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Vitamin History in The New Statesman

Q&A With Anahad O'Connor for the New York Times

I recently had the chance to do a Q&A with Anahad O'Connor, nutrition reporter extraordinaire, for the New York Times. Here's the full Q&A. 

And here's his intro:

"Many people can rattle off the names of the most popular vitamins and the foods that contain them in abundance. But understanding exactly what vitamins are and what roles they play in the body is far more complicated. In fact, though scientists recognize that there are 13 vitamins that are essential for good health, there is no real consensus on what they actually do and exactly how much of them we truly need.

Catherine Price, a science journalist, explores these questions and more in a book that was recently released in paperback, called “Vitamania: Our Obsessive Quest for Nutritional Perfection.” Ms. Price traces the history of vitamins from their discovery as lifesaving organic compounds that prevented strange diseases to their ubiquity today in foods, beverages and dietary supplements. Ms. Price sheds surprising light on the mythology surrounding vitamins and explains why even basic advice promoted by experts – like the nutrient requirements for healthy adults known as the recommended dietary allowance, or RDA – may be misguided.

Recently, we sat down with Ms. Price to discuss some of the most common misconceptions about vitamins, the reasons vitamin D testing can be misleading, and which questions you should ask yourself before deciding whether to take a multivitamin. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation."

Vitamins keep us healthy. But they're also making us sick.

In anticipation of the launch of Vitamania, I had an op-ed in the New York Times' Sunday Review about the hidden fortification of our food supply -- and what it's doing to our health. 

"THERE is much concern these days about what’s in our dietary supplements. Are they actually filled with the ingredients that the labels promise?

Maybe, maybe not. Quality control issues in the estimated 85,000 dietary supplement products available in America should give every consumer pause. But even vitamins themselves — the 13 dietary chemicals necessary to prevent deficiency diseases like scurvy and rickets — pose hidden hazards of their own." 

Read more . . . 

(image credit: Oivin Horvei for the New York Times)

Vitamin History in the New Statesman

In the UK, Vitamania is called The Vitamin Complex. In celebration of its release, I have a piece in the New Statesman about the history of vitamin marketing and how it still affects us today. 

Iceberg lettuce, which is essentially water in leaf form, became “Nature’s Concentrated Sunshine”; bananas were a “natural vitality food.” Ralston Wheat Cereal put “the B1 in Breakfast.” “New research” suggested it was probably a good idea to “start or end One Meal a Day with Canned Pineapple”. If you didn’t want to risk vitamin starvation (“a danger that gives no warning!”) you’d better eat Del Monte “vitamin-protected” canned foods. Schlitz Sunshine Vitamin D Beer launched in 1936 with the tagline: “Beer is good for you . . . but SCHLITZ, the beer with Sunshine Vitamin D, is extra good for you.”

By the time the first synthetic vitamins became available in the Thirties and Forties, consensus was gathering around the idea that inadequate nutrition – including vitamin deficiencies – could affect not just people’s health status, but their personalities. As far back as 1927, Grape-Nuts had run an ad suggesting that poor nutrition could put children at risk of “unfortunate personality traits” including self-centeredness, shyness, lack of confidence, selfishness, jealousy, depression, and self-pity.

The Surprising Story of a Beriberi Bad Disease

For Slate, I write about thiamin deficiencies, chickens, and the long and fascinating path to the discovery of the vitamins. 

In the mid-1800s, a strange sickness was devastating parts of Southeast Asia. Known as beriberi, it began with intense swelling of the legs and feet and a general sense of numbness, especially in the extremities. Victims developed a distinctive gait, lifting their knees high in the air and swinging their legs forward so that their drooping toes wouldn’t catch on the ground. Their urine became concentrated and their appetites waned, even as their bodies wasted away. Eventually, they lost their voices and died in suffocating convulsions. Its cause was a mystery; no one knew a prevention, let alone a cure.

Diabetes in the New York Times

 

Before I received the diagnosis that I had Type 1 diabetes, I saw food as food, and ate it as such -- simply, casually, with no real thought attached.

The winter of my senior year of college, after a bad cold and a painful breakup, I began eating more -- not to cope, but to feel full. I was hungry, always hungry. Hungry and thirsty and tired, piling my tray in the dining hall with pasta, cheese, dessert, getting up in the middle of the night to slurp water from my dorm's bathroom faucet.

I gorged myself and yet my pants were looser, my arms thinner, my stomach flatter. One afternoon I threw it all up, convinced I had food poisoning. My stomach eventually settled but my mind did not. The world swirled. I couldn't stand without stumbling. On February 17th, 2001, I entered the hospital, and since that day, food has never been the same.

In 2009, Tara Parker-Pope at the New York Times published an essay of mine in the Well blog called "Thinking About Diabetes With Every Bite." about my experience living with Type 1 diabetes. Not only was I thrilled to have such a personal piece placed in the Times, but I've been incredibly touched by the wonderful feedback I've gotten from other people with Type 1 (and Type 2). It's inspired me to keep writing about diabetes -- if you want to read more, check out my blog over at the diabetes website, A Sweet Life.

