Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

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Food Facts and Fads in History – The First Fast Food


FYI: Enjoy a little bit of food history.

The first fast food restaurants were the Horn and Hardart Automats. The Swiss had invented a “waiterless restaurant” which had rectangular glass doors that opened by a knob. The customer would walk by the windows and select an item, insert a nickel and remove the cold food. Behind the doors, women would replenish the food when needed. Diners chose hot foods at buffet-style steam tables.

Often these windows were adorned with lavish decor. “Beautifully ornate with its mirrors, marble and marquetry, a 35-foot piece of Philadelphia’s 1902 Horn & Hardart is in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.”

“In huge rectangular halls filled with shiny, lacquered tables, women with rubber tips on their fingers—”nickel throwers,” as they became known, in glass booths gave customers the desired five-cent pieces required to operate the food machines in exchange for larger coins and paper money. ”

For diners who were really in such a rush, the company provided stand-up counters similar to those that banks provide for writing deposit slips. These people ate what became known as “perpendicular meals.”

The last Automat closed in New York City in 1991;  they had the reputation of serving clean, fresh food at a low cost and tipping was not required.

Meet Me At the Automat

By Carolyn Hughes Crowley

Smithsonian Magazine August 2001

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A Dietary Timeline – An Update – 1825 to 2016


This post is an update to a previous post that depicted the history of diets and dieting and how they changed over time.  It shows how women’s body image, food gurus, medical associations, the food supply and ultimately the food industry through lobbying has affected our eating habits  for over a century.



A French lawyer named Brillant-Savarin said in a publication entitled The Physiology of Taste:  “More or less rigid abstinence from everything that is starchy or floury” is a cure for obesity.


Sugar consumption, mainly as molasses) had increased in the U.S. to 15 pounds per capita.


William Banting lost 65 pounds on a high fat, carbohydrate restricted diet and subsequently published, Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public. He based his success on the advice of his physician, Dr. William Harvey.

1880 – 1910

One out of three people lived on a farm and ate from what they raised and grew there – today with 300 million people, only about 1% do so. The risk of getting type 2 diabetes was 1 in 30 in a lifetime – now it is 1 in 3. (CDC estimates). Butter consumption was 18 pounds per capita and deaths from heart disease was below 10% – In 2000 it was below 4 pounds and now heart disease mortality is about 40% eating concocted supposedly healthier alternatives – e.g. margarine.


In the late 1800s and early 1900s, a man named Wilbur Atwater conducted experiments in which he calculated the number of calories in various diets, and collected people’s feces to determine how many calories were wasted. Based on these experiments, Atwater concluded that proteins and carbohydrates have about 4 calories per gram, fats have 9 calories per gram, and alcohol has 7 calories per gram.


Lillian Russell, a stage actress and singer born in 1861. was repeatedly mentioned known as one of the most beautiful women on the American stage.” At the peak of her fame, Russel weighed approximately 200 pounds and was celebrated for her curvaceous figure. She was described ” a particularly robust and healthy creature, who takes good care to remain so.” By today’s standards, her weight would be classified as “obese”.


Proctor and Gamble introduced Crisco – a highly hydrogenated vegetable fat and cheap alternative to lard – the primary cooking fat at the time. The advantage to the manufacturer and the cook was a longer shelf life but provided a multitude of hundreds of pounds of unhealthy trans fatty acids.


The twenty-seventh President of the United States, William Howard Taft reportedly was stuck in the White House bathtub due to his massive girth.

1918 Lulu Hunt Peters, an American doctor wrote the first known diet book, Diet and Health with a Key to the Calories. It was a best seller with over 2 million copies sold. She was the first to mention that cutting calories was an effective weight-watching tool. Her success was more than likely prompted by the new body image of women as being slender, or “thin was in”.


Sugar consumption reaches 100 pounds per capita in the U.S.


Margarine consumption reaches 2.6 pounds per capita. By 1957, margarine consumption increased to about 9 pounds – surpassing butter for the first time ever.


A blood test for cholesterol was developed.

