Popular Science Monthly/Volume 63/June 1903/Physiological Economy in Nutrition

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AMONG the many problems awaiting solution, none is of greater importance for the welfare of the individual and of the race than that which relates to the proper nutrition of the body. Man eats to live and to gain strength for his daily work, and without sufficient nutriment the machinery of the body can not be run smoothly or with proper efficiency. The taking of an excess of food, on the other hand, is just as harmful as insufficient nourishment, involving as it does not only wasteful expenditure, but what is of even greater moment, an expenditure of energy on the part of the body, which may in the long run prove disastrous. While it is the function of food to supply the material from which the body can derive the necessary energy for its varied activities, any excess of food over and above what is needed to make good the loss incidental to life and daily activity is just so much of an incubus, which is bound to detract from the smooth running of the machinery and to diminish the fitness of the body for performing its normal functions.

A proper physiological condition begets a moral, mental and physical fitness which can not be attained in any other way. Further, it must be remembered that lack of a proper physiological condition of the body is more broadly responsible for moral, social, mental and physical ills than any other factor that can be named. Poverty and vice on ultimate analysis may often be traced to a perversion of nutrition. A healthy state of the body is a necessary concomitant of mental and moral vigor, as well as of physical strength. Abnormal methods of living are often the accompaniment or forerunner of vicious tastes that might never have been developed under more strictly physiological conditions. Health, strength (mental and physical) and moral tone alike depend upon the proper fulfilment of the laws of nature, and it is the manifest duty of a people hoping for the fullest development of physical, mental and moral strength to ascertain the character of these laws with a view to their proper observance. Poverty, crime, physical ills and a blunted or perverted moral sense are the penalties we may be called upon to pay for the disobedience of nature's laws; penalties which not only we may have to pay, but which may be passed down to succeeding generations, thereby influencing the lives of those yet unborn.

There is to-day great need for a thorough physiological study of those laws of nutrition which constitute the foundation of good living. It is a subject full of interest and promise for the sociologist and economist, as well as for the physiologist. We need a far more complete knowledge than we possess at present of the laws governing nutrition; we need fuller knowledge of the methods by which the most complete, satisfactory and economical utilization of the diet can be obtained; we need to know more concerning the minimum diet and the minimum amount of proteid or albuminous foods on which health, mental and physical vigor can be permanently maintained; we need to know more fully concerning the influence of various forms of food on growth and recuperative power; we need more complete knowledge regarding the rôle of various dietetic and digestive habits, fixed or acquired; the effects of thorough mastication, insalivation and the influence of two versus three meals a day upon the utilization of food and hence upon the bodily health. Further, we need more concise information as to the effect of the mental state upon digestion and nutrition. These and many other problems of a like nature confront us when we attempt to trace the influence of a proper nutrition upon the condition of the body. These problems, however, all admit of solution, and in their solution undoubtedly lies the remedy for many of the personal ills of mankind.

