Diet pop culture: Dietene (with Vitamin G!)

Good Housekeeping, June 1935


My first thought was, “What in the HELL is vitamin G?” Turns out that’s what they used to call riboflavin (now known as vitamin B2.)

Mmm, riboflavin.

My second thought was — “a shake for breakfast, a shake for lunch…and then a sensible dinner!” And this is from 1935, when, apparently, a sensible low-fat dinner consisted of 900 calories. Holy shit.

I mean, my breakfast this morning was likely 900 calories, but that was greasy-spoon diner breakfast. I can only imagine the volume of food required to make up a low-fat 900 calorie meal.

Not to squick people out with numbers and calories or anything. But these are things I think of, and numbers (oddly) don’t bother me anymore.

In other news, what a week it’s been. I ran around to three different hospitals, working 10-12 hours per day (mostly because I was feeling crappy, and everything took me twice as long as usual.) I saw patients, I wrote chart notes, I counted people’s calories, and I thought about food.

I thought about how much cancer sucks. And how much the treatments suck.

I thought about how scary it must be to be stuck in a hospital bed in a strange country.

I thought about how lonely it must be to have dementia and not know who anybody is.

I thought about how much it must suck to be terrified of eating.

As much as it also sucks to struggle with normal eating, with negotiating one’s way through a culture riddled with anti-body minefields, I couldn’t help but feel grateful for the health I now enjoy, and the relative ease with which I eat.

I also couldn’t help but feel that one day — maybe tomorrow, maybe in 50 years — I will be one of those patients.

I will have troubles of my own, and I will count on someone like me for help.

Also, now that the crazy-ass work week has ended, I go back to my largely-lady-of-leisure status. Which means writing some actual content-containing posts, and responding to people’s emails. So if you receive a random flood of emails from me in the next week, don’t be alarmed. I’m just getting caught up.






25 responses to “Diet pop culture: Dietene (with Vitamin G!)”

  1. Meems Avatar

    Actually, the 900 calories is for the entire day, so if you’re drinking two shakes, plus a cup of orange juice (why can’t you just eat the whole orange?), dinner is about 450 calories.

    Then again, you’re on a starvation diet…just like Slimfast!

    1. Michelle Avatar

      I thought it was for the entire day too, at first glance (which…ugh), but when I carefully re-read the ad, the grammar of the sentence makes it sound like the dinner is 900 calories:

      Thus the number of Calories consumed per day on the Dietene Diet, which includes an average, normal dinner (low in fats) of approximately 900 Calories, will be materially decreased.

      1. deeleigh Avatar

        Sounds like that to me, too. And, I don’t think it would be too difficult to eat a traditional dinner of 900 calories. For one thing, they used to eat bread and butter with every meal, along with meat-potato-veg-desert (which is exactly what’s shown in the illustration), and in those days, low fat probably meant one tablespoon of lard instead of three. And, can you imagine how hungry you’d be at dinner time after not eating a proper breakfast or lunch?

        1. Michelle Avatar

          God, I’d be STARVING. I’m sure I could polish off 900 (or more) calories after only eating liquid all day.

      2. Meems Avatar

        Ooh, you’re right. I don’t think I’d normally eat 900 calories for dinner, unless I’m going to a restaurant…

        1. Jenna Avatar

          Was low fat milk around back then?? (ie. skim or 1%). Also cuts of meat back then were much much fattier; I guess ‘low fat’ is relatively speaking?

  2. Carolyn Avatar

    I thought about how much it must suck to be terrified of eating.

    I am blessed that my health issues have not landed me in the hospital, however, it hit the pit of my stomach reading that line and realizing how many hours a day I live in fear of food and eating.

    It’s also interesting that in 1935 they were already starting in with the “science” talk. You know, biologically superior proteins, high proportion of essential nutritional elements. . .etc. The only thing missing is to talk about “super foods” and you could plop that stuff right on the market today!!

    1. Michelle Avatar

      how many hours a day I live in fear of food and eating.

      It is so unfortunate, but such a reality for so many people.

      But seeing it for what it is — and not mistaking it for some super-willpower form of virtue — is a great place to start.

  3. Lori Avatar

    While I’m not afraid of eating, morning sickness has made it a chore rather than something I enjoy. And, it sucks. I almost started to cry last night because I was starving, but couldn’t find anything to eat that didn’t make me feel like heaving. One of my favorite comfort foods is pasta with butter and Parmesan cheese, so I thought I’d give that a try, and I ended up being revolted by it. I finally settled on some graham crackers which, while not particularly satisfying, at least didn’t make me feel like throwing up. I just can’t imagine going through my entire life finding eating a chore I had to endure, because it just absolutely sucks to feel that way. We have to eat several times, every day, and if you can take pleasure in it, that’s a great thing.

