Suppose that a time traveler named Tim Timehop landed in modern America, coming to us from the late 19th Century. He hailed from a small town in Iowa, and the powers that brought him here were kind enough to drop Tim off in a modest-sized town, rather than New York or Los Angeles. Nevertheless, our traveler quickly got wind of many cultural trends, being dazzled by television, cell phones, the internet, and even NHL Hockey.
However, Tim would also be amazed at the people. We are all very well dressed, with fabulous fitting shoes of incredible variety, and we get around in extraordinary vehicles. After all, in the late 19th Century, the bicycle had barely been invented. But looking past the beautiful clothes and shiny cars, our visitor would notice something else: most Americans would appear amazingly overweight. Tim would judge our population to be in relatively physically weak, and in poor aerobic condition. He would hear that, despite working at physically easy jobs, many would complain of fatigue. Learning about health problems, he would be told of diabetes (odd), high blood pressure (interesting), COPD, heart disease (scary), erectile dysfunction (very scary!), and other ailments. Increasingly worried for his own sake, Tim might start reading magazines and scanning the internet, as well as watching health reports on television. There he would feel relieved to learn that modern science had found powerful solutions to these problems.
Things to Add
Tim would find the solutions fascinating. It turns out that if you have a disease that is associated with you being obese (type II diabetes), the solution is apparently not to lose weight. The solution is to take some brilliantly engineered medications. Similarly, if one’s blood pressure is high – increasing the likelihood of a devastating stroke – the solution is not to unwind the clogged arteries or reduce the kidney's burden of salty food. No. The solution is to consume chemicals that disrupt the natural functioning of the system and thereby cause improvements.
He would hear advice to people struggling with obesity – that they should eat more meat and cheese and butter and avoid potatoes and rice. Or maybe they should only eat during certain hours of the day. Or maybe they should visit a psychologist and attempt to discover underlying mysterious reasons for their excess body fat. Such advice would puzzle Tim, but he would keep his eyes wide open, and listen.
And – God forbid – if a man was suffering from erectile dysfunction – known to be caused by clogged blood vessels – the solution was not to remove the cause of the clogged blood vessels. The solution is to use a dramatic medication that temporarily forces blood into the reproductive system. And although dangerous, this and other medications, sort of “work”. Our friend Tim would learn this, and many other things. He would be terrified of certain changes – rightly alarmed by modern dangers such as nuclear bombs and income taxes, yet he would eventually get used to these horrors.
But since so much of the health information would be so startling, he would not necessarily accept it all so readily. He might pause to ask a question so rarely asked today: If all of the medical advice and common cultural prescriptions are so great, how come so many people are in such lousy shape?
After all, Tim Timehop might have almost never seen an obese individual, learned of anyone ever clutching their chest and suddenly dying, or hearing whispers of any male private parts no longer working past a certain age. And here he would be, in the 21st century, in a world of dazzling material advances, yet the people themselves – would have physically regressed. This would be evident, despite supposedly superior knowledge and ingenious chemicals designed to be added to the body to stop a relentless advance of disability.
He might wonder if perhaps a major, but relatively simple, error had been made.
Our time traveler might wonder if a simpler set of solutions might work better than brilliant modern medico-chemical engineering. Instead of adding substances to a sick person’s body, maybe a better solution might be to subtract something.
Looking at the modern diet, Tim would be astounded at what modern Americans eat. Nothing I recognize from the farm, he might think. Cola drinks, frappacinos, French fries, burgers, onion rings, potato chips, cookies, and candy bars. He might wonder if people might take away these foods and simply replace them with produce from the farm, perhaps things might work out somewhat better?
Instead of eating large quantities of meat, cheese, butter, and olive oil (all expensive delicacies in his time), maybe such things should be subtracted and replaced with rice, beans, corn, potatoes, vegetables, and tree-ripened fruit. Since he had never seen an obese person eating the latter, maybe such a strategy might be worth a try?
Tim would be flabbergasted by how salty the modern food seemed to be. Once learning that salt is a major contributing factor to high blood pressure and stroke, he might think that the simplest solution to the problem is to eat food the old-fashioned way – with no added salt – rather than add a ton of salt and then take a ton of engineered chemicals to help the body compensate for the salt. Perhaps such a solution might be worth a try? Yet, if he read through a leading scientific journal on the subject of hypertension (an entire journal that discusses the problem for months and years on end), he would likely never see an article ever discussing this simple idea!
And One More Thing
It might just happen to be the case that Tim Timehop had heard the story of a man named Henry Tanner, a physician who had discovered a novel procedure for healing a wide variety of health problems. Dr. Tanner had happened upon the idea of fasting to regain health. Instead of selling a pill or a potion, as was becoming increasingly popular at the time, Dr. Tanner recommended refraining from food while resting, and had found the idea to be of great merit.
Tim might look up what had ever happened to this very simple idea – and would be disappointed to find that surprisingly little had come of it. Obese people had surgeries and medications and psychotherapy to assist them – all to little avail. More people died of heart attacks than from anything else – despite incredible technical skills of surgeons at cracking open human chests, placing patients under deep anesthesia, the invention of the heart-lung machine, and stents. However, a few doctors were simply advocating eating simple farm foods – and their patients almost always recovered brilliantly. And in a very few places, Dr. Tanner’s discovery was still in use. At one such place, a cancer patient had fasted 21 days, and had her cancer eradicated. The story was reported in one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world. Just maybe, things were changing.
So in a few quiet corners of the modern world, these very effective – and simple – ideas had survived. More doctors - young and old - were learning of this alternative method of healing, and word was slowly spreading. Like starfish, quietly sitting on the ocean floor while giant waves crash above, the ideas of simplicity have been waiting to be rediscovered. The life habit of simple foods, moderate exercise, absence of dietary drugs, nightly deep and restful sleep, occasionally punctuated by water fasting – these ideas are still there and waiting broader realization.
Tim might shake his head in wonder at how such effective ideas had come to be so marginalized. But he might also have faith that sooner or later, the false promise of addition would be replaced by the counterintuitive wisdom of subtraction – and that a struggling and confused population might finally escape the mess and find its way home.