Tag Archives: nutrition

Wish me luck on my 1918 diet!

Earlier this year, I was planning to write a post called “How I Lost 5 Pounds for My College Reunion on a 1918 Diet.” Well…that goal, modest though it was, was not achieved. But then last month my friend Emily* invited me to participate in a group diet contest on DietBet. (She invited all of her Facebook friends, so I didn’t take it personally.) I jumped at this opportunity to regain the silhouette of youth.

I had just the diet in mind, from this article in the March 1918 issue of the Ladies’ Home Journal by Eugene Lyman Fisk, M.D., who was the medical director of the Life Extension Institute and the co-author, with Yale professor Irving Fisher, of the bestselling 1915 book How to Live.**

I expected 1918 dieting wisdom to be dubious, but Dr. Fisk, like fellow nutrition doc Harvey Wiley of Good Housekeeping, turns out to be pretty sensible.***

Dr. Fisk starts out by saying that

At age 25, Miss Blank, an average young woman, fully grown, 5 foot 4 inches in height, weighs 128 pounds; at 40 she weighs 138 pounds; at 50, 144 pounds. This gain over age 25 is practically all fat, and its distribution has sadly changed Miss Blank’s silhouette.

I’ll spare you the TMI and leave it that the reaction of this 5’4” over-50 upon reading this was “No wonder I feel so at home in 1918!”

Dr. Fisk counsels against trying to lose weight through exercise. To the extent that we stout (Dr. Fisk doesn’t pull any punches) 40+ women do exercise, it should consist of walking, gentle hill climbing, and a few setting-up exercises. Substituting easy yoga for the setting-up exercises, this is exactly my routine!

Some recent gentle hill climbing in Cape Town

But, really, it’s all about the food. Starting with….

Breakfast

On my otherwise ill-fated pre-reunion diet, I did make a permanent switch from my previous granola, banana, and tea breakfast to the one outlined by Dr. Fisk. With maybe a LITTLE more butter than he recommends, but I don’t take milk or sugar in my tea or use butter to scramble my eggs, so it cancels out, right? And it’s worked—I find myself more energetic in the mornings, and less likely to snack before lunch.

Breakfast, with a rusk instead of toast

After much experimenting, I’ve come up with a great recipe for microwaved scrambled eggs. Here it is:

MARY GRACE’S 30-20-10 MICROWAVE SCRAMBLED EGGS

Break two eggs into a small bowl or teacup. Add salt and pepper as desired. Cook eggs in microwave without stirring for 30 seconds. Stir, then return to the microwave and cook for 20 seconds. Scramble, then cook for an additional 10 seconds or more as needed.

Lunch

Here I’ve followed Dr. Lyman’s plan more loosely, but I’ve kept to the basic spirit of something vegetable-y, something bread-y, and some fruit. Here’s a recent literal interpretation

and a 21st century variation, featuring homemade tabbouleh and (not-homemade) hummus.

Dinner

Dinner is your basic protein-starch-vegetable combo. Sometimes I cook a chicken breast it in a foil pack at 350F for half an hour with whatever I happen to have around (typical ingredients are lemon, kale, garlic, aniseeds, and red pepper flakes). Lately I’ve been cooking frozen boneless chicken breasts**** in a pan with root vegetables and rosemary, which comes out way better than you’d expect. I’ve been eating a lot of grilled hake as well.

A recent dinner

Dr. Fisk is a big defender of potatoes, saying that

There is no tragedy in a fat woman***** eating a potato; the tragedy lies in the big pat of butter that is often melted in it, more than equal in fuel value to the whole potato.

My last name notwithstanding, I’m not much of a potatoes person, so I usually substitute couscous or rice or root vegetables as a starch at dinner. And I skip the stewed fruits for dessert. Virtuous, huh?

So How Am I Doing?

DietBet weigh-in

DietBet works like this: if you don’t lose 4% of your body weight during the competition period, your ante is divided among the people who do. With just eight days of the one-month contest to go, I’m only halfway there, so I need to step it up if I want to keep my money.

Although not to the extremes described in Maria Thompson Daviess’ 1912 novel The Melting of Molly, which was the very first book I read for this project. The gist, in case you missed it: Molly, a 160-pound 25-year-old widow, goes on a crash diet when she learns that her high school sweetheart, who’s in the Foreign Service, is coming back to town and wants to see her in the blue muslin dress she wore back when she had a 20-inch waist. Here’s the diet, as prescribed by her doctor neighbor:

Breakfast—one slice of dry toast, one egg, fruit and a tablespoonful of baked cereal, small cup of coffee, no sugar, no cream.