    I’m just looking forward to my first post-partum meal. I can still remember, after my son was born (after nine months of morning sickness then terrible acid reflux, both of which made eating miserable), eating a turkey sandwich, which was the first “real” meal I ate. Wow, it was like the best thing I ever tasted in my entire life. I had about a month where everything I ate was just amazing, simply because I could enjoy it.

    It’s funny how crazy a 900 calorie dinner sounds to us, because really it makes sense. If the average person needs about 2000 calories a day, and doesn’t eat a particularly big lunch or snack much, you would probably need that to get to 2000 calories. I know that when I have tracked calories I rarely eat more than 300-400 calories for breakfast and 400-500 calories for lunch. So if I were to get to even 1800 calories on a day when I didn’t snack, I’d need a 900 calorie dinner. It’s so interesting how we have had the idea of lots of calories being bad that even though a 900 calorie dinner is probably perfectly healthy and reasonable for many people, it seems ridiculously large.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Oh! I hope you’re past the morning sickness soon. I hate that feeling of not being able to eat the things I love, or to take any pleasure in eating. It truly does feel like a loss.

      And I’m sure you’re right about the 900 calorie thing. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if I ate three 900 calorie meals per day. But they’re definitely not low in fat, nor am I on any kind of diet.

  4. living400lbs Avatar

    The “no chemicals” started that early? My. Never mind that foods are made up of chemicals. Water is a chemical. *rolls eyes*

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Hahah, you said it.

      I always feel that way about the term “chemicals” when used as a pejorative, too. I remember once having a long sleepover conversation with a little girl when I was about 11 about how human beings are made up entirely of chemicals. She looked at me with awe and said, “Yeah, but not like SCIENTIST chemicals, right?”

      I was so stunned I think I just stopped trying to explain at that point.

  5. Caitlin Avatar

    Even today, when I probably eat well over 900 calories for dinner but just don’t think about it any of that anymore, I had a moment of “WOAH! 900 CALORIES?” about the dinner. On some diets (not pointing any fingers (WW)) that’s practically your allowance for the day. It’s all insane.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      That’s what struck me as so odd about it, too, Caitlin. That would seem to be a HUGE number of calories for a contemporary diet plan. So, in one sense, expectations about food and how much to eat have obviously changed since then.

      In another sense, not much has changed at all since the same bullshitty diet crap was being shilled all over the place, even back then.

  6. Michelle Avatar

    Sorry, I’m such a geek, I had to count up what the daily calories would be on the regimen suggested in the ad. So…

    Dietene = 164 x 2 = 328
    Juice of one orange = 39
    “Average, normal” dinner = 900
    TOTAL kcals = 1267

    So, really, not that different from a commercial diet plan today (and, to me, even a bit on the low side for a commercial diet plan.) The bit that strikes me as funny is the idea that eating a 900 kcal meal (low in fats) was considered to be “keep[ing] down the Calories.”

    But, like Lori said, perhaps it was usual to eat much smaller breakfasts and lunches, just as a matter of course, and then have a pretty large dinner. That would make sense, then, unless they were expecting the average person (and really, we know they’re advertising primarily to women here) to eat 2,700 kcals a day.

    Which, to me, personally, seems a normal amount, but which I know is considered a HUGE UNGODLY AMOUNT OF FOOD to much of the nutrition establishment. Especially for a woman.

    In the interests of full disclosure, it wouldn’t surprise me to find that I probably eat somewhere around 2,700 kcals a day. And pretty unapologetically, too. I get hungry. I eat food. I enjoy food with fat and sugar in it.

    1. Caitlin Avatar

      Given the time the ad was made, is it possible that dinner was routinely the largest meal because that’s when the father came home from work and expected to be fed?

    2. Heidi Avatar

      I was just typing up the same – for the dinner that would be a lot but for the whole day, 164 cals per shake equals around 375 calories for breakfast and lunch, plus 900 cals for dinner = 1200 calories, which is right around the real “omg, I’m glad I never made anything like my goal weight on WW because I’d have had to live on 1200 cals per day” low end of WW.

  7. Cassi Avatar

    While I’m certainly with you on making light (or is that “lite”?) of this ad, this line bothers me a bit…

    I can only imagine the volume of food required to make up a low-fat 900 calorie meal.

    Really? It seems like a pretty basic dinner would easily fill the requirement. It’s really not that large an amount of food, especially if we take “low-fat” to mean something in the area of 20-30% fat. A good (aka not diet) sized serving of mashed potatoes or rice, a grilled chicken breast, a salad with a bit of dressing (that’s where we’d get our requisite 200+ calories of fat to hit 25 – 30% mark)… add a piece of fruit for desert and maybe a glass of wine or milk and this meal will easily hit the 900 calorie mark. It’s not at all difficult to imagine, at least not for me. Really it’s a pretty normal, home-cooked, low-fat, “healthy”, no one who hasn’t been beaten down by Jenny Craig would bat an eye-lash sort of meal. it’s a lot like the meal I eat nearly every night.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      I’m sure you’re right, Cassi. I think I was just startled by the number at first glance, especially since it was in a diet advertisement.

