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Nutrition and Human Development

Agatha M. Thrash, M.D.
Preventive Medicine

There are certain criteria that can be applied to enable one to judge the general level of nutrition. A good memory and good mental function are among the first things to consider. Growth and maturation in a proper length of time are other indications of nutritional excellency. The record of reproductive functions will also furnish pertinent information. That maturity of the reproductive processes occurs at a proper time is reassuring of a good level of nutrition. This means that the menstrual period of a woman and the reproductive ability of a man should begin at a proper time. Too early or too late are both indications that something is wrong. Reproductive function in a woman is probably best for her general health and welfare if it begins about the age of 15 to 17. If the menstrual periods begin at the age of 10 or 11, it is more likely that the degenerative diseases will also have an earlier onset. An illustration of this principle is found in the matter of cancer of the breast. The later the onset of menstruation, the fewer total number of menstrual cycles, and the earlier the menopause, the less risk of cancer of the breast. Since nutrition is directly involved with the age at which the menstrual periods begin, one can predict from the diet of a population what the rate of cancer will be. If the diet is rich, the girls will mature earlier, start ovarian function earlier, and have a higher rate of breast cancer.

The length of life of an individual is also a good indication of the level of nutrition excellency. At one end of the scale of possibilities is stunted growth and a shortened life span. Nutritional deficiencies can cause this loss. At the other extreme but just as likely to be fatal is very rapid growth and greater than average gain in height and weight, caused by excesses of nutrition that result in the early onset of degenerative disease. By studying population groups, one can reach accurate conclusions as to whether the nutrition of certain groups leads to long productive life, or to a shortened, restricted life. If individuals in a population group are free from signs of dietary deficiency or excess, relatively free from infectious diseases, have good mental development and emotional stability, one can assume the adequacy of the diet.

Freedom from disciplinary problems is another good indicator of good nutrition. Properly nourished children have calm nervous systems if the home is a good one. Children who are disciplinary problems in school and in the home may be so because they are eating too much sugar, or having too many stimulatory chemicals in the diet (including caffeine, coloring agents, and refined foods); or because they are deficient in nutrients such as B-vitamins. Excess of total calories may actually promote disciplinary problems.

If a child frequently gets broken bones or has accidents of various kinds, one should take a good look at his diet to determine if it is improper in some way. He may be clumsy or have poor attention due to a poor diet. Glossy hair, healthy skin, rosy cheeks, muscular strength, freedom from undue fatigue, and a normal body configuration are also indications of a proper diet.

In the laboratory, nitrogen balance studies in human subjects on various types of diets can be used to judge the various foods and diets. These studies have indeed been carried out for people on several types of diets, such as the mixed vegetarian diet, the strict vegetarian diet, and the meat-milk-egg diet. It has been shown that non-animal product diets are quite adequate in protein, in mineral content, in vitamins (except D and B-12), and they promote growth, reproduction, and good mental function as well as other balanced diets. There are some foods that have a higher biologic value than others. Soybeans, for instance, are very high both in protein content and in the quality of the protein. Vitamin Q, a recently named vitamin, is present in soybeans. This new vitamin is essential to blood clotting mechanisms. All the elements of nutrition can be found in many types of foods.

Even in a strictly vegetarian diet, there are many ways to put together healthful menus. Some persons will have difficulty eating mature legumes such as soybeans and peanuts, because of the flatulence and discomfort they may experience. For these people, the immature legumes may be well tolerated, or other members of the bean family may be just right. All beans and grains should be stored properly or they will develop molds. These molds, which are yellow, green, or brownish in color, are often toxic to the body and can produce cancer. Foods containing molds of this type should simply be thrown away. To take a risk with the health of the body is too great a gamble. One cannot buy one day of life, but proper care of the body can give one many years of life free of charge.

Flatulence, or gas, can be produced by many different kinds of foods. Sauerkraut and other cabbage dishes, beans, certain fruits such as apples, bananas, and prunes may all cause gas. The production of gas is especially disturbing to athletes. The diet of an athlete is often ill-conceived, costly, and sometimes harmful. Some coaches base these diets on superstition or sentimentalism, rather than principles of nutrition. Such substances as royal jelly, protein powders, yeast, wheat germ oil, or vitamins are given supernatural qualities, but many such articles when used as food put a tax on the body. It has been shown in some studies that athletes die younger than other people in the population in which they live. Certainly, the improper and harmful diet that many athletes are advised to take, and the large quantity of food they often consume, contributes to their shortened life span.

Is Fast Maturation Improper?

For many decades, Americans have held the opinion that the most rapid growth rate for their children to reach their maximum height and weight was the ideal in growth and development. We are now learning that the younger a child is when he reaches physical maturity; the more likely he is to develop early senility. Because of the developing concern over the too early maturation of children, and the association of excessive degenerative disease, there is a growing body of material which suggests a more moderate course for parents to follow that will prevent the early maturation of children.

The first principle is that one should not overfeed children. Many parents will insist that their children eat large quantities of food that they do not particularly relish because the parents believe the child needs it. This practice develops the habit of overeating, and of eating when one is not hungry. Many a parent will demand that their child produce a clean plate at every meal. From this, the child learns that overeating pleases mother. He may actually expect a reward when he has overeaten. Even if a child has not overeaten in volume of food, he may have overeaten of concentrated foods, such as sugar, syrup, honey, all foods of animal origin, oils, mayonnaise, margarine, nuts, and other rich foods. If a child eats a dessert the same size as the dessert of his parents, he will have taken in a much greater proportion of his daily calories in the form of concentrated sweets. The size of a dessert should be proportionate to the size of the child. A parent who is taking in 30% of his calories in the form of fat, who serves his smallest child the same amount of fatty foods that he eats, will cause the child to take perhaps 60% of his calories in the form of fat.

Eating between meals also promotes overeating. Not even a small cracker or a glass of juice should be taken apart from the scheduled meals. Between meals eating adds significantly to the total calorie intake of a child.

Are Dairy Products Essential?

Another misconception that leads to overgrowth and to obesity is that dairy milk and other dairy products are essential for proper nutrition. Milk is not essential past infancy, and its overuse causes excessive growth and may predispose to obesity. We recommend that mother's milk be used for the newborn; as soon as the child is ready to wean, he should be weaned to table food, and not to dairy milk. Cow milk is perfectly adapted for an animal that needs to double its birth weight in 47 days, has only a small brain to develop, and does not need to concern himself about cholesterol; but not so for the human. Special parts of the brain apparently develop best on the particular amino acid formula of human milk.

Refined foods, particularly white bread and white sugar, are inferior foods, and should be used only by those who have particular digestive problems. Children and active adults do not need them. They add empty calories, which urge rapid overgrowth in a child. No attempt whatsoever should be made to enrich the diet of a child with refined proteins or with supplementary vitamins and minerals. These concentrated foods unnecessarily burden the child's body with unneeded nutrients and cause the rapid growth that becomes a threat to health when he is grown.

Early Stimulation Accelerates Aging

Boy-girl relationships before physical and emotional maturity have been reached, which are widely encouraged in this country, are not healthful nor in the best interests of social welfare. A wise parent will be on guard in these areas. It is possible to choose the reading material for children, to plan the use of their time, and to select the best companions that will promote the correct development of the child. Far better for a child if he has no peer association than for his friends to be the cause of his physical or moral ruin.

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