Ancient (sort of) Dietary Wisdom, Modern Replies

      54 Comments on Ancient (sort of) Dietary Wisdom, Modern Replies

Some interesting tidbits about the diets from bygone eras showed up in my inbox over the weekend.  (As always, a hearty thank-you to the readers who brought these to my attention.)  Since mainstream health journalists are apparently required to run out and get quotes from people who preach the standard dietary advice for every article they write, I thought I’d do the same this time around.

World’s Oldest Living Human

The government in Brazil has confirmed that one of the country’s citizens is the oldest known human alive:

While the Amazon rainforest is certainly known to be teeming with life, it turns out that the people who live there are too. Maria Lucimar Pereira, an indigenous Amazonian belonging to the Kaxinawá tribe of western Brazil, will soon be celebrating her birthday — her 121st birthday, to be exact. The truth behind Pereira’s remarkable longevity was recently discovered by the Brazilian government while performing a routine review of birth records — which, in her case, date back to 1890 — making her the world’s oldest living person.

Wow.  Maria was in her twenties during World War One and was almost my age when Hitler invaded Poland.  But she’s still alive and kickin’.  She must base her diet on lots of heart-healthy whole grains.

Pereira credits her long-life to an active, healthy lifestyle, in addition to a diet rich in locally grown meats, fruits, and vegetables gathered in the forests around her home — free of the extra salt, sugar, and preservatives so commonly found in foods around the world. Her all-natural diet, along with frequent walks around town, has allowed Pereira to thrive while others, many years her junior, do not.

Meats, fruits and vegetables?  You mean the world’s oldest resident spent more than a century consuming a paleo diet?  For the sake of journalistic balance, I asked the good folks at the Grain Foods Foundation to comment:

A fad diet is still a fad diet, no matter how you dress it up.

Well, I always assumed people stop being swayed by the latest fads once they reach 100, but I see your point.  However, what was I asking was:  how did this woman manage to live so long without whole grains in her diet?

Cutting out one specific food is not only unrealistic, it’s dangerous.  Omitting wheat entirely removes the essential (and disease-fighting!) nutrients it provides including fiber, antioxidants, iron and B vitamins.

So you believe Maria’s grain-free diet will make her susceptible to diseases?

That’s right.

But she’s 121 years old.

Maria’s diet runs completely counter to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the gold standard of scientifically-sound nutrition advice.  The Guidelines call for the average healthy American to consume six one-ounce servings of grain foods daily, half of which should come from whole grains and the other half from enriched grains.

But she’s 121 years old.

Well, she’s not an American either, so she can ignore the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, but you can’t.

But she’s –

Let us explain it this way:  Shut up.

Advice From a Cookware Company

In 1930 – when Maria was 40 years old – the Super Maid Cookware Company published a book titled The Business of Living, which included this passage:

Fat is the product of sugars and starches stored up instead of burned up. These foods are necessary to efficient living, regardless of type or tendency, but their use should be governed by personal need, not by taste or habit…as a matter of fact, a diet should be selected which is relatively low in these values (Sugars and starches). All foods are not alike in their carbon quantities and qualities. Some foods provide very little, others composed almost wholly of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. These foods are natural fuel foods. Nature has provided them for the purpose of energizing the body. A certain amount of storage is valuable. Nature has also provided for that, but it is undoubtedly not the intention of Nature that a diet is composed almost completely of this class of food. The following foods provide little else save potential heat which should be burned up, and if not burned up, will be stored as fat:

Potatoes, prepared after peeling, pies, cakes, cookies, cream puffs, polished rice, doughnuts, arrowroot, candies chocolates, jams, white flour products, sweet crackers, wafers, macaroni, graham flour, molasses, honey, corn syrup, maple syrup, cornmeal products, navy beans, cream soups and cream dressings, corn bread and butter, waffles, hot cakes, spaghetti, malted milk, chili, as well as any number of so-called prepared breakfast foods, especially if served with cream and sugar.

It will be noticed that these foods are found more frequently on the American table than perhaps any other single class. Our dietetic habits usually follow the lines of least resistance, and these foods seem to possess a certain charm for most people. Especially do they find favor with true carbon individuals.

The carbon individual is readily recognized by the rotund outline which characterizes every part of the physical make up. The head is round, the cheeks convex, the chin — well, there are usually two or three of them, each one following the rounding contour of the other. The neck is round and full, both front and back, the tissue is usually folding in symmetrical outline. The chest is round, full and well upholstered, with soft, folding tissues, gradually merging into a round, bulging abdomen; legs and arms are short, round and dimpled at joints, hands conical in shape, with short, smooth fingers. The whole outline is round.

