Sunday, March 06, 2011

Over 200 Years Ago, Soldiers Were Advised To Eat Mostly Vegetables

Chocolate Milk at Every Meal: Unhealthy military mess halls are hurting our armed forces, Kristen Hinman, Slate, February 28, 2011

This stood out:
"Two years into the Revolutionary War, a surgeon general in the Continental Army issued a pamphlet on nutrition. "The diet of soldiers should consist chiefly of vegetables," Dr. Benjamin Rush wrote in Directions for Preserving the Health of Soldiers. "The nature of their duty, as well as their former habits of life, require it."
It was routine, in Rush's time, for soldiers to consume a "pound or two of flesh in a day."
So, in 1777, over 230 years ago, soldiers were eating a "pound or two of flesh." I'll assume that doesn't include eggs or dairy products. That's a lot of animal food. I wonder what chronic diseases those soldiers suffered later in life, if they enjoyed a retirement at all.

The UK Department of Health recently advised their adult population to consume something closer to 2.5 ounces:
"Red and processed meat probably increases the risk of bowel cancer and people who eat around 90g or more should consider cutting down to reduce their risk."
- UK Department of Health, February 25, 2011
They say cutting back to 70 g/day (2.5 ounces) could help reduce cancer risk without impacting "the proportion of the adult population with low iron intakes."

How much is 2.5 ounces? About the size of a large egg.
The photo is from Shorpy Historic Photo Archive. It's dated 1915, about 138 years after the time of Dr. Rush. I love cooking photos.
Thanks for the article to BL who always sends good links.


manu said...

In 1777 I bet they didn't have the massive scale, industrial factories, in which livestock is raised today. And they also didn't pump their animals full off BGH, clenbuterol, antibiotics and the like

Bix said...

You are so right.

Even just 50 years ago food was probably quite a bit different than today.

Bix said...

... and water.

Manu said...

This is the age of cheap and 'dirty' calories. And 'dirty' in more ways than one... but I once heard an economist friend of mine talk about how food prices in relation to what people make were at an all time low and that hunger for economic reasons in the U.S. and Europe was much diminished, all that comes at a very high cost if you ask me

Laurie Thomas said...

Back in the eighteenth century, rich people got gout from eating too much meat.

Ben. P DaSalt said...

I wouldn’t make too much out of this. In the Western world, a vegetable diet for health was an idea that certainly predates the Revolutionary War. I hesitate to call it vegetarianism, since the word wasn’t used back then, but the idea had been around since antiquity. Around the time of the Age of Discovery (15th--17th century) Europe gained more substantial contact with India, and Brahmin, Pythagorean or vegetable diets had slowly worked it’s way into cultural imagination of the elite few who could read and write and ponder such things, and were associated, without much solid evidence, with health, naturalness, and longevity.

The data to support vegetable diets for health were speculative, anecdotal, and wrapped up in all sorts of other notions and assumptions that are questionable by today’s standards of evidence. Just because a singular doctor back then published a pamphlet advising soldiers to eat vegetables, doesn’t mean that his claims were backed by any rigorous studies.

A doctor then could easily have said to eat lots of meat to promote health, and it would hold just as much credibility, in other works, not much. The scientific methodology just wasn’t sound enough for us to take such conclusions at face value now. We have far more data today, and it’s still not clear. By clear I mean like how no one debates the risks of smoking, but formulations of diet are still hotly contested. “Some old doctor or diet guru says eat x,y,z for ultimate health,” just doesn’t go very far.

They we’ll may have been other issues the doctor was addressing, reminding solders to eat vegetables to reduce scurvy, or help digestion, etc. Those solder’s would have eaten a fairly monotonous diet, hard dry bread, heavily salted meat, dried beans and rum, and some stretches without any rations at all. Which is worse? The meat? The bread? The rum? The periods of starvation when troops were cut off from rations? The capsules of mercury that Dr. Rush prescribed to soldiers as laxatives? The combination of all of all such factors?

Dr. Benjamin Rush wasn’t just some forgotten doctor who issued a single pamphlet, nor was he a small bit actor in the events of the times, we know plenty about him.

