Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Nutrition Debate #1: A Very Brief (and Necessarily Select) History of Numan Nutrition (and Dieting)

In the beginning, there were the hunters and the gatherers. This was, in the History of Nutrition, the Paleolithic Era, and hence we have the derivative Paleo Diet. In most cultures, men hunted and women and children gathered foodstuffs as they were available to them. Early humans adapted to periods of feasting and starvation (fed and fasting states, in dieting terms). We will return to this in later installments of this multi-part series.

We humans were then of necessity omnivorous. It was a survival thing. We are supposed to have eaten (or otherwise used) every part of the animals we were lucky or skilled enough to trap or club or impale with lance or shoot with bow and arrow or spear (fishes). Every part of the animal (or fish) including the organ meats (offal), the blood, and even the marrow from within the cavity of the bone, was eaten. Some of us still enjoy these foods today.

We also ate all the things we could gather from fruit trees and vines, and the leaves and roots and fungi that didn’t kill us. It was a trial and error thing, but we learned that to survive we had to take risks (both in hunting and gathering) and make the most of what was available and safe to eat. I have often thought that this is why children have a natural aversion or “distaste” for “new” foods and only gradually increase the scope of what they will eat as they mature. Remember when you wouldn’t eat (blank) – fill in the blank? For me, it was brussel sprouts, which today I love, especially tossed in olive oil and roasted.

Then, as we became more “civilized” and gathered together for protection and socialization, we wandered about less and began to settle. This development came about and was undoubtedly enabled by the beginnings of agriculture. We saw that grains, that is, the seed heads of certain grasses (cereal grains such as corn, wheat, and rice) grew naturally where nature planted them. Why wander about when we could plant our food supply, we reasoned, and cultivate and water and harvest it where we lived? This also enabled us to build more permanent shelters and live in fertile places with good fresh water supplies and abundant game and other animal life. We also learned that we could catch (instead of kill) certain animals and domesticate them for a steady food supply as they multiplied naturally in captivity. Wundebar! Surely, this was a milestone, indeed a hallmark, of human evolution.

Could life get any better? Perhaps. But, in the view of increasing numbers of today’s students of these developments, this was also the beginning of mankind’s downfall, nutritionally speaking. It was the dawn of the onset of the age that was to bring us the dreaded Diseases of Civilization. It was the advent of the Neolithic Age, and it began about 10,000 years ago.

Fast forward to about 150 years ago. William Banting¹, a retired London undertaker, wrote and published (in 1863) a 16-page pamphlet titled Letter on Corpulence – Addressed to the Public. In it, the 5 foot 5 inch, 200 pound Banting, surely a fat man, described a program of eating in which he “scrupulously avoided eating any…food that might contain either sugar or starch.” On Banting’s diet, he ate 5 or 6 ounces of meat or fish at each of three meals every day, together with a fair amount of wine and spirits, but avoided altogether “bread, milk, beer, sweets and potatoes.” Banting dropped about 50 pounds in 18 months. His pamphlet became a sensational best seller in England and on the Continent, and launched the now infamous Very-Low-Carb Diet (definition of VLC to follow).

William Banting credited his diet to William Harvey, an aural surgeon in London who had recently “been to Paris where he had heard the great physiologist Claude Bernard debate on diabetes.” In later editions of his astonishingly popular pamphlet Banting also credited two other Frenchmen, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin and Jean-Fran├žois Dancel, whom The Lancet and the British Medical Journal said had earlier espoused similar views to Banting’s advisor, Dr. Harvey. Banting apologized for not giving the Frenchmen credit and simply explained he was not familiar with them.

Now, fast forward again to about 50 years ago (skipping the impact of the Industrial Revolution, including improvements in agricultural production through mechanization, and the movement of large segments of the growing population from rural areas to cities to work in factories, as well as various wars and conflagrations).

On January 13, 1961, Ancel Keys, a widely-respected University of Minnesota physiologist (after whom the K-Rations of WWII were named), made the cover of Time Magazine. Since the 1930’s Keys had been interested in the influence of diet on health. His work on the etiology and specifically the epidemiology of heart disease would later be published in a seminal tract, the Seven Countries Study (Harvard University Press, 1980), from which his hypothesis associating cholesterol and saturated dietary fat with heart disease was promulgated and asserted by Keys as the Lipid Hypothesis; hence, the Low-Fat Diet.

Keys’s Lipid Hypothesis will be the subject of the third installment of this series. But first, the second installment, which will be upcoming, will be a primer for non-scientists (and physicians) on “The Basics of Nutrition: Macronutrients, Vitamins, Minerals and Phytochemicals.”

¹ In this and the following paragraph the quotes and references are from the “Prologue: A Brief History of Banting” from Gary Taubes’ Good Calories – Bad Calories, 2007, Alfred A. Knopf. I especially recommend the 2nd (paperback) Edition for the Afterwords wherein Taubes discusses the response to his book by the medical community and why most doctors still don’t “get it.”

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