Dinner–one small lean chop, slice of toast, spinach, green beans and lettuce salad. No dessert or sweet.

Supper—slice of toast and an apple.

“Why the apple?” Molly mourns. “Why supper at all?”

Molly, busted with a jar of jam by the doctor

But I’m not going to do that! Crash diets are unhealthy! Besides, who has the discipline?******

I’ll stick with Dr. Fisk. Whose diet is, as I said, pretty sensible. The one thing that strikes a modern reader as odd is the tolerance for carbs. This isn’t surprising, since I can well remember a time—up to the 1990s—when no one cared about carbs, it was all about fat. Still, it’s strange seeing even poor starving Molly allowed three slices of (butterless) toast a day. Dr. Fisk does emphasize the importance of cutting down on starches, fats, and sugars, but he still allows, along with the potato at dinner, a piece of toast at breakfast and bread or a roll at lunch. (He stipulates that the roll should be made of rye, bran, or graham flour, but this isn’t only a nutrition thing—there was a huge wartime drive for wheat conservation, led by food czar Herbert Hoover.) Bread and potatoes, I guess, were such an important part of the 1918 diet that cutting back any further than this was inconceivable.

In happier times

I’ve followed my 1918 diet fairly closely, with just a few slip-ups here and there. I’m eating more lean proteins and vegetables and I’ve cut out Indian take-out, a former weekly staple. When I go out, I have grilled fish with vegetables. I rarely feel hungry or have cravings.

On the other hand, I don’t have high hopes of meeting my DietBet goal. I’m not too worried, though. For one thing, the entertainment value of our WhatsApp chat group is worth the money I put up. And, while it’s good to have a jump-start, healthy eating isn’t a one-month affair. If I just keep at it, I will—maybe not this month but eventually—regain the silhouette of youth.

Wish me luck!

The silhouette of youth, wasted in a drop-waist dress

UPDATE 10/18/2018: I did it!!!

*Whose blog you should check out! She writes about dinner parties and travel and decor and the NYU Writers in Paris program, where we met, and, a favorite topic of mine, how hideous embassy furniture is.

**Of course, when you see that someone was the director of the Life Extension Institute, your first question is how old he was when he died. Answer: 64. He died suddenly in 1931 on a trip to Dresden, where he had gone to visit the Museum of Hygiene. How to Live had an introduction by William H. Taft. And this is now the most irony-packed footnote of My Year in 1918.

***Not just about dieting. He was also a strong opponent of tobacco. Unfortunately, like so many otherwise admirable people of 1918, he was a—and if you’re a regular reader, you’ll be able to recite this along with me—horrible eugenicist.

****This is legit—the USDA says so. You just have to cook it longer.

*****I told you he doesn’t pull any punches.

******Well, Molly did. But, unlike me, she had a houseful of servants under orders to keep food away from her.

Chocolate is healthy, how to get fat, and other advice from a nutrition pioneer

Good Housekeeping, January 1918

Good news, chocolate lovers! Good Housekeeping magazine has given chocolate a big thumbs-up. Writing in the January 1918 issue, Dr. Harvey Wiley says that it

contains considerable food-value. A small bulk furnishes a large amount of nutrition. It has in its composition more protein than has wheat flour, and about twenty times as much fatty material, and a considerable proportion of starch as well. It is, therefore, extremely nourishing and is usually easily digested.

Dr. Wiley provides a number of recipes, including hot cocoa (a harmless way to disguise milk if your child won’t drink it), chocolate pudding, and an unappetizing-sounding chocolate corn-starch mold. He compares chocolate recipes, like cake, with their non-chocolate equivalents, and shows how, in each case, the chocolate version provides more nourishment.

Nourishment being measured in, um, calories.

Most of Dr. Wiley’s advice is more sensible than this. In the March edition of his monthly Good Housekeeping feature “Dr. Wiley’s Question-Box,” C. A. B. of New York asks:

A friend of mine is most anxious to join a certain branch of the U.S. service, but due to his height (6 ft. 2 in.) finds it will be necessary to take on 25 pounds additional weight before he can qualify. Can you give him advice as to how he can go about getting up to the required number of pounds?