      And also since I don’t count the calories of my own meals on a regular basis! Maybe I should, just as an experiment. I’ve done it several times for school and for work, but not within the last year or two.

      I think we all (living in a diety culture, myself included) have a bit of a skewed idea of what a “normal” amount of food is. And also, of how wide a range “normal” can encompass.

      1. Cassi Avatar

        Yeah, to anyone who’s been reading WW lit I’m sure 900 calories would seem ENORMOUS (Personally, I stay far away from that stuff, but I suppose it’s sort of a job hazard for you… perhaps you should get combat pay?). And normal… yeah, that’s a loaded word.

        I actually keep fairly careful track of the calories I eat because I’m an avid cyclist. Cycling at my weight and average speed burns somewhere in the vague vicinity of 400 calories per hour. I usually ride 2-3 hours on week days with longer rides, 6-8 hours, on weekends. If I don’t have enough calories and carbs before, during, and after a long ride I end up sitting on the side of the road being force fed gatorade and power bars by my compatriots, while I say idiotic things like, “I’ll be fine, I can keep going, I’m just gonna ride with my head down on my handlebars for a minute”.

        Actually, if anyone is interested in reading about nutrition but fears getting into a ‘diet’ mentality, perusing the sports nutrition section of a bookstore might be a good idea (at least until YOUR book comes out, which will be…??) While, obviously, some sports require weight control at highly competitive levels, most of the info I see in those sorts of books is about using food to support what you want your body to do, not make it look a certain way. They tend to focus on getting ENOUGH food, not eating as little as is humanly possible. It’s a very refreshing way to look at things.

        1. Michelle Avatar

          “I’ll be fine, I can keep going, I’m just gonna ride with my head down on my handlebars for a minute”.

          Hahahaha, oh dear. Yes, in those circumstances, it would definitely be a good idea to keep track of how much energy you need.

          Do you have a particular favourite sports nutrition book? That’s something I’d be interested in, as we covered very little of it in school (and, naturally, in the hospital among sick people, it doesn’t come up too often.)

        2. Cassi Avatar

          My favourite is “Sports Nutrition for the Endurance Athlete” by Monique Ryan. I’m sure for you a lot of it would be pretty basic, but I actually found the section on weight loss interesting (don’t shoot me!!) While admitting that at a very high level of competition extra weight can be a competitive disadvantage, she is very clear that weight loss isn’t a panacea for any and all performance issues. She also is candid about the dangers of eating disorders among endurance athletes. And she talks about how in a lot of sports the actual top athletes don’t have the body type one might expect (for those old enough to remember him, think Larry Bird … seriously, was there ever a man who looked LESS like Madison Avenue’s vision of a basketball player?)

          For some people I suppose a book like this could be triggering, because there’s no doubt that it’s a book about controlling your body and trying to make it do a certain thing through the manipulation of food intake, but for me, reading about the body as instrument rather than decoration is helpful. Her philosophy seems to be something like: sure, if you want to win the Tour de France, dropping a couple of kilos might take you from 10th to 1st, but look at performance FIRST, because if it drops as your weight does, then something is very very wrong. That works for me.

    2. deeleigh Avatar

      Thanks, Cassi. That’s what I was trying to get at. I’m pretty sure that it’s not unusual for me to eat a 900 calorie meal. I think that the weekend brunches I make are about that size. For example, a 2-egg omelet with vegetables and cheese, potatoes pan fried with olive oil and butter, a small bowl of berries, a cup of orange juice, coffee with cream and sugar… yep. Probably around 900 calories.

  8. JennyRose Avatar

    The woman in the sketch is thin and glamorous and she looks even thinner by dinner. I also noticed that this ad was used during the great depression. There were people who were barely surviving and the elite and glamorous who wanted to loose weight.

    That definitely has not changed.

    And speaking of chemicals, don’t forget the slogan, “Better Living Through Chemistry.”

  9. Emgee Avatar

    @ Heidi, I did make my goal weight (60 pounds loss) about 13 years ago, and of course, I’ve gained it all back and then some. Now I have trouble losing weight consistently with the same calorie level, and I’ve pretty much given up, which FEELS like giving in and losing. I just hope now that I don’t gain! And I usually exercise 5-6 days a week (30-60 min., for a total of 4-4-1/2 hours a week), which seems to make no difference. (heavy sigh)