The foregoing thoughts have been suggested by observations recently made in the writer's laboratory on the amount and character of the food actually required by a healthy man in the maintenance of bodily equilibrium in periods of rest and physical work. Our ideas at present are based primarily upon observations as to what civilized peoples are accustomed to do, and not upon what they need to do in order to meet the demands made upon the body. Sir William Robert has well said that the palate is the dietetic conscience, but he adds that there are many misfit palates, and we may well query whether our dietetic consciences have not become generally perverted through a false mode of living. The well-nigh universal habit of catering to our appetite on all occasions, of bowing to the fancied dictates of our palates even to the extent of satiety, and without regard to the physiological needs of the body, may quite naturally have resulted in a false standard of living in which we have departed widely from the proper laws of nutrition. Statistical studies carried out on large groups of individuals by various physiologists have led to the general acceptance of dietary standards, such as those proposed by Voit of Munich, and Atwater in this country. Thus the Voit diet for a man doing moderate work is 118 grams of proteid or albuminous food, 56 grams of fat and 500 grams of carbohydrates, such as sugar and starch, with a total fuel value of 3,055 large calories or heat units per day. With hard work, Voit increases the daily requirement to 145 grams of proteid, 160 grams of fat and 450 grams of carbohydrates, with a total fuel value of 3,370 large calories. Atwater, on the other hand, from his large number of observations, is inclined to place the daily proteid requirement at 125 grams, with sufficient fat and carbohydrate to equal a total fuel value of 3,500 large calories for a man doing a moderate amount of work; while for a man at hard work the daily diet is increased to 150 grams of proteid, and with fats and carbohydrates to yield a total fuel value of 4,500 large calories. These standards are very generally accepted as being the requirement for the average individual under the given conditions of work, and it may be that these figures actually represent the daily needs of the body. Suppose, on the other hand, that we have in these figures false standards, or, in other words that the quantities of foodstuffs called for are altogether larger than the actual demands of the body require. In this case there is a positive waste of valuable food material which we may calculate in dollars and cents; a loss of income incurred daily which might be expended more profitably in other directions. To the wage-earner with a large family, who must of necessity husband his resources, there is in our hypothesis a suggestion of material gain not to be disregarded. The money thus saved might be expended for the education of the children, for the purchase of household treasures tending to elevate the moral and mental state of the occupants, or in many other ways that the imagination can easily supply. This kind of saving, however, is purely a question of economy, and in some strata of society would be objected to as indicative of a condition of sordidness. It has come to be a part of our personal pride to have a well-supplied table, and to eat largely and freely of the good things provided. The poorer man takes pride in furnishing his family with a diet rich in expensive articles of food, and imagines that by so doing he is inciting them to heartier consumption and to increased health and strength. He would be ashamed to save in this way, under the honest belief that by so doing he might endanger the health of his dear ones. But let us suppose that this hypothetical waste of food is not merely uneconomical, that it is undesirable for other and weightier reasons. Indeed, let us suppose that this unnecessary consumption of food is distinctly harmful to the body, that it is physiologically uneconomical, and that in our efforts to maintain a high degree of efficiency we are in reality putting upon the machinery of the body a heavy and entirely uncalled for strain which is bound to prove more or less detrimental. If there is truth in this assumption, our hypothesis takes on a deeper significance, and we may well inquire whether there are any reasonable grounds for doubting the accuracy of our present dietary standards.

In this connection it is to be remembered that the food of mankind may be classified under three heads, viz., proteid or albuminous, such as meat, eggs, casein of milk, gluten of bread and various vegetable proteids; carbohydrates, as sugar and the starches of our cereals, and fats, including those of both animal and vegetable origin. The proteids are characterized by containing nitrogen (about 16 per cent), while the fats and carbohydrates contain only carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. The two latter classes of foodstuffs are burned up in the body, when completely utilized, to carbonic acid (a gas) and water, while the proteid foods beside yielding carbonic acid and water give off practically all of their nitrogen in the form of crystalline nitrogenous products in the excreta of the body. Proteid foods have a particular function to perform, viz., to supply the waste of proteid matter from the active tissues of the body, and this function can be performed only by the proteid foods, hence the latter are essential foodstuffs without which the body can not long survive. Fats and carbohydrates, on the other hand, are mainly of value for the energy they yield on oxidation, and in this connection it is to be remembered that the fuel value of fats per gram is much larger than that of carbohydrates, viz., 9.3:4.1, or more than twice as great. Further, it is to be noted that the various foodstuffs can not be utilized directly by the body, but they must first be digested, then absorbed and assimilated, after which they gradually, in their changed form, undergo decomposition with liberation of their contained energy which may manifest itself in the form of heat or of mechanical work. The thoroughness with which foods are digested and utilized in the body must therefore count for a great deal in determining their dietetic or nutritive value. Moreover, it is easy to see how an excess of proteid food will give rise to a large proportion of nitrogenous waste matter, which floating through the system prior to excretion may by acting on the nervous system and other parts of the body produce disagreeable results. A mere excess of food, even of the non-nitrogenous variety, must entail a large amount of unnecessary work, thereby using up a proportional amount of energy for its own disposal, since once introduced into the body it must be digested and absorbed, otherwise it undergoes fermentation and putrefaction in the stomach and intestines, causing countless troubles. When absorbed in quantities beyond the real needs of the body, it may be temporarily deposited as fat, but why load up the system with unnecessary material, thereby interfering with the free running of the machinery? In other words, it is very evident that the taking in of food in quantities beyond the physiological requirements is undesirable and may prove exceedingly injurious. It is truly uneconomical and defeats the very ends we aim to attain. Instead of adding to the bodily vigor and increasing the fitness of the organism to do its daily work, we are really hampering the delicate mechanism upon the smooth running of which so much depends.

