Modern agriculture has bred so much nutrition out of fruits and vegetables that “we are left in the bizarre and paradoxical situation that we are essentially the world’s most overfed nation but also one of the most nutritionally deficient ones,” author Bill Bryson writes in his new book, “The Body: A Guide for Occupants.”

Bryson, who grew up in Des Moines, has written about travel, science and almost anything else that crossed his mind since he decamped Iowa for Britain in the 1970s. 

It was only a matter of time until he turned his child-like curiosity and probing wit inward on the human body, which he describes as “the product of three billion years of evolutionary tweaks.” 

Like most of Bryson’s books, “The Body” is educational, funny and at times thoroughly disconcerting. 

One example involves Wilbert Olin Atwater, a chemistry professor who brought “scientific rigor to the infant science of nutrition” during the late 1800s. Atwater created a device for measuring caloric intake and set about measuring the nutritional value of all known foods. 

“Much of what Atwater concluded was ultimately wrong,” Bryson wrote. “He believed that fruits and vegetables provided comparatively little energy and needed to play no part in the average person’s diet,” and he advocated eating 2 pounds of meat every day. 

Another story involves the death of George Washington, who in December 1799 suffered from what today would be considered a relatively minor throat infection. But Washington died after three doctors drained about 40% of his blood, induced vomiting and caused blisters to form on his neck.

A fourth doctor proposed reviving the ex-president “by rubbing his skin gently to stimulate blood flow and transfusing him with lamb’s blood.”
Bryson goes behind the scenes of several major medical discoveries to show how hit and miss science can be. 

Of insulin, he wrote: Experiments aimed at producing insulin were “wrongly conceived, wrongly conducted and wrongly interpreted. … Yet within weeks they were producing pure insulin.” 

Other key breakthroughs went unrecognized for years, as was the case in the mid-1950s when two graduate students made “a really big discovery in immunology” while experimenting with chickens. 

The students submitted a paper to the journal Science, Bryson wrote, “but it was returned as ‘uninteresting.’” Eventually the paper was published in Poultry Science, and it has since become “one of the most cited papers in immunology.” 

A consistent theme of “The Body” is that much of what we thought we knew about medicine before the 20th century was flat-out wrong, and there is still much that we don’t know, particularly when it comes to cancer.

“It took forever to gain consensus that smoking caused lung cancer,” Bryson wrote. One leading skeptic, a chest surgeon in St. Louis, said “we might as well blame lung cancer on the development of nylon stockings because they had become popular at the same time as smoking.”

The surgeon, who smoked, later died of lung cancer but not before changing his mind and co-authoring a paper in 1950 that outlined “a clear statistical link between smoking and lung cancer.” 

Despite mounting evidence, the American Medical Association did not acknowledge a connection until three decades later. 

Similarly, trans fats made from vegetable oils “were long thought of as a healthy alternative to butter or animal fat, but we now know the opposite is true,” Bryson wrote. 

Today, he added, “far more people on Earth suffer from obesity than from hunger.”

“To be fair,” he continued, “it doesn’t take much to put on weight. One chocolate chip cookie a week, in the absence of any offsetting extra exercise, will translate into about two pounds of extra weight a year.”