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Some excellent hundred year old diets!

January 15, 2008

All natural diets aren’t good or wholesome or healthy. But some are just ideal! That is what some really old research reveals. As the purpose of this post is to discuss research I have restricted myself to the researcher’s definition of terms like ‘healthy.’ The researcher in this context has used the term ‘good health’ to denote (1) a lack of disease and (2) tall well built people.

It was a reader (Sekhar) who sent me the link to this research and this post is a follow up of a previous post (A greater focus on disease rather than on health). This research interested me for three reasons:

  • The research is almost a hundred years old
  • It’s about the Indian subcontinent and I do not know of any research on Indian diets which is this old
  • In India we have a wide variety of diets and I have always wondered which diet is the most nutritious. Well, while this research is not comprehensive, it does tell us about some excellent Indian diets!

The researcher, Dr. Robert McCarrison (who later became a Major-General and was knighted as well) was studying disease (1927) when he discovered that some groups were of no use to him (they were free from illness) and that is what led him to find out why. He suspected that it had something to do with their diets. Quoting from the e-book sent to me by Sekhar:

He (McCarrison) was given a laboratory and headquarters at Coonoor, upon the beautiful Nilgiri plateau of the Madras Presidency, and there he directed his work and that of his excellent Indian assistants to the transference of the health of Hunza, Sikh and Pathan to experimental science.

Research was conducted on 1,189 albino rats, from birth to the twenty-seventh month, which corresponds roughly to that of fifty-five years in humans. The rats were bred in a well ventilated clean place with plenty of sunlight, and given a diet based on three peoples of northern India. The Hunza, the Pathan, and the Sikh. The only food item omitted from the diet (I do not know exactly why, maybe because it wasn’t available) was fruit. After this the rats were “killed and examined at all ages up to the twenty-seventh month of life by naked-eye post-mortem examination”.

Therefore the diet of the rats was of these three peoples of northwestern India minus fruit.sprouts.jpg

Their diet:

  • Chapattis (flat bread) made from wholemeal wheat flour, lightly smeared with fresh butter
  • Sprouted pulse
  • Fresh raw carrots and fresh raw cabbage
  • Unboiled whole milk
  • A small ration of meat with bones once a week only.
  • A lot of water, both for drinking and washing.

The findings:

  • No illness or death from natural causes in the adult stock of the albino rats
  • A few accidental deaths, but no infantile mortality.

An important point to note was the rats who turned out to be healthy had mothers who were fed on this diet of north western India. This means that the their mothers were “stock” rats, and the healthy rats had been given the diet from the point of conception.

As the researcher noted:

Both clinically and at post-mortem examination this stock has been shown to be remarkably free from disease. It may be that some of them have cryptic disease of one kind or another, but, if so, I have failed to find either clinical or macroscopical evidence of it…By putting the rats on a diet similar to that of certain peoples of Northern India, the rats “enjoyed a remarkable freedom from disease”… except for an occasional tape worm cyst they had no visible disease at all.

It was also noted that all these people were active. Although the activity levels of the Sikhs were not as high as that of the Pathan and the Hunza who lived in mountainous terrain.

McCarrison then conducted similar experiments with diets from different parts of India like that of peoples like Bengal and Madras, whose diet mainly consisted of “rice, pulses, vegetables, condiments, perhaps a little milk.” These diets were fed to rats. It was also noted that these people were less active than the Sikhs, Hunza or the Pathans.

The findings

  • The rats got diseases of every organ they possessed, namely eyes, noses, ears, lungs, hearts, stomachs, intestines, kidneys, bladders, reproductive organs, blood, ordinary glands, special glands, and nerves!
  • The liver was as a fact found to be diseased in conjunction with the diseases of the gastrointestinal tract.(As the examination of the brain requires a careful opening of the small bony brain case of the rat and adds greatly to the time needed for post-mortem examinations (this was not done).

Interestingly, in a later experiment, McCarrison gave rats the diet of the poorer classes of England namely:

  • White bread
  • Margarine
  • Sweetened tea
  • Boiled vegetables
  • Tinned meats and jams of the cheaper sort

The findings:
The rats grew badly on this diet and also developed what McCarrison calls “rat-neurasthenia.”

They were nervous and apt to bite their attendants; they lived unhappily together, and by the sixteenth day of the experiment they began to kill and eat the weaker ones amongst them.”

Experiment in Denmark
In this same e-book there is information about another diet experiment which was carried out in Denmark (findings were by the researcher Hindhede) in the last year of the War and I thought I would include some points here. There was a shortfall of food (meat as well) due to the war and the question was:

Would it be wise to get rid of the pigs and let men eat the food which otherwise the pigs would eat?