Why now should we assume that a daily diet of over 100 grams of proteid, with fats and carbohydrates sufficient to make up a fuel value of over 3,000 large calories, is a necessary requisite for bodily vigor and physical and mental fitness? Mainly because of the supposition that true dietary standards may be learned by observing the relative amounts of nutrients actually consumed by a large number of individuals so situated that the choice of food is unrestricted. But this does not constitute very sound evidence. It certainly is not above criticism. We may well ask ourselves whether man has yet learned wisdom with regard to himself, and whether his instincts or appetites are to be entirely trusted as safe guides to follow in the matter of his own nutrition. The experiments of Kumagawa, Sivén and other physiologists, have certainly shown that men may live and thrive, for a time at least, on amounts of proteid per day equal to only one half and one quarter the amount called for in the Voit standard. Sivén's experiments, in particular, certainly indicate that the human organism can maintain itself in nitrogenous equilibrium with far smaller amounts of proteid in the diet than is ordinarily taught, and further, that this condition can be attained without unduly increasing the total calories of the food intake. Such investigations, however, have always called forth critical comment from writers on nutrition, indicating a reluctance to depart from the current doctrines of the Voit or Munich school, and, indeed, it may justly be claimed that the ordinary nutrition experiments, extending over short periods of time, are not entirely adequate to prove the effect of a given set of conditions when the latter are continued for months or years. Thus, Schäfer writes: "It may be doubted whether a diet which includes considerably less proteid than 100 grams for the twenty-four hours could maintain a man of average size and weight for an indefinite time. It has frequently been asserted that many Asiatics consume a very much smaller proportion of proteid than is the case with Europeans. The inhabitants of India, Japan and China chiefly consume rice as the normal constituent of their diet, which contains relatively little proteid; and this has been advanced as an argument in favor of the view that the minimal amount of proteid is much less than that ordinarily given as essential to the maintenance of nutritive equilibrium. It must, however, be stated that we have no definite statistics to show that, in proportion to their body-weight, Asiatics doing the same amount of work as Europeans require a less amount of proteids; indeed such evidence as is forthcoming is rather in favor of the opposite view." This statement is typical of the attitude of physiologists in general on this important subject. Why not candidly admit that the matter is in doubt, and with a due recognition of the importance of the subject attempt to ascertain the real truth of the matter?

The writer has had in his laboratory for several months past a gentleman (H. F.) who has for some five years, in pursuit of a study of the subject of human nutrition, practised a certain degree of abstinence in the taking of food and attained important economy with, as he believes, great gain in bodily and mental vigor and with marked improvement in his general health. Under his new method of living he finds himself possessed of a peculiar fitness for work of all kinds and with freedom from the ordinary fatigue incidental to extra physical exertion. In using the word abstinence possibly a wrong impression is given, for the habits of life now followed have resulted in the disappearance of the ordinary craving for food. In other words, the gentleman in question fully satisfies his appetite, but no longer desires the amount of food consumed by most individuals.

For a period of thirteen days, in January, he was under observation in the writer's laboratory, his excretions being analyzed daily with a view to ascertaining the exact amount of proteid consumed. The results showed that the average daily amount of proteid metabolized was 41.25 grams, the body-weight (165 pounds) remaining practically constant. Especially noteworthy also was the very complete utilization of the proteid food during this period of observation. It will be observed here that the daily amount of proteid food taken was less than one half that of the minimum Voit standard, and it should also be mentioned that this apparent deficiency in proteid food was not made good by any large consumption of fats or carbohydrates. Further, there was no restriction in diet. On the contrary, there was perfect freedom of choice, and the instructions given were to follow his usual dietetic habits. Analysis of the excretions showed an output of nitrogen equal to the breaking down of 41.25 grams of proteid per day, as an average, the extremes being 33.06 grams and 47.05 grams of proteid.

