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Health and Nutrition Column: Is David Rockefeller Pissing His Calcium Away? Or the Application of Dialectics to Broken Bones
by George Salzman (with the Health and Nutrition Column Collective)
|NEW YORK TIMES, Tuesday, May 21, 1974
David Rockefeller, chairman of the Chase Manhattan Bank, slipped and fell on Sunday night in Taipei, Taiwan, and broke his right hip. He will return to the United States today and expects to be confined in traction for about six weeks.
The accident occurred on a marble floor in his hotel when Mr. Rockefeller returned from the first of two days of scheduled business meetings in that city. Unaware of the nature of his injury, he did not go to the hospital until yesterday after having breakfast with United States Ambassador Leonard Unger.
Mr. Rockefeller was on his first visit to Taiwan for discussions with business and Government leaders there. He had been scheduled to fly to South Korea today and to Japan tomorrow for the opening of Chase’s new headquarters building in Tokyo.
Did David Rockefeller break his hip (see box) because he hates nuts, soybeans, and steamed green leafy vegetables such as chard, beet tops, kale, and spinach? If his diet lacks these and other magnesium-rich foods, he may be excreting excessive calcium in his urine, and have osteoporosis (porous bones), i.e. fragile and easily fractured bones.1 We’ll probably never know — at least I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for the Times to publish the results of his urinalysis.
Calcium carbonate, of which limestone and marble are. made, is a prime ingredient of bones, and gives them rigidity. But bones, even in grown adults, are not the same as skeletons in museums — inert structures. In a living organism they are alive and in a state of dynamic equilibrium with the rest of the body. Having healthy bones takes a lot more than simply drinking milk.
To sense the nutritional complexity of having healthy bones, consider calcium, one of the essential components. Eating food containing a certain amount of calcium does not insure that the body will use it. Its solubility in the stomach and its absorption and retention by the body depend on many factors. For example, vitamins A, C, and D must be present in sufficient amounts. Too much magnesium or phosphorous can prevent calcium utilization. Too little fat decreases its absorption. Too much soda or any alkaline reduces stomach acidity, and with it calcium absorption. So does too much candy or other concentrated carbohydrate, by stimulating the flow of alkaline digestive juices.2 Adequate balanced protein is necessary for proper calcium use. And so forth. In tum, the state of each factor directly involved in calcium metabolism is itself dependent on other factors. For example, vitamin E is necessary to prevent destruction of vitamin A in the body.
Clearly, considering a few “essential” nutrients for healthy bones is inadequate. The entire diet is involved — some parts more directly, others less so. What is practical, given this complexity? It’s impossible for each of us to become a scientific specialist in nutrition. Even if it were feasible, it would be inadequate, for two reasons: (1) nutritional science tends to focus on each individual biochemical reaction as though it is relatively separate from the others; (2) healthy bones require more than proper diet. Astronauts on meticulously planned diets had significant calcium losses during flights. Strenuous in-flight exercise regimes are being introduced to combat this loss.
The only practical and sensible course for us, food wise, is to make a reasonable effort to get nearly all our nutrition from a sizeable variety of natural foods that are not overprocessed — foods to which body metabolism has been fine-tuned by the evolutionary process — so-called old-fashioned foods. And to avoid, as much as possible, heroic style assaults on our bodies with vitamins, minerals, and other nutritional supplements.
Human health, like the ecological integrity of the earth’s mantle, is not to be dealt with piecemeal — by building a dam here, draining a salt marsh there, or drenching the system with massive amounts of vitamin C, regardless of what the Army Engineers or a Nobel Laureate in chemistry say to the contrary. It depends on nutrition, on exercise, on psychological well-being — indeed, on the entire environment in which we live, and on the social, political, and economic forces which, together with nature, shape that environment.
The interdependency and continual evolution of all these things is what biologists Barry Commoner and Rene Dubos call holism (as opposed to reductionism), and what Hegel, Marx, and Engels call dialectics. “Dialectics,” wrote Engels, ” …comprehends things and their representations, ideas, in their essential connection, concatenation, motion, origin and ending.” So must we view our lives — whether healthy or not — if we truly want to understand them.
When Alexander Leaf went off recently “stalking the domesticated centenarians.” — more precisely, the communities rich in them,3 he found that the people who live long live vigorously. They not only eat natural, unprocessed foods, but also work hard with their bodies, live largely free of severe emotional stresses in rural environments, and are loved and respected by their families and communities. And they have strong and healthy bones without even thinking about it!