Health Matters - 13 February 2004

Here is a little exchange of dialogue from an English novel written in 1915.

"My dear, Mr Peters, I trust I'm not unpunctual. I've been lunching at my club."

"I'd have asked you to lunch here," said Mr Peters, "but you know how it is with me: I promised the doctor I'd give those nuts and grasses of his a fair trial, and I can do it pretty well but only when I'm alone, not with someone else eating real food."

1915 - that was during the First World War. And what with the Germans practically submarining us into starvation - two years later it almost happened - it was a good time for doctors to recommend rather frugal ways of losing weight when the voluptuous eating habits of the Edwardians were a memory.

Mr Peters' reference to grasses meant salads - green salads - not then a regular feature of the English diet of any class.

Necessity turned slimming into a fashion when the First World War was over. Food was still rationed and the acrobatic steps required to dance to the new American jazz could be done better by a girl as slim as a trout with a flat chest and Eton crop.

Nobody knew for certain how you produced or defined this womanly ideal except that it somehow involved two new elements people had heard about - proteins and carbohydrates.

But then they discovered the new and exciting thing called a vitamin. Indeed a small alphabet of vitamins.

The doctors, the scientists, were hard put to it to say exactly what a vitamin was but they touted it far and wide as a great way of chasing away excess fat.

And there sprouted all over so-called health food shops, marketing strange new elixirs like dried fruits, grated carrots and all sorts of nuts.

By the late 1920s dieting was practically a national hobby and the miracle ingredient - the vitamin - was widely recommended both for taking off weight and then, by the 1930s, for putting it on.

In 1927 the most authoritative British medical journal caused a stir when in a learned piece it warned that the diet alone consisting of protein, carbohydrates, I guess even the miraculous vitamins, was not enough if you did not - how shall we put it delicately? - keep this food moving vigorously.

There was one essential, what we now call, additive - roughage. Roughage was the word for at least a quarter of a century till it was redefined as bran, a bran product. We all started eating bran cereals.

I suppose in my time I've watched the ecstatic leap and the weary collapse of - oh maybe - 30, 40 miracle diets.

However, a year or two ago the whole field of diet for obesity and diet for heart condition exploded under the impact of a medical doctor who in a reputable journal told the profession that, in the matter of losing weight safely and permanently and in its counselling for heart patients, it was 180 degrees wrong.

He turned their prescriptions upside down. Not only should you not avoid saturated fats - butter, cream, luscious meat - you should indulge yourself in those very foods.

What you should avoid was bread, potatoes, pasta - carbohydrates of all sorts.

Of course this was precious news to most people not already under a specialist's care.

Well, the debate that became a feud will die down but what has alarmed the Atkins people and is likely to go on doing so is something else - an official report issued this week by the orange growers of Florida and California.

They are being buffeted right and left. They've already suffered from the advice of many cardiologists to their heart patients to avoid orange and grapefruit juice on the grounds that ascorbic acid tends to harden the arteries.

But the burden of the orange growers' protest is that the Atkins dieters warn you to lay off oranges because the sweet taste is the taste of - to the late Dr Atkins - a dread carbohydrate.

This week the orange growers say the general demand for orange juice has made their harvest receipts drop 17% - a depressing figure.

The orange growers' plight nudges me with the reminder that one listener wants to know what I meant the other week with my offhand mention of one of the assignments I covered during the Second World War, when in Florida I watched the process of concentrating orange juice for shipping to British children. It was certainly one of the happiest of wartime assignments.

In a very small town - Dunedin, on the west coast of Florida - the Department of Agriculture had suggested I take a look at a man they called "our mad scientist", a chemist from the mountains of upstate New York.

He was as true stereo of the fictional type - spiky hair, goggly glasses, clothes like an unmade bed, high nervous enthusiasm.

He had cause for enthusiasm: he had just solved a nasty problem that Britain had presented to the United States Department of Agriculture in America's early days in the war.

The Nazi submarines had got well into their underwater stride and were sinking Allied freighters and tankers even as far west as the Florida Keys.

Britain was already feeling the squeeze of tight food rationing, in particular the children were short of sources of vitamin C.

Florida had all the oranges in the world but thousands of whole oranges would take up too much room in ships' bottoms meant for war material and essential goods.

Our Dr Spiky found a way: putting into very small cans the concentrated juice, which could be watered down at the other end to make whole orange juice five times the volume of the original.

Concentrate plus five cups of water - that was the formula. Hugely exploited commercially right after the war to the credit but not the bank account of the government's Dr Spiky.

During our earlier discussion of dieting and medicines I should have mentioned the universal comical situation, long before proteins and vitamins and special diets were ever heard of.

From the early 19th century on, self-treatment consisted of buying anything that was advertised as a magic cure - a cure for anything and everything.

It would take the better part of a century for our countries to set up a government authority to police the claims of patent and acclaimed magic medicines.

Even as late as my boyhood I remember a famous bottle with a famous name - let's say Witheringay's Lung Tonic. That's all, you had tuberculosis or lung cancer, just take a good nip of the lung tonic and ah, that's better. Can you believe it?

In the very middle of the 19th century - 1850 exactly - the empress of cure-all tonics, one Miss Lydia Pinkham, brewed her first magical remedy in Lynn, Massachusetts.

You'd have thought she'd got the ingredients from the witches in Macbeth: fenugreek seed, pleurisy root, black cobosh, unicorn root, water - and a secret ingredient.

It was sold and consumed by women young and old all around America - Lydia Pinkham's vegetable compound - "made especially", one advertisement wrote, "for the troubles which beset our sex".

Lydia wrote many of the advertisements herself and they had a unique dignity in delicate matters.

"Have you ever had a feeling of fullness around the fundament? This is efficacious and pleasant to the taste."

Lydia Pinkham was in her person and in the likeness which adorned all her bottles a woman of impeccable respectability, and was endorsed by many public figures, including the treasurer of the Women's Christian Temperance Union:

"Dear sister, let the doctors alone. Lydia Pinkham's compound is better than any and all doctors, for it cures and they do not."

What was so bracing, so curative about the compound?

It just happened to be the secret ingredient, not remarked on especially by the treasurer of the Women's Christian Temperance Union.

It was alcohol - 22% alcohol! Which is a couple of stiff snorts of the demon itself.

The government eventually delicately required her to reduce the percentage to 13. Still!

Her vast success - especially 30 years after her death during the era of prohibition - was due, an old friend of mine wrote, to her combining the morals of a saint with the business practices of a bootlegger.

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