This Wikipedia entry is as good a place to start as any.

This American Heritage entry is a must read (and perhaps you don’t have to second guess every sentence as much as Wikipedia). I would quote you a few lines, buts’ it’s hard to know where to even begin or end. It’s all relevant.

He advocated a vegetable diet, but then he fits a certain profile. Educated. Affiliated within a certain religious spectrum. He advocated temperance of alcohol and condemned tobacco use. He was an abolitionist against slavery.

But he had all sorts of ideas and practices that we would regard as crazy today. Some ideas, both inside and outside medicine, he got sort of right, but often not for the right reasons, or he was just going with his gut. The best we can say is that more often than not, his intuitions were in the right direction, but good intentions don’t fill-peer reviewed journals.

That Slate article cherry picked a reference to make a point. Remember to keep the contexts of history in mind when passing judgment on historical doctors. It’s not just Dr. Rush who had crazy ideas; the culture at large had all sorts of ideas, biases, and cultural attitudes to contend with not to mention the abysmal state of Western medicine during those times.

Perhaps even more importantly, remember to extend this historical understanding even to today as there are a whole hosts of notions related to health that are more derived from our cultural milieu than anything else and these ideas will rightly change over time. Our descendants will most assuredly scratch their heads and even laugh at some of the ideas we hold as true today.

Ben. P DaSalt said...

manu said...
“In 1777 I bet they didn't have the massive scale, industrial factories, in which livestock is raised today. And they also didn't pump their animals full off BGH, clenbuterol, antibiotics and the like”

Modern industrial farming exactly as we know it wasn’t around in 1777 as there just weren’t as many Americans to feed, nor were certain technologies available. However, fattening cattle and livestock by stall-feeding with grain and corn very much did exist before, during, and after the Revolutionary War. George Washington was a practitioner and an advocate of stall-feeding cattle corn, pretty much the precursor for our industrial system today:

“Before the Revolution, cattle farmers along the South Branch of the Potomac River were also growing corn to fatten their cattle before driving them to markets in eastern cities such as Alexandria, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. A consignment of such stall-fed South Branch cattle was sold near Pittsburgh as early as 1761”

“Initially he followed the common practice of allowing his hogs to roam freely during the summer, rounding them up in the fall and selecting animals to be fattened and slaughtered. Realizing that system was rather chaotic and very inefficient, he eventually constructed roofed pens with planked floors, a supply of fresh water and feeding troughs to increase fattening as well as to better protect and control his assets.”

“In mid-February 1778 Blaine's reports to Washington showed that while he had flour available, he had barely sufficient meat to maintain the main army through that month. Accepting a suggestion made a month earlier by Blaine, Washington circulated an address to the inhabitants of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia that called on them to stall-feed as many of their cattle as they could spare so that they might be driven to the army by May.”

George Washington (Letter to William Pearce, December 7, 1794)
“I think it would be no unsatisfactory experiment to fat one bullock altogether with Potatoes; another, altogether with Indian meal; and third with a mixture of both: keeping an exact account of the time they are fatting, and what is eaten of each, and of hay, by the different steers; that a judgement may be formed of the best and least expensive mode of stall feeding beef for market, or for my own use”

There are two milestones regarding the adoption of technology. There’s the initial concept, or first invention, and then there is widespread adoption. For items like the light bulb and the telephone, we mark the time when Edison invented them, but we can also acknowledge transitions where widespread use of the technology took hold. There is a sense though, that after the invention, the genie is out of the bottle, and wider implementation is inevitable.

The prevalent storyline for feed-lots weaves a narrative around a post World War II (1945) adoption as the starting point for such practices, as if we began growing corn because we had all this leftover chemical fertilizer and had to figure out some purpose for the corn, so someone got the idea to feed it to cattle. That’s absurd. A constant in historical periodicals running through the decades spanning the 1700s to the 1900s like a Dow Jones stock index was the posted market price of corn-fed steer.

Even George Washington would know what intended purpose of all that 1940s corn was, the desire to produce more of it was inevitable.