#6 The obsessive weight-watcher
Hello people. I’m alive. I’m also one of those hundred others who start a newsletter, then disappear. Thing is, the Times of India asked me to take my newsletter stories to a monthly column there, so I did. For those who get the TOI, you might spot my face in a long, narrow column on one of the Sunday Times papers — I can’t tell which Sunday because it’s not fixed. For those who don’t read the TOI, I’ll post the stories here, so you can read it in your inbox [there will be additional links and trivia]. Plus, there will be other stuff.
For me, Diwali week is about overindulgence. I start by giving myself one day of binge-eating assorted mithai and namkeen, which then turns into several days of excesses. My go-to namkeen this Diwali was hing sev that I got from a Jodhpur shop. Amazingly tasty, amazingly smelly. Bhujia sev tastes like bland, oily cardboard after this. It’s good that Hing sev is not available locally.
Since I think about food a lot once October starts, I found two food and weight-related stories during some recent rabbit hole dives. Here they are.
The obsessive weight-watcher
If you have a weighing scale at home, do you find yourself strategising when to step on it — before a meal, after a workout, so you get a number that you think represents you at your lightest? Or maybe, out of curiosity, you weigh yourself both before and after you eat a meal, before and after a workout, and perhaps even before and after you pee and poop?
If you’re nodding in agreement, let me introduce you to one of the first known people to keenly “watch” his weight. For 30 long years!
This curious marathon weight-watcher, whom doctors might be familiar with, was Santorio Santorio. He was an Italian physician, born in 1561.
In those days, there were no calorie-counting apps. Neither did Santorio have a compact, lightweight bathroom scale to stand up on. There weren’t even those big burly machines you still find at railway stations, ones where you insert a coin, and out comes a tiny slip with a number printed on it.
In fact, this was a time when balances and weighing instruments were not applied commonly to the human body. But Santorio wanted to test a belief he held — that human body weight was closely linked to how much we eat and drink, and how much we poop and pee.
So, he built himself a weighing machine—a rigged version of scales used at the time to weigh traded items like sacks of flour. Santorio’s scale consisted of a beam with two arms, suspended from a pivot. From the smaller arm of the beam, hung a chair. The longer arm held the counterweight to balance whatever, or whoever, was put on the chair.
For more than 30 years, Santorio sat on the chair, meticulously recording his weight every single day. He weighed every plate of food, and every glass of liquid before ingesting them. Then he weighed himself before and after eating and drinking. When he emptied his bladder or bowel, he would weigh his stool and urine, then weigh himself again. Sometimes, he didn’t eat food at all to see how that affected his weight. Often, he weighed himself while working and sleeping, and even after sex to see how different activities affected his weight. On many days, he sat on the chair for hours, watching his weight go up and down as the hours went by. [See, you can use your weight obsession for science]
Santorio’s measurements showed something curious. After eating food, Santorio found that he was losing weight over time, even before he had passed stool or urine. If he ate eight pounds of meat and drink in a day, for example, he “visibly” excreted only three pounds in his feces and urine. Where were the remaining five pounds disappearing?
There had to be some kind of “insensible perspiration”, he concluded. That is, the human body excretes some of its mass ‘invisibly’, through the skin, mouth or lungs. And that this invisible excretion fluctuates under the influence of different things like food, movement, sexual activity and so on. [At the time, Santorio didn’t know the chemistry behind the invisible excretion, but he was right. Scientists today have shown that for every kilo of carbs and fat you eat, you actually breathe out much of it as carbon dioxide and water.]
Santorio didn’t just stop at self-experimentation. He claims to have monitored thousands of his own patients over 25 years by making them sit on his weighing chair [although he never published the data from this]. For Santorio, the chair became a way to monitor and maintain an “ideal” weight in his patients, which he believed was linked to good health.
A group of researchers later even tried to recreate Santorio’s chair and his experiments.
Santorio’s work was pioneering and may have even kickstarted the focus on bodyweight measurements in medicine. He also invented a whole bunch of other instruments, from a device to measure pulse rate to one that measured body temperature. In fact, he was generally fussy about letting numbers and experiments speak over what he “believed”, which is why he’s also called the father of modern quantitative experimentation in medicine.
All this brings me back to my initial question, when do you weigh yourself? Should I do a poll? Reddit had some interesting answers.
In my observation, there are two main types of meat eaters. Those who chew on the bones, and those who don’t. There’s also a third kind—those who accidentally swallow small pieces of bones and then wonder if and when the bones will poke a hole in their digestive tracts. When this Diwali we ordered Tandoori chicken, I decided to look into how (and if) we humans digest bones well. That’s how I landed upon a study published in 1994.
The researchers, two anthropologists from New York, had a similar question — what happens to bones when we eat them? To find out, they, like Santorio, self-experimented. During the early summer of 1991, they caught a Northern short-tailed shrew, a cute, rodent-like animal that’s actually one of the only few known venomous mammals. Then, one of the authors—it’s not revealed who—decided to eat it for science. The adult male shrew was lightly boiled for two minutes, then swallowed in small portions, without chewing. The author who ate the shrew, collected his faeces over the next three days, and then the two researchers studied it the excretions in detail.
This is what they found: The shrew’s skull was swallowed intact, but it emerged with “extreme damage”. Eight of shrew’s 12 molar teeth disappeared and didn’t come out. Neither did the major jawbones and many vertebrae, and several bones of legs and feet. This meant that stomach acids alone were doing a decent job of digesting a lot of the bones. So while chewing undoubtedly damages bone, it was only one small part of how bones get digested in the human body, the researchers wrote.
Why did the authors take on this experiment, you ask? Well, the researchers say they did it as a contribution toward unraveling the many ambiguities that can surround interpretation of ancient poop. Yes, archeologists often rely on fossilised human poop to learn about what past humans ate and what their gut was like.
So, faeces may look disgusting, but they’re pretty powerful pieces of our history.
On that note, see you soon!
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