Popular Science Monthly/Volume 18/January 1881/Physical Education I




"Blessed are the pure, for they can follow their inclinations with impunity."

UNNATURAL food is the principal cause of human degeneration. It is the oldest vice. If we reflect upon the number of ruinous dietetic abuses, and their immemorial tyranny over the larger part of the human race, we are tempted to eschew all symbolical interpretations of the paradise legend, and to ascribe the fall of mankind literally and exclusively to the eating of forbidden food. From century to century the same cause has multiplied the sum of our earthly ills. Substances which Nature never intended for the food of man have come to form a principal part of our diet; caustic spices torture our digestive organs; we ransack every clime for noxious weeds and intoxicating fluids; from twenty to thirty-five per cent, of our breadstuffs are yearly wasted on the distillation of a life-consuming fire; vegetable poisons, inorganic poisons, and all kinds of indigestible compounds enslave our appetites, and among the Caucasian nations of the present age an unexampled concurrence of causes has made a passive submission to that slavery the habitual condition.

Dietetic abuses, alone, would amply account for all our "ailments and pains, in form, variety, and degree beyond description"; the vitality of the human race would, indeed, have long succumbed to their combined influence, if their effects were not counteracted by the reconstructive tendency of Nature. Every birth is an hygienic regeneration. The constitutional defects which degenerate parents transmit to their offspring are modified by the inalienable bequest of an elder world—the redeeming instincts which our All-mother grants to every new child of earth. Individuals may deprave these instincts till their functions are entirely usurped by the cravings of a vicious appetency, but this perversion is never hereditary; Nature has ordained that all her children should begin the pilgrimage of life from beyond the point where the roads of misery and happiness diverge. As the golden age, the happy childhood of the human race returns in the morning of every life, the normal type of our primogenitor asserts itself athwart the morbid influences of all intermediate generations; the regenesis of every new birth brings mankind back from vice to innocence, from mysticism to realism, from ghost-land to earth. For a time those better instincts thwart the influence of miseducation as persistently as confirmed vices afterward thwart the success of reformatory measures; but, if the work of correct physical culture were begun in time, our innate propensities themselves would conspire to further its purposes and bar the boundary between virtue and vice which conscience often guards in vain. The temptations that beset the path of the adult convert do not exist for the wards of Nature. To the palate of a normal child, alcohol is as unattractive as corrosive sublimate; the enforced inactivity of our limbs, which afterward becomes dyspeptic indolence, is as irksome to a healthy boy as to a wild animal, and a young Indian would prefer the open air of the stormiest winter night to the hot miasma of our tenement-houses. Few smokers can forget the effects of the diffident first attempt—the revolt of the system against the incipience of a virulent habit. The same with other abuses of our domestic and social life. If we would preserve the purity of our physical conscience, we might refer all hygienic problems to an unerring oracle of Nature.