1937 – The Debate Begins (aka What’s going on here?)

Columbia University biochemists David Rittenberg & Rudolph Schoenheimer demonstrated that dietary cholesterol had little or no influence on blood cholesterol. This scientific fact has never been refuted.

Cholesterol in food has no affect on cholesterol in blood and we’ve known that all along.”  These are the words of Professor Ancel Keys, American Heart Association board member and author of The Seven Countries Study who, in retirement, recanted the idea that dietary cholesterol raises blood levels. His recant has been greeted with silence. Keys studied 22 countries, but chose data from only seven.  He also excluded France with high fat and low rates of heart disease. Due to this, his observational study was considered to be flawed.

1950  – 1955

Dietary emphasis on fats and cholesterol in the diet became a hot topic due to Ancel Key’s flawed study and in 1955; President Dwight Eisenhower had a heart attack.  His twice-daily press conferences focused on his cholesterol levels and he was put on a low fat diet.  Dietary fat also became the villain for weight gain.


Margarine outsold butter for the first time – more trans fat and an increase in omega-6 fats shown to be inflammatory to the body tissues. Some animal research had suggested that omega-6 fats alone encourage weight gain.

1961 – Let the Diet Books Begin

Calories Don’t Count was published by Dr. Herman Taller.  The low-calorie diet is a humbug, he declared.  A native of Romania, he studied medicine in Italy and became a Brooklyn obstetrician-gynecologist specializing in natural childbirth. He was also a dieter whose weight ballooned up to 265 lb. on a 5-ft. 10-in. frame. Previously, a cholesterol researcher suggested an oily substance to help bring down his high cholesterol level. Taller also found that he was losing weight–65 lb. in 8 months–even while consuming 5,000 calories a day.  The oily substance was a polyunsaturated fat that was claimed to stimulate the body to burn fat. Taller therefore recommended a high-fat diet supplemented by polyunsaturated safflower oil capsules high in omega-6 linoleic acid.  Back in the 1960’s vegetable fats were new and everyone wanted them to be a new health food.  This has not been supported in the last 50 years of research.

The American Heart Association adopted the well-known low-fat diet that began an era of fat maligning and the glorification of low fat foods.  Dieters began to count fat grams daily.  However, during our national experiment with a low-fat diet, people continued to pile on the pounds every decade.


High fructose corn syrup enters the sweetener market. By 1985, 50 percent of the this sweetener was consumed in America.

1980 -1990

Obesity levels had remained between 12-14 percent from 1960 to 1980. After 1980 and then again in 1990, obesity grew dramatically until today when every state has obesity rates over 25 percent.  Type 2 diabetes is now reported to have a 1 in 3 lifetime risk.


The Food Guide Pyramid was introduced, recommending 6-11 servings of breads, cereals, rice, or pasta a day without mentioning whole grain options.  Fats and oils were restricted without mentioning healthy fats versus less healthy ones.


Soybean oil has 70 percent of the edible fat market in the U.S.  Lard consumption is less than 1 pound.  Sugar consumption in the U.S. 150 pounds per capita. Butter consumption is less than 4 pounds per capita.


After 50 years of Egg-beaters, low fat cheese, margarine, skinless chicken breasts, and highly processed soy and Canola oils, and two Food Guide Pyramids and 11 releases of the USDA Dietary Guidelines,  one third of Americans are obese; 25 percent are diabetic or pre-diabetic.


Food Guide Pyramid is revised to My Pyramid with little dietary changes and was criticized for its misunderstandings and format.


Sugar consumption is now 160 pounds per capita. Compare that to the 15 pounds per capita in 1830.

2011 No More Pyramids

A simplified MyPlate is introduced as the latest attempt at Food Guides. My Plate recommended 30% of the plate as grains, 30% vegetables, 20% fruit and 20% protein. A small circle represents dairy.

2015-16  The 2015 Dietary Guidelines were presented with little changes based on the latest research. Here is what they said and what they should have said.

