Popular Science Monthly/Volume 27/August 1885/Diet in Relation to Age and Activity II
|DIET IN RELATION TO AGE AND ACTIVITY.|
By Sir HENRY THOMPSON.
ANOTHER agent in the combination to maintain for the man of advancing age his career of flesh-eater is the dentist. Nothing is more common at this period of life than to hear complaints of indigestion experienced, so it is affirmed, because mastication is imperfectly performed for want of teeth. The dentist deftly repairs the defective implements, and the important function of chewing the food can be henceforth performed with comfort. But, without any intention to justify a doctrine of final causes, I would point out the significant fact that the disappearance of the masticating powers is mostly coincident with the period of life when that species of food which most requires their action—viz., solid animal fiber—is little, if at all, required by the individual. It is during the latter third of his career that the softer and lighter foods, such as well-cooked cereals, some light mixed animal and vegetable soups, and also fish, for which teeth are barely necessary, are particularly valuable and appropriate. And the man with imperfect teeth who conforms to Nature's demand for a mild, non-stimulating dietary in advanced years will mostly be blessed with a better digestion and sounder health than the man who, thanks to his artificial machinery, can eat and does eat as much flesh in quantity and variety as he did in the days of his youth. Far be it from me to undervalue the truly artistic achievements of a clever and experienced dental surgeon, or the comfort which he affords. By all means let us have recourse to his aid when our natural teeth fail, for the purpose of vocal articulation, to say nothing of their relation to personal appearance: on such grounds the artificial substitutes rank among the necessaries of life in a civilized community. Only let it be understood that the chief end of teeth, so far as mastication is concerned, has in advancing age been to a great extent accomplished, and that they are now mainly useful for the purposes just named. But I can not help adding that there are some grounds for the belief that those who have throughout life from their earliest years consumed little or no flesh, but have lived on a diet chiefly or wholly vegetarian, will be found to have preserved their teeth longer than those who have always made flesh a prominent part of their daily food.
Then there is that occasional visit to the tailor, who, tape in hand, announces in commercial monotone to the listening clerk the various measurements of our girth, and congratulates us on the gradual increase thereof. He never in his life saw you looking so well, and "fancy, sir, you are another inch below your armpits"—a good deal below—"since last year!" insidiously intimating that in another year or so you will have nearly as fine a chest as Heenan! And you, poor deluded victim, are more than half willing to believe that your increasing size is an equivalent to increasing health and strength, especially as your wife emphatically takes that view, and regards your augmenting portliness with approval. Ten years have now passed away since you were forty, and by weight twelve stone and a half a fair proportion for your height and build. Now you turn the scale to one stone more, every ounce of which is fat; extra weight to be carried through all the labors of life. If you continue your present dietary and habits, and live five or seven years more, the burden of fat will be doubled; and that insinuating tailor will be still congratulating you. Meantime you are "running the race of life"—a figure of speech less appropriate to you at the present moment than it formerly was—handicapped by a weight which makes active movement difficult, upstair ascents troublesome, respiration thick and panting. Not one man in fifty lives to a good old age in this condition. The typical man of eighty or ninety years, still retaining a respectable amount of energy of body and mind, is lean and spare, and lives on slender rations. Neither your heart nor your lungs can act easily and healthily, being oppressed by the gradually gathering fat around. And this because you continue to eat and drink as you did, or even more luxuriously than you did, when youth and activity disposed of that moiety of food which was consumed over and above what the body required for sustenance. Such is the import of that balance of unexpended aliment which your tailor and your foolish friends admire, and the gradual disappearance of which, should you recover your senses and diminish it, they will still deplore, half frightening you back to your old habits again by saying, "You are growing thin: what can be the matter with you?" Insane and mischievous delusion!
It is interesting to observe that the principle I have thus endeavored to illustrate and support, little as it is in accordance with the precept and practice of modern authority, was clearly enunciated so long ago as the sixteenth century. The writings of Luigi Cornaro, who was born of noble family in Venice soon after the middle of the fifteenth century, and was contemporary for seventy years with Titian, wrote his first essay on the subject of regimen and diet for the aged when eighty-three years of age, producing three others during the subsequent twelve years. His object was to show that, with increasing age and diminished powers, a corresponding decrease in the quantity of food must be taken in order to preserve health. He died at Padua "without any agony, sitting in an elbow-chair, being above one hundred years old."