The appearance of the eye-teeth (cuspids) and lesser molars marks the end of the second year as the period when healthy children may be gradually accustomed to semi-fluid vegetable substances. Till then, milk should form their only sustenance. As a substitute for the nourishment of their mother's breast, cow's-milk, mixed with a little water and sugar, is far superior to all patent paps, Liebig's compounds, and baby-soups, which often induce a malignant attack of the dysenteric complaint known as "bowel-fever" or "weaning-brash," unless palliated by still more condemnable astringents and soothing-sirups. In France the professional wet-nurses of the Pays de Vaud are generally engaged as nourrices de deux arts; but mothers whose employment does not interfere with their inclination in this respect may safely nurse their children for a much longer period. The wives of the sturdy Argyll peasants rarely wean a bairn before its claim is disputed by the next youngster; and the stoutest urchin of five years I ever saw was the son of a poor Servian widow, who still took him to her breast like a baby. Animals suckle their young till they are able to digest the unmodified solid food of the species; and the best method with weanlings, therefore, is perhaps that of the Ionian-Islanders, whose toddling infants, as Dr. Bodenstedt noticed, partake of the simple repast of their parents—unleavened maize-cakes and dried figs—and are often permitted to exercise their teeth on a fresh-plucked ear of sugar-corn. But, in countries where the repast of parents is anything but simple, the best food for young children is a porridge of milk and boiled rice or oatmeal, with a little sugar, perhaps, or a few spoonfuls of apple-butter in summer-time. Of such simple dishes a child may be permitted to eat* its fill, but they should be served at regular intervals and never be taken hot. Heating our food is one of the many devices for disguising its natural taste, and sipping hot and cold drinks, turn about, is far more injurious to the teeth than the penchant for sweetmeats which children share with savages and monkeys. Beginning with five light meals a day, the number may be gradually reduced to three, after which a system of fixed hours should be strictly observed, till the symptoms of appetite manifest a corresponding periodicity, thus saving mothers the trouble of providing baby-titbits at all possible and impossible hours of the day. Healthy children of five take readily to an exclusively vegetable diet, which is often preferable to city milk and always to flesh-food. Xenophon, in his miscellaneous "Anabasis," mentions a tribe of Bithynian coast-dwellers whose children were prodigies of chubbedness, "as thick as they were long," and remarks that said chubs were fed on—boiled chestnuts. Baked apples, pulse, macaroni, whipped eggs, bread-pudding seasoned with sugar and a drop or two of lemon flavor, and such fruits as mellow pears, raspberries, and strawberries, can be readily assimilated by all but the weakliest nursery cadets.

But toward the end of the seventh year the advent of a second and sturdier set of teeth suggests the propriety of exercising the jaws on more solid substances. A child of seven should graduate to a seat at the family table; or rather the family table should offer nothing that a child of seven can not digest. It does, though, as a rule, and parents who buy their meals ready made, or who have resigned themselves to evils from which they would save their children, should still regulate their bill of fare, both in quality and in quantity, by the rules of hygiene rather than by those of etiquette or convenience, till the age of confirmed habits puts them beyond the danger of temptation.

Before entering upon those points, I must premise a few words on the main question. What is the natural food of man? As an abstract truth, the maxim[1] of the physiologist Haller is absolutely unimpeachable: "Our proper nutriment should consist of vegetable and semi-animal substances which can be eaten with relish before their natural taste has been disguised by artificial preparation." For even the most approved modes of grinding, bolting, leavening, cooking, spicing, heating, and freezing our food are, strictly speaking, abuses of our digestive organs. It is a fallacy to suppose that hot spices aid the process of digestion: they irritate the stomach and cause it to discharge the ingesta as rapidly as possible, as it would hasten to rid itself of tartarized antimony or any other poison; but this very precipitation of the gastric functions prevents the formation of healthy chyle. There is an important difference between rapid and thorough digestion. In a similar way, a high temperature of our food facilitates deglutition, but, by dispensing with insalivation and the proper use of our teeth, we make the stomach perform the work of our jaws and salivary glands; in other words, we make our food less digestible. By bolting our flour and extracting the nutritive principle of various liquids, we fall into the opposite error: we try to assist our digestive organs by performing mechanically a part of their proper and legitimate functions. The health of the human system can not be maintained on concentrated nutriment; even the air we inhale contains azotic gases which must be separated from the life-sustaining principle by the action of our respiratory organs—not by any inorganic process. We can not breathe pure oxygen. For analogous reasons bran-flour makes better bread than bolted flour; meat and saccharine fruits are healthier than meat-extracts and pure glucose. In short, artificial extracts and compounds are, on the whole, less wholesome than the palatable products of Nature. In the case of bran-flour and certain fruits with a large percentage of wholly innutritious matter, chemistry fails to account for this fact, but biology suggests the mediate cause: the normal type of our physical constitution dates from a period when the digestive organs of our (frugivorous) ancestors adapted themselves to such food—a period compared with whose duration the age of gristmills and made dishes is but of yesterday.