The animals needed too much food and finally, four-fifths of the pigs were killed and about one-sixth of the cattle. So it was experiment which took place by default and was strictly enforced from October 1917 to October 1918.

Their grain food was given to the Danes, and it was given, not in the exact form in which it was given to the pigs — not as bran mash, for instance — but as wholemeal bread with the extra coarse bran that is not put into ordinary wholemeal bread incorporated…As no grain or potatoes were allowed for distillation of spirits, there were no spirits. Half the previous quantity of beer was permitted…

Farmers got some meat as they had some animals, but the city folk (40 percent of the population) got very little meat.

So the diet of the Danes consisted of:

  • Wholemeal bread with coarse bran
  • Porridge
  • Green vegetables
  • Potatoes and other root vegetables
  • Milk
  • Butter
  • Fruit
  • A little meat

The findings:
A lowering of the death-rate!

The death-rate, which had been 12.5 in 1913, 1914, now fell to 10.4 per thousand, “which is the lowest mortality figure that has been registered in any European country at any time.” (Hindhede.)

Hindhede felt that this was because of two factors: (1) less meat, (2) less alcohol. He wrote:

I am not in principle a vegetarian, but I believe I have shown that a diet containing a large amount of meat and eggs is dangerous to the health.”

Additional information:

veggies.jpgThe Hunza diet:

  • Whole grains like wheat (ground coarsely), barley, buckwheat, and small grains
  • Leafy green vegetables
  • Potatoes and other root vegetables, peas and beans
  • Gram or chick pea, and other pulses
  • Fresh milk and buttermilk or lassi
  • Clarified butter and cheese
  • Fruit, mainly apricots and mulberries, fresh and sun-dried
  • Meat occasionally (chickens not kept as they destroy crops in a confined area.)
  • Wine made from grapes occasionally
  • Children breast-fed up to three years
  • The Hunza do not take tea, rice, sugar, or eggs

Meals are cooked in one pot.

The above research was conducted years ago when there was hardly any pollution and other modern day ills like stress and other lifestyle factors (cigarette smoking for example) which we know affect disease. So do take the research in this context.

(The ebook is called The Wheel of Health – a study of a healthy people. It is written by G.T Wrench and published in 1938. I have only taken parts of the book which I thought were of interest and have given a brief summary of findings.)

Sekhar has sent me a link to another e-book and that is again very old research on the diets of the Eskimos, North American Indians, Aborigines and other native peoples. I shall write about this later.

Related Reading: A greater focus on disease rather than on health
Eleven reasons why Indians are not healthy
Kids demand advertised products
The chemicals we consume in our everyday food
The so-called “atta” noodles
The ingredients in biscuits are not good for health
Misleading advertising of “healthy” products
India and Trans Fats
Plump is seen to be beautiful in India

(Photographs have been taken from seasonedpioneers and

25 Comments leave one →
  1. ulag permalink
    January 15, 2008 10:17 am

    Really cool article Nita!!!….re-affirms many points. Namely why Sikhs are so tall and well built while most South Indians are shorter and stocky. The Rice based diet almost always explained that unmistakable pot belly we south Indians develop by the time we hit 40. Its always known that rice is more so fattening and people going on diet shift to chappatis and other wheat based foods.
    But seriously i don’t think that people with a rice based diet have as many health problems as occurring in these rats. So can this research’s findings be applied to humans unequivocally?

  2. Bharath permalink
    January 15, 2008 11:56 am

    wow! Amazing article Nita.

    I would like to share this info with everyone I know.. Thank you very much.

  3. January 15, 2008 1:09 pm

    Bharath, you are welcome. 🙂
    Ulag, one needs to remember that a lot more research on diet and rice based diets in particular has been done in recent years. From what I know, unpolished rice is certainly nutritious and in fact many villagers do eat this type of rice. Also things like pot belly etc have other causes as far as as I know and one of them is over-eating! also I am sure that there are many good things about the south indian diet as well, it’s just not mentioned in this particular research.
    as to whether the findings on rats can be applied to humans, well, research has been done on humans as well in later yaers. the amount of research done on diets (in the west) is quite amazing really and ofcourse the research on people is far more reliable, rather, a 100 percent more reliable!
    but what is equally amazing that some bright doctor who qualitied in medicine as far back as in 1900 thought up of this connection between diet and disease and actualy researched India! Hats off to him!
    P.S. It’s also very important to remember that no more is height considered a sign of good health. It is now known that there are a lot of complex reasons for a race being of a certain average height. Latest research on pygmies for example shows that the short height is related to their survival technique and is related to life span etc. very complex and I don’t want to go into it here as I am not an expert!