Thus he writes:
And this is what I do, agreeably to my own experience; and, therefore, my spirits, not oppressed by much food, but barely kept up, are always brisk, especially after eating, so that I am obliged then to sing a song, and afterward to write.Nor do I ever find myself the worse for writing immediately after meals, nor is my understanding ever clearer, nor am I apt to be drowsy, the food I take being in too small a quantity to send up any fumes to the brain. Oh, how advantageous it is to an old man to eat but little! Accordingly I, who know it, eat but just enough to keep body and soul together.
Cornaro ate of all kinds of food, animal as well as vegetable, but in very small quantity, and he drank moderately of the light wine of his country, diminishing his slender rations as age increased. I am quite aware that I am reciting a story which must be familiar to some of the readers of this review. But it is by no means widely known, and is too apt an example of the value of the law under consideration not to be referred to here.
It must now be clearly understood, as a general rule for men at all ages, that the amount of food ingested ought to accord within certain narrow limits with the amount of force employed for the purposes of daily life. But there is a certain qualification, apparent but not real, of the principle thus enunciated which must be referred to here, in order to prevent misunderstanding or misinterpretation of my meaning in relation to one particular. It is right and fitting that a certain amount of storage material, or balance, should exist as a reserve in the constitution of every healthy man. Every healthy individual, indeed, necessarily possesses a stored amount of force, which will stand him in good stead when a demand arises for prolonged unusual exertion, or when any period of enforced starvation occurs, as during a lingering fever or other exhausting disease. The existence of this natural and healthy amount of reserved force is of course presupposed throughout all my remarks, and its extreme value is taken for granted. That undue amount of stored nutriment, that balance which has been referred to as prejudicial to the individual, is a quantity over and above the natural reserve produced by high health; for, when augmented beyond that point, the material takes the form of diseased deposit, and ceases to be an available source of nutriment. Even the natural amount of store or reserve is prone to exceed the necessary limit in those who are healthy or nearly so. Hence it is that in all systems of training for athletic exploits—which is simply a process of acquiring the highest degree of health and strength attainable, in view of great or prolonged exertion—some loss of weight is almost invariably incurred in developing a perfect condition. In other words, almost any man who sets himself to acquire by every means in his power the best health possible for his system does in the process necessary thereto throw off redundant materials, the presence of which is not consistent with the high standard of function required. Thus what is sometimes called "overtraining" is a condition in which the storage is reduced too much, and some weakening is incurred thereby; while "undertraining" implies that the useless fatty and other matters have not been sufficiently got rid of, so that the athlete is encumbered by unnecessary weight, and is liable to needless embarrassments, telling against his chances in more ways than one. The exact and precise balance between the two conditions is the aim of the judicious trainer.