We can not doubt that the highest degree of health could only be attained by strict conformity to Haller's rule, i. e., by subsisting exclusively on the pure and unchanged products of Nature. In the tropics such a mode of life would not imply anything like asceticism: a meal of milk and three or four kinds of sweet nuts, fresh dates, bananas, and grapes would not clash with the still higher rule, that eating, like every other natural function, should be a pleasure and not a penance. Heat destroys the delicate flavor of many fruits and makes others less digestible by coagulating their albumen. But in the frigid latitudes, where we have to dry and garner many vegetable products in order to survive the unproductive season, the process of cooking our food has advantages which fully outweigh such objections. Few men with post-diluvian teeth would agree with Dr. Schlemmer that hard grain is preferable to bread. No Bostoner would renounce his favorite dish for a nosebag full of dry beans. Dried prunes, too, are improved by cooking—in taste, at least, and perhaps in digestibility. Besides, we should not forget that the natural taste of such substances, before they became over-dry, was agreeable, or at least not repulsive to our palates. It appears that on week-days the children of Israel indulged their poor in the practice of snatching free luncheons from a convenient corn-field (Matthew xii, I), and the Imam of Muscat still feeds his soldiers on crude wheat and dhourra-corn, a sort of millet, which many French soldiers learned to eat raw, as their Mameluke captors declined to cook it for them. Even the legumes—peas, beans, and lentils—pass through a period when they are soft and full of sweet milk-juice, though in their sun-dried over-ripeness they become as tough as wood. In the scale of wholesomeness the place next to Haller's man-food par excellence should therefore be assigned to vegetable substances whose pleasant taste has been restored by the process of cooking. With this. addition, even an invalid, dieting for his health, need not complain of lack of variety, for the number of nutritious vegetables that can be successfully cultivated as far north as Hamburg and Boston is almost infinite if we include the plants of the corresponding Asiatic latitudes and those that could be acclimatized in the course of five or six seasons. With five kinds of cereals, three legumina, eight species of esculent roots, ten or twelve nutritive herbs, thirty to forty varieties of tree fruits, besides berries and nuts, a vegetarian might emulate the Due de Polignac, who refused to eat the same dish more than once per season. Honey is the pure, unchanged, and unalloyed saccharine juice of flowers and resinous exudations, and therefore strictly a vegetable substance, though Carl Bock and Bichat describe it as semi-animal food, because "derived from animals," i. e., hived by bees. They might as well include flour under the same category because horses carry grist to the mill. Like sugar, vanilla, and the manna-sirup of Arabia Felix, we might class it with the non-stimulating condiments, which, used in moderate quantities, impart an agreeable flavor to many farinaceous preparations without impairing their digestibility.

Of all semi-animal substances, sweet fresh milk is the most wholesome, in itself an almost perfect aliment, welcome to all mammals and nearly all vertebrate animals. Monkeys, cats, deer, squirrels, otters, and ant-bears, creatures that differ so widely in their special diet, will rarely refuse a dish of this universal food. I have seen snakes and iguanas drink it with avidity. On the other hand, I have noticed that all animals but pigs and starved dogs eschew sour milk; it is, properly speaking, fermented milk, to the taste of a normal man probably as repulsive as tainted meat or sour gruel. This fermentation affects the fatty particles less than the watery and caseine; and butter and cream (though less digestible than fresh milk) are, therefore, far healthier than sour whey and cheese. Cheese in some of its forms is quite as unwholesome as rotten flesh; putrid curd would be the right name for Limburger and fromage de Brix. Vegetarians of the Lankester school object to milk and butter on account of the spurious stuff that is often foisted upon the market under those names, but mild tasted aliments can hardly be adulterated with very injurious substances; a little tallow, oleomargarine, or even lard, mixed with butter, and as such again mixed with a tenfold quantity of farinaceous food, can only affect the most delicate constitutions to any appreciable degree, and certainly not more than the small percentage of alum we often eat with our daily bread. Comparatively speaking, such things are the veriest trifles, and we can not afford to fight gnats while we are beset by a swarm of vampires. We have dietetic exquisites who would shudder at the idea of raising their biscuits with brewer's yeast instead of bicarbonate of soda, but do not hesitate to sandwich that same bread with strong cheese and pork-sausage; or pity the wretch whose poverty consents to North Carolina apple-jack, while they sip a petite verre of aromatic schiedam. That kind of purism often reminds me of the fastidiousness of Heinrich Heine's Mandarin convict, who insists on being thrashed with a perfumed bamboo, "but would have been shocked at a less fragrant hiding."

