On bread alone?
August 26, 2011 12:33 PM   Subscribe

I know someone who has been quite healthy for 20 years on a diet of nothing but plain spaghetti and chocolate milk (and occasionally meat once every few weeks). He has been to doctors and dentists and has no health problems or vitamin deficiencies, has perfectly straight teeth and no cavities. How is this possible?!

He just has no desire to eat anything else. His mother told me that this started when he was an infant. He just stopped eating. The doctor told his mother to wait it out, and he would return to normal eating habits. He never did.

I don't think the answer is that he's sneaking food (as it is with "breatharians" and others who claim to survive without food of any kind). But is that the only plausible answer?
posted by overeducated_alligator to Health & Fitness (42 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
He could simply be an outlier.
posted by hmo at 12:37 PM on August 26, 2011

He's 20? He'll get some health issues in the next 10-15 years I reckon.
posted by sweetkid at 12:37 PM on August 26, 2011 [20 favorites]

Milk is a pretty complete food, nutrition-wise, isn't it? Also, he's only 20 or so, right? This sort of diet might not work so well, calorie-wise, once he gets to his 40's.
posted by DarkForest at 12:38 PM on August 26, 2011

Well, plain spaghetti and chocolate milk sounds to me like there's probably every kind of nutrition in there. Protein in the milk, carbs in the pasta and chocolate, various vitamins in the tomato sauce and milk..

I agree with sweetkid, he sounds young. He might not have problems now but could down the line.

I'm not sure how his dentist, straight teeth, and lack of cavities has anything to do with his diet though, unless he' not brushing his teeth.
posted by royalsong at 12:39 PM on August 26, 2011

visit this question again when he's 35. i said a lot of dumb shit about my ability to eat and drink anything before my mid 20s. things are very, very different as i knock on 30s door.
posted by nadawi at 12:39 PM on August 26, 2011 [8 favorites]

Is he taking vitamins?
posted by something something at 12:42 PM on August 26, 2011

Does he take a multivitamin? Are you sure? I mean, that's still not going to do everything, but I'll help on the not-getting-scurvy front.

Milk is a pretty complete food, nutrition-wise, isn't it?

Yes. I drink ~4 gallons of milk a week, and of that at least one glass of chocolate milk each morning. Even if I don't eat a whole lot of food during the day (if I'm busy or something and forget), I'm still always drinking milk. I never get the "crash" other people describe. Milk is awesome.
posted by phunniemee at 12:43 PM on August 26, 2011

It's either genetics or dark magicks.
posted by elizardbits at 12:45 PM on August 26, 2011 [8 favorites]

I agree with the folks who say he will most likely develop health problems when he gets older.
posted by Specklet at 12:46 PM on August 26, 2011

The human metabolism is very resilient. It can withstand the punishments inflicted upon it by the modern diet for quite a few years, in many cases. Sometimes even a spaghetti-based diet. But it is rare to find someone who that won't catch up with eventually. For me, it was mid-late twenties when I got hypertension while appearing plenty healthy. Fixed my diet (went primal) and started lifting, and it went away. Your friend may have a similar awakening.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 12:46 PM on August 26, 2011

He has been to doctors and dentists and has no health problems or vitamin deficiencies, has perfectly straight teeth and no cavities. How is this possible?!

Did he have braces and does he brush/floss? Then of course he will have straight teeth and no cavities. "Never have any sugar, ever, or your teeth will rot" is perfectly good advice to get small children "scared straight," but it isn't a guide to life.

But, yes, revisit him in his 30s and see how he's faring, weight- and health-wise.
posted by deanc at 12:47 PM on August 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Literally nothing but pasta and Chocolate milk? (and the "occasional" meat?) He eats spaghetti for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Every day? No popcorn at the movies, no candy? No hamburgers or piece of pizza? Birthday cake? Random apple or cookie? For twenty years, you say?

Either he's playing pretty loose with the "only things I'll eat" bit, or you are incredibly gullible. It would be an incredible feat of will and logistics to subsist on a diet of solely two things (and an occasional third) throughout your childhood.
posted by gyusan at 12:47 PM on August 26, 2011 [12 favorites]

I have a nephew like this. He eats, like, four foods (chicken nuggets, French fries, vanilla yogurt, Cheerios) and drinks only milk or Coke. He's an athlete and he's in great shape. He's also 14. We all hope this is a phase, but he's been like this since he was six so my sister has him seeing a therapist in the hope that he can be persuaded to change his ways.

You can get away with all sorts of bad decisions when you are young and your metabolism has 17 forward gears. As nadawi said, don't try this shit once you enter your 30's.
posted by mosk at 12:48 PM on August 26, 2011

Pasta and milk are both fortified. Milk gives such a huge survival/reproductive advantage that the gene that allows for lactose digestion evolved more than once in different populations of human beings.

If you brush your teeth and have good teeth genes, they won't fall out. He's not eating anything acidic or caustic.