Sounds as if the cookware company was recommending people limit the sugars and starches in their diets.  I figured the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines Committee would want to comment:

We agree with the Super Maid Cookware Company that Americans should limit their intake of sugar.  Now if you’ll excuse us, we-–

But what about grains and other starches?

Uh … well, as we stated in our 2010 Dietary Guidelines, healthy diets are high in carbohydrates. So we agree with the Super Maid Cookware Company on some points, but still recommend Americans consume potatoes, polished rice, arrowroot, white flour products, sweet crackers, wafers, macaroni, graham flour, corn syrup, cornmeal products, navy beans, corn bread, waffles, hot cakes and spaghetti, as well as any number of so-called prepared breakfast foods, especially if served with skim milk.

And when you say recommend, you mean that for schools and other government facilities, you require those foods.

That’s right.  We’re from the government and we’re here to help.

Aren’t you concerned that a lot more kids are growing up to be carbon individuals?

That’s why we support the EPA’s mandatory limits on carbon.

But I don’t see how that will offset-–

Yes, it’s important for all of us to support carbon offsets.  Goodbye.

The Diet For Diabetics in 1915

Before insulin shots were developed, doctors treated diabetes with diet.  Here are some quotes from treatment guidelines written by doctors for other doctors in 1915:

The “starvation treatment” of diabetes, as advanced by Dr. Frederick M. Allen of the Rockefeller Institute Hospital, is undoubtedly a most valuable treatment. At the Massachusetts General Hospital it has been used for several months with great success, and it is thought worth while to publish some of the diets, and details of treatment that have been used there, as a very careful control of the proteid and carbohydrate intake is of the utmost importance if the treatment is to be successful. In carrying out the Allen treatment the physician must think in grams of carbohydrate and proteid—it is not enough simply to cut down the supply of starchy foods; he must know approximately how much carbohydrate and proteid his patient is getting each day.

For forty-eight hours after admission to the hospital the patient is kept on ordinary diet, to determine the severity of his diabetes. Then he is starved, and no food allowed save whiskey and black coffee. The whiskey is given in the coffee: 1 ounce of whiskey every two hours, from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. This furnishes roughly about 800 calories. The whiskey is not an essential part of the treatment; it merely furnishes a few calories and keeps the patient more comfortable while he is being starved.

When the patient is sugar-free he is put upon a diet of so-called “5% vegetables,” i.e. vegetables containing approximately 5% carbohydrate. It is best to boil these vegetables three times, with changes of water. In this way their carbohydrate content is reduced, probably about one-half. A moderate amount of fat, in the form of butter, can be given with this vegetable diet if desired. The amount of carbohydrate in these green vegetables is not at all inconsiderable, and if the patient eats as much as he desires, it is possible for him to have an intake of 25 or 30 grams, which is altogether too much; the first day after starvation the carbohydrate intake should not be over 15 grams.

Hmmm … so far, the treatment seems to be all about severely restricting the foods that raise blood sugar.  If they’re not careful, they’ll end up putting people on high-fat diets.  Let’s skip ahead to their case reports to see what the actual diets were.

Case 1. A woman of 64, diabetic for two years. She was sent in from the out-patient department, where she had been receiving a diet of 50 grams of carbohydrate and 50 grams of protein. On this diet she was putting out 8 grams of sugar a day with moderately strong acetone and diacetic acid reactions in her urine. When the carbohydrate was cut in the ward to 30 grams, she put out 3 grams of sugar a day. She complained of severe pruritus vulvae. After sixteen days of this treatment she continued to put out from 0.1% to 0.2% of sugar a day. Allen’s treatment was then started, and after one day of starvation she was sugar-free and remained so for four days on a diet of carbohydrate, 20 grams; protein, 30 grams; fat, 150 grams.

A second starvation day, followed by two vegetable days, and a more careful raising of the diet—as follows—kept her sugar-free, and she was discharged so. Her diets were:

Dec. 12.

  • Carbohydrate, 20 grams.
  • Protein, 30 grams.
  • Fat, 150 grams—1500 calories. No glycosuria.

Dec. 15.

  • Carbohydrate, 30 grams.
  • Protein, 30 grams.
  • Fat, 200 grams—2000 calories. No glycosuria.

Dec. 20.

  • Carbohydrate, 30 grams.
  • Protein, 40 grams.
  • Fat, 180 grams—2000 calories. No glycosuria.

Dec. 26.

  • Carbohydrate, 40 grams.
  • Protein, 40 grams.
  • Fat, 180 grams—2000 calories. No glycosuria.

Dec. 30.

  • Carbohydrates, 50 grams.
  • Protein, 50 grams.
  • Fat, 180 grams—2000 calories. No glycosuria.

