It all depends on exactly what goes in
MORGAN Spurlock became an overnight sensation in 2004 with his movie Super Size Me, which tracked his attempt to find out what would happen if he ate nothing but McDonald’s for a month. ( He puked in a car park, became very podgy and his liver turned into pate, none of which should have come as a great surprise.) In this cracking episode of what has already been an eye- opening series, we find out about some of the much viler diets doctors have adopted to test their pet theories about nutrition.
We begin with William Stark, who in 1769 went on the world’s first elimination diet, restricting himself to bread and water for weeks on end, then adding other foods one by one to see what effect they would have. This was groundbreaking research, but unfortunately Stark was more interested in what this did to the shape and colour of his stools, and paid little attention to his bleeding gums. He died of scurvy the next year, aged 29.
Then we meet Joseph Goldberger, who was convinced that pellagra, a disfiguring disease that struck the southern US in the early 20th century, was not contagious but caused by a dietary deficiency. To prove his theory, Goldberger held filth parties where he and his assistants gobbled down pellets of patients’ poo, scabs and urine. His wife, considered too ladylike for such a feast, was instead injected with a patient’s blood. None caught pellagra, but Goldberger remained in the wilderness until 1927, when he found eating yeast — a rich source of niacin, or vitamin B3 — cured pellagra completely.
Or there’s Victor Herbert, who in the 1960s ate nothing but frankfurters, marshmallows, jelly and boiled chicken for four months in order to give himself megaloblastic anaemia. And Hugh Sinclair, who piled his plate with seal blubber and other fatty fish for three months to prove that it was the type, not the quantity, of fat that was sending Western heart disease rates rocketing.
All this is entertainingly told by host Michael Mosley, who in the end meets perhaps the weirdest experimenter of all, a chap called Dave who is apparently one of about 50 people restricting their calorie intake in the hope they will live to be 140. As Dave is now 49, we’ll have to wait another 91 years to find out if he’s right. So far he’s survived 17 years with two- thirds of a normal energy intake ( and, judging from his appearance, he may have been easing off on the shampoo, too). Almost proudly, Dave tells us he doesn’t eat enough to allow him to do much exercise. Mosley, who is the same age, looks far healthier, which will be a huge relief to everyone ( except, presumably, Dave).
Cook’s tour of cures: Michael Mosley on Medical Mavericks