In February, a more thorough series of observations was made, involving a careful analysis of the daily diet, together with analysis of the excreta, so that not alone the proteid consumption might be ascertained, but likewise the total intake of fats and carbohydrates. The diet consumed was quite simple, and consisted merely of a prepared cereal food, milk and maple sugar. This diet was taken twice a day for seven days, and was selected by the subject as giving sufficient variety for his needs and quite in accord with his taste. No attempt was made to conform to any given standard of quantity, but the subject took each day such amounts of the above foods as his appetite craved. Each portion taken, however, was carefully weighed in the laboratory, the chemical composition of the food determined, and the fuel value calculated by the usual methods.

The following table gives the daily intake of proteids, fats and carbohydrates for six days, together with the calculated fuel value, and also the nitrogen intake, together with the nitrogen output through the excreta. Many other data were obtained showing diminished excretion of uric acid, ethereal sulphates, phosphoric acid, etc., but they need not be discussed here.

Intake. Output of Nitrogen.
Proteids. Fats. Carbohy. Calories. Nitrogen. Urine. Fæces. Total.
Grams. Grams. Grams. Grams. Grams. Grams. Grams.
Feb. 2 31.3 25.3 125.4 900 5.02 5.27 0.18 5.45
3 46.8 40.4 266.2 1690 7.50 6.24 0.81[1] 7.65
4 48.0 38.1 283.0 1747 7.70 5.53 0.81[1] 6.34
5 50.0 40.6 269.0 1711 8.00 6.44 0.81[1] 7.25
6 47.0 41.5 267.0 1737 7.49 6.83 0.81[1] 7.64
7 46.5 39.8 307.3 1852 7.44 7.50 0.17 7.67
Daily Av. 44.9 38.0 253.0 1606 7.19 6.30 0.60 6.90

The main things to be noted in these results are, first, that the total daily consumption of proteid amounted on an average to only 45 grams, and that the fat and carbohydrate were taken in quantities only sufficient to bring the total fuel value of the daily food up to a little more than 1,600 large calories. If, however, we eliminate the first day, when for some reason the subject took an unusually small amount of food, these figures are increased somewhat, but they are ridiculously low compared with the ordinarily accepted dietary standards. When we recall that the Voit standard demands at least 118 grams of proteid and a total fuel value of 3,000 large calories daily, we appreciate at once the full significance of the above figures. But it may be asked, was this diet at all adequate for the needs of the body—sufficient for a man weighing 165 pounds? In reply, it may be said that the appetite was satisfied and that the subject had full freedom to take more food if he so desired. To give a physiological answer, it may be said that the body-weight remained practically constant throughout the seven days' period, and further, it will be observed by comparing the figures of the table that the nitrogen of the intake and the total nitrogen of the output were not far apart. In other words, there was a close approach to what the physiologist calls nitrogenous equilibrium. In fact, it will be noted that on several days the nitrogen output was slightly less than the nitrogen taken in. We are, therefore, apparently justified in saying that the above diet, simple though it was in variety, and in quantity far below the usually accepted requirement, was quite adequate for the needs of the body. In this connection it may be asked, what were the needs of the body during this seven days' period? This is obviously a very important point. Can a man on such a diet, even though it suffices to keep up body-weight and apparently also physiological equilibrium, do work to any extent? Will there be under such condition a proper degree of fitness for physical work of any kind? In order to ascertain this

point, the subject was invited to do physical work at the Yale University Gymnasium and placed under the guidance of the director of the gymnasium, Dr. William G. Anderson. The results of the observations there made are here given, taken verbatim from Dr. Anderson's report to the writer.

On the 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th of February, 1903, I gave to Mr. Horace Fletcher the same kind of exercises we give to the Varsity Crew. They are drastic and fatiguing and can not be done by beginners without soreness and pain resulting. The exercises he was asked to take were of a character to tax the heart and lungs as well as to try the muscles of the limbs and trunk. I should not give these exercises to Freshmen on account of their severity.

