie pack as a way to ration our treats and avoid overeating. But this poster was developed to help citizens know how much they were eating and to ward off malnutrition, a real danger in the 1930s.

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