Friday, February 13, 2009

Artificial Diet

A current interest at the moment that I constantly see promoted is "all natural diet." People worry that preservatives and processed foods are ruining their health, and so wish to replace processed food with naturally grown fruits and vegetables. Everywhere I go I see food vendors brag about how natural and unprocessed their food is.
I can see why they would claim that, since food processing tends to leech micronutrients from the food, and people show a marked preference for anything natural over anything artificial. The processed food tries to make it up with an "enrichment" process, but they don't add much back. One writer compared it to being "robbed of $25, and refunded 99 cents."
However, the contrarian in me notes that "natural" doesn't mean "good for your health" necessarily. Arsenic and cyanide are natural, while the vitamin C capsules I occasionally take are utterly artificial. So I'd like to try, as an experiment, an all artificial diet. Everything I would consume for the week would be synthesized in a laboratory. No plants, no animals, just tablets and powders.
Part of what I would learn is the state of understanding of human diet. When proteins were isolated from carbohydrates and fats, it was noted that proteins helped people survive. So "protein" means literally "essential to life." At this time, it was assumed that protein was enough to survive on. Which it wasn't, really. Sailors often developed deficiency diseases like scurvy, because all they had to eat was hardtack. Scurvy was assumed to just be some kind of seaborne disease.
Then vitamins were discovered. These are trace nutrients that you need to survive. A proof was developed that giving a scurvy sufferer citrus fruit, (all of which is rich in vitamin C), cured their scurvy. The idea of vitamins made such an impact on the public that to this day there is a pseudomedicine that revolves around the idea of megadoses of vitamins curing all disease. (Suppliments may help your immune system, but this is otherwise wrong.)
Then it was discovered that traces of certain minerals were also necessary. In the 19th century, anemia was a disease of young, unmarried women, and for sociological reasons, cured by marriage. This was because her father likely skimped on providing her with certain foods, (especially expensive red meat), whereas her new husband had every reason to feed her properly. Iron, magnesium, copper, calcium, phosphorus, zinc, chromium, sodium, and potassium are all needed by the body in trace amounts. Too much also creates problems.
If there are any additional dietary needs, they are not known. By performing this experiment, I hope to discover them. At the end of the week, I would have a physical exam and resume my existing diet. I am also hoping that synthesized food proves cheaper than natural, but probably not unless produced in bulk.

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