 Dr. Wiley replies:

If your tall friend has a normal digestion he can increase his weight by over-eating and under-exercising. If he will go into a state of hibernation, so to speak, sleep fourteen hours a day, and lie perfectly still the rest of the time, eat large quantities of starch, sugar, ice-cream, cake, and other fattening substances, he will probably be able to gain twenty-five pounds in weight. When he does this, however, he will be far less efficient physically than he was before, and less suited to serve his country.

 Dr. Wiley tells M. MacE. of Ohio that, whatever the Food Administration might say, corn syrup is not in fact “the most healthful and easily assimilated of all sweets.” He tells A.L.S. of Kansas, a flour miller, that white flour is “the base of nearly all the bad nutrition in the United States.”

I was curious to find out more about Dr. Wiley. He turned out to be a fascinating character and an important figure in U.S. history.

Harvey Wiley, 1867 (Library of Congress)

Dr. Wiley was born in a log cabin in Indiana in 1844. He attended medical school after serving in the Civil War and then taught at Butler College and Purdue University. He was highly regarded as a teacher, but his unusual behaviour raised eyebrows. According to his autobiography, a member of Purdue’s board of trustees stated that:

we are deeply grieved at his conduct. He has put on a uniform and played baseball with the boys, much to the discredit of the dignity of a professor. But the most grave offense of all has lately come to our attention. Professor Wiley has bought a bicycle. Imagine my feelings and those of other members of the board on seeing one of our professors dressed up like a monkey and astride a cartwheel riding along our streets.

 After being passed over for Purdue’s presidency, apparently for being “too young and too jovial,” he was appointed chief chemist of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and moved to Washington, D.C., where he was the second person to own an automobile (and the first to have a serious accident).

Dr. Wiley in his USDA lab (FDA)

Dr. Wiley skyrocketed to national fame after assembling a group of healthy young civil servants and testing various food additives on them, steadily increasing the amounts until they became ill. The group became known as the “Poison Squad.” (You can read about it in this 2013 article in Esquire.) He was given a more dignified nickname—“Father of the Pure Food and Drugs Act”—after passage of the landmark law in 1906, and was appointed the first commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. His enforcement of the act won him powerful enemies, though, and he resigned in frustration in 1911. According to the FDA, a newspaper headline read, “WOMEN WEEP AS WATCHDOG OF THE KITCHEN QUITS AFTER 29 YEARS.”

Cartoon, date and source unknown (FDA)

Dr. Wiley spent the rest of his career at Good Housekeeping. There was some irony in this, since, according to Esquire, he was an outspoken misogynist, given to calling women “savages” and questioning their brain capacity.

He came around in the end, though. In 1911, the longtime bachelor married Anna Kelton, a prominent suffragist who was half his age. They had two sons. Anna Kelton Wiley contributed an article to the February 1918 issue of Good Housekeeping called “Why We Picketed the White House.” The magazine ran a disclaimer next to the article saying that, while it does not believe in picketing the White House,

when the White House pickets secured so distinguished a recruit as the wife of Dr. Harvey W. Wiley, we offered to open our pages to a statement of the reasons for the picketing.

Good Housekeeping, February 1918

 Anna Kelton Wiley writes in the article that it was only after attempts to gain the vote through less confrontational methods failed that she and other suffragists*

determined to organize at the White House gates, a silent, daily reminder of the insistence of our claims…We determined not to be put aside like children…Not to have been willing to endure the gloom of prison would have made moral slackers of all. We should have stood self-convicted cowards.

 In this effort, she writes, she was

upheld by a fearless husband, who said, “I have fought all my life for a principle. If it is your conscience to go, I will not stand in your way.”

Like most pioneers of the past, Dr. Wiley did some things that seem questionable now. Systematically poisoning a group of healthy young men wouldn’t have won FDA approval today. But it’s thanks in part to him that there is an FDA. And it’s thanks in part to Anna Kelton Wiley that women won the right to vote. Now, that’s a Washington power couple we can celebrate.

Commemorative stamp, 1956 (U.S. Post Office)

Okay, time for some nice healthy chocolate!

UPDATE 10/24/2018: There’s a new biography of Dr. Wiley called The Poison Squad, by journalist Deborah Blum. Now (or, rather, after 2018 ends) I can find answers to all my questions about him, like did he really have the first serious automobile accident in Washington, D.C. history?

*But not all—the magazine ran an article the next month by Carrie Chapman Catt, President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, called “Why We Did Not Picket the White House.”