Tag Archives: nutrition

Those Healthy Yankees: Graham and Alcott

April, 2016

Sylvester Graham and William Andrus Alcott were men of their disease-ridden times, amongst the first American promoters of “health food,” “phys-ed” and temperate living for health in both the here and now — and the afterlife.

In 1832, the Great Cholera Epidemic hit the United States. It was another of the epidemics and plagues that had affected the world since at least late Roman times. No one understood how these instances of mass illness and death occurred, but the pattern of transmission along trade routes suggested some kind of agent in the illness. In the case of cholera, the disease came out of Bengal in India in the wake of the British conquest there during the Napoleonic Wars. It travelled from Calcutta to London and then, in 1832, to New York. Cholera then spread upriver and along the Erie Canal, killing thousands. Diagnosis was superficial, prevention was guessed at; cures were ineffectual; attempts at relief were often as deadly as the disease, and recovery was left to the patient.

Americans suffered then from other diseases as well, sometimes affecting more people, such as tuberculosis (TB), yellow fever and malaria. TB was a common complaint and generally killed a quarter of those affected, being a slow-moving disease. Malaria and yellow fever differed in their effects, with malaria seeming to be slow-moving like TB and yellow fever striking seasonally and killing quickly. Smallpox’s effect resembled other epidemics, but by the 1800s, the effectiveness of a crude vaccination meant that, while its causes were poorly understood, the disease could be controlled.

The result of the loss of life from these and other illnesses led people at the time to try and figure out what caused them to spread. Two kinds of answers were proposed; the first was an environmental one that disease came from unhealthy ‘miasmatic’ conditions, such as bad air, fetid swamps, uncleanliness and exposure to poor living conditions. The second was that disease arose from poor nutrition, alcoholism and general bad behavior, or physical weakness on the part of the victims.

Neither answer was satisfactory, but they were based upon medical treatises that dated in some cases back to Roman times. Attempts by medical people to treat them were as bad as the diseases, consisting of ‘bleeding’ the patient or giving doses of calomel (mercury chloride).

By and large, the training and reputation of medical personnel was low, especially on the frontier, where almost all educational standards were low. Outside the cities, people were left largely to their own devices in preventing and dealing with disease.

Some Americans began to fix on the notion that disease could be prevented, if only people were to live proper lives, consume food in a moderate fashion, drink only pure water and keep their physiques in proper order.

This package came wrapped in a popular religious attitude called Arminianism, which posited that God made the world good, and that it was the duty of everyone to pursue salvation in both a moral and physical sense. It was not a coincidence that moral and physical virtues were seen as being tied together.

The earliest prominent proponent of this conjunction was a Connecticut man, Sylvester Graham, who had suffered from ill health as he grew up. Graham attended, but did not graduate from, Amherst College. At 34, he became a Presbyterian minister to a rural congregation in New Jersey. His ministerial career did not last long: two years later, in 1830, he was lecturing to the Philadelphia Temperance Society. Soon after, he was lecturing on the wider need for temperance in the eating of food, in much the fashion as early temperance lecturers approached alcohol — don’t drink, but if you must, keep it temperate.

Graham looked for validation for his idea that food must be consumed in a spirit of tempered abstinence.

He borrowed ideas from France about the body as a ‘chemical machine,’ and came up with the notion that stimulation of the digestive system was at the root of many human health problems. The theory was these could be prevented by a calm lifestyle, which included only eating foods that were not “stimulating” and assisted digestion. He went on to apply his temperance argument to sexual relations and emotional control as well.

Graham was fixed on the idea that Christian theology was congruent with the laws of nature. By the time the cholera epidemic hit New York City, he lectured there that symptoms of gastrointestinal irritation pointed to people eating wrongly and general misbehaving.

But, as was discovered a couple of decades later, one of the prime causes for the spread of cholera was well water infected with the cholera bacillus. Graham’s advocacy of drinking water rather than alcohol — which would have killed the germs — was unfortunate.

Today, his name lives on in the ‘graham cracker’, a kids’ staple for many generations (and still a favorite of mine). Graham was less interested in the graham cracker than returning to a rough type of bread that had been replaced in the cities by white bread. ‘Well-made bread’…must contain…’all the natural properties of wheat,’ he said, and published a recipe for ‘graham bread’ in the 1829 New Hydropathic Cookbook.

He felt that other foods should not be altered much from their natural condition either, which led to a prohibition on meat consumption.

In 1835, Graham moved to Boston, where the temperance movement and the antislavery movement were joined with a growing food-health movement, spurred by by William Andrus Alcott, brother of Bronson Alcott,  a transcendentalist leader and the father of writer Louisa May Alcott. There was some rivalry between Graham and Alcott, and both endured opposition to their ideas from local grocers and butchers in the city.

Graham was reputed to be vain, obtuse and obsessive, so attacks were likely not a surprise to him, but a butchers’ riot was too much.

Shaken, he moved from Boston to Northampton, Maine, and died there in 1851 at the age of 57. His relatively young age at death shocked many of his followers and caused some to stray from Grahamism.

The most interesting part of Alcott’s approach to preventive health was that he was more willing to play down the doctrinaire religious force within Grahamism in order to point out the social benefits of a good lifestyle in food and drink. Alcott had attended Yale and taken a medical degree, with a thesis on TB, of special relevance to him as he suspected he himself was a sufferer. After graduation, he tried medicines to relieve his symptoms, but then found a temperate lifestyle to be more useful.