We are thus led to the next important consideration, namely, that although broad rules or principles of diet may be enunciated as applicable to different classes of people in general, no accurate adaptation to the individual is possible without a knowledge of his daily habits and life, as well as to some extent of his personal peculiarities. No man, for example, can tell another what he can or ought to eat, without knowing what are the habits of life and work—mental and bodily—of the person to be advised. Notwithstanding which, no kind of counsel is more frequently tendered in common conversation by one stranger with another, than that which concerns the choice of food and drink. The adviser feels himself warranted, by the experience that some particular combination of nourishment suits his own stomach, to infer without hesitation that this dish will be therefore acceptable to the stomachs of all his neighbors. Surely the intelligence of such a man is as slender as his audacity and presumption are large. It would not he more preposterous if, having with infinite pains obtained a last representing precisely the size and the peculiarities in form of his own foot, he forthwith solemnly adjured all other persons to adopt boots made upon that model, and on none other! Only it may be assumed that there is probably more difference between stomachs and their needs among different individuals than among the inferior extremities referred to for the purpose of illustration. Thus, in regard of expenditure of food, how great is the difference between that of a man who spends ten or twelve hours of the day at the work of a navvy, as an agricultural laborer in harvest-time, or in draining or trenching land, as a sawyer, a railway porter, or a bricklayer's laborer, or let me add that of an ardent sportsman, as compared with the expenditure of a clerk who is seated at the desk, of individuals engaged in literary and artistic pursuits, demanding a life mostly sedentary and spent in-doors, with no exercise but that which such persons voluntarily take as a homage to hygienic duty, and for a short period borrowed at some cost from engagements which claim most of their time and nearly all their energies! While the manual laborers rarely consume more food than they expend, and are, if not injured by drink, or by undue exposure to the weather, mostly hale and hearty in consequence, the latter are often martyrs to continued minor ailments, which gradually increase, and make work difficult, and life dreary. Few people will believe how easy it is in most instances to meet the difficulty by adopting appropriate food, and that such brain-workers can really enjoy a fair degree of health and comfort by living on light food, which does not require much force to digest, and much muscular activity to assimilate—a diet, moreover, which is important to some of these from another point of view—the financial one—inasmuch as it is at least less costly by one half than the conventional meals which habit or custom prescribes alike to large classes of men in varied conditions of life. But there is another and more important economic gain yet to be named, as realizable through the use of a light and simple dietary. It is manifested by the fact that a greater expenditure of nerve-power is demanded for the digestion of heavy meat meals than for the lighter repasts which are suitable to the sedentary; from which fact it results of course that this precious power is reserved for more useful and more delightful pursuits than that of mere digestion, especially when this is not too well performed.
But those who have little time for exercise, and are compelled to live chiefly within-doors, must endeavor to secure, or should have secured for them as far as possible by employers, by way of compensation, a regular supply of fresh air without draughts, an atmosphere as free from dust and other impurities as can be obtained, with a good supply of light, and some artificial warmth when needed. These necessities granted, cereal foods, such as well-made bread in variety, and vegetable produce, including fruits, should form a great part of the diet consumed, with a fair addition of eggs and milk if no meat is taken, and little of other animal food than fish. On such a dietary, and without alcoholic stimulants, thousands of such workers as I have briefly indicated may enjoy with very little exercise far better health and more strength than at present they experience on meat and heavy puddings, beer, baker's bread, and cheese. Of course there are workers who belong to neither of the two extreme classes indicated, and whose habits can not be described as sedentary, but who occupy a middle place between the two. For such, some corresponding modification of the dietary is naturally appropriate. But it is a vulgar error to regard meat in any form as necessary to life; if for any it is necessary, it is for the hard-working out-door laborers above referred to, and for these a certain proportion is no doubt desirable. Animal flesh is useful also as a concentrated form of nutriment, valuable for its portability; and, for the small space it occupies in the stomach, unrivaled in certain circumstances. Like every other description of food, it is highly useful in its place, but is by no means necessary for a large proportion of the population. To many it has become partially desirable only by the force of habit, and because their digestive organs have thus been trained to deal with it, and at first resent a change. But, this being gradually made, adaptation takes place, and the individual who has consumed two or three meat meals daily with some little discomfort, chiefly from being often indisposed to make active exertions, becomes, after sufficient time has elapsed, stronger, lighter, and happier, as well as better tempered, and manifestly healthier, on the more delicate dietary sketched. People in general have very inadequate ideas of the great power of habit alone in forming what they believe to be innate personal peculiarities, or in creating conditions which are apparently part of a constitutional necessity, laws of their nature and essential to their existence. Many of these peculiarities are solely due to habit, that is, to long continuance in a routine of action, adopted it may be without motive or design; and people are apt to forget that, if a routine of a precisely opposite character had been adopted, precisely opposite conditions would have been established, and opposite peculiarities would have become dominant, as their contraries are now. Alterations in the dietary, especially of elderly persons, should be made gradually and with caution. This condition fulfilled, a considerable change may be effected with satisfactory results, when circumstances render it necessary. To revert once more to the question of flesh-eating, it should be remarked that it appears to be by no means a natural taste with the young. Few children like that part of the meal which consists of meat, but prefer the pudding, the fruit, the vegetables, if well dressed, which unhappily is not often the case. Many children manifest great repugnance to meat at first, and are coaxed and even scolded by anxious mothers until the habit of eating it is acquired. Adopting the insular creed, which regards beef and mutton as necessary to health and strength, the mother often suffers from groundless forebodings about the future of a child who rejects flesh, and manifests what is regarded as an unfortunate partiality for bread and butter and pudding. Nevertheless, I am satisfied, if the children followed their own instinct in that matter, the result would be a gain in more ways than one. Certainly, if meat did not appear in the nursery until the children sent for it, it would be rarely seen there, and the young ones would as a rule thrive better on milk and eggs, with the varied produce of the vegetable kingdom.