All kinds of fat ("non-nitrogenous" aliments), including butter and cream, are more digestible in winter than in summer time. Cold air is a peptic stimulant, and neutralizes the calorific effect of a non-nitrogenous diet, while fresh tree-fruits and berries counteract an excess of atmospheric heat, and thus, by an admirable provision of Nature, the seasons themselves furnish us the food most adapted to the preservation of the right medium temperature of the system. Preserved fruits (raisins, dried figs and apples, etc) lose much of their acidity, and thus become less refreshing, but not less nutritive, at the very time when the latter property is the more important one. Cow's-milk, on the other hand, grows richer in winter-time, and this self-adaptation of their food to the varying demands of the seasons enables the inhabitants of such countries as Italy and Mexico to subsist all the year round on an almost uniform diet. But in a climate of such thermal extremes as ours it would be the best plan to vary our regimen with the weather, and, above all, to adopt a special summer diet, since the consequences of our present culinary abuses are far less baneful in January than in July, Even in mid-winter our compounds of steaming and greasy viands with hot spices severely strain the tolerance of a youthful stomach; but, when the dog-star adds its fervid influence, the demand for refrigerating food becomes so imperative that no forensic eloquence would persuade me to convict a city lad for hooking watermelons. Where fruit is cheap the paterfamilias should keep a storeroom full of summer apples, and leave the key in the door—it will obviate costiveness and midnight excursions. From May to September fresh fruit ought to form the staple of our diet, and the noonday meal at least should consist of cold dishes, cold apple-pudding with sweet milk and whipped eggs, or strawberries with bread, cream, and sugar. The Romans of the republican age broke their fast with a biscuit and a fig or two, and took their principal meal in the cool of the evening. In their application of the word, a frugal diet meant quite literally a diet of tree-fruits, and that our primogenitor was a frugivorous creature is the one point in which the Darwinian genesis agrees with the Mosaic version.

Dr. Alcott holds that a man might live and thrive on an exclusive diet of well-selected fruits, and I agree with him if he includes olives and oily nuts, for no assumption in dietetics is more gratuitous than the idea that a frequent use of flesh-food is indispensable to the preservation of human health. Meat is certainly not our natural food. The structure of our teeth, our digestive apparatus, and our hands, proves a priori that the physical organization of man is that of a frugivorous animal. So do our instincts. Accustom a child to a diet of milk, bread, and meat; never let him see a fruit, nor mention the existence of such a thing; then take him to an orchard, and see how quick his instinct will tell him what apples are good for. Turn him loose among a herd of lambs and kids: he will play with them as a fellowvegetarian. In a slaughter-house the sight of gory carcasses and puddles of blood will excite him with a horror naturalis. The same sight would excite the appetite of the omnivorous pig as well as of the carnivorous puppy. Artificial preparation, spices, etc., may disguise the natural taste of meat, as of coffee or wine, but they will not alter its effect upon the animal system. The flesh-food fallacy, like other errors of the civilized nations, has found plausible defenders, but their principal argument is clearly based on a misunderstood fact. The delusion originated in England, where the physique of the beef-fed and rubicund Saxon squire contrasts strongly with that of the potato-fed Celtic laborer. What this really proves is merely that a mixed diet is superior to a diet of starch and water, for the North-Irish dairyman, who adds milk and butter to his starch, outweighs and outlives the rubicund squire. The matter is this: In a cold climate we can not thrive without a modicum of fat, but that fat need not come from slaughtered animals. In a colder country than England the East-Russian peasant, remarkable for his robust health and longevity, subsists on cabbage soup, rye bread, and vegetable oils. In a colder country than England the Gothenburg shepherds live chiefly on milk, barley-bread, and esculent roots. The strongest men of the three manliest races of the present world are non-carnivorous: the Turanian mountaineers of Daghestan and Lesghia, the Mandingo tribes of Senegambia, and the Schleswig Holstein Bauern, who furnish the heaviest cuirassiers for the Prussian army and the ablest seamen for the Hamburg navy. Nor is it true that flesh is an indispensable, or even the best, brain-food. Pythagoras, Plato, Seneca, Paracelsus, Spinoza, Peter Bayle, and Shelley were vegetarians; so were Franklin and Lord Byron in their best years. Newton, while engaged in writing his "Principia" and "Quadrature of Curves," abstained entirely from animal food, which he had found by experience to be unpropitious to severe mental application. The ablest modern physiologists incline to the same opinion. "I use animal food because I have not the opportunity to choose my diet," says Professor Welch, of Yale, "but whenever I have abstained from it, I have found my health mentally, morally, and physically better."

