June 9, 2000 (Ira Pilgrim)


The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don't want, drink what you don't like, and do what you'd rather not.

Mark Twain

My mother knew all about what foods were good for you and what foods were bad for you, and she told me with the authority that only a mother can have. She continued to lecture me even after I was a fully grown man and a scientist. Where did she get her information? She got it from the same places that most people get their information; from the newspapers, radio and TV. And where did the people in the media get their information? They got it from books. Who wrote the books? Why doctors, of course. And as my mother knew full well, "doctors know everything."

We are told that our children are malnourished and that they are eating junk food instead of the food that the diet gurus tell us that they should eat. Yet, when you look at those kids, they seem to be perfectly healthy. True, some are too fat and some are too thin, but that is the way that it always has been. However, the major nutrition based diseases such as scurvy, rickets, pellagra, and a few others, are gone. At the turn of the century, everyone was familiar with the bow legs of someone who had had rickets as a child. Every doctor could easily recognize the symptoms of the other diseases. Nowadays most doctors have never seen a single case of those diseases.

We are told, several times a week, in the press and on television, about ways to improve our health. We are chastised as a society because too many people are too fat, because our children do not eat the proper foods, according to the health gurus. We are criticized for eating the noble hamburger, and other fast foods. Our children are eating "junk food," rather than fruits and vegetables. They do not bother to define what junk food is, assuming that we all know what it is. The definition seems to be that junk food consists of those foods that kids like to eat. They like pizza, hamburgers, spaghetti, candy bars, ice cream. Besides those foods, most kids will eat almost anything that someone puts in front of them and they will eat enough of it to strain any parent's budget.

I can state categorically that children in this country are better nourished now than they were when I was a child. They are taller and reach sexual maturity earlier.

We are also told how we can live longer. Is there any truth to it? Yes, there is, but not much. There is an old saying that the way to live to a ripe old age is to pick your grandparents. In other words, a major key to longevity is in your genes. However, even great genes do not insure a long life. They just increase the probability.

It is much easier to shorten your life than it is to prolong it, and many people do just that. Some people, particularly young people, deliberately do things that put their lives at risk, such as driving carelessly or too fast or using tobacco and other deleterious drugs. A few continue this behavior into adult life and some even manage to survive it into old age solely as a consequence of dumb luck.

One thing should be obvious; the human body has built into it the ability to adjust to almost anything, and it does. If you took two groups of identical age people, one group of which eats a superb diet and another eats junk food, I doubt that you would be able to tell them apart. You could probably tell those who use their bodies physically from the couch potatoes; but that's about it.

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