“Americans eat too much fat and sweets and do not get enough exercise.”

That’s the conclusion reached by the nation’s leading nutrition scientist – but it wasn’t made last week, last month or even last year. While the observation looks like it could have come straight from one of today’s many health-focused magazines and websites, it was actually made by W.O. Atwater in the 1890s, according to an exhibit called “What’s Cooking Uncle Sam?” at the National Archives in Washington D.C.

While perusing the exhibit, which traces the government’s role in food production and consumption, it struck me that we’re still dealing with many of the same issues that our ancestors faced over the course of the last century. The displays chronicle efforts to improve food safety, advice for quick and nutritious meals and campaigns encouraging more production of certain foods to overcome short-term supply shortages.

I was particularly fascinated by Atwater’s pioneering research on nutrition issues, especially considering the federal government’s renewed interest in the topic. He developed methods to quantify the energy value (calories) in different types of food, and also studied the amount of calories burned in different activities such as reading, ironing and riding a stationary bicycle.

A guide produced in the 1920s listed 100-calorie portions of various types of food, ranging from meat and potatoes to candy and sugar. I guess those 100-calorie snack packs that have popped up on grocery store shelves that past few years weren’t such an original concept after all.

Some of the displays also made me chuckle – like a poster advertising “Vitamin Donuts” that was sent for approval to the government’s food administration during World War II. I’m sure they would have been a hit with my kids, but common sense tells you that even donuts fortified with thiamine aren’t the foundation for a healthy diet.

In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, exhibition curator Alice Kamps said the displays provide insight into the evolution of our understanding of nutrition and the ways it has shaped the foods we eat over time.

“As science revealed new insights about the nutritional value of different foods, our approach to food became more scientific,” she said. “With the benefit of hindsight, we can see where particular ideas about nutrition were overblown or simply inaccurate. We might consider this before we make drastic changes in our diet based on the latest scientific discoveries.”

For me, it became apparent that America’s quest for a balanced diet has been going on for more than a century. While recommendations may change over time, the best advice today really isn’t any different now than it was before Henry Ford produced the first Model T or we spent our evenings camped out in front of the TV or surfing the internet –eat less junk food and exercise more. I’m sure Mr. Atwater would agree.

Written by Tom Block
Tom is news coordinator for the Iowa Farm Bureau.