  4. Rajesh permalink
    January 15, 2008 7:15 pm

    Healthy article on this pongal day…
    Happy Ponagal / Makar Sakranti….
    After reading the article…was trying to find how healthy is pongal. One of the sites said the jaggery in the pongal is rich in iron content and is a healthy and heavy food.. When you see this pongal with ghee and cashews…we forget to be with health consciousness. 🙂 .We need to develop self control and awareness about what we are eating daily.This is bit difficult to develop but mandatory in this fast moving junk food world.

  5. wishtobeanon permalink
    January 15, 2008 8:01 pm

    Interesting article, Nita. I was somewhat surprised to read about the effects of Southern and Eastern Indian diet even during those times. But when we really think of it, it is true that in some parts of Southern India, rice is given more preference to vegetables. I have seen people eat mountains of rice with very little vegetable and the vegetables are of-course overcooked.

  6. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    January 15, 2008 8:12 pm


    Very fascinating, though being the eternal Doubting Thomas that I am 🙂 , I wonder if the poorer classes of England in the first quarter of the 20th century could afford white bread and tinned meat. Must check out that.

    The information about cannibalism among the laboratory rats is also interesting. Would it have something to do with the abnormal conditions in which they were forced to live during the experiments?

    I notice Rdoc has not as yet commented on this one. It would be educative to know his views.

  7. Raj permalink
    January 15, 2008 8:35 pm


    Good article! I wonder what would happen to the rats if they are fed fast food which seems to have sadly spread its tentacles throughout India and the world.


    Happy Pongal! We do need to be careful not to overdo the ghee in the pongal! 🙂


    What you have observed is absolutely true but very sad indeed.It is especially true of the people who toil all day long but sadly cannot afford to eat a more varied diet 😦 For them,rice is the only source of energy for the hard work that they perform.So they are forced to eat as much rice as they can because it keeps them from fainting.That is why politicians in AP and TN try to ensure that rice is always affordable to the poorest of the poor.Because for them,rice is the only difference between life and death 😦 But I really hope that we give up polished rice as many nutrients are lost when rice is milled and also try to increase the intake of other foods to make our diet more balanced.

  8. wishtobeanon permalink
    January 15, 2008 9:33 pm

    Raj, I was not talking about people who exercise or toil hard, in fact, I was talking about the people who do not do that.

  9. January 15, 2008 9:49 pm

    All of you who have commented here I will reply to you all tomorrow as I am away from home tonight.
    thanks a lot for taking the trouble to read this and I am so glad that you found found it as fascinating as I did. Thanks!

  10. January 15, 2008 9:51 pm

    After reading the article…was trying to find how healthy is pongal. One of the sites said the jaggery in the pongal is rich in iron content and is a healthy and heavy food..

    Rajesh, I don’t think that anyone is recommending that such kind of food be a part of one’s daily diet. Festivals are for celebration and special foods that provide a break from the somewhat repetitious daily food, and excessive worrying about such things is IMO not healthy either. 🙂

  11. January 15, 2008 9:59 pm

    No pun intended, but interesting food for thought.

    Last night I was in the company of two people who are on weight watchers and who (in my opinion) are of healthy weight for their height. One of them had a low-fat canned Italian wedding soup. I jibed her about the 420 mg of sodium. The other ate a salad of romaine, cottage cheese, and balsamic vinegar along with some of my dinner: grilled salmon and mixed vegetables. Interesting to see the different views and methods of healthy dieting and eating in general.

  12. January 15, 2008 10:17 pm

    Excellent post Nita. Vegetarians would be happy to read the results of this research.

  13. January 16, 2008 7:55 am

    Rajesh I liked the way you called our world our “fast moving junk food world.’! never thought of it quite like that! well, I guess jaggery is extremely healthy and I think one could try it in one’s tea too, that will make it a part of one’s daily diet!

    wishtobeanon, I have certainly seen that at least the middle classes in south and east india eat far too much rice and more so white polished rice. But today even the diets of the north indians have changed. there is the introduction of white flour and sugar into their diets. no one today has a natural diet!

    vivek, perhaps tinned food there was cheaper than fresh food? I don’t know really. but the overall gist was that the diet was not a natural one. even vegetables were boiled and the water thrown away. and about the conditions in which they were raised, that would apply to all the experiments.

