September 20, 2012

The history of calories and scientific eating.

Martin Bruegel takes us back to the late 1800s:
In 1888, the American chemist Wilbur O. Atwater devised a series of formulas that would help people get the most energy from the least food. Economics and physiology would be joined in what he called “the pecuniary economy of food.” Atwater pioneered a movement that came to be known as “scientific eating.”

The notion appealed to French physicians, who had been looking for ways to improve working-class health and budgets. They believed that these households spent too much on meat and alcohol. Their program of “rational eating” aimed to instruct the poor to keep food expenses within the limits of their (modest) budgets. They urged the substitution of protein-rich legumes for red meat, pasta for sausages, and sugared beverages for wine.

These reformers believed that ignorance was the problem and information the solution. Nutrition facts were put next to the items on the menu cards in factory canteens and in working-class restaurants. Scales at the entrance to eating places helped customers to monitor their weight. A menu board, listing carefully calibrated culinary options, would allow workers to assemble nutritious meals from a set of limited options.
It didn't work, except in adjusting the menu in prisons, where money was saved. People wanted their pleasures. How does that historical experience apply today — as McDonald's begins posting calorie information? Our food is already cheap, and if you're eating in a restaurant, you're not going to find anything significantly cheaper than McDonald's. That 19th century experience was about saving money, and it's that pasta and sugared drinks approach to eating that is making us fat. I bet a switch to red wine and red meat would work as a weight-loss diet for most adults who've gotten fat eating McDonald's style.

Bruegel notes the obvious: People enjoy eating and they eat what they like. You can give them more scientific information, but how can you tell them what to like?  Bruegel, who seems to be French, ends with drippy sympathy for the poor Americans who suffer in "an era of stagnant wages, dystopian politics and cultural anomie" and chomp cheeseburgers as their last best hope for pleasure. He says "we" shouldn't blame "the poor" — who are "we" and how does he know we're not poor? — but should blame our "culture that relies ever more on unhealthy foods to breathe meaning and purpose into everyday life."

So we they are not chomping cheeseburgers simply for sensual pleasure — they're searching for meaning and purpose in their paltry, crushed little lives. Let me paraphrase: If life is spiritually and economically small, there is meaning in getting physically large.

30 comments:

Freeman Hunt said...

I drove through to get a large iced coffee (no liquid sugar, 110 calories,) and I was surprised at how low the calories were for all the sandwiches. (I eat in a pretty narrow calorie range right now, so I hadn't looked at the calorie counts for most of these things before.)

People don't get fat by eating burgers at McDonald's. If they're getting fat at McDonald's, they're doing it by eating fries and drinking shakes and sodas.

SomeoneHasToSayIt said...

The percentage is high enough that, for all intents and purposes, we can simply say: "everyone acts in their own (mostly short term) interest, all the time."

"Because it makes me feel good", is one of those things, and so we eat what we eat because it feels good at the time.

I don't think it is much more complicated than that.

'Proper' nutrition doesn't taste as good, so we must use our brains, and aim for a delayed gratification (better health in old age, for example) reward - and that's not easy to keep up.

chickelit said...

Freeman Hunt noted the irony: If they're getting fat at McDonald's, they're doing it by eating [French] fries and drinking shakes and sodas.

EMD said...

and chomp cheeseburgers as their last best hope for pleasure

I believe it's called a Royale with Cheese.

Sloanasaurus said...

I admit that I have been addicted to myfitnesspal app for sometime now.

I recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning about how much they eat and what they eat. It really helps you lose weight - way more than any diet.

Not to long ago liberals wanted to give free food to people without conditions. However, those were the less totalitarian liberals. Now with the advant of the totalitarian Obamas, the conditions are coming in droves. Now we have the obesity campaign. Their solution is to give people free food and to also dictate what people eat.

As a conservative, I think there should be conditions to any welfare, but the dictates go to far. Rather than dictating people's entire lives, we should just give people basic foods rather than a credit card to buy what ever they want. At least people will be forced to learn how to cook then.

Lyssa said...

'Proper' nutrition doesn't taste as good, so we must use our brains, and aim for a delayed gratification (better health in old age, for example) reward - and that's not easy to keep up.

I disagree that proper nutrition doesn't taste as good - it's better, but you do have to put some effort into it to get there. But, I think that the delayed gratification issue is the key. Obesity is so highly correlated with being poor because the same factor - a lack of delayed gratification - is the cause of both.

(Naturally, there are some who can delay gratification in one area, but not the other, but I'm speaking in generalities here.)

wyo sis said...

If chomping a cheeseburger is the last or the best hope for pleasure we might as well throw in the towel and vote Democrat.

EMD said...

I admit that I have been addicted to myfitnesspal app for sometime now.

I'm using LoseIt! right now and I like it, but I will check out myfitnesspal.

I used the Livestrong one for awhile, but it doesn't have a bar code scanner, which is very helpful.

There's also nutritionix which has some convenient nutrition calculators for restaurants, etc.

EMD said...

Proper' nutrition doesn't taste as good

I think after enough conditioning, though, your body can 'crave' the taste of healthy food over unhealthy foods.

Lyssa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lyssa said...

Sloanasaurus said: I admit that I have been addicted to myfitnesspal app for sometime now.
I recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning about how much they eat and what they eat


I was trying to use that for a while, but I got too frustrated with having to type in every ingredient in everything that I cooked and then trying to estimate what fraction of that recipe I was actually eating. And with trying to guess what I should put in when I ate somewhere other than a national chain. Have you found any way to make it work for a foodie?

Bender said...

The leftist approach to nutrition for the poor is the same as it is for health care -- make them pay more for less and then say that you are helping them.

So the answer today is to outlaw McDonalds, where the number one sellers are the dollar menu items, where one can get a high level of calories, with protein and fat, for a very low cost. One can easily survive on less than $4 per day eating just McDoubles and McChickens and small fries. Throw in a $10 bottle of 100-count vitamins every few months and the hunger problem is easily solved.

But no, fulfilling a day's worth of calories is EVIL and we must instead force people to spend more money (that they do not have) to buy more food with fewer calories, less bang for the buck. And because they have to spend more on their food budget, they have less to spend on other essentials, making their lives harder. Just as with ObamaCare, where, in order to "help" people, we are now required to buy much more insurance coverage than we want or need, spending money we do not have, with the added benefit that, with more demand for services, actually getting treatment will take longer and be less focused on any particular patient.

Peter said...

I have to admit that when I was poor I did not eat cheeseburgers. Not because I didn't want them, but because I couldn't afford them.

And I surely didn't eat at McDonalds, as even the cheapest restaurant costs significantly more than home prepared foods.

But, if you're writing cultural histories of food in [historical period], I suppose you just have to find tremendous significance in everything. Otherwise, what would you write about?

In any case, I'm somewhat partial to the theory that food technologists have succeeded in producing foods that offer supernormal stimuli- that is, that are far more attractive than any natural food. And which often can be eaten so quickly that satiety signals lag well behind consumption.

Of course, that theory also predicts that eventually porn will be so attractive that it will overwhelm our natural instincts, thus bringing an end to natural human reproduction.

edutcher said...

Hmmm, "scientific eating" first appealed to French physicians who wanted the poor to eat better.

Obviously, this means Choom is a closet Frenchman.

Ann Althouse said...

That 19th century experience was about saving money, and it's that pasta and sugared drinks approach to eating that is making us fat.

Actually, it's not the pasta, it's the sauce we put on it.

Eat the pasta with a little parmesan and it's a low cal supper.

clint said...

Proper nutrition doesn't taste good?

If you have some bizarre notion that squeezed wheatgrass and raw tofu are the pinnacle of health, you might find that plausible.

I second what Lyssa said -- proper nutrition lacks the shelf-life of the twinkie and instant gratification of opening the wrapper and eating it. If you want to go into a convenience store and start eating something *right* *now* it's likely to be something really unhealthy.

But most people, given the choice between a good home-cooked meal and a bag of doritos... will put the doritos away for later.

Darrell said...

Economics is driving food purchases for me, and I suspect, a lot of people. I know what I require and I spent a lot of time at the grocery store getting there--often at clearance sections and the like. Dollar menus at fast food places compare favorably with do-it-yourself cooking at times. Especially if it is a treat and stick to one or two of the "maincourse items," not sides.

AllieOop said...

If you put enough butter on vegetables they become delicious, and they stay healthy.

AllieOop said...

Butter on steak is good too.

Bender said...

As for people pre-20th century drinking so much wine and beer -- if they had drank just plain water, they likely would have gotten all sorts of diseases given all the bacteria. Back then, safe drinking water was a rarity, especially in the cities, where the water supply was often contaminated by the sewers. And in the wild, you may not be drinking in human poop, but you likely would be drinking in animal poop from drinking out of a stream.

Nonapod said...

It's kind of interesting comparing late 19th century nutrition that of the early 21st century, especially when talking about moderation. I assume back then most rural people would consume far more calories by necessity since most spent their days doing some kind of physical labor. I'm sure an adult male working on the farm all day could easily burn through 3000 to 3500 calories.

And it's true that in terms of calories most McDonald's burgers are lower than a lot of people assume. A regular McDonald's cheeseburger is around 300 and the infamous Big Mac is actually only around 550.

Sloanasaurus said...

I was trying to use that for a while, but I got too frustrated with having to type in every ingredient in everything that I cooked and then trying to estimate what fraction of that recipe I was actually eating.

It does take some estimating at times. But, the updated version allows you to create a "meal" so that once you do it once, you can just select those ingrediants as a meal.

Also, the more you look at food with numbers in mind the better you get at knowing about how many calories any meal has, so even if you eat out, you are able to make good guesstimates at what you ate.

The biggest benefit of myfoodpal is that you are encouraged not to snack on excess calories, and you notice how much of an impact exercise has on food. If you exercise often, you can basically eat what ever you want. (at least in my experience within reason).

Dust Bunny Queen said...

Proper nutrition does taste good. It just requires some skills in being able to cook and imagination in putting together interesting ingredients.

Proper nutrition doesn't mean sticks and twigs and starvation level diets.

Since my husband was diagnosed with diabetes quite some years ago, we spend more time thinking about balancing menus and devising interesting food. It just takes more thought but it is not hard at all.

PS. I didn't ever eat a cheeseburger in my life until I was over 20 years old. Now the only 'cheese' burger that I will eat is a blue moon burger with lots of Blue or Gorgonzola cheese and I prefer it without the bun.

And....butter on the steaks. You bet!!

Dust Bunny Queen said...

I use this: "Living Cookbook" as my electronic recipe book as well as a meal planning tool. You can scale the recipes and also do a cost analysis. I highly recommend the program!!!

cubanbob said...

The only thing this smug article tells me is that the NYT has devolved in to a vanity project for the publisher. I wonder how much longer the Sulzberger family can continue the burn rate? In the meantime Michelle can set an example for us ignorant and sensualist peasants by offering carefully balanced and portion controlled meals at state dinners.

Chip Ahoy said...

Actually, it's not the pasta, it's the sauce we put on it.

Eat the pasta with a little parmesan and it's a low cal supper.


Au contraire mon frère. I see it opposite of that. If I wanted to lose weight and eat well then I'd want protein and fat with only good slow carbs best coated in fat to slow them even more, and no fast carbs at at all such as pasta.

I read that in a book!

10 out of 10 bicyclists that I imagined just now agree. And the book that I mentioned did not pop up but I'm trying not to hold that against it.

William said...

Jimmy Buffet's great song, "Cheeseburger in Paradise" speaks to the inchoate yearnings of all Americans. The imagery is not so obscure as that in Dylan's lyrics, but it presents a vision of all that is worth striving for in life.....I have never once changed my mind about an Angus bacon cheeseburger because of those alarmist calorie signs that are posted in McDonald's. Duck and cover and kiss your ass goodbye as we used to say in civil service drills. I have, however, been repressed by the signs in Dunkin Donuts. I admire the concept of deep fried cake, but you've got to draw a line somewhere.

Chip Ahoy said...

Spices!

I saw a YouTube video that some skinny student shot with his phone. He strung together photos of everything he ate for one full year.

The images fly by. They're all images of fast food wrappings. The same things over and over and over an dover an dover an dover andover andover andoverandover.

It made me sad, at the same time I admired the commitment. There wasn't much difference in our ages and that's the part that made me sad. I did have fast food then when I was a student but never so much as that, even then I did much better than what he recorded doing that year. The sadness I felt was for all those people like him out there eating like that. And I still admired his commitment. I wondered if I could do that myself. That's what started that little blog over there.

SomeoneHasToSayIt said...

clint said, (mis)quoting me...
Proper nutrition doesn't taste good?


That's what YOU said I said.

What I actually said was: 'Proper' nutrition doesn't taste as good.

So, did you willfully misquote me so you could respond to a strawman, or were you just lazy and didn't read carefully?

Jim said...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stigler_diet

Nobel Prize winner George Stigler used diet as an optimization problem in the 1940's.

Loren said...

Another LoseIt user. Great smart phone app. Restaurant database, grocery database and barcode scanner. Plus the ability to account for the "burn" of exercise to up your intake appropriately. (I have found that they are overly generous with calories allowed for exercise. Report 1/2 to 2/3rd of the time exercising than what you actually did.)

I used to weigh in at 320, now less than 180. Been using LoseIt! since for 6 months and the move from 205 to sub-180.