When I was born, the midwife laid me in the bassinet, on my back. \”This is how the child must sleep,\” she informed my mother. \”Or she will die.\”
When my children were born, I was told to always lay them on their stomachs. Or they would die.
By the time my grandchildren arrived, pediatricians were sure that the only way to ward off SIDS was to never let a baby sleep on its stomach.
My father, a heavy smoker, died in his early fifties of lung cancer.That premature death convinced me of the fragility of the supposedly strong sex, and I devoted myself to preventing my healthy young husband from suddenly expiring. In the 1970s, I did this mostly by eliminating salt from our diet. For years I fed my family broccoli, green beans, and tuna casserole without even a soupçon of salt.
I figured out a way to bake salt-free bread (ordinarily salt is needed for the dough to rise) and published an article about it in some now-defunct magazine. I hope that nobody took my recipe seriously, and I apologize to any readers who did. Maybe they will take comfort in the knowledge that years later I developed a condition that requires me to consume plenty of salt to keep from keeling over.
The salt-free seventies were succeeded by the fat-free eighties. You could eat all the carbs–and yes, all the sugar–you wanted as long as you didn\’t go near a molecule of fat. My mother was appalled. \”This is not right!\” she cried. \”In Spain after the Civil War people got terribly sick because nobody had harvested the olives and they hadn\’t had any oil, let alone animal fats, for three years. They had skin problems and bone problems, and some even went blind. Don\’t believe these doctors who say that fats are bad.\” Then she would hold up her index finger and proclaim, \”Moderation in all things!\”
The fat-free diet was supposed to be good for our figure as well as our health, so we drank skimmed milk, gave up butter, and put that dietary oxymoron, \”fat-free cream,\” in our coffee. Fat-free milk products remained popular until a couple of years ago, when studies showed that people who ate full-fat dairy were slimmer than those who ate the fat-free versions. Likewise, people who consume real sugar weigh less than those who use artificial sweeteners.
Remember that early panacea, vitamin C? It was succeeded in our medicine cabinets by the B vitamins. They were in turn replaced by vitamin D, which most of us are now deficient in as a result of following dermatologists\’ advice never to expose our skin to the sun (remember when sunshine was good for you?).
For a while coffee was supposed to be bad, but later was rehabilitated. Ditto for eggs, and potatoes. On the other hand, liver was once force-fed to children because of its nutritional excellence, but now is to be avoided.
Remember leeches? I don\’t, and neither do you, but after two centuries of being reviled they\’re now FDA-approved and back at work relieving a variety of circulatory problems.
If there was one dictum likely to stand unchallenged, however, it was the health benefits of dog ownership. Walking a dog, studies showed, was good for the heart, the lungs, the bones, and the soul. Dog owners lived longer, happier lives than the rest of the population. But I just heard on the radio that orthopedic surgeons are concerned about an outbreak of bone fractures among elderly dog walkers. What\’s next, an FDA recommendation against dog ownership after age 65?
Given how quickly certain principles of the health sciences are demolished, and others erected in their place, the sanest response is to embrace my mother\’s mantra: moderation in all things. And while it may feel discouraging that nothing in life is certain, especially where medicine is concerned, we can take comfort in one thing that doesn\’t look like changing soon: immortality is still out of reach.