Modern Nutrition with Harvard Profesor Joyce Chaplin

Cereal fortified with B-12. Emergen-C with 170% of the daily intake for vitamin C. Vitamin-D pills. We have all seen these products lining the walls of grocery stores and the health isles in CVS. But which of these is necessary, which work, and do any cause harm? This is the question the Food Literacy Project sought out to discuss last week with a number of students and Professor Joyce Chaplin of the history course entitled American Food.

The discussion was one in a series entitled Harvard Talks Food, featuring various professors and experts on a variety of different subjects relating to food—a great way to take advantage of the many resources and depth of knowledge at Harvard. The subject for this one: modern nutrition.

We first learned by a short lecture from Professor Chaplin about historical circumstances under which each of the nutrition “building blocks” (e.g., proteins, carbohydrates, and later vitamins) was discovered. Before this, many people based nutritional recommendations on the body’s external characteristics (hot or cold, or even personality traits) or the changing seasons (for example, as in the Humor system).

Each new discovery brought new recommendations. Today, Professor Chaplin suggests, we have seen the reduction of nutrition to our current scientific knowledge—our body needs certain building blocks in certain amounts, and so we can simply extract these building blocks and take them by themselves. This is also known as the astronaut theory: the idea that one day we will no longer need to cook or eat, except a set of pills that provide all the nutrition we need.

Happy to say, this hasn’t become the case yet, if only because of the joy found in cooking and the excitement in tasting and smelling new dishes. In fact, some evidence is now suggesting the scientific reduction is too simple. One study Professor Chaplin mentioned studied two types of subjects, those who took vitamins and those who did not, and those who took vitamins died earlier than those who did not.

There are a number of potential reasons for this. First, we may need the fiber and make-up of whole foods to absorb vitamins and minerals and so forth at the right moment throughout the digestion process. Also, some vitamins, minerals, or other supplements when taken in excess can be toxic—some we may not even know about. Some people may even eat less healthy, thinking supplements can be filler for real food.

Does this mean we should be wary of taking any supplements at not? I don’t think so—at least, we know certain vitamins such as Vitamin D may be helpful for those living in sunless areas and is only toxic in very high doses. It’s important to remember, however, that such things should be taken as supplements, and not a replacement for a wholesome diet where we can and should achieve to get our nutrients from.

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