Are vegetables overrated?

Just as we were recovering from the tale of the woman who is afraid of peas, news reaches us of the brothers who never eat vegetables. The Campbell brothers of Aberdeen have all somehow or other defied medical advice to live to ripe old ages, despite the fact that John, 91, Jim, 88, Colin, 85, Sid, 82, and Doug, 78, have spurned vegetables in all their guises. "They're a pain," John told the papers. "I've never liked them and I avoid them all the time. I can't think of anything worse than a plate of carrots." Apart from two plates of carrots, one imagines. Still, it is a tale that shakes to the very foundations not only the food pyramid upon which modern nutritional advice is commonly built, but also pretty much everything we ever believed in. Roswell? Man on the Moon? Elvis's death? We're questioning all of it. But first, let us look at who else has rejected the way of the broccoli and lived to tell the tale ...

The Inuit

In his explorations of the Arctic in the early 20th century, the anthropologist and adventurer Vilhjalmur Stefansson found that the Inuits typically survived on almost nothing but meat and fish, with fruits, vegetables, and other carbohydrates accounting for as little as 2% of their total calorie intake. And yet they appeared healthy, apparently suffered fewer ailments than westerners, and somehow avoided scurvy, despite the fact that we are for ever being told that avoiding scurvy is all about lemons and oranges. It was Stefansson's contention that the Inuit sourced their vitamin C from meat that was raw or barely cooked, and upon his return to the west he put that theory to the test. He followed a meat-only diet for one year under medical supervision at New York's Bellevue hospital - and he too remained scurvy free. Vitamin C can apparently be found in a variety of traditional Inuit delicacies, including the organ meats of sea mammals, the stomach contents of caribou, and the skin of beluga whales (known as muktuk), which is said to contain as much vitamin C as the aforementioned oranges.

British children under the age of seven

A national diet and nutrition survey conducted by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs found that most British children eat less than half the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables per day, with 20% eating no fruit at all in the week in which the study was carried out, apart from some of those foamy banana-shaped sweets and a packet of Jaffa Cakes. Indeed, in these heady days of obesity and overprocessing, children are so removed from the agricultural lineage of their diets that many (Jamie Oliver's children excepted) now believe carrots come from sheep, and stories about youngsters having survived on nothing but jam sandwiches and Coco Pops for the first seven years of their lives are not uncommon. And yet the little tykes miraculously continue to thrive. No one appears to have a good explanation for this.

The Masai

Vegetables are largely alien to the diets of the Masai of Kenya and Tanzania, who rely instead upon their humped zebu cattle for nourishment. Rather than eat the meat, the Masai feast upon the milk and blood of their cattle; the blood is harvested by puncturing the loose flesh in the cow's neck with an arrow (the wound is then closed). The blood is mixed with the milk, to make, one assumes, a sort of gruesome Ovaltine. There are apparently variations on this blood and milk theme: blood and milk can, for example, be thickened to produce a concoction with the consistency of scrambled eggs, and served with rice. This may not sound that tempting to the western palate, but then it appears not to have done the Masai much harm. Any degeneration in the health of the Masai in recent years can arguably be attributed to Ernest Hemingway who, in the Green Hills of Africa, writes of introducing some of the tribe to delights of bread, canned mincemeat and plum pudding.

The inhabitants of Lötschental, Switzerland

In the 1930s, an Ohio dentist, Dr Weston A Price, embarked on a 10-year expedition to see if those cultures regarded as "primitive" by our swaggering western culture might, in fact, consume a diet promoting rude health and fine gnashers. One of Price's many interesting findings was that the dairy-rich, vegetably impoverished diet of the inhabitants of a remote Swiss village, Lötschental, resulted in hardly any dental cavities and few childhood illnesses. The villagers were in the habit of dining on unpasteurised milk, butter, cream and cheese, rye bread, meat on occasion, bone broth soups and the limited number of vegetables they could cultivate during the short summer months. Admittedly, the children's teeth were covered in green slime, but at least they didn't have to eat brussels sprouts. You win some, you lose some.

Dr Atkins and all followers

A couple of years ago, approximately one in 11 adults were following the Atkins diet, which extolls the virtues of a low-carb, high-protein eating plan. That's more people than have ever knowingly eaten asparagus (probably).

A typical Atkins menu looks a little like this . . . Breakfast: fried bacon and eggs. Lunch: chicken with mozzarella. Dinner: pan-fried rump steak with soured cream. Snacks: 17 slices of ham, 12 prawn cocktails, large brie, small bucket of saturated fat. As a form of carbohydrate, there was little room for vegetables in the Atkins plan, other than a small smattering of lettuce, the purpose of which was largely decorative. The Atkins plan had various side-effects, ranging from halitosis to weight loss, some of which were more desirable than others. Sadly, Dr Atkins died in 2003. But this is no reflection on his low-veg diet: in fact, the bad breath and constipation that accompanied his diet-plan were not his undoing, rather the good doctor slipped on an icy footpath and hit his head ·

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