Mr. Fletcher has taken these movements with an ease that is unlooked for. He gives evidence of no soreness or lameness and the large groups of muscles respond the second day without evidence of being poisoned by Carbon dioxide. There is no evidence of distress after or during the endurance test, i. e., the long run. The heart is fast but regular. It comes back to its normal beat quicker than does the heart of other men of his weight and age.

The case is unusual and I am surprised that Mr. Fletcher can do the work of trained athletes and not give marked evidences of over exertion. As I am in almost constant training I have gone over the same exercises and in about the same way and have given the results for a standard of comparison. [The figures are not given here.] My conclusion given in condensed form is this. Mr. Fletcher performs this work with greater ease and with fewer noticeable bad results than any man of his age and condition I have ever worked with.

To appreciate the full significance of this report, it must be remembered that Mr. Fletcher had for several months past taken practically no exercise other than that involved in daily walks about town.

In view of the strenuous work imposed during the above four days, it is quite evident that the body had need of a certain amount of nutritive material. Yet the work was done without apparently drawing upon any reserve the body may have possessed. The diet, small though it was, and with only half the accepted requirement in fuel value, still sufficed to furnish the requisite energy. The work was accomplished with perfect ease, without strain, without the usual resultant lameness, without taxing the heart or lungs, and without loss of body-weight. In other words, in Mr. Fletcher's case at least, the body machinery was kept in perfect fitness without the consumption of any such quantities of fuel as has generally been considered necessary.

Just here it may be instructive to observe that the food consumed by Mr. Fletcher during this seven days' period—and which has been shown to be entirely adequate for his bodily needs during strenuous activity—cost eleven cents daily, thus making the total cost for the seven days seventy-seven cents! If we contrast this figure with the amounts generally paid for average nourishment for a like period of time, there is certainly food for serious thought. Mr. Fletcher avers that he has followed his present plan of living for nearly five years; he usually takes two meals a day; has been led to a strong liking for sugar and carbohydrates in general and away from a meat diet; is always in perfect health, and is constantly in a condition of fitness for work. He practises thorough mastication, with more complete insalivation of the food (liquid as well as solid) than is usual, thereby insuring more complete and ready digestion and a more thorough utilization of the nutritive portions of the food.

In view of these results, are we not justified in asking ourselves whether we have yet attained a clear comprehension of the real requirements of the body in the matter of daily nutriment? Whether we fully comprehend the best and most economical method of maintaining the body in a state of physiological fitness? The case of Mr. Fletcher just described; the results noted in connection with certain Asiatic peoples; the fruitarians and nutarians, in our own country recently studied by Professor Jaffa, of the University of California; all suggest the possibility of much greater physiological economy than we as a race are wont to practise. If these are merely exceptional cases, we need to know it, but if, on the other hand, it is possible for mankind in general to maintain proper nutritive conditions on dietary standards far below those now accepted as necessary, it is time for us to ascertain that fact. For, if our standards are now unnecessarily high, then surely we are not only practising an uneconomical method of sustaining life, but we are subjecting ourselves to conditions the reverse of physiological, and which must of necessity be inimical to our well being. The possibility of more scientific knowledge of the natural requirements of a healthy nutrition is made brighter by the fact that the economic results noted in connection with our metabolism examination of Mr. Fletcher is confirmatory of similar results obtained under the direction and scrutiny of Sir Michael Foster at the University of Cambridge, England, during the autumn and winter of last year; and by Dr. Ernest Van Someren, Mr. Fletcher's collaborateur, in Venice, on subjects of various ages and of both sexes, some account of which has already been presented to the British Medical Association and to the International Congress of Physiologists at its last meeting at Turin, Italy. At the same time emphasis must be laid upon the fact that no definite and positive conclusions can be arrived at except as the result of careful experiments and observations on many individuals covering long periods of time. This, however, the writer hopes to do in the very near future, with the cooperation of a corps of interested observers.

The problem is far-reaching. It involves not alone the individual, but society as a whole, for beyond the individual lies the broader field of the community, and what proves helpful for the one will eventually react for the betterment of society and for the improvement of mankind in general.

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3   Average of the four days.