Out of Step

R. G. G. PRICE lives in Sussex and has contributed much light writing and literary criticism toPUNCH.


It is time that Dietetics got into step with Medicine. When doctors first began saying that body-building foods shortened the expectation of life by clogging up the arteries with bits of fat, the dieticians cooperatively produced slimming charts; but these were usually based on getting the patient to eat energy-producing foods and burn himself down to a respectable size. It was a good idea. Unfortunately, what happens now is that the next time the family doctor sees the patient, he says, “Your weight’s fine, but you’re suffering from several stress diseases. You must reduce your energy level at once.”

The patient, naturally aggrieved, begins to complain that his reducing diet has made him into a dynamo. The family doctor shows by his expression what he thinks of people who compose diets. More impractical than poets, he seems to be thinking. Medicine is not interested in producing dynamos. The modern doctor does not want his patients to vibrate with health. He does not send them into the great open air to hew forests. He does not kick them in the pants and tell them to buckle to and fight the world like a man. He does not, unless he is anxious about getting paid, want them to work hard or play hard. He says things like, “Don’t rush about. Don’t worry. Try not to get on. If you take it easy, you may still avoid ulcers, coronaries, and skin eruptions.” Just now medicine seems to be aiming to produce a race that takes to sitting and staring in early middle age.

There is a need for a science of Somnidietetics that will guide man to food that tranquilizes and help the farmer to trap some of the profits of the pharmaceutical industry. As a layman, my only contribution is the suggestion that poppy seeds at breakfast might lead to a quiet day: but serious study will be able to prove that all kinds of food can reduce energy. Serious study can prove anything, and I myself should not be a bit surprised if some of these low-calorie foods turn out to be things that grow on farms and have not so far been welcomed. Any good research institute ought to be able to help the farmers by attributing deenergizing properties to common weeds.

Not to commit myself outside my botanical range, I will suppose there is a red, stringy plant called grotch. For years farmers have been trying different brands of grotch eliminator. Then it is suddenly realized that pulped, sieved, flavored with anything that is not its own flavor, and made the staple diet of the working population, grotch does not merely lack calories; it removes the calories from anything else eaten at the same time.

Perhaps the housewife of the future is worried about her husband. He has been up half the night preparing for a heavy negotiating session. She knows that unless she does something he will be heading for brain tumors or shingles or self-pity or whatever the fashionable stress disease may be. She consults her diet charts and prepares a meal in which every mouthful is some form of compressed grotch. It begins to soothe her husband at once. By the time he has reached the decaffeined coffee, he is planning a fishing trip, not one of those trips where you rush about after fish but one of those gentle expeditions where you sit quietly and wait for the fish to come to you. His stomach by now is pretty well 100 per cent alkaline. His respiratory, circulatory, digestive, nervous, and reproductive systems are so relaxed as to be scarcely ticking over. He may never turn up for the conference at all, or, if he does, he just smiles in a remotely benevolent way and sells out to the other side.

The boy whose hand always shoots up first with the answer to the teacher’s question will be put on a grotch-plus diet until, at the expense of everything except his old age, he becomes quite literally a flop. The runner whose remorseless will drives him to run faster than other runners will have to step up his grotch intake before any life insurance office looks at him. By the time he has persuaded anyone to take his premiums, he will be strolling round the track with a happy grin while the stewards try to clear him away to make room for the next race. The successful executive who just has to be the most entertaining conversationalist at every party and is clearly steering for a late middle age divided between pneumonia and melancholia will be taken firmly in hand by his physician, and, after he has worked his way through a few grotch-filled meals, whenever he does get to a party he will stay slumped against the wall.

Medically speaking, the ideal man seems to be thin and slack, and it is up to dietetics to produce him. Probably medicine has views on his dimensions other than his thickness. Should he be tall or short? Anyone would say tall, remembering all those stories of overcompensation for short stature that have led to greatness, for if anything is regarded as primafacie evidence of maladjustment, greatness is it. However, what anyone would say is unlikely to be accepted by the experts, who could probably prove that tallness is neurosis fertile too. If you aim at mediumheight families, you will produce unfortunates who suffer anxiety by being too tall in Lapland and too short in Sweden — provided they move around, of course, and only a family who can afford to travel is going to be able to afford this kind of advice. Once some kind of compromise has been worked out, it will be up to the dieticians to operate it, feeding their clients with just the growth factors needed to produce the medico-determined norm.

It would be a poor kind of dietician who did not take on further assignments. Job stresses and family stresses both produce work for tlie pathologist, and the more that diet can do to make life at home or at work smoother, the better. There is undoubtedly a difficulty here. If a man does not get on at his job, his body jibs; but if a man is a success, he normally has to work hard and the body jibs in this case too. Diet can increase energy or, in time, will be able to reduce energy. It seems doubtful if it will ever do away with the need for energy altogether. As always, of course, there is an exception. We have all met men who got by on charm. They toiled not, neither did they spin, but all the same they moved steadily upward. Men with this kind of hypnotic attraction for their superiors suffer from neither frustration nor overstrain. The first dietician who works out a charm-producing diet sheet is opening the way to the virtual extinction of medicine, for when stress diseases disappear, it looks as though there is going to be nothing left for the medical profession to cure.