A brief allusion must be made to the well-known and obvious fact that the surrounding temperature influences the demand for food, which therefore should be determined as regards quantity or kind according to the climate inhabited, or the season of the year as it affects each climate. In hot weather, the dietary should be lighter, in the understood sense of the term, than in cold weather. The sultry period of our summer, although comparatively slight and of short duration, is nevertheless felt by some persons to be extremely oppressive; but this is mainly due to the practice of eating much animal food or fatty matters, conjoined as it often is with the habit of drinking freely of fluids containing a small quantity of alcohol. Living on cereals, vegetables, and fruits, with some proportion of fish, and abstaining from alcoholic drinks, the same person would probably enjoy the high temperature, and be free from the thirst which is the natural result of consuming needlessly substantial and heating food.
There is a very common term, familiar by daily use, conveying unmistakably to every one painful impressions regarding those who manifest the discomforts indicated by it—I mean the term indigestion. The first sign of what is so called may appear even in childhood; not being the consequence of any stomach disorder, but solely of some error in diet, mostly the result of eating too freely of rich compounds in which sugar and fatty matters are largely present. These elements would not be objectionable if they formed part of a regular meal, instead of being consumed as they mostly are between meals, already abounding in every necessary constituent.
Sugar and fat are elements of value in children's food, and naturally form a considerable portion of it, entering largely into the composition of milk, which Nature supplies for the young and growing animal. The indigestion of the child mostly terminates rapidly by ejection of the offending matter. But the indigestion of the adult is less acutely felt and is less readily disposed of. Uneasiness and incapacity for action, persisting for some time after an ordinary meal, indicate that the stomach is acting imperfectly on the materials which have been put into it. These signs manifest themselves frequently, and, if Nature's hints that the food is inappropriate are not taken, they become more serious. Temporary relief is easily obtained by medicine; but if the unfortunate individual continues to blame his stomach, and not the dietary he selects, the chances are that his troubles will continue, or appear in some other form. At length, if unenlightened on the subject, he becomes "a martyr to indigestion," and resigns himself to the unhappy fate, as he terms it, of "the confirmed dyspeptic."
Such a victim may perhaps be surprised to learn that nine out of ten persons so affected are probably not the subjects of any complaint whatever, and that the stomach at any rate is by no means necessarily faulty in its action—in short, that what is popularly termed "indigestion" is rarely a disease in any sense of the word, but merely the natural result of errors in diet. For most men it is the penalty of conformity to the eating habits of the majority; and a want of disposition or of enterprise to undertake a trial of simpler foods than those around them consume probably determines the continuance of their unhappy troubles. In many instances it must be confessed that the complaint, if so it must be called, results from error, not in the quality of the food taken, but in the quantity. Eating is an agreeable process for most people, and under the influence of very small temptation, or through undue variety furnishing a source of provocation to the palate, a considerable proportion of nutritious material above what is required by the system is apt to be swallowed. Then it is also to be remembered that stomachs which vary greatly in their capacity and power to digest may all nevertheless be equally healthy and competent to exercise every necessary function. In like manner we know that human brains which are equally sound and healthy often differ vastly in power and in activity. Thus a stomach, which would be slandered by a charge of incompetence to perform easily all that it is in duty bound to accomplish, may be completely incapable of digesting a small excess beyond that natural limit. Hence, with such an organ an indigestion is inevitable when this limit is only slightly exceeded. And so when temptations are considerable, and frequently complied with, the disturbance may be, as it is with some, very serious in degree. How very powerful a human stomach may sometimes be, and how large a task in the way of digestion it may sometimes perform without complaint, is known to those who have had the opportunity of observing what certain persons with exceptional power are accustomed to take as food, and do take for a long time apparently with impunity. But these are stomachs endowed with extraordinary energy, and woe be to the individual with a digestive apparatus of moderate power who attempts to emulate the performance of a neighbor at table who perchance may be furnished with such an effective digestive apparatus!
