Nutrition in a Nutshell: Kellogg’s Guide to Revolutionizing Health

The Simple Life in a Nutshell [Claude Carr Cody Collection]

            John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943), a doctor and nutritionist, devoted his practice to bettering Americans’ health. His self-published pamphlet, “The Simple Life in a Nutshell”, was written to promote a well-balanced lifestyle in terms of mental and physical hygiene, healthy sleep schedules, proper etiquette, and most importantly, the essentials of nutrition. On many occasions, it urges readers to “give attention daily to cultivating health,” “eat only natural foods,” to dress formally and appropriately, and to exercise regularly for the betterment of the mind and body.[1] The most influential and revolutionary suggestions made in the booklet (such as Kellogg’s focus on the how eating properly could affect the bowels), however, lie within his observations and studies in nutrition. The pamphlet serves most thoroughly as a comprehensive indication of what nutrition meant during the early 1900s.

            Nutrition was a relatively new and developing science in the early twentieth century. Kellogg’s enthrallment with this branch of study proved to be an enormous catalyst for the field. He ran and oversaw a health sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan to further pursue the science, as well. The facility catered to patients’ fundamental health needs, including exercise classes, nutritional prescriptions, and miscellaneous activities geared toward encouraging healthy living. The pamphlet by Kellogg provided general insight toward what exactly his patients at the sanitarium were restricted and allowed to do or consume.

            In particular, one of the chapters of “The Simply Life in a Nutshell,” aptly named, “Eating for Health and Efficiency,” evaluates the health risks of basic condiments such as mustard, ketchup, and salt.[2] This section of the pamphlet implies that Kellogg applied a very cautionary take on his nutritional advice. He explains how meticulous one should be in preparing any sort of meat, and he warns his patients about the dangers of eating fish. While this may be viewed as fairly outrageous today, his views on nutrition portrayed the fundamental approaches that physicians of the early twentieth century tended to take in their evaluation of healthy food.

            This cautionary stance was most likely a result of how new the field of nutrition was. Most Americans were agrarian in the nineteenth century, and they had previously been quite accustomed to eating more basic and essentials foods. However, with the mass immigrations to the United States in the early twentieth century, food began to change drastically. Gastronomical diversity grew profoundly, and many Americans were introduced to different foods of many different cultures. Urbanization was growing, as well, and Americans were able to become less dependent on farming for the food, if they could afford to do so. With so many different approaches to cooking, serving, baking, and harvesting food, physicians presumably found reason to investigate both the benefits and detriments of eating. Kellogg quickly rose to fame in his field for doing this, and “Life in a Nutshell” was viewed as a trustworthy source regarding health and nutrition.

            Harvey A. Levenstein’s informative monograph, Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America delves into the contradictive nutritional tendencies of the early twentieth century. Levenstein focuses on nutritional differences and options between the wealthy and the impoverished, particularly in the years leading up to the Great Depression. He cites that while the wealthy could certainly afford to eat a great deal, they preferred to live by Kellogg’s standards in eating bare minimums and avoiding sugary or unhealthy foods.[3] This implies that while Kellogg ultimately wanted to impact the health of the general public, his methods were only completely attainable to the wealthy (this is observable in the daily bills from the sanitarium collection, where charges rose to an astounding approximation of $6,000 per day in modern dollars).[4] In this pamphlet, he advises multiple activities to promote hygiene that would presumably take up a fair amount of time (such as seemingly excessive bathing, washing, rinsing, and exercising). It is well known that the wealthy had more free time than the less fortunate, which goes to say Kellogg was primarily seeking approval and compliance from the rich in order to expand his practices and apply his methods to those who could not afford to lose so much time or spend so much money on purely organic foods, as this would be smart business for any entrepreneur at the time.

            Kellogg’s pamphlet also proved that his information and research was traveling quickly throughout the country. C. C. Cody’s (who resided in Texas) attainment of the pamphlet demonstrated how vital many Americans viewed Kellogg’s information. Cody’s month-long visit to Kellogg’s sanitarium showed that many believed Kellogg to be trustworthy in his efforts to promote healthy living and the importance of nutrition. The transference of knowledge during this time was generally becoming easier, as well, with the building of railroads, installment of telephone wires, improving printing press, and increased efficiency in the mail service. Originally written as a two-volume analysis of Kellogg’s studies, “The Simple Life in a Nutshell” was most likely compressed and summarizing into a pamphlet to reach more people in a more approachable way (short texts instead of long pages for those without extensive knowledge of nutrition). This demonstrates that physical information could be handed out and shared more easily than ever. This became vital for the science of nutrition since it was such a new field, and Kellogg clearly grasped the importance of popularizing it, as proven with the publication and distribution of his pamphlet.

            “The Simple Life in a Nutshell” serves as an exemplary indication of how science (particularly nutrition) was evolving throughout John Harvey Kellogg’s lifetime. Its strict instruction proved how seriously scientists and nutritionists handled health as it became a popular and rising issue within the United States. Kellogg’s specific focus on human efficiency caused further research in many branching areas of study as well, such as psychology, kinesiology, and anatomy.[5] His sanitarium, which was likely advertised by “The Simple Life in a Nutshell” pamphlet, brought attention toward the importance of healthy eating and living. The pamphlet itself promoted the furthering of education in Kellogg’s field of nutrition. Kellogg’s research prompted an intellectual revolution within the health sciences to better food standards and spread useful information regarding nutrition to the broad public.

By Katherine Morris 

[1] John Harvey Kellogg, “The Simple Life in a Nutshell”(Battle Creek, MI: Kellogg, 1919); C. C. Cody Collection, Special Collections Section, Southwestern University.

[2] John Harvey Kellogg, “The Simple Life in a Nutshell”(Battle Creek, MI: Kellogg, 1919); C. C. Cody Collection, Special Collections Section, Southwestern University.

[3] Harvey A. Levenstein, Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America (Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 1994).

[4] Battle Creek Health Sanitarium Weekly Bills(Battle Creek, MI, 1914); C. C. Cody Collection, Special Collections Section, Southwestern University.

[5] Dr. Numbers, Ronald, Medicine Without Doctors?” (lecture, Southwestern University, Georgetown, April 6th, 2016)

Nutrition in a Nutshell: Kellogg’s Guide to Revolutionizing Health