[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 


    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
    after liberation.

    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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