    Amit, I am a bit of a food freak, in the sense a healthy food freak and I guess many of my posts reflect that. but I don’t worry as such, I worry far more if I eat junk which I do occasionally.

    Prerna, thanks. Yes a vegetarian diet is far better for health and this has been proved by later research as well. But it’s interesting to know that this was discovered as far back as the first world world war! but ofcourse when a piece of research appears, no one really gives it too much importance unless it’s backed by more detailed and several experiments. that is what happened with this I guess. and not many want to believe that meat isn’t good for health.

    Mish, the one thing that puts me off is dieting in the weight loss sense! I have never dieted in my life although I try to stop myself from overeating off and on, specially on certain occasions. We grew up on a fairly healthy diet and were always had the adage that ‘you eat to live and not live to eat’ drummed into us, and therefore obesity of any sort is hardly present in our family. I grew up with the belief that you never leave out any particular food item from the diet. no not even non-veg food but considering that in our home we ate non-veg only once in 10 days or so, it didn’t matter! The main thing we were told is never ever diet, never over-eat and eat everything in moderation! ofcourse not processed stuff. during our time there was never so much available anyway.

  14. January 16, 2008 9:03 am

    Raj, I realised that I had not replied to your comment! What you say is an interesting idea. I am sure the rats would eat each other up!

  15. January 16, 2008 11:26 am

    Nita, I agree that it is important to eat healthy and share your enthusiasm about food+nutrition, but some of the traditional foods eaten during a festival actually use grains and ingredients that are not eaten on a daily basis. I’m just wondering whether that’s a way to cover all nutrients. Also, eating some sweets made using ghee once in 3-4 months is not going to have any adverse effect, provided there are no existing health complications and the overall diet and lifestyle is healthy.

  16. January 16, 2008 11:31 am

    No argument there Amit. In fact I eat everything!
    Ghee in any case was not considered bad in natural diets and it’s just that today we eat the rich food of a natural diet plus other stuff and don’t exercise!
    that’s an interesting point you made, amount getting more variety because of eating different kinds of food during different festivals. i think certain ingredients were expensive and therefore they were used occasionally.

  17. January 16, 2008 1:10 pm

    @ Nita: The history of health and disease research is punctuated by instances, when we learnt more about the ill-effects of things and started to act on it with bonafide intent if not quite successfully. A recent example is trans-fatty acids and their effect on heart health, and in 2003, it came to a head when it was starting to be banned.

    Amit’s rider – “provided there are no existing health complications and the overall diet and lifestyle is healthy” – is actually the big undoing. Most people eat on festivals like there is no tomorrow and in fact, for some, there may not be. Because the vast majority eats badly and either is unaware of or does not care to make changes based on emerging new evidence.

    As John Maynard Keynes said: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

    This of course requires extreme cognitive engagement in quotidian living and few have the access to information or the capacity to process it all, and then fewer still have the energy and the motivation required to effect meaningful change.

  18. sekhar permalink
    January 16, 2008 1:44 pm

    Hi Nita,

    Thanks for taking the trouble to read through the eBooks and posting a synopsis. The book “The wheel of health” certainly changed the way I looked at health and how vital it is to give our children a “good start”. It also made some excellent points as to how good health not only affects the physical health, but also the mental health (as indicated by the rat experiments that you have mentioned above – “rat neuresthania”). The author also noted that people who are innately healthy also are more jovial, optimistic in outlook, less prone to anger, depression, and other negative emotions.

    I would just like to add a couple more points that were brought out by Sir McCarrison himself in his book “Nutrition and national health”.

    Though there are always exceptions to any rule, McCarrison (based on his experience) noted that, on an average, north indians (mainly those from the punjab area) are heartier and healthier than south indians. He advocates that one of the reasons for this is the consumption of whole wheat by north indians and rice by south indians. Wheat is somewhat more healthier than rice, mainly it has more protein and fiber. Obviously, rice has some properties (such as iron) that are absent in wheat, but these can be supplemented by other items like vegetables etc., unlike protein and fiber.

    Now, to add insult to injury, the way the cereals are consumed also makes a difference. People who eat wheat in the form of roti’s do not cook the atta. It is just pressed, heated for a few minutes, and eaten. On the other hand, rice eaters boil the rice for an extended period destroying whatever nutrients are present. Add to this the fact that the rice is polished, milled, washed etc. etc. removing all the nutrients in the bran and germ.

    Once again, thanks to all for their views. And thanks to you, Nita for making this post.