Other than that, yeah, he might not be the healthiest in ten years, but maybe he'll be fine.
posted by the young rope-rider at 12:49 PM on August 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, lots of foods are fortified with extra vitamins, so it's unlikely that he would have vitamin deficiencies, even on a limited diet. You really have to make a serious effort to develop scurvy, for example.
posted by deanc at 12:49 PM on August 26, 2011

I'm not sure how his dentist, straight teeth, and lack of cavities has anything to do with his diet though, unless he' not brushing his teeth.

I might be showing my loony card a bit here, but I believe there may be some correlation between diet quality during childhood, and development of the dental arch:

Nutrition & Physical Degeneration (yes I know this is crazy but still)

And there are also reports of people who switch to very restrictive diets (like veganism) and suddenly get lots of cavities, although the milk consumption might offset this issue. I mention it because I think about teeth within the context of overall health, but I am biased in that mindset because I'm a dental assistant.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 12:52 PM on August 26, 2011

believe there may be some correlation between diet quality during childhood, and development of the dental arch

I presume his parents gave him vitamins as a child, and, as I said, most of the foods he's eating are fortified. It's not like he grew up with a severely deprived diet. There's a difference between simply having a "poor diet" and malnutrition. In the first world, you really have to try to have the sort of malnourishment which would lead to dental problems.
posted by deanc at 12:59 PM on August 26, 2011

The "modern" diet criticized above applies not so much to your milky adult friend but rather more to the other reply about the coke-drinking teenager. A diverse diet isn't as important as a well-rounded diet, even a bland one. Genetics is key, as evidenced not only by the outlying 100-year-old smokers, but also the large numbers of the general populace who seem un-fazed by the rightly-criticized modern diet. Also, psychology/attitude/happiness is proven to affect our health quite a bit.
posted by markhu at 1:14 PM on August 26, 2011

One thing that's saving him is that both milk (vitamins A, D) and flour (Vitamin B, folic acid, iron, many micronutrients) are heavily adulterated, "fortified" and/or "enriched", with vitamins and trace elements. Flour, in particular, has a lot of extra trace nutrients and elements added.

This is done for people exactly like your friend's son.
posted by bonehead at 1:14 PM on August 26, 2011

The most obvious nutritional deficit with this diet is Vitamin C. Spaghetti has none and chocolate milk has about 1% per cup. If he has eight cups a day, that's about 10% of his RDA. Probably enough to avoid scurvy, but definitely bad long term.
posted by Lame_username at 1:16 PM on August 26, 2011

Cecil says milk, potatoes, and the occasional molybdenum supplement is enough, so milk, pasta, and a little meat doesn't sound too off.
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:17 PM on August 26, 2011

It could be genetic. According to this article, some kids never eat any sugar at all but still get cavities.
posted by Melismata at 1:25 PM on August 26, 2011

I'm in recovery from an eating disorder and my dietician pointed out to me that if human bodies were less resilient in regard to what we eat, the world's population would be drastically lower than it is right now.
posted by corey flood at 1:32 PM on August 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Pasta is usually made from enriched flour, which has added vitamins and minerals. Milk also has added vitamins.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:34 PM on August 26, 2011

When you say plain spaghetti, do you mean just noodles with nothing on them, or do you mean spaghetti with tomato sauce? Because tomato sauce is very high in lots of nutrients (including Vitamin C).

If you want to learn more about people who keep very restricted diets, there are lots of websites and online support groups designed for adult picky eaters. Metafilter had a thread last year with a decent discussion of some of the issues people face, as well as links to resources that explain how people end up in this situation in the first place. But the bottom line is that the human body is resilient, and while he may face health problems, he also may be able to go his whole life eating this way without any real adverse effects.
posted by decathecting at 1:35 PM on August 26, 2011

Nutrition Data:
Spaghetti, dry, enriched
Milk, chocolate, commercial, fluid, whole

Looking at the neat "nutrient balance" charts of those two, the most prominent deficiencies are vitamins E and K, both of which can be found to some extent in meat. (Also: does he use oil in cooking the pasta? Because that can help with the vitamin E.)

He's probably not getting the recommended values of several vitamins, but the amount below which one runs into serious short-to-medium term health effects is well below the recommended values. For that matter, the average American adult only gets about half the recommended amount of vitamin E (according to this page), yet we don't have an epidemic of millions of cases of vitamin E deficiency in the US.

MrMoonPie: potatoes are chock full of all kinds of nutrients, so removing potatoes from "milk, potatoes, and molybdenum" actually is quite a bit off.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:37 PM on August 26, 2011

I just put this all into fitday.

Assuming three servings of spaghetti and tomato sauce and five servings of chocolate milk (because that is how I would do it, gosh darn it) he would be getting 100% of all of his vitamins except for C. He would be light in fiber, but otherwise good. In terms of macronutrients he is getting 21k calories, 65% of which are from carbs, 20% from fat, 15% from carbs. I know you said plain spaghetti, but I am Italian so my plain might be different.