Though a vegetarian on principle, I have eaten various kinds of flesh as a physiological experiment, and have often observed the influence of animal food upon children and invalids, and I have found that a pound of boiled beef or eight ounces of lean pork, after a month's abstinence from all flesh-food, will infallibly produce some or all of the following unmistakable effects: a gastric uneasiness, akin to the incipient operation of certain emetics; distressing dreams, restlessness, and a peculiar mood which I might describe as a promiscuous pessimism, a feeling of general irritation and resentment. I have also noticed that flesh-food tends to check intellectual activity, not so much by making us averse to all mental occupations as by muddling what phrenologists call the perceptives. By its continued use children gradually lose their native brightness as well as their amiable temper.

But the same observations oblige me to say that its deleterious physical effects have often been considerably overrated. The gastric uneasiness, even after a hearty meal of meat (fat pork, perhaps, excepted), yields readily to exercise in open air. Meat does not interfere with the digestion of other food, and, above all, it produces no ruinous after-effects; its frequent use rarely becomes a morbid necessity. Besides, flesh undoubtedly contains many nutritive elements, though in a less desirable form than we might find them in vegetable substances. By dint of practice the system can be got to accept part of its nutriment in that form, and if we are reduced to the choice of starving on starch and watery herbs, or getting fat in an abnormal way, the latter is clearly the preferable alternative. As a rule, though, children during their school years had better stick to dairy products, farinaceous preparations, and fruit; hot-headed boys, especially, can be more effectually cured with cow's-milk than with a cow-hide.

The objections to flesh-food, however, do not apply to eggs, and not in the same degree to mollusks and crustaceans. On the banks of the Essequibo, in eastern Venezuela, I have seen troops of capuchin monkeys (Cebus paniscus) engaged in catching crabs, though in captivity those same relatives of ours would rather starve than touch a piece of beef. The dog-headed baboon visits the seashore in search of mollusks, and the South American marmoset, like John the Baptist, delights in grasshoppers and wild honey, though otherwise a strict vegetarian. The mediæval distinction between flesh and fish is not wholly gratuitous, either; carp, trout, and their congeners are, happily, almost as digestible as potatoes, for it would be a hopeless undertaking to dissuade a young Walton from boiling and devouring his first string of perch. On journeys, especially in cold weather, children may be occasionally indulged in such wayside delicacies as codfish-balls, oiled sardines, and ham-sandwiches.

  1. Endorsed (indirectly) in the writings of Drs. Alcott, Claude Bernard, Schlemmer, Hall, and Dio Lewis, and directly by Schrodt and Jules Virey.