  • This is a big change  For the first time, our national health authorities are urging Americans to limit sugar to no more than 10% of daily calories. In a 2,000-calorie diet, 10% is 200 calories—the equivalent of about 12½ teaspoons of sugar. Yet we average 20 teaspoons a day.
  • It is not in the guidelines! Based on scientific evidence that’s been accumulating for decades, dietary cholesterol (as opposed to blood cholesterol) just isn’t any concern anymore.
  • For the first time, there is no limit on total fat. However, the advice to limit saturated fat is still in there—even though the evidence that saturated fat leads to heart disease has turned out to be pretty weak..
  • An original report associated with the new guidelines called for cutting back on red meat, especially processed meat, but the final official guidelines due to the lobbying of the meat industry wanted its message weakened.
  • Fish. This got specific for the first time—aim for at least eight ounces a week, in part to get its heart-healthy nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids.
  • The original report called for including sustainability issues in the guidelines—which would mean eating more plant-based food and less animal-based foods. But the USDA administration omitted that idea, too.

The Future?

About 287 people per 100,000 had heart attacks in 2000. By 2008, the rate had dropped to 208 heart attacks per 100,000. Deaths from heart attacks also declined. That is good news. Something must be going right – but what is it? Many think it is due to technological advances in the diagnosis and treatment of heart disease.

What’s going on?

In 2010,  the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a landmark report that has turned current fat recommendations upside down. The verdict from the study is that “there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk for heart disease.’’

Over the same period, the use of drugs to treat high blood pressure and high cholesterol increased quite a bit. Meat consumption has been declining for the past few decades. However, the gains could be short-lived. In the last decade the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes has increased by almost a percentage point. Over the same period, obesity has increased by three percentage points. If that trend continues, heart disease rates may again rise.

Unless we have been infected by a yet to be discovered obesity virus, we have a national eating disorder that needs to be fixed. Big food has made quite a mess of our food supply. Is saturated fat the culprit it was made out to be?  Can excess refined vegetable oils, sugar or fructose be to blamed?

Will our food culture ever be able to return to a diet of whole, real foods to replace the refined, processed, chemical-laden foods forced upon us by the food industry? Will the experts in the AHA, the USDA and big food ever get it?  Do not count on it. The solution may just have to rely on getting the message to consumers with more reliable nutrition education who then may make more demands for a healthier and safer food supply.


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The Potato Diet?

skd288907sdcPotatoes have plenty of vitamin C and good amounts of fiber and potassium. However, followers of this fad diet will have some nutritional problems. One medium plain potato has only 170 calories mostly as carbohydrate, but lacks in protein and fats. It contains only 5 grams of protein. In terms of total protein, a follower of this diet would have to eat about 11 potatoes a day, since an adult male needs about 56 grams of protein a day. However, potatoes are not high quality proteins – they are considered incomplete proteins since they lack enough of the nine amino acids needed for protein synthesis.

The type of starch in potatoes is digested more rapidly, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. The rate of digestion combined with the quantity of starch in a potato result in a high glycemic index rating. A baked Russet  potato (150 grams) has an average score of 111. This score is higher than pure glucose, which means the baked potato creates a fast and large spike in blood sugar that can lead to insulin resistance, weight gain and diabetes.

Needless to say, the “Spud Fit” diet is not a good idea.



Linus Pauling: Genius to Quack?

Ava Helen Miller and Linus Pauling, Oregon Agr...

Ava Helen Miller and Linus Pauling, Oregon Agricultural College Graduation Day, Corvallis, OR (1922) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Sally J. Feltner, PhD, RDN

If you were reading the medical news back in the late 1970’s, you may have seen this headline : Linus Pauling – Nobel Prize Chemistry 1954, Nobel Prize Peace 1963, Nobel Prize Vitamin C 19??.  If ever there was a puzzling story about a man and his accomplishments in the nutrition field, the history of Linus Pauling takes the cake. Here we have a man who had won two unshared Nobel prizes, one for chemistry in 1954 and the other for peace in 1963. Yet, in his later years he was maligned by his peers and branded as a quack for claiming he could cure the common cold and cancer that neither was ever strongly supported by research. Oh, by the way – The third Nobel Prize never happened.