  19. sekhar permalink
    January 16, 2008 1:56 pm


    I just wanted to make one more point here. While it is generally thought that a lacto-vegetarian diet (consisting mainly of dairy products and vegetables, without meat and eggs) is the healthiest diet, the author G.T.Wrench quotes “As a general diet, it may well be the one of the healthiest diets, but the polar eskimos with a radically opposite diet composed entirely of meat and almost no vegetables or fruits, DO NOT YIELD to the Hunza in health and physical endurance.

    I guess the author makes the point that any diet that is taken whole, as nature intended, and consumed fresh, is healthy. There is no one, single healthy diet. Natives across the world have lived on the foods that are prevalent in their regions. As long as they don’t seriously modify their foods (like polishing, milling of rice, tinning meats, vegetables etc. for eg.) from nature, they can be counted as a healthy diet.

    My two cents.


  20. January 16, 2008 3:37 pm

    Shefaly when you quoted this:

    As John Maynard Keynes said: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

    it resonated with me a hundred and one percent!

    Sekhar, thanks for your response. I was hoping you would give your feedback. Thanks for that additional information and clarifications. That was an important point you made, about white processed rice, often overcooked to a mush, being eaten by the rice eating people. in my personal life though if I mention that rice is not healthy hardly anyone agrees! They love rice too much. Also I hadn’t quite realised that we eat rotis which are cooked on a high flame for barely a minute and therefore the nutrients are retained.

  21. January 17, 2008 12:13 am

    fascinating article,
    sorry didnt have time to comment on others

    this is very interesting but not unknown
    i think diet is incorporated in the eastern system of thought and medicine like the ayurveda , wherein what to eat and what not to is incorporated in healing

    i also do think insufficient research was done about the rice eaters – nothing on brown rice and likes

  22. sekhar permalink
    January 17, 2008 12:39 am

    Hi Prax,

    good point. i think white rice was already prevalent by the early part of this century when the research was made and so probably that further tilted the results in favour of the wheat eaters.

    however, one point that still does apply is that rice, brown or white, is always cooked. And that definitely diminishes it’s qualities. unlike rotis made of wheat that are not similarly cooked.

    also, i believe wheat germ oil is the most readily available source of vit. E, which, along with vit. a,d, and k, is vital.

    what this study and another one by Dr. weston a. price (referred to by Nita) reiterates is that fat-soluble vitamins (a,d,e, and k) are the most vital for health, immunity, and longevity, and, ironically, they are the most difficult to obtain.


  23. January 17, 2008 7:51 am

    Prax, many of these facts are known now, but were not known then. That is what makes this research fascinating. Also Sekhar’s point that humans switched to white rice very early on is probably the reason why research on brown rice was not done. wonder how many people really ate brown rice even a hundred years ago.
    Sekhar, thanks.

  24. Mayuresh Gaikwad permalink
    June 18, 2008 8:21 pm

    Some points:

    Eating rice does not lead to a pot belly. If it did, most of the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans would be pot bellied. I stayed in Korea for six months. I ate out all the while. In Korea, the attitude is to only go to those restaurants where the food very closely reflects home made standard. For six months, I ate fresh food, cooked right in front of my eyes, most of the time. Believe me, the skin was glowing when I returned, I was in much better health, and never felt more active ever!

    Wheat is generally consumed in the temperate regions and rice in the tropical regions (don’t ask me about the chinese, I do not know the answer). South Indians (below the tropic of cancer) generally eat rice as the staple food, while the north Indians prefer wheat. That does not mean that rice eaters will be inherently unhealthy. As Nita rightly mentioned, height is not an indicator of health, as people in temperate regions will be inherently taller than in topics, due to the weather!

    I think it has got to do with the climates. The temperate regions (other than China, Japan, Korea) receive, on an average, less rainfall as compared to the tropics, so growing rice is difficult, while growing wheat is difficult in the tropics with the flooded fields.

  25. February 13, 2009 12:36 am

    Taking a second glance at this post. Due to diet and their society, Okinawa has the highest life expectancy, more so than mainland Japan. I would order Okinawa’s food groups from most to least like this: rice and grains, land and sea vegetables, fruit, seafood, dairy, pork and chicken, beef, and sweets. One is more apt to see pigs than cows because of the island’s size (6,786 /sq mi). Due to growing up there and maybe in part my Korean genes, that’s more or less how I eat. I love my rice, and notice if I don’t get enough carbs. I also love my veggies, but there’s no personality switch if I don’t get them.

    I recently flipped through the Okinawa Diet Plan, which is geared towards those unfamiliar with it and trying to be healthier and what not. Me? I’ll just continue on with my usual eating habits.

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