But, after all, let not the weaker man grieve overmuch at the uneven lot which the gods seem to have provided for mortals here below in regard of this function of digestion. There is a compensation for him which he has not considered, or perhaps even heard of, although he is so moderately endowed with peptic force. A delicate stomach which can just do needful work for the system and no more, by necessity performs the function of a careful door porter at the entrance of the system, and like a jealous guardian inspects with discernment all who aspire to enter the interior, rejecting the unfit and the unbidden, and all the common herd.
On the other hand, a stomach with superfluous power, of whom its master boastfully declaims that it can "digest tenpenny nails," and that he is unaccustomed to consult its likes and its dislikes if it have any, is like a careless hall porter who admits all comers, every pretender, and among the motley visitors many whose presence is damaging to the interior. These powerful feeders after a time suffer from the unexpended surplus, and pay for their hardy temerity in becoming amenable to penalty, often suddenly declared by the onset of some serious attack, demanding complete change in regimen, a condition more or less grave. On the other hand, the owner of the delicate stomach, a man perhaps with a habit of frequently complaining of slight troubles, and always careful, will probably in the race of life, as regards the preceding pilgrim, take the place of the tortoise as against the hare. It is an old proverb that "the creaking wheel lasts longest," and one that is certainly true as regards a not powerful but nevertheless healthy stomach which is carefully treated by its owner; to whom this fact may be acceptable as a small consolation for the possession of a delicate organ.
For it is a kind of stomach which not seldom accompanies a fine organization. The difference is central, not local—a difference in the nervous system chiefly; the impressionable mental structure, the instrument of strong emotions, must necessarily be allied with a stomach to which the supply of nerve-power for digestion is sometimes temporarily deficient and always perhaps capricious. There are more sources than one of compensation to the owner of an active, impressionable brain, with a susceptible stomach possessing only moderate digestive capabilities—sources altogether beyond the imagination of many a coarse feeder and capable digester.
But it is not correct, and it is on all grounds undesirable, to regard the less powerful man as a sufferer from indigestion, that is, as liable to any complaint to be so termed. True indigestion, as a manifestation of a diseased stomach, is comparatively quite rare, and I have not one word to say of it here, which would not be the fitting place if I had. Not one person in a hundred who complains of indigestion has any morbid affection of the organs engaged in assimilating his food. As commonly employed, the word "indigestion" denotes, not a disease, but an admonition. It means that the individual so complaining has not yet found his appropriate diet; that he takes food unsuited for him, or too much of it. The food may be "wholesome enough in itself," a popular phrase permitted to appear here, first, because it conveys a meaning perceived by every one, although the idea is loosely expressed; but, secondly and chiefly, for the purpose of pointing out the fallacy which underlies it. There is no food "wholesome in itself," and there is no fact which people in general are more slow to comprehend. That food only is wholesome which is so to the individual, and no food can be wholesome to any given number of persons. Milk, for example, may agree admirably with me, and may as certainly invariably provoke an indigestion from my neighbor; and the same may be said of almost every article of our ordinary dietary. The wholesomeness of a food consists solely in its adaptability to the individual, and this relation is governed mainly by the influences of his age, activity, surroundings and temperament or personal peculiarities.
Indigestion, therefore, does not necessarily, or indeed often, require medicine for its removal. Drugs, and especially small portions of alcoholic spirit, are often used for the purpose of stimulating the stomach temporarily to perform a larger share of work than by nature it is qualified to undertake; a course which is disadvantageous for the individual if persisted in. The effect on the stomach is that of the spur on the horse: it accelerates the pace, but "it takes it out" of the animal, and, if the practice is long continued, shortens his natural term of efficiency.
