First doctor: “This morning for breakfast he requested something called ‘wheat germ, organic honey and tiger’s milk.’”
Second doctor: “Oh, yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.”
Fans of Woody Allen may recognize that snippet of dialogue from his 1973 comedy, “Sleeper.” The main character, a health-food store owner somehow frozen in 1973, has been thawed out 200 years later. He awakens to a world he can barely fathom, down to the kinds of food now said to constitute a sound diet. Everything that nutrition specialists once said was good for you, or really bad, turned out to be wrong.
First doctor: “You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or hot fudge?”
Second doctor: “Those were thought to be unhealthy — precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.”
Moviegoers laughed. They recognized how they were whipsawed by contradictory expert pronouncements about what they should or should not eat to stay healthy. On this score, not much has changed. How many times have Americans read about a study damning this or that food, only to then hear the revisionist opposite? Avoid eggs, we were told; they clog your arteries. Wait, we then heard, eggs have nutritional value. Coffee can give you cancer. Hold on, coffee can improve brain function. Butter is terrible. Well, not really. Again and again, yesterday’s verity becomes today’s punch line.
The vagaries of nutrition claims infuse the latest episode of Retro Report, video documentaries exploring major news developments of the past and how they still resound. This installment harks back to the 1970s, when many health authorities asserted, with unshakable confidence, that a diet low in fat and cholesterol was essential for a healthful life (wheat germ and tiger’s milk presumably optional).