Linus Pauling was born in 1901 in Portland, Oregon. His father owned a successful drug store and Linus was exposed at an early age to the “magic” of chemistry in the backroom of the store. By fourteen he had already set up some semblance of a chemistry laboratory in his basement. He enrolled at Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State University and sought a degree in chemical engineering. While teaching undergraduate courses, he met and later married Ava Helen Miller, one of his students. He went on to graduate in 1922 and then continued as a graduate student in the then fledgling California Institute of Technology, or Caltech where he earned his Ph.D. in 1925. After some time in Europe on a Guggenheim Fellowship, he returned to Caltech in 1927 as a faculty member and by the age of 38, he was a full professor and head of the chemistry division. He was the youngest member ever elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences. He won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry primarily for his 1939 work, The Nature of the Chemical Bond that quickly became the standard work in the field. He later became very outspoken on world peace and politics and voiced his negative views on nuclear testing and the Viet Nam War. Although he eventually won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1962 for his views; he was criticized by the press and was forced to resign his position at Caltech after 40 years of service.


His interests expanded when in 1965 he inadvertently came upon a book at a psychiatrist friend’s house entitled Niacin Therapy in Psychiatry that discussed vitamins as a treatment for mental illness. The author, Abram Hoffer summarized years of research of Humphrey Osmond that showed that very high doses of B vitamins, in this case, niacin could have a beneficial effect on schizophrenics. The doses were extremely high and more than a thousand fold higher than the recommended daily allowance. Hoffer termed this treatment as “megavitamin therapy.

“Megavitamin therapy had considerable respectable backing at the time. Norman Cousins, editor of the Saturday Review, wrote about a female whose schizophrenia caused by a pellagra, a niacin deficiency, had been cured by massive doses of niacin. Albert Schweitzer, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, wrote a testimonial for Dr. Max Gerson, who claimed he could cure cancer with twelve glasses of orange, “green”, carrot and liver juice a day along with injections of vitamin B12 and coffee enemas.

Pauling later met Irwin Stone, an American biochemist, who told him about his work in 1935 with vitamin C as a preservative and had some papers on the possibility of its use as a treatment for heart disease, some viral diseases, and cancer due to its antioxidant properties. Stone and his wife began taking doses of about 3 grams of the vitamin a day, way over the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) of 45 milligrams that was enough to prevent scurvy. Stone said he felt better, but vitamin C is notorious for its placebo effects. Pauling wrote and submitted papers on this thesis but all were rejected. Pauling decided to also begin taking 3 grams of the vitamin a day. He reported that he had greater energy and no more colds and Pauling became a believer in the power of vitamin C.

In 1970, he wrote Vitamin C and the Common Cold that instantly became a bestseller and demand for the vitamin could not be met by drugstores around the country. In 1976, he expanded his views by writing another book, Vitamin C, and the Common Cold and Flu. His recommendations were to take at least 1000 mg of vitamin C daily to prevent colds. and that higher doses may be needed by some people to get the same effect. Some physicians and organizations began to label him a “quack” after study after study, even well designed, failed to support these claims.

Pauling increased his intake of vitamin C to 12,000 mg daily and increased that amount if he noticed the symptoms of a cold appearing. The current RDA for vitamin C is 75 mg. for people over 19 years of age.

But Pauling didn’t stop with just the common cold.  He claimed that vitamin C also cured cancer. In 1976, Pauling and a Scottish physician, Dr. Ewan Cameron reported that of one hundred “terminal” cancer patients treated with 10,000 mg of vitamin C daily survived three to four times longer than similar patients who did not receive the supplement. When trying to publish these findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it was rejected. Instead, Pauling turned to the journal Oncology. This time peer-review turned up some design flaws, which raised some serious doubts about the claims. He and Cameron wrote the book called Cancer and Vitamin C in 1993.  Despite bad reviews due to the possibility that it “ may raise hopes which are unsupported by proper scientific evidence,” Pauling boosted sales by buying sixteen thousand copies that he sent to physicians and members of Congress.

To further test this observation, the Mayo Clinic conducted three double-blind studies involving a total of 367 patients with advanced cancer. The studies, reported in 1979, 1983, and 1985 found that patients given 10,000 mg of vitamin C daily did no better than those given a placebo. Two of the studies were published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. An angry Pauling criticized the results of each of the studies and said that each had major design flaws.

In 1986, after repeated rejections by the scientific community, Pauling went to the people and wrote How to Live Longer and Feel Better. On the cover is his picture with his trademark appearance: a black beret over a shock of white hair, which displayed his vibrant, good health and vitality in his eighties. His advice was pretty standard – eating in moderation including eggs and meat, fruits and vegetables and even having a drink or two daily. Cutting down on sugar was recommended and of course taking large doses of vitamins. For example, he was now taking 6 – 18 grams of vitamin C per day. Now he included mega doses of vitamin E, vitamin A and “super B’ tablets as well as a multi-mineral supplement.


The Linus Pauling Institute that bears his name exists to this day and has evolved into a respectable organization. However, his irrational advice about supplements continues to lead people astray. There is almost a cult-like group of followers who still try to find ways to promote his theories in spite of the evidence against them. They still think he was right. Maybe, but don’t hold your breath.

He died from prostate cancer and rectal cancer in 1994 and his wife, died from stomach cancer in 1980. “Earlier in 1994, he was honored at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement in Science. He arrived in his wheelchair but insisted in walking in on his own. He wore his signature black beret. When he arrived, the audience gave a standing ovation and cheered loudly. According to one biographer, Thomas Hager, he wrote: “Pauling stopped and waved. Then he gave the crowd one of his trademark ear-to-ear grins.”

Pauling was certainly a genius but fell prey to the hype of mega-dose vitamin therapy. He was probably instrumental in promoting the mega-dose vitamin craze that followed and exists to this day.  Some headlines still tout its possibilities and one wonders if ever, this theory will finally be put to rest, one way or another. So in a sense, Linus Pauling lives on and on.


Yager, Thomas. Force of Nature: The Life of Linus Pauling, 2011, Monroe Press

Levenstein, Harvey. Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America, 2003, U. of California Press

Barrett, Stephen, M.D. The Dark Side of Linus Pauling’s Legacy,  Quackwatch



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To Detox or Not?

It’s time for New Year’s resolutions again and diet, weight loss and fitness declarations will be made.  Here comes the season for detoxification diets to help us clear out the ravages of holiday eating and parties. But before you race to the health food store, you may want to realize that they may not be necessary after all.

Where did the idea of detoxification come from?

Though the first-ever instance of detoxing hasn’t been pinpointed in history, many historians attribute detoxification diets to Ayurveda. Ayurveda, meaning “The Science of Life,” is the practice of natural medicine that originated in India at around 3500 BC. One of the disciplines in Ayurveda is pancha karma, which includes progressively eliminating certain foods from the diet, taking spiritual walks, and cleaning out the colon and the nasal passage. The goal of pancha karma is to prolong life and prevent disease, and to spur spiritual and emotional growth.

The use of colon hydrotherapy was first recorded in 1500 BC by the Egyptians. It’s also been mentioned in a document titled “The Essene Gospel of Peace” written in the biblical times approximately 3,500 years ago. Here’s an excerpt: “…suffer the end of the stalk of the trailing gourd to enter your hinder parts, that the water may flow through all your bowels. . .Then let the water run out from your body, that it may carry away from within it all the unclean and evil-smelling things.

Some simple and safe “detox” techniques have been suggested by Dr. Andrew Weil who offers some sensible Ayurvedic advice.  These can include: massage therapy, yoga and meditation (based on some good evidence) to relieve stressors and promote a feeling of overall well-being. A goal to increase more healthy lifestyles and make some practical New Year’s Resolutions is a better idea than using unnecessary and expensive “detoxification” diets and sometimes unsafe practices like colonic irrigation.



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