Why I Hate Partner Yoga

My dislike of partner yoga started with a stranger's sweaty thighs. I had just moved from Brooklyn, N.Y., to the San Francisco Bay Area, and I was working my way through a Sunday morning Vinyasa class with the same discipline, determination and Type A drive I bring to most attempts at relaxation. But I kept getting distracted by the young man next to me. To be specific, I was distracted by the moisture he was producing. No sooner had we started sun salutations than the man began to sweat, energetically and abundantly. By the time the class was halfway through, drops of perspiration rolled off his nose with the regularity of a leaking faucet, and a puddle had formed on the floor in front of his mat. Instead of wiping off his face with a towel, he removed his shirt. Now sweat began to drip from a new spot: his nipples.

When I go to yoga, I want to be alone. Apparently I'm not the only one, as I discovered after I wrote this article for Salon.

Rebooting the Immune System

A sign rests on the windowsill in the office of Jeffrey Bluestone, director of the Immune Tolerance Network and the Diabetes Center at the University of California at San Francisco. Measuring nearly three feet across, it reads “Club Bluestone” in pink and blue neon. It’s the sort of artifact you’d expect to find in a bar. But Bluestone is a world-renowned immunobiologist; his father-in-law had the sign made for him in the late 1980s when Bluestone was working long hours in his lab at the University of Chicago. As the night wore on and their energy faded, he and his colleagues would turn out the lights, turn on the sign and, propelled by the power of Bruce Springsteen, push forward with their research. “It was our version of partying,” he says.

As you may already know, auto-immune diseases like Type 1 diabetes or multiple sclerosis occur when your immune system malfunctions and mistakes part of your own body for a foreign invader. In the case of Type 1, it's when your body decides to kill off the cells that produce insulin, a hormone necessary to absorb the energy in your food. I think I speak for all Type 1 diabetics when I say that destroying these cells is not the body's smartest move.

I was lucky enough to participate in a trial for a promising new drug -- created by the aforementioned Jeffrey Bluestone -- that attempted to stop my system from killing off the rest of my insulin-producing cells. What's more, I recently got a chance to write about this drug -- and others like it -- for Popular Science. The article's called "Rebooting the Body." Here's a link to a digital copy.

I also got a chance to speak about the piece on the New Hampshire Public Radio Show, Word of Mouth. You can listen to the interview here.

Can a Blender Change Your Life?

When you first buy a Vitamix 5200, the so-called Ferrari of blenders, two thoughts are likely to pass through your mind. The first is “Did I really just spend more than $400 on a blender?” And the second is “This machine is going to change my life.

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At least those are the thoughts I had after I bought my Vitamix at a nutrition-related conference several weeks ago. I hadn’t planned to make this purchase; I’d merely followed some colleagues to the Vitamix demonstration stand, where a fast-talking young man with a headset and an impressive dexterity with Dixie cups was offering samples to an enthusiastic crowd. I watched as he liquefied a pineapple. I witnessed him puree an entire clove of garlic, unpeeled. I tried a sample of a green smoothie, then a tortilla soup, then a blended cappuccino. Before I knew what had happened, I’d taken out my credit card. The damage? $429.89—and that was with a discount.

As I crossed the exhibition hall, the Vitamix’s enormous box knocking against my shins, I began to question what I’d just done.

That’s when I heard a voice call out to me.

“You won’t regret a penny!” the voice cried in a thick Jamaican accent. “You won’t regret one cent!

I turned to find an older woman waggling a finger at me, a huge smile on her face. This woman had no connection to the Vitamix booth; she just felt so passionately about her own machine that, upon viewing mine, she couldn’t help but shout.

“I love my Vit-a-mix,” she continued, enunciating each syllable, before launching into a highly complimentary review of the company’s return and repair policy. “I love it so much, I would recommend it to the dead!”

It was a strong, if odd, endorsement. And as I walked away, her words ringing in my ears, my anxiety over its price quickly morphed into something else: excitement.

For Slate, I write about the Vitamix 5200. Spoiler alert: it lives up to its hype.

The Passion of Latin Lovers

Even if you ignore ( from ignorare -- to not know, disregard) the Romans' influence ( influere -- to flow in) on our culture ( colere -- to foster, cultivate or respect), architecture ( architectus, from the Greek arkhi -- chief + tekton -- builder, carpenter), literature ( littera -- letter), government (gubernare -- navigate, pilot, govern), military (miles -- soldier), legal ( lex -- the law) and judicial (iudex -- a judge) systems and medicine ( medicus -- physician), there's still the fact ( factum -- something done, a fact) of Latin's presence ( praesentia -- presence) in English itself.

As might be obvious, getting to write a feature about Latin for the Washington Post Magazine was a treat for my inner dork.

Are You Ready to Fly? Plane Quiz for PARADE

summer-quiz-ftrFor PARADE Magazine, I put together a quiz about plane travel. Unfortunately, my statistics on animal strikes (frequent; not just birds but turtles) and ridiculous stories about safety announcements (Virgin America had to put a bull into its safety video instead of a dog over concern that people would think dogs need to wear seat belts*) did not make it in. But nonetheless!

*and what? Bulls don't?