Sunday, May 8, 2011

"Food in Wartime"--Advice for Today?

My friend, John Desmond, recently found an interesting pamphlet on the Project Gutenberg site called Food in War Time.  This interesting work, cloaked as a research piece about the ideal diet, comes across to me, at least, as a piece of propaganda in favor of austerity in eating, for both health and humanitarian reasons. 

The author of this little book, Graham Rusk, then a professor of physiology at Cornell, argues in favor of a vegetarian diet, employing arguments that will be familiar to vegetarians and vegans today, such as the argument that meat is more expensive to produce because it requires more natural resources (e.g., the grain fed to the meal animals).  However, his main objective was not to promote a vegetarian diet.  Instead, Professor Rusk's concern was to achieve the best diet possible using the least energy to produce food, an approach that he referred to as "economy in diet". So, for example, Rusk argued that people should eat less meat, and less wheat, in favor of maize, and whole milk, and that more attention should be paid to selecting combinations of cheaper foods (such as potatoes, fruit and milk) that will deliver the same nutrients as an energy-wasteful diet. Professor Rusk concluded his analysis with the following recommendations, most of which  remain familiar today:

1. Let no family (of five persons) buy meat until it has bought three quarts of milk, the cheapest protein food. Farmers should be urged to meet this demand.

2. Save the cream and butter and eat oleomargarine and vegetable oils. Olive oil or cottonseed oil, taken with cabbage, lettuce, or beet-tops, is excellent food, in many ways imitating milk.

3. Eat meat sparingly, rich and poor, laborer and indolent alike. Meat does not increase the muscular power. When a person is exposed to great cold, meat may be recommended, for it warms the body more than any other food. In hot weather, for the same reason, it causes increased sweating and discomfort. In general, twice as much meat is used as is now right, for to produce meat requires much fodder which might better be used for milk production.

4. Eat corn bread. It saved our New England ancestors from starvation. If we eat it we can send wheat to France. Eat oatmeal.

5. Drink no alcohol. In many families 10 per cent. of the income is spent for drink, or a sum which, if spent for real food, would greatly improve the welfare of the family.

6. Eat corn syrup on cereals. It will save the sugar. Eat raisins in rice pudding, for raisins contain sugar.

7. Eat fresh fish.

8. Eat fruit and vegetables.

In the present day, when saving of money as well as the enhancement of health are, once again, primary concerns, perhaps Dr. Rusk deserves re-reading.  (Though I suspect that many people will treat his arguments that corn syrup should be used more as a sweetener and that milk should be consumed on a greater basis for its protein with suspicion.)  An economic analysis of the reasons why it may be better to eat less meat and more, and different, grains may succeed where pure health arguments have failed. 

N.B.  Rusk has this to say about an early version of the Atkins (i.e., high protein, low carbohydrate) diet:  "The amusing little book entitled "Eat and Grow Thin" recommends a high protein and almost carbohydrate-free diet for the accomplishment of this purpose, but its advice has made so many of my friends so utterly miserable that I am sure in the end it will counteract its own message." Hmmm.


  1. I have found that people choose to be vegans or vegetarians in much the same way people choose to be religious. Their choice is a religious choice based on faith not fact. Very few omnivores "choose" to be meat eaters they simply eat the diet of their culture. Probably for that reason when discussing diets and food choices vegans and vegetarians should recuse themselves.

  2. I don't have much of an opinion on why people choose vegetarianism/veganism. I'd be prepared to decide whether I agreed with you if I had decent figures on how many vegetarians/vegans there are, say, in the U.S.

    Speaking for myself, however, I could never be a vegetarian because there are too few vegetables I like well enough to eat on even a semi-regular basis, and a diet of mostly bread and salad has both aesthetic as well as health issues.