“You Might Disappear!”: Metrecal and Diet Culture of the 1960s


“Good God, Rosemary, you could at least have let me finish my Metrecal.” — Smitty, How to Succeed

Dieting: An American Tradition

Excerpted from a CBS 2010 article.

Dieting in America began before the turn of the 20th century, when the average adult weighed roughly 25 pounds less than today.

“Americans have been trying to lose weight since about the 1880s, but it didn’t really catch on and become very much the thing to do until 1917,” said author Susan Yager. Her book, “The Hundred Year Diet,” is a history of American weight loss schemes – like Dr. Horace Fletcher’s idea that people could get thin by vigorously chewing their food, as seen in the 1994 film, “The Road to Wellville.”

“The thing was, you had to chew your food at least 100 times before you could swallow it,” Sid Yager. “And if you chew your food for that long, you are going to eat less. You’re going to get tired of it!”

And even if that diet failed, back then it was OK to be a bit more . . . substantial.

“If you were a woman, you were considered to be fertile and sexy if you had some weight on you,” said Yager. “if you were a man, you were considered to be affluent, good husband material. But in 1917, everything changed, because America went to war.”

During World War I, Americans were urged to save every scrap of food–and, Yager says, heavy people were looked upon as traitors. “It was really considered to be a terrible thing to have too much weight, because you were keeping those pounds away from our troops overseas who needed the calories,” said Yager.

During Prohibition, there was the Nicotine Diet: Ads appeared touting cigarettes as a logical alternative to eating.

“Here, women want to be slim, and they want to wear these tight-fitting clothes, and they are allowed to smoke in public,” said Yager.  “It made sense – reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet!”

Even in the depths of the Depression, the diet craze continued . . . for those who could actually afford food.  Among the crazy diets of the day, like the Hollywood 18-Day Diet. “This was 585 calories only a day,” said Yager.” “And I can only think that things had to be spinning so out-of-control in the ’30s, that it was good to take control of something, even if it was just what you had for lunch.”

It wasn’t until well after World War II that dieting became an industry. “Weight loss, in fact, really became in the ’60s a solution looking for a problem,” said Yager. “People started to realize there’s a lot of money to be made in getting people to try to lose weight.”

In the 1960s dieters could replace an entire meal by opening a can of Metrecal.  “It was, oh, it was huge,” said Yager. “I mean, restaurants would have liquid lunches – you know, Metrecal and a shot of bourbon.”

And Metrecal was, originally, baby formula.

What followed was an avalanche that continues to this day: Diet plans, books, foods, and fitness gurus. Among them . . . a formerly obese kid from New Orleans named Richard Simmons.

Metrecal and the 1960s

 Excerpted from GoRetro.blogspot.com.

Metrecal was inspired by a concoction given to invalids and originally came in a powder form made of skim milk, soybean flour, corn oil and vitamins and minerals that was mixed with water. A couple of years later, Metrecal (the name was a combination of “metric” and “calories”) started arriving on store shelves in cans of various flavors.

Mead Johnson, the company that manufactured the product, advised consumers to drink four servings of Metrecal daily to lose and maintain weight. At a mere 225 calories per can, that means anyone on the Metrecal diet was subsiding on only 900 calories a day. Mead Johnson claimed that the hunger pains went away after a few days. Metrecal cookies, clam chowder, and tuna with noodles were eventually added to the product line, despite the fact that many dieters reported that the liquid flavors were disgusting. In 1960, Time magazine published an article on the Metrecal craze and noted that some people added liquor to their Metrecal to make it more palatable.

Metrecal inspired many competitors (such as Carnation with its instant breakfast drink) to jump on the liquid diet fad, but by the mid-60s it had already started to lose its luster. People were finally realizing that man could not live on liquid nourishment alone In the late 70s, Metrecal and other products were discontinued after the Food and Drug Administration declared them dangerous due to 59 reported deaths connected to liquid protein products.

Metrecal and How to Succeed

Interestingly, Metrecal was not targeted toward a solely female clientele. Men and women alike were highlighted in Metrecal ads; what’s especially notable about their use of gender in advertising, however, is how women were targeted. The ads featuring women had a particular angle: being thin equated attractiveness, which equates finding or keeping a husband.

Metrecal marked the beginning of mainstream consumer-targeted dieting fads, and the campaign’s use of gender reveals quite a bit about how the culture of the 1960s. The secretaries in How to Succeed are only expected to work until they procure a husband, reflective of a very real expectation in America of the 1960s.

Below are a handful of print and TV ads from the 1960s, for Metrecal as well as a few other diet programs. Together, they paint a fascinating picture of America’s perception of gender and body image during that time period.


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