Alcott taught for a couple of years before attending Yale, and his experience led to the idea that children should be taught basic nutrition and physiology as part of the school curriculum; he was the originator of ‘phys-ed’ classes.

Alcott promoted health reform as a Christian redemption project, to help all live a good life — and good afterlife; promoted information about nutrition, and  helped form the American Physiological Society in 1837.

In an address to the society Alcott bluntly focused on prevention rather than cure as the best health care and waxed, enthusiastically: ‘In the present blaze of physiological light, we can, in ways and processes almost innumerable, manufacture human health to an extent not formerly dreamed of.’ As president of the society, he helped establish what may be America’s first “health food” store, which stocked, of course, “Graham” bread, fresh fruits and vegetables.


 Copyright Jim McNiven 2016

This column is part of Jim McNiven’s project The Yankee Road: Tracing the Journey of the New England Tribe that Created Modern America. www.theyankeeroad.com


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Jim McNiven

James McNiven has a PhD from the University of Michigan. He has written widely on public policy and economic development issues and is the co-author of three books. His most recent research has been about the relationship of demographic changes to Canadian regional economic development. He also has an interest in American business history and continues to teach at Dalhousie on a part-time basis.






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Why cats are fussy, and dogs will eat most anything

By Hannah Rowland, University of Cambridge
November, 2015

"Feed me." © Deborah Jones 2015

“Feed me.” © Deborah Jones 2015

Anyone who’s watched a cat throwing up after munching on grass knows that our feline friends aren’t natural plant eaters. So you might be surprised to discover that these carnivorous animals share some important genes that are more typically associated with herbivores. And this might help explain why cats aren’t always easy to please when it comes to food.

New research suggests that cats possess the genes that protect vegetarian animals from ingesting poisonous plants by giving them the ability to taste bitter. Animals use their sense of taste to detect whether a potential food is nutritious or harmful. A sweet taste signals the presence of sugars, an important source of energy. A bitter taste, on the other hand, evolved as a defence mechanism against harmful toxins commonly found in plants and unripe fruits.

Evolution has repeatedly tweaked animals’ taste buds to suit various dietary needs. Changes in an animal’s diet can eliminate the need to sense certain chemicals in food, and so receptor genes mutate, destroying their ability to make a working protein.

One example of this comes from strictly meat-eating cats, who can no longer taste sweetness. But if bitter detection evolved to warn of plant toxins, then it stands to reason that cats, which (usually) eschew plants, shouldn’t be able to taste bitter either. Humans and other vegetable-munching animals can taste bitter because we possess bitter taste receptor genes. If cats have lost the ability to taste bitterness, we should find that their receptor genes are riddled with mutations.

Geneticists at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia scoured the genome of cats and other carnivorous mammals like dogs, ferrets, and polar bears to see if our carnivorous cousins have bitter genes. They were surprised to find that cats have 12 different genes for bitter taste. Dogs, ferrets, and polar bears are equally well endowed. So, if meat eating animals are unlikely to encounter any bitter morsels, why do they boast genes for tasting bitterness?

Taste test

To find out, Peihua Jiang, a molecular biologist at Monell, put cat taste buds to the test. He inserted the cat taste receptor gene into human tissue cells in the lab. When combined, the cell and the gene act as a taste receptor that responds to chemicals dropped onto it.

Jiang discovered that the cat’s taste receptors responded to bitter chemicals found in toxic plants and to compounds that also activate human bitter receptors. The cat bitter taste receptor, known as Tas2r2, responded to the chemical denatonium benzoate, a bitter substance commonly smeared on the fingernails of nail-biting children.

So why have cats retained the ability to detect bitter tastes? Domestic cats owners know how unpredictable cats’ dietary choices can be. Some of the “presents” cats bring to their owners include frogs, toads, and other animals that can contain bitter and toxic compounds in their skin and bodies. Jiang’s results show that bitter receptors empower cats to detect these potential toxins, giving them the ability to reject noxious foods and avoid poisoning.

But how often do meat-loving cats actually get exposed to bitter and toxic compounds in their diet, compared with the plethora of plant toxins that their vegetarian counterparts have to contend with? Jiang suggests this is not enough to explain why cats have retained such an arsenal of receptors.

Instead, cat taste receptors may have evolved for reasons other than taste. In humans, bitter taste receptors are found not only in the mouth, but also in the heart and in the lungs, where they are thought to detect infections. It remains to be seen if feline bitter receptor genes also double-up as disease detectors.

The discovery of feline bitter receptors might explain why cats have got a reputation as picky eaters. But their unfussy canine counterparts have a similar number of bitter taste receptors – so why are cats so finicky? One answer might lie in how the cat receptors detect bitter-tasting compounds. Research published earlier this year by another team of researchers showed that some of the cat taste receptors are especially sensitive to bitter compounds, and even more sensitive to denatonium than the same receptor in humans.

Perhaps cats are also more sensitive to bitter chemicals than dogs, or they may detect a greater number of bitter compounds in their everyday diet. Food that tastes bland to us or to a dog could be an unpleasant gastronomic experience for cats. So rather than branding cats as picky, perhaps we should think of them as discerning feline foodies.

The ConversationCreative Commons

Hannah Rowland is a Lecturer in Ecology and Evolution & Research Fellow at Zoological Society of London, University of Cambridge.  This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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