[Paleopsych] NYTBR: Something We Ate?
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Thu Dec 8 02:21:04 UTC 2005
Something We Ate?
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[Given that we are omnivores, it's hard to think the effects of different
diets, caloric intake constant, would matter all that much. Even still, I by
and large am a grazer and eat the diet recommended in _The Paleolithic
Presciption_. However, we are believing animals, and specific diets can have
strong placebo-like effects. The record for all of them for long-term weight
reduction is pretty low. Obesity is a mystery, and calling it a public
health MENACE is mostly likely to be a full employment act for health
Review by JANE AND MICHAEL STERN
AGREED: Good health depends on a good diet. But which good diet?
Experts and pretenders have offered countless schemes for
salubrity, from the cabbage regime propounded by Cato the Elder to
the chopped-meat-and-water plan of the 19th-century physician John
Salisbury (whose name lives on via the Salisbury steak). Formal
theorizing began in the second century, when Galen codified
nutrition as a matter of correctly balanced humors. By the first
millennium, the Byzantine Dietary Calendar advised sipping aromatic
wine in January to avert the dangers of sweet phlegm; in
19th-century America, the phony physician Sylvester Graham and,
later, the cereal guru John Harvey Kellogg inspired corn-flake
crusades based on the proposition that constipation causes death.
Our own bookshelves hold such off-the-wall 20th-century treatises
as "Man Alive: You're Half Dead! (How to Eat Your Way to Glowing
Health and Stay There)" and a pamphlet titled "Woman 80 Never Tired
Eats and Sleeps Well," which turned upside down and around is
labeled "What Causes Gas on the Stomach?"
To eat is basic instinct; how to do it correctly worries humans
more than sex. So "Terrors of the Table" is a perfect title for
this story of nutritional doctrine's tyranny up to modern times
when, in Walter Gratzer's words, fear of cholesterol has
"supplanted the Devil as the roaring lion who walketh about,
seeking whom he may devour." Gratzer, a biophysicist at King's
College, London, who previously put a human face on science in
"Eurekas and Euphorias: The Oxford Book of Scientific Anecdotes,"
reels out a historical pageant of science and pseudoscience teeming
with remarkable characters who have advanced (and retarded)
knowledge about what makes humans thrive.
The faddists on soapboxes are especially amusing, including
vegetarians who denounce eating meat as ungodly and an
anti-vegetarian cleric who answers that God attached white tails to
rabbits to make them easier targets. Gratzer asserts that fashion,
not science, rules contemporary diet advice, and he enjoys
eviscerating the "gruesome" Duke rice diet, the "probably
dangerous" Scarsdale diet and the "grossly unbalanced" Atkins diet.
"The history of nutritional science is full of fascination and
drama," he writes, a point borne out by various accounts of forced
hunger during World War II. A Nazi program to euthanize children
deemed unworthy of living was carried out in hospital buildings
called hungerhäuser, where a diet of potatoes, turnips and cabbage
was designed to cause death in three months. In 1940, when the
Germans decided to eradicate the Jewish population of Warsaw by
starvation. Dr. Israel Milejkowski and a group of ghetto physicians
conducted research on the effects of malnutrition, figuring that
some good might come of their suffering. "It was . . . the first
study of the kind ever made," Gratzer notes. Some of the papers
were smuggled to a non-Jewish professor, who buried them until
Learning exactly what happens when people starve was crucial in the
progress of nutritional science because it focused on sickness
caused not by pathogens but by what was missing from the diet.
Since Galen, disease had been blamed on something bad invading the
body and putting it out of balance. The paradigm shift occurred
after it became unavoidably clear that the lack of essential
nutrients could also be at fault. Even well into the 19th century,
when it was already known that citrus fruits and vegetables
prevented scurvy, conventional wisdom asserted they were effective
because they contained an antidote to bad air and unwholesome food.
"The notion that they contained a constituent essential for
health," Gratzer writes, "lay beyond the reach of man's
Nowhere was the stubborn resistance to this idea more apparent than
in the insufferably slow recognition of what caused pellagra. Known
as a disease of squalor and poverty, it was widespread during and
after the Civil War in the southern United States, where the
mortality rate among those suffering from it was 40 percent. Some
blamed insect bites; others were convinced it was a contagious
disease brought into the country by Italian immigrants. When the
epidemiologist Joseph Goldberger went south in 1915 and noted that
in asylums holding pellagra sufferers none of the staff members
were affected, he concluded that it could not be infectious. On the
other hand, the employees ate well while inmates were fed fatback
and cornbread. To see if inadequate nutrition was the culprit,
Goldberger served balanced meals to children in two orphanages
where, after only a few weeks, pellagra disappeared.
The logical conclusion - that pellagra resulted from a deficient
diet (specifically, lack of nicatinic acid) - was obscured by the
prevalence of eugenics, whose proponents contended that the
institutions where Goldberger conducted his studies held inferior
people who were especially susceptible to disease. "Willful
obduracy," Gratzer calls the resistance, going on to describe
Goldberger's outrageous strategy to put the infection theory to
rest: "filth parties."
At a pellagra hospital in Spartansburg, S.C., Goldberger and seven
others "injected themselves with blood from severely affected
victims . . . rubbed secretions from their mucous sores into their
nose and mouth, and after three days swallowed pellets consisting
of the urine, feces and skin scabs from several diseased subjects."
None contracted pellagra. But despite these irrefutable findings,
little was done initially to improve the diets of the poor. The
disease finally began to disappear in the 1930's, thanks in part to
federal soup kitchens and the introduction of enriched flour.
Goldberger's audacity, and the pig-headedness of those who refused
to believe him, are vivid evidence of Gratzer's promise that the
history of nutritional dogma "encompasses every virtue, defect and
foible of human nature."
Jane and Michael Stern are the authors of the restaurant guide
"Roadfood" and the cookbooks "Square Meals" and "Blue Plate
Specials and Blue Ribbon Chefs."
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