I have been a bit distracted over the past week because I have been absorbed in reading Bill Bryson’s At Home.
This isn’t a review although I may well attempt one later on. There are so many terrific little tidbits that Bryson includes in his books. He is one hell of a researcher and has an engaging style of writing. There – that’s enough of that for the nonce.
His section on his dining room contains the most interesting information of food (well, why wouldn’t it?) and highlights how little we, as consumers of food, actually know about the essential dietary requirements for the proper functioning of our bodies.
We are told to eat 5 portions of vegetables per day, 2 portions of fruit and a balance of foods from a pyramid chart of foodstuff groups. Basically though, we know precious little about what happens inside us. We don’t know how food is utilised by the body nor the interacting pathways of absorption of essential chemicals. We didn’t know, for instance, that if the absorption route for Vitamin C is broken a Parkinsonism appears. That wasn’t isolated until the 1960s. And L-Dopa was synthesised – but that is another story altogether.
And it is surprising that it has only been in the last 100 years or so that we have discovered the effect of different foods on our wellbeing or not. Food used to be thought of as food and it didn’t matter much what it was so long as you ate an adequate amount of it.
For instance, it wasn’t until James Cook, when setting out on his remarkable circumnavigation on the globe in 1768, took marmalades and pickled cabbages with him for his crew that it was shown that scurvy could be prevented by feeding his sailors these food stuffs. Up until then, sailors died at a rate of about 80 to 90% on long sea voyages from scurvy.
It looks as though the first long sea voyage begun in 1497, made by Vasco de Gama, around the tip of Africa first threw scurvy into the spotlight because the symptoms showed up in his sailors. So some 300 years later, someone thinks to take some possibly preventive measures on long sea voyages.
Cook was hailed and rightly so when he returned to England without the death of a single sailor. Even so, it took decades after Cook’s return before the British Naval Board issued each sailor with lime juice to prevent scurvy on long voyages. Bryson also tells us that this was why the British were called ‘limeys’. Makes sense to me!!
But apparently it really wasn’t until 1939 that the matter of Vitamin C and scurvy was actually settled once and for all. The connection was there and scurvy was easily treated by taking some Vitamin C rich foods into the diet.
It is the one vitamin that humans can’t manufacture in their bodies. So foods are the only way of getting enough to keep healthy.
Mind you there have been a lot of claims made for Vitamin C from the Complementary and Alternative Crowd. Stops colds, ‘flu, cures Aids, helps cure cancer and etc. The woo woo crowd leaves me cold.
So these days in developed countries the consumption of Vitamin C in both foodstuffs and by supplements is way over the top and in vast excess of what our bodies need and can actually absorb. The unnecessary excess has to be eliminated.
But then we often seem to lurch from one excess to another. And we want so much to believe in miracles. Sad really.