Digging up Nutritional Roots
Several years ago, as I was sorting through the books at a shop of old treasures near Santa Fe, New Mexico, I came across a 1941 book titled “Nutrition and Physical Fitness” (3rd edition, W.B. Saunders). Written by noted Kansas State University* nutrition scientist, L. Jean Bogert, Ph.D., the book was not intended as a textbook, but rather, for the “adult with at least average intelligence, a fairly wide non-technical vocabulary, and a desire to have useful facts presented in the most direct manner.”
In other words, this book was targeted for the lay public — long before the shelves of bookstores were lined with diet and nutrition books.
Because nutrition is a relatively young science, this 76 year-old book is a potent reminder of how far nutrition knowledge and research have evolved. The B complex vitamins (there are 8) were lumped together as one “Vitamin B.” What we now know as the vitamin riboflavin was classified as “Vitamin G.” Several minerals, including zinc, selenium, chromium, and others, had not been identified as essential nutrients yet.
No mention was made of cholesterol and heart disease, the link between nutrition and cancer prevention, antioxidants, phytonutrients or trans fats. Instead, great attention was paid to Iodine deficiency and goiter (those were the pre-iodized salt days), vitamin D deficiency and rickets, and an almost obsessive concern with digestive difficulties, including an entire chapter devoted to correcting constipation!
The More Things Change . . .
More striking than the differences though, are the uncanny similarities of the nutrition issues and practices that continue to affect the health of Americans in 2017. Bogert expressed great concern regarding “the alterations in the character of the national diet.”
“The machine age has had the effect of forcing upon the peoples of the industrial nations (especially the United States) the most gigantic human feeding experiment ever attempted,” she wrote.
She saw the results as disturbing, mentioning specifically the over reliance on highly milled cereal grains, the high proportion of sugar in the diet, more highly refined foods, the decline in consumption of dairy products, eggs, fruits, and vegetables, and, in her words, “too prominent a place given to muscle meats.”
Her predictions, we now realize, have largely come to pass. Bogert’s words are sobering in light of the chronic diseases that continue to disable and kill Americans. Obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and many types of cancer all have a nutritional basis. It’s no coincidence that the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans urge us to return to a diet that features more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy and lean protein foods.
Advice For Children
In her “Diet for Children” chapter, Bogert again offers advice which rings true today. Years before the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) were established, she recommended children take in 880-1000 milligrams of calcium each day. (The most recent RDA for calcium advises 700 milligrams for 1 to 3 year-olds, 1000 milligrams for 4 to 8 year-olds and 1300 milligrams for ages 9-13). She also came close in her recommendation for iron, a nutrient that continues to concern modern-day kids. She advised 6-15 milligrams of iron per day for children, which corresponds closely to today’s RDA, which ranges from 8-15 milligrams per day, depending on age and gender.
According to Bogert’s recommendations, children of yesteryear were advised to take a daily dose of cod liver oil to meet vitamin A and D requirements. She likely didn’t realize this was also a good way for children to receive healthy omega 3 fatty acids, which are important for brain health and development.
Bogert also recommended that children eat plenty of fiber and drink enough water.
“Fiber is best obtained as an integral part of foods…in the form of fruits, vegetables, and whole grain foods…,” she wrote.
Positive Feeding Strategies
The current thinking on behavioral strategies for feeding kids is not really so new either. Bogert alludes to the importance of parental role modeling in the following passage:
“Adults should be careful not to make disparaging remarks about certain foods before children. If everyone is accustomed to eat cheerfully at least a small amount of all the foods which come on the table, a better esprit de corps and saner attitude toward food will prevail. One will be surprised in such an atmosphere to see how food prejudices are gradually overcome and what it is possible to accomplish in learning to like many useful foods.”
And, she also addresses the issue of allowing a child to decide how much to eat:
“The safest general rule for normal children seems to be: make sure the diet contains plenty of the tissue-building materials and vitamins, and then to let the appetite take care of the quantity consumed.”
In other words, no forcing or mandatory “bite rules.” Not so different from the advice I recently offered here.
A Holistic Approach
Long before the terms “holistic” or “wellness” were coined, Bogert understood that nutrition was only one aspect of total health. With words that ring true for today – written in yesterday’s language – Bogert pretty much sums up our present-day lifestyle:
“Strain, worry, too little exercise and fresh air, lack of sunlight, hurry in eating, eating when tired, irregular habits, and insufficient rest are all such familiar evils that we fail to appreciate their significance and are inclined to accept them as inevitable. We need to recognize the fundamental importance of such factors in nutrition, and to endeavor to substitute favorable conditions for the present unfavorable ones.”
*In 1941, Kansas State University was known as Kansas State Agricultural college.