That doesn't seem so bad really, provided he doesn't eat more than he needs.
posted by munchingzombie at 2:23 PM on August 26, 2011

How do you know he isn't getting vitamin C from the "plain" spaghetti? I didn't interpret "plain" to mean "no sauce at all." I usually squeeze lemon juice into my tomato sauce (it's a pretty standard ingredient in basic tomato sauce recipes). Lemons have vitamin C.

Anyway, as gyusan said, the whole premise of this question is flawed. He's wildly exaggerating and you're taking him literally.
posted by John Cohen at 2:32 PM on August 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Just wanted to add that he sounds just like the people profiled on Freaky Eaters (the UK version, I haven't seen the TLC one). It seemed to me that the older the ED suffered got the worse their eating was for their health but it more severely impacted their social relationships. Can only eat one or two things? Say goodbye to dinner dates, lunches with the boss or clients, etc. We forget how much of our social lives revolve around food (good or bad as that may be). If he is in his 20s this surely doesn't matter much now but in the future it will become extremely difficult for him.
posted by boobjob at 2:33 PM on August 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

I guess my question would be, how do you define "quite healthy"? How is his energy level? His bowel movements? The color tone and quality of his skin? How often does he get sick? Does he sleep well? How is his height and body weight? Problems concentrating late in the day?

The definition of "healthy" is broad, and people often overlook some of the things that seem small, but add up to overall quality of life.
posted by ErikaB at 2:41 PM on August 26, 2011

His shits probably aren' that delightful, but people can live on that.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 3:18 PM on August 26, 2011

Here's the thing: I had a roommate a few years ago that only (and I do mean only) ate heavily processed meats (like Vienna sausages ) Doriotos, popcorn , processed cheese and sodas. I refused to eat any sort of vegetable or vegetable at all - any kind. He was kind of an adult child kind of a person. He had his first heart attack at 49. His second in his 50's. He is now 61 and morbidly obese, diabetic, suffering from hearing and eyesight loss and has been diagnosed with lymphoma. He can't walk more than a few hundred feet at best and all the above hasn't changed his eating habits one bit. He is on disability and hasn't worked for more than 15 years and his mind has slowed down considerably. I think it unlikely that he will live more than a year or two more. So all that does catch up with you.
posted by Poet_Lariat at 4:41 PM on August 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

Considering that humans lived on this planet for many thousands of years with little concept of "balanced diet," and that there are many millions of people today living to 70 without access to what we consider "healthy" food or water or medical care, I conclude this: Most of what we in the Western world consider necessary for a healthy life (through age 65 or so) is bullshit.

The average person who ate like the guy you mention would be just fine, just like the average smoker is just fine for 20+ years.

Yeah, it'll catch up with him someday, but who wants to live to 80?
posted by coolguymichael at 6:39 PM on August 26, 2011

Michael Pollen talks about communities with limited diets in "In Defense of Food". Specifically he mentions some tribes in Africa or something that survive (d) and are actually very healthy on a diet of milk and animal blood. Pollen's theory is that before we started processing our food so heavily and mass-producing it, lots of nutrients were contained in it and it was possible to be healthy or limited diets.

Now, I am sure the milk and spaghetti your friend eats are processed, but the basic idea still sort of applies. Plus, as others have said, he's only 20.
posted by bearette at 7:46 PM on August 26, 2011

Pasta is usually made from enriched flour, which has added vitamins and minerals.

So-called "enriched" flour is flour that has been stripped of most of its nutrients (in other words, it's usually white flour, not whole grain), and then just a few of the most important vitamins are put back in by order of the FDA.
posted by serena15221 at 9:05 PM on August 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

He's 20? He'll get some health issues in the next 10-15 years I reckon.

visit this question again when he's 35. i said a lot of dumb shit about my ability to eat and drink anything before my mid 20s. things are very, very different as i knock on 30s door.

Could one of you (or the >dozen people who favorited these) explain what you mean? Are there studies that indicate that a 35-year-old needs more nutrients than a 20-year-old, or that a 35-year-old can no longer produce certain nutrients endogenously? (I assume you're talking about something much more dire than the normal loss of vigor during these 15 years.)
posted by Mapes at 9:15 PM on August 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well, your metabolism slows around early-mid thirties and at 33, I'm starting to learn the effects of that now. If I have pizza for lunch I want to sleep at my desk, and that didn't happen ten years ago. The way the question was worded, it was like "this person has been eating this way for 20 years" but it's sounds like it's more that this person has been eating this way since they were a little kid, rather than being a 50 year old eating chocolate milk and pasta, in which case there would be more chance of negative health effects to form, whereas the relative youth of a young twenty something would help that person overcome negative diet habits.

So I think people are making and favoriting those comments out of experience, not 'studies show..' and it's not that 35 year olds need more nutrients, it's that eating crappy has a much bigger toll on your body as you get into your 30s and beyond. (See also two day hangovers WTF)
posted by sweetkid at 9:36 PM on August 26, 2011

Mapes, for what it's worth, I didn't get the impression they were referring to either of those things; my thinