The History of Calorie Counting

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Ah yes the much-maligned calorie. Whether you’ve ever tried to lose weight, put on mass or even just feel okay about eating junk food, chances are you’ve come across those pesky calorie numbers on food labels. You may be surprised to learn that despite the ubiquity of calorie counting in today’s society, this unit of measurement is a relatively recent phenomenon and the idea of counting calories for health purposes is even newer.

In today’s post we’re going to look at who invented the calorie, how calorie counting became popularised and finally, how calorie counting became the mainstay of bodybuilding diets 

Who Invented the Calorie?
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Although some state that Favre and Silbermann first coined the term calorie in 1852, recent works into the calorie’s origins tell a different story. Between 1819 and 1824, it is said that French physicist and chemist Nicholas Clément introduced the term calories in lectures on heat engines to his Parisian students. His new word, ‘Calorie’, proved popular and by 1845, the word appeared in Bescherelle’s Dictionnaire National.

By the 1860s the term had entered the English language following translations of Adolphe Ganot’s French physics text, which defined a Calorie as the heat needed to raise the temperature of 1 kg of water from 0 to 1°C. By the 1880s, the term was first introduced to the American public by Edward Atkinson in 1886. Professor Wilbur O. Atwater came next when he published on the calorie in 1887 in Century Magazine and again in the 1890s in Farmer’s Bulletin.

Atwater is in many ways the driving force behind the calorie’s popularity. From the 1890s, Atwater and his team at Wesleyan undertook an exhaustive study into the caloric content of over 500 foods with the intent of producing a scientific and healthy way of maintaining one’s weight. By the early 1900s, Atwater was one of the leading authorities on dietary intake and his advice was simple. Cut out excess and ensure a balance between foods.

 Unless care is exercised in selecting food, a diet may result which is one-sided or badly balanced that is, one in which either protein or fuel ingredients (carbohydrate and fat) are provided in excess…. 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.

Atwater, 1902.

 Who popularised Calorie Counting?

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While Atkinson and Atwater were advocating for dietary restrictions based on calorie contents, it took some time before the idea of calorie counting became a mainstay in American diets. In 1918, American physician, author and philanthropist, Lulu Hunt Peters changed the face of dieting for the next century. Seeking to write a diet book targeted towards American women, Peters latched onto the idea that calorie counting was an effective means of enacting healthy weight loss. With this idea in mind, Peters got to work.

For years Peters had written a number of newspaper columns for the Central Press Association entitled ‘Diet and Health’, which dealt with issues of health and weight. Proving popular with her audience, namely middle-aged American women, Peters was encouraged to collect her writings into one neat volume, something she did in 1918.

Under the title Diet & Health: With Key to the Calories, Peters published her first and only book on calorie counting. Fortunately for Peters, one book was all she needed. Diet & Health became one of the first ‘modern’ dieting book to become a bestseller, and it remained in the top ten non-fiction bestselling books from 1922 to 1926.

So what made Peters’ book so attractive? Well a number of things…

  • First, it took the rather complicated idea of calories and simplified it for a mass audience. Peters told readers that henceforth, they would view all their food in terms of calories. A slice of bread was no longer a slice, it was 100 calories of bread.
  • Second, Peters had a keen understanding of the psychological roadblocks one encounters when trying to lose weight. For example, she discussed the dangers of passive aggressive partners, unsupportive peer groups and cravings as topics one must be alerted to.
  • Finally, Peters advice was effective. Eat roughly 1,200 calories a day from whatever food group you desired (If It Fits Your Macros anyone?) and lose weight. The only exception to this was candy which Peters advised against, believing it too easy to binge on. Regarding the efficacy of her system, Peters informed readers she herself had weighed upwards of 200 lbs. before dropping 50-70 lbs. eating this way.

Interestingly for athletes and bodybuilders, Peters advice on gaining and losing weight will seem very familiar. To calculate your basic caloric needs, she recommended multiplying your bodyweight by 15-20 to find the magic number. If you needed to lose weight eat 200-1000 calories less and to gain weight eat 200-1000 calories more. Fun facts, aside, Peters was undoubtedly hugely influential in popularising calorie counting for the general public. A trend that began in the late 1910s and continues to this very day.

So when, how and why did Bodybuilders take up Calorie Counting?

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Given that calorie counting became a recognized means of dieting from the 1910s, it’s remarkable to think that Bodybuilders took to it so late.

Go ahead, read the dietary advice of men like Eugen Sandow or George Hackenschmidt and you’ll find no mention of calories. What you will find is a strong emphasis on eating natural, unprocessed foods. Fast forward even to the likes of Reg Park and John Grimek and the advice stays the same. To build muscle you were encouraged to eat more, and to lean out, eat less and perform more volume in your workouts.

Heck even Arnold, Zane and co appeared to function without the need for counting calories. Ric Drasin has routinely discussed the ketogenic diets favoured by ‘Golden Age’ bodybuilders, suggesting that the elite bodybuilders of the 1970s took a drastically different approach to food than today’s lot.

Despite this, there is some evidence of calorie counting creeping in during this time. As part of his participation in Arthur Jones’ infamous ‘Colorado Experiment’, Casey Viator consumed 800 calories a day to bring himself down to an emaciated 168lbs. During the 28 day experiment, he upped his caloric intake to roughly 5,000 calories a day. Something which may explain his alleged 45 pound weight gain in 28 days. By the 1979 Olympia, Mike Mentzer, another Jones’ disciple was using calorie counting to manipulate his physique. As an interesting sidenote, the following Mentzer quote is often taken to justify an anything goes If It Fits Your Macros Approach.

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While bodybuilders were tentatively experimenting with calorie counting during the 1970s, the practice truly came to the fore in the 1980s when Rich Gaspari and Lee Labrada utilized the practice to produce some truly stellar physiques. In 1988, Rich Gaspari revealed to the makers of Battle for The Gold, a bodybuilding documentary now available on Youtube, that he calculated his caloric intake to the tee, weighing everything and generally eating an incredibly strict diet.

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Gaspari with his nutritional ‘bible’

By then Gaspari had clearly demonstrated the efficacy of his approach. In many ways, Gaspari’s calorie counting changed the face of bodybuilding. You see, at the 1986 IFBB Pro World contests, Gaspari revealed his striated glutes to the judges and audience, setting a new standard for leanness that has continued to this very day.

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Gaspari’s Glutes in all their Glory

Since then bodybuilders, both natural and enhanced, have taken to calorie counting to achieve a similar level of leanness. While the practice of counting calories is wrought with problems, it remains perhaps the most effective way of reducing one’s bodyfat to the levels needed for competitive bodybuilding.

26 Comments

  1. It’s surprising how well calorie counting seems to have worked out considering the inherent errors in the whole process. Also it’s interesting to seem how long the idea has been around.

    1. It’s amazing isn’t it? In such a short space of time we’ve taken to the concept so readily. And until something better comes along it looks like calorie counting is the way to go!

  2. I remember when I first started training back in the early 90’s – pre internet even, food labelling in Australia wasn’t mandatory, so there were no reference points for calories on individual items, and we had to use a little calorie counter book to get a rough idea of the counts of everything. There seemed to be less variety of foods back then anyway, and 90’s dieting was a lot more stringent compared to today, so it was still kind of easy to get a rough estimate of what you were consuming. We’re spoiled for choice and support these days both in terms of food and info! And STILL, the physiques aren’t that much better, OR the average gymrat, any better educated. Generation Irony indeed!

    1. Fascinating. It’s easy to forget how easy the internet has made calorie counting. Funnily I tend to keep a strict rotation of foods based on the problems of variety you highlighted! Much easier to keep things in check. As you say, with all the advantages you’d expect markedly better physiques which hasn’t been the outcome. If anything the average gymrat is more likely to misunderstand the point of calorie counting and spiral into obsessive counting patterns instead of eating the damn food!

  3. Really so many of you are saying how well this has worked out. Society is fatter, sicker and we have obesity and diabetes at epidemic levels. What is it you see working out so well? Something else better didn’t come alone it was always there, it’s called the HFLC or ketogenic diets that were used in sports and weight lifting until the 70’s.

    1. Hi Todd, thanks so much for stopping by. Funnily enough I myself have been on a HFLC diet for the past 3 years now (less than 20g carbs a day) and find that I have no need to count calories to maintain a relative level of leanness. So I do agree with you that for some people there are much better alternatives, that are sadly rarely discussed.

      You may be interested in some of our previous articles, specially those on Vince Gironda’s diets, which are HFLC by nature.

      That being said, HFLC does not agree with everyone and in the round of Bodybuilding it appears that calorie counting is used by the majority. Despite all it’s obvious flaws.

      For the general public, the ‘fatter and sicker’ as you put it, it’s doubtful that calorie counting is beneficial. For the majority work needs to be done on creating a healthier food environment based on actual foods!

      Thanks so much for stopping by,

      Conor 🙂

    2. I have been counting calories “effectively” for over a year and a half, and combined with my weight training regiment, I am able to hold a 6-7% body fat while continuing to gain SMM at about 0.5-0.8 pounds per month. I eat anywhere from 300-500 grams of carbs per day, depending on the goal for the week, and feel great in the gym. There is no debate on whether or not calorie counting is effective, or whether or not it works, it’s the pure science of thermodynamics and there is no fail. What fails is implementation.

      I weigh everything I eat. Most people, ok 99% of people won’t do that, but every label clearly states the amount of calories PER WEIGHT. If you eat those weights, you will get the desired calories. The other area of calories counting I see even the experienced ones fall down at, is counting cooked meat calories. If you weigh your food raw and use the calorie information on the bag it came from, you’re good, however if you wait to weigh your food after it is cooked, and try to use the raw label weight information, you will under estimate your calories and over eat, unless you can determine a scaling factor to account for dehydration of cooking (which does not reduce calories, despite reducing weight).

      So, my conclusion is that calorie counting is the absolute answer to complete control, however society behavior is not conducive to the attention to detail it takes to be successful at it. Probably why most pro bodybuilders continue to say (all steroid comments and jokes aside) that they do what 99% of the population can’t do with regards to diet. It’s not that most can’t, it’s that most won’t.

      1. Hi Nayeem, thanks so much for stopping by and congratulations on your impressive progress to date. As you mention not everyone would be willing to do what you’re doing to achieve such things so congrats!

        The raw/cooked weighing issue is one I’ve seen many people fall down on. It’s so simple to do isn’t it?

        Agree with you about the effectiveness of Calorie Counting although we do have to remember that it’s not infallible. We’re still at the mercy of manufacturers to be honest and similarly the science of body absorption throws some interesting things into the mix!

    3. As a 63-year-old who’s been bodybuilding for forty-six years since beginning at age sixteen in 1972, I’ve used la ow-carb/high protein/high fats menu successfully for many years to hold 10-12% bodyfat for several months each year.

      However, as far as calorie-counting generally…the reason obesity and its health consequences are so prevalent isn’t because calorie-counting doesn’t work — it’s because many of not most people are too unwilling to control calories for the lengths of time required to lose a pound or two per week.

      1. 100% with you on the low carb/high protein/high fat. It works for me and is relatively easy.

        I think you’re right about why people don’t do it. We want to eat without consequences. It is interesting at least anecdotally my less health conscious friends have begun counting calories thanks to Apps on their phones. Maybe the ease of that will encourage some?

  4. You state “Heck even Arnold, Zane and co appeared to function without the need for counting calories”

    This is not accurate not at least for Zane. He was EXTREMLY meticulous about his diet. Here’s an excerpt from an article by Zane in the man’s own words.

    https://www.ironmanmagazine.com/train-with-zane/

    “I’d write down each item of food, the time, the amount, the grams of carbohydrate, protein and fat and the calories for everything I ate. ”

    As for Arnold, (soon after his loss to Zane at the ) he would train with Zane now and again and room with him at overnight bodybuilding events and use those times to pick Frank Zane’s brains about nutrition and diet.

    1. This is fantastic – thanks so much for sharing it! I had tried to find contemporary stuff from Zane i.e. written in the 1970s, because I know he has written extensively about it since retiring.

      You don’t know of anything from that time by chance?

    1. This is great Reilly, thanks for sharing. Currently going through it now – completely new for me. Really interesting to get his take on peaking for contest and also his push for a different Olympia physique. Hope you’re well!

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