Health fads come and go, and come again

April 14, 1992|By Bill Dietrich | Bill Dietrich,Seattle Times

Ever since doctors helped kill George Washington by bleeding him as a "cure," Americans have looked outside mainstream medicine to maintain their health.

And as authors David and Elizabeth Armstrong point out in "The Great American Medicine Show" (Prentice Hall, $18), when it comes to health fads, there is little new under the sun.

Health evangelists such as Sylvester Graham were pushing bran and fiber before the Civil War. Graham crackers began as a miracle health food. So did peanut butter.

Granola was a hundred years old and largely forgotten when it was revived by the 1960s counterculture.

"Kellogg cereals started out as a small religious health-food firm" affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, David Armstrong pointed out in a recent visit to Seattle.

Vegetarianism, enthusiasm for exercise, and wars on drugs and alcohol have come and gone like the seasons throughout American history, as have notions of how fat or thin Americans should be.

Illness has been repeatedly tied to sin, diet, poor character, sex (especially masturbation), pessimistic attitudes, and the misalignment of everything from the spine to body fluids.

Billions of dollars have been earned, the Armstrongs point out, in offering alternative remedies ranging from health food to patent medicines to today's vitamins. Supermarket cough syrups laden with alcohol copy a key ingredient present in nostrums over the last 150 years.

Another popular 19th century patent medicine was Dr. Mile's Compound Extract of Tomato. Today it is known as ketchup. (A couple of generations before, tomatoes were believed to be poisonous.)

Pssst! Wanna get rich? Look for such trends to return, or rather increase. Today, Americans spend an estimated $2 billion a year on anti-aging compounds such as skin creams despite government warnings there is little evidence they help. We spend more on health in general than any country in the world.

"These are usually middle-class and upper-middle-class phenomena," Mr. Armstrong said of health crazes. "The baby-boomers remember the alternative remedies of the '60s and they're now approaching middle age. That may refuel interest in all this."

The author said he is not so much disturbed by the American fascination with health alternatives as fascinated by it. Mr. Armstrong, a writer and critic at the San Francisco Examiner (his wife is a historian), himself jogs and is careful about what he eats.

But that doesn't stop him from being amused by our pursuit of healthiness. Americans, it appears, are game for just about anything, from wrapping themselves in wet sheets (hydropathy) to cracking spines (osteopathy) to zapping themselves with electricity when it was a newfangled phenomena.

The book's weakness is that it treats each fad as a separate episode and chapter without trying to pull it all together with conclusions about the American character. But when interviewed, Armstrong said such conclusions are plain.

"People want shortcuts," he said.

The book notes that it is only in the last century that conventional doctors have had strict training and professional standards. Their 18th- and 19th-century predecessors inflicted patients with bleeding, leeches, blistering plasters, purges that caused dehydration, mercury-laden medicines that were poisonous, and so on.

At the same time, the common diet was wretched, alcohol consumption was enormous, bathing was rare, clothing and beds were often vermin-infested, streets were filthy with manure and mud, and food preservation and water quality was poor. Women were cinched into corsets and straps that could weigh as much as 15 pounds, and men smoked like chimneys. Life expectancy averaged just over 40 years when the nation was founded.

People who preached alternatives found a ready audience. And inevitably, the search for health improvement was answered with showmanship.

"Americans take an idea, thrust it into a commercial context, and then make it into entertainment," Mr. Armstrong said. "Americans like the whole idea of starting over and reinventing yourself."

Many American health gurus were charismatic and, in many ways, fundamentally correct. "They were also eccentric," the author said. "What makes them funny is they're so extreme." Some examples:

In 1837, Boston bakers created a near-riot when meeting to oppose the radical preaching of Sylvester Graham that they put bran back into white bread, which had proven to be a big seller. White bread stayed, so Graham later invented a grainy, tasteless cracker that bears his name. It was refined and sugared after his death into the product we know today. Graham also urged consumption of fruits and vegetables and lectured against tobacco, alcohol, coffee, spices, meat and sex. He died at 57 after a lifetime of ill health.

Seventh-day Adventist founder Ellen White established a health sanitarium that shunned drugs at Battle Creek, Mich., and hired a doctor named John Harvey Kellogg as chief physician. Kellogg invented the corn flake as a breakfast health food, but it sold poorly until an advertising genius named C.W. Post promoted a copy-cat product that was first called Elijah's Manna and then changed to Post Toasties. When Kellogg's younger brother added some sugar to the cardboard-tasting flakes, sales soared for Kellogg as well.

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