It is an erroneous idea that a simple form of dietary, such as the vegetable kingdom in the largest sense of the term furnishes, in conjunction with a moderate proportion of the most easily digested forms of animal food, may not be appetizing and agreeable to the palate. On the contrary, I am prepared to maintain that it may be easily served in forms highly attractive, not only to the general but to a cultivated taste. A preference for the high flavors and stimulating scents peculiar to the flesh of vertebrate animals mostly subsides after a fair trial of milder foods when supplied in variety. And it is an experience almost universally avowed, that the desire for food is keener, that the satisfaction in gratifying appetite is greater and more enjoyable, on the part of the general light feeder than with the almost exclusively flesh-feeder. For this designation is applicable to almost all those who compose the middle-class population of this country. They consume little bread and few vegetables; all the savory dishes are of flesh, with decoctions of flesh alone for soup. The sweets are compounds of suet, lard, butter, eggs and milk, with very small quantities of flour, rice, arrowroot, etc., which comprise all the vegetable constituents besides some fruit and sugar. Three fourths at least of the nutrient matters consumed are from the animal kingdom. A reversal of the proportions named, that is, a fourth only from the latter source with three fourths of vegetable produce, would furnish greater variety for the table, tend to maintain a cleaner palate, increased zest for food, a lighter and more active brain, and a better state of health for most people not engaged on the most laborious employments of active life; while even for the last named, with due choice of material, ample sustenance in the proportions named may be supplied. For some inactive, sedentary, and aged persons the small proportion of animal food indicated might be advantageously diminished. I am frequently told by individuals of sixty years and upward that they have no recollection of any previous period since reaching mature age at which they have possessed a keener relish for food than that which they enjoy at least once or twice a day since they have adopted the dietary thus described. Such appetite at all events as has rarely offered itself during years preceding, when the choice of food was conventionally limited to the unvarying progression and array of mutton and beef, in joint, chop, and steak, arriving after a strong meat soup, with a possible interlude of fish, and followed by puddings of which the ingredients are chiefly derived from animal sources. The penetrating odors of meat cookery which announce their presence by escape from the kitchen, and will pervade the air of other rooms in any private house but a large one, and which are encountered in clubs, restaurants, and hotels without stint, alone suffice to blunt the inclination for food of one who, returning from daily occupation, fatigued and fastidious, desires food easy of digestion, attractive in appearance, and unassociated with any element of a repulsive character. The light feeder knows nothing of the annoyances described, finds on his table that which is delightful to a palate sensitive to mild impressions, and indisposed to gross and over-powerful ones. After the meal is over, his wit is fresher, his temper more cheerful, and he takes his easychair to enjoy fireside talk, and not to sink into a heavy slumber, which on awakening is but exchanged for a sense of discontent or stupidity.
The doctrine thus briefly and inadequately expounded in this paper may probably encounter some opposition and adverse criticism. I am quite content that this should be so. Every proposal which disturbs the current habits of the time, especially when based on long-prevalent custom, infallibly encounters that fate. But of the general truth, and hence of the ultimate reception of the principles I have endeavored to illustrate, there can not be the faintest doubt. And I know that this result, whenever it may be accomplished, will largely diminish the painful affections which unhappily so often appear during the latter moiety of adult life. And having during the last few years widely inculcated such general dietetic principles and practice, with abundant grounds for my growing conviction of their value, it appears to be a duty to call attention to them somewhat more emphatically than in preceding contributions already referred to. In so doing I have expressly limited myself to statements relating to those simple elementary facts concerning our every-day life which ought to be within the knowledge of every man, and therefore such as may most fitly be set forth in a publication outside of that field of special and technical record which is devoted to professional observation and experience.—Nineteenth Century.
- "Discorsi delta Vita Solria, del Signor Luigi Cornaro." An English edition, with translation, was published by Benjamin White, at Horace's Head, in Fleet Street, London, 1768. Cornaro's first work was published in Padua in 1658. In his last, a letter written to Barbaro, Patriarch of Aquileia, he gives a description of his health and vigor when ninety-five years old. A paper in the "Spectator" was one of the first notices of him in this country. See vol. iii, No. 195.