Case 4. A Greek (male) of 48, diabetic for two months, entered Jan. 14, 1915, with 3.8% (65 grams) of sugar and moderate acetone reaction. There was no diacetic reaction present at entrance. After one starvation day he became sugar-free, but was kept on starvation one day longer and then started on vegetables in the usual way. After the third day a moderate amount of diacetic acid appeared in the urine and continued. The ammonia rose from 0.7 grams per day to 2.6 grams per day, and then varied from 0.3 to 1.5 grams per day. No symptoms of acidosis.

Jan. 18.

  • Carbohydrate, 15 grams.
  • Protein, 25 grams.
  • Fat, 150 grams—1360 calories. No glycosuria.

Jan. 20.

  • Carbohydrate, 15 grams.
  • Protein, 25 grams.
  • Fat, 200 grams—1571 calories. No glycosuria.

Jan. 24.

  • Carbohydrate, 25 grams.
  • Protein, 35 grams.
  • Fat, 200 grams—1760 calories. No glycosuria.

Jan. 26.

  • Carbohydrate, 35 grams.
  • Protein, 40 grams.
  • Fat, 200 grams—1838 calories. No glycosuria.

Jan. 29.

  • Carbohydrate, 45 grams.
  • Protein, 50 grams.
  • Fat, 200 grams—2194 calories. No glycosuria.

Jan. 31.

  • Carbohydrate, 50 grams.
  • Protein, 60 grams.
  • Fat, 200 grams—2347 calories. No glycosuria.

Only 50 grams of carbohydrates and up to 200 grams of fat?!!  Sounds almost like the diet that crazy Dr. Bernstein recommends for diabetics.  We’d best get a common-sense reply from diabetes educator Hope Warshaw:

Rather than throwing stones and continually citing Richard Bernstein, MD, who as far as I know has only written consumer books and not published one research paper on his recommendations, or discussing your own experience of one, how about providing/discussing citations of well conducted long term research studies in people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes (or even prevention trials) who more successfully manage glycemia, lipids and blood pressure and eat healthfully on an intake of carbohydrate below 40% of total calories.

Uh … Dr. Bernstein has published research papers, and I just cited some case histories of people who got their diabetes under control by limiting carbohydrate intake.  There are several more in the original paper if you click the link and—

Countless research studies do not show long term (greater than six months to a year) benefit of low carb diets on blood glucose, weight control, or blood fats.

That’s because those countless studies only lasted six month to a year.  But if you look at case histories–

Nutrition recommendations for people with type 2 diabetes from the American Diabetes Association and other health authorities echo the recently unveiled U.S. 2010 Dietary Guidelines for carbohydrate: about 45 to 65 percent of calories.

But then the diabetics who consume that diet will have to take insulin shots, or their blood sugar will reach toxic levels.

The reality is that if blood glucose is out of control, it’s time to progress to blood glucose-lowering medication(s).

Don’t you think it’s better to control diabetes with food(s) instead of medication(s)?

Diabetics have a right to enjoy the same foods as everyone else.

But they don’t have the same reaction to those foods as everyone else.  Dr. Bernstein found that each extra gram of carbohydrates causes glucose levels to rise by–

No need to write back unless you’ve got well conducted published research studies to share.

From Grandma’s Kitchen

I found this at my mom’s house.  Turns out it belonged to my grandmother.

Since my grandmother only lived to be 95, I think it’s fair to assume her habit of cooking with butter ended her life prematurely.  I sent the photo above to the American Heart Association.  They sent back an updated version and suggested I hang it in my kitchen:


54 thoughts on “Ancient (sort of) Dietary Wisdom, Modern Replies

  1. Judith B

    You may already be familiar with these early cookbooks Tom, but just in case you’re not here are links to two pre-insulin era diabetic cookbooks, one published in 1912 and one in 1917. They make interesting reading.

    Foods listed as “especially valuable”: butter, olive oil, eggs and meats and fish of all kinds. Foods listed as “forbidden”: Sugar, flour, bread, biscuits, rice, macaroni, all sweet and dried fruits. Yup, they had it right.

  2. Dana

    Along with elevated insulin, Hope Warshaw gives me high blood pressure. Bravo to you.

    I had a “calories are king” troll on my Facebook page who got offended when I suggested she adopt a diet of 70 percent fat, 30 percent protein, and a daily multivitamin for a week just to see what would happen. She said no one wants a steak with that much fat on it. I should show her your post with all the diabetic diets you listed, but she gives me high blood pressure too.

    No one wants a steak with that much fat?! I certainly do.

  3. Drew @ Willpower Is For Fat People

    No one wants a steak with that much fat on it.

    Some people in my family can’t tell the difference between fat and gristle, so of course they wouldn’t want a steak with that much “fat” on it. My daughter, on the other hand, won’t let me take the fat from her steak any more.

    My daughter steals the fat from my steak if I’m not looking.


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