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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Relation of Food to Health

We begin, then, with a typical baby, born of civilized parents, and living in the midst of the best civilization to be had. Savage or even partially civilized life could never furnish the type we desire. It is true, as we have seen, that natural laws, so deeply planted that they have become instincts, have given to many wild nations a dietary meeting their absolute needs; but only civilization can find the key to these modes, and make past experience pay tribute to present knowledge. We do not want an Indian baby, bound and swathed like a little mummy, hanging from the pole of a wigwam, placidly sucking a fish's tail, or a bone of boiled dog; nor an Esquimaux baby, with its strip of blubber; nor the Hottentot, with its rope of jerked beef; nor the South-sea Islander, with its half-cocoanut. Nor will we admit the average Irish baby, among the laboring classes in both city and country, brought to the table at three months old to swallow its portion of coffee or tea; nor the small German, whom at six months I have seen swallowing its little mug of lager as philosophically as its serious-faced father. That these babies have fevers and rashes, and a host of diseases peculiar to that age, is a matter of course; and equally a matter of course that the round-eyed mother wonders where it got its dreadful disposition, but scorns the thought that lager or coffee can be irritants, or that the baby stomach requires but one food, and that one the universal food of all young animal life,—milk.

Take, then, our typical baby, lying fresh and sweet in the well aired and lighted room we suppose to be his birthright. The bones are still soft, the tender flesh and skin with little or no power of resistance. Muscles, nerves, all the wonderful tissues, are in process of formation; and in the strange growth and development of this most helpless yet most precious of all God's creations, there are certain elements which must be had,—phosphates to harden the delicate bones; nitrogen for flesh, which is only developed muscle; carbon,—or sugar and fat, which represent carbon,—for the whole wonderful course of respiration and circulation. Water, too, must be in abundance to fill the tiny stomach, which in the beginning can hold but a spoonful; and to float the blood-corpuscles through the winding channels whose mysteries, even now, no man has fully penetrated. Caseine, which is the solid, nourishing, cheesy part of milk, and abounds in nitrogen, is also needed; and all the salts and alkalies that we have found to be necessary in forming perfect blood. Let us see if milk will meet these wants.

(Supposed to contain 1,000 parts.)
Carried forward994.0
Brought forward994.0
Soda }
Chloride of sodium and potassium }
Phosphate of soda and potassa }
Phosphate of lime }6.0
Magnesia }
Iron }
Alkaline carbonates }


Mother's milk being nearly the same, having only a larger proportion of water, will for the first year of our baby's life meet every demand the system can make. Even the first teeth are no sign, as ignorant mothers believe, that the stomach calls for stronger food. They are known, with reason, as milk-teeth, and the grinders delay their appearance for months afterward. A little oatmeal, bread and milk, and various porridges, come in here, that the bones may harden more rapidly; but that is all. The baby is in constant motion; and eyes and ears are taking in the mysteries of the new life, and busy hands testing properties, and little feet walking into mischief, all day. This is hardly the place to dwell upon the amount of knowledge acquired from birth to five years of age; yet when you consider how the mind is reaching in every direction, appropriating, investigating, drawing conclusions which are the foundation of all our after-knowledge, you will see that the brain is working with an intensity never afterwards equaled; and, as brain-work means actual destruction of brain-fiber, how vital it is that food should be furnished in the right ratio, and made up of the right elements!

With the coming of the grinders, and the call of the muscles and tissues for stronger food, begins the necessity for a more varied dietary. Our baby now, from two and a half to seven years of age, will require daily:—

Bread, not less than12 ounces.
Butter1 ounce.
Milk1/2 pint.
Meat2 ounces.
Vegetables6 ounces.
Pudding or gruel6 ounces.

This table is made from the dietaries of various children's hospitals, where long experiment has settled the quantities and qualities necessary to health, or, as in these cases, recovery from sickness, at which time the appetite is always keener.

In many cases physicians who have studied the laws of food, and kept pace with modern experiments in dietetics, strike out meat altogether till the child is seven or eight years old, and allow it but once daily after this time, and in very limited amount. Sir Henry Thompson, one of the most distinguished of English physicians, and a man noted for his popularity as diner out and giver of dinners, writes strenuously against the prevailing excessive use of meat, and especially protests against its over use for children; and his opinion is shared by most thoughtful medical men. The nitrogenous vegetables advantageously take its place; and cheese, as prepared after the formulas given in Mattieu Williams's "Chemistry of Cookery," is a food the value of which we are but just beginning to appreciate.

As to quantity, with the healthy child, playing at will, there need be very little restraint. Few children will eat too much of perfectly simple food, such as this table includes. Let cake or pastry or sweetmeats enter in, and of course, as long as the thing tastes good, the child will beg for more. English children are confined to this simple diet; and though of course a less exacting climate has much to do with the greater healthfulness of the English than the American people, the plain but hearty and regular diet of childhood has far more.

Our young American of seven, at a hotel breakfast, would call for coffee and ham and eggs and sausages and hot cakes. His English cousin would have no liberty to call for anything. In fact, it is very doubtful if he would be brought to table at all; and if there, bread and milk or oatmeal and milk would form his meal.

By this time I do not doubt our baby has your heartiest pity, and you are saying, "What! no snacks? no cooky nor cake nor candy? no running to aunt or grandmother or tender-hearted cook for goodies? If that must be so, half the pleasure of childhood is lost."

Perhaps; but suppose that with that pleasure some other things are also lost. Suppose our baby to have begun life with a nervous, irritable, sensitive organization, keenly alive to pain, and this hard regimen to have covered these nerves with firm flesh, and filled the veins with clean, healthy blood. Suppose headache is unknown, and loss of appetite, and a bad taste in the mouth, and all the evils we know so well; and that work and play are easy, and food of the simplest eaten with solid satisfaction. The child would choose the pleasant taste, and let health go, naturally; for a child has small reason, and life must be ordered for it. But if the mother or father has no sense or understanding of the laws of food, it is useless to hope for the wholesome results that under the diet of our baby are sure to follow.

By seven some going to school has begun; and from this time on the diet, while of the same general character, may vary more from day to day. Habits of life are fixed during this time; and even if parents dislike certain articles of food themselves, it is well to give no sign, but as far as possible, accustom the child to eat any wholesome food. We are a wandering people, and sooner or later are very likely to have circumnavigated the globe, at least in part. Our baby must have no antipathies, but every good thing given by Nature shall at least be tolerated. "I never eat this," or "I never eat that," is a formula that no educated person has a right to use save when some food actually hurtful or to which he has a natural repulsion is presented to him. Certain articles of diet are often strangely and unaccountably harmful to some. Oysters are an almost deadly poison to certain constitutions; milk to others. Cheese has produced the same effect, and even strawberries; yet all these are luxuries to the ordinary stomach.

Usually the thing to guard against most carefully is gluttony, so far as boys are concerned. With girls the tendency often is to eat far too little. A false delicacy, a feeling that paleness and fragility are beautiful and feminine, inclines the young girl often to eat less than she desires; and the stomach accustoms itself to the insufficient supply, till the reception of a reasonable meal is an impossibility. Or if they eat improper food (hot breads and much fat and sweets), the same result follows. Digestion, or rather assimilation, is impossible; and pasty face and lusterless eyes become the rule. A greedy woman is the exception; and yet all schoolgirls know the temptation to over-eating produced by a box of goodies from home, or the stronger temptation, after a school-term has ended, to ravage all cake-boxes and preserve-jars. Then comes the pill or powder, and the habit of going to them for a relief which if no excess had been committed, would have been unnecessary. Patent medicines are the natural sequence of unwholesome food, and both are outrages on common-sense.

We will take it for granted, then, that our baby has come to boyhood and youth in blissful ignorance of their names or natures. But as we are not in the least certain what personal tastes he may have developed, or what form his life-work is to take,—whether professional or mercantile or artisan in one of the many trades,—we can now only give the regimen best adapted for each.

Supposing his tastes to be scholarly, and a college and professional career to be chosen, the time has come for slight changes in the system of diet,—very slight, however. It has become a popular saying among thinkers upon these questions, "Without phosphorus, no thinking;" and like all arbitrary utterances it has done more harm than good. The amount of phosphorus passing through the system bears no relation whatever to the intensity of thought. "A captive lion," to quote from Dr. Chambers, one of the most distinguished living authorities on diet, "a leopard, or hare, which can have wonderfully little to think about, assimilates and parts with a greater quantity of phosphorus than a professor of chemistry working hard in his laboratory; while a beaver, who always seems to be contriving something, excretes so little phosphorus that chemical analysis cannot detect it."

Phosphatic salts are demanded, but so are other salts, fat, and water; and the dietaries that order students to live upon fish, eggs, and oysters, because they are rich in phosphorus, without which the brain starves, err just so far as they make this the sole reason,—the real reason being that these articles are all easily digested, and that the student, leading an inactive muscular life, does not require the heavy, hearty food of the laborer.

The most perfect regimen for the intellectual life is precisely what would be advised for the growing boy: frequent small supplies of easily-digested food, that the stomach may never be overloaded, or the brain clouded by the fumes of half-assimilated food. If our boy trains for a foot-race, rows with the college crew, or goes in for base-ball, his power as a brain-worker at once diminishes. Strong muscular action and development hinder continuous mental work; and the literary life, as a rule, allows no extremes, demanding only mild exercise and temperance as its foundation-stones. But our boy can well afford to develop his muscular system so perfectly that his mild exercise would seem to the untrained man tolerably heavy work.

The rower in a college crew requires six weeks of training before his muscular power and endurance have reached their height. Every particle of superfluous fat must be removed, for fat is not strength, but weakness. There is a vast difference between the plumpness of good muscular development and the flabby, heavy overloading of these muscles with rolls of fat. The chest must be enlarged, that the lungs may have full play, and be capable of long-continued, extra draughts upon them; and special diet and special exercise alone can accomplish these ends. All fat-producing foods are struck out, sugar and all starchy foods coming under this head, as well as all puddings, pies, cakes, and sweets in general. Our boy, after a short run, would breakfast on lean, under-done beef or mutton, dry toast, or the crust of bread, and tea without milk or sugar; would dine on meat and a little bread and claret, and sup on more meat and toast, with cresses or some acid fruit, having rowed twice over the course in the afternoon, steadily increasing the speed, and following it by a bath and rub. At least nine hours sleep must be had; and with this diet, at the end of the training-time the muscles are hard and firm, the skin wonderfully pure and clear, and the capacity for long, steady breathing under exertion, almost unlimited. No better laws for the reduction of excessive fat can be laid down for any one.

Under such a course, severe mental exertion is impossible; and the return to it requires to be gradual. But light exercise with dumb-bells, &c., fresh air, walking, and good food are the conditions of all sound mental work, whether done by man or woman.

For the clerk or bookkeeper closely confined to desk or counter, much the same regimen is needed, with brisk exercise at the beginning and end of the day,—at least always walking rather than riding to and from the office or store; while in all the trades where hard labor is necessary, heartier food must be the rule. And for all professions or trades, the summing-up is the same: suitable food, fresh air, sunlight, and perfect cleanliness,—the following of these laws insuring the perfect use of every power to the very end.

As old age advances, the food-demand lessens naturally. Nourishing food is still necessary, but taken in much smaller quantities and more often, in order that the waning powers of the stomach may not be overtaxed. Living on such principles, work can go on till the time for work is over, and the long sleep comes as quietly as to a tired child. Simple common-sense and self-control will free one once for all from the fear, too often hanging over middle life, of a paralytic and helpless invalidism, or the long train of apoplectic symptoms often the portion even of middle life.

I omit detail as to the character and effects of tea, coffee, alcohol, &c, such details coming in the chapters on the chemistry of food.

Taken from:

Adapted to Domestic Use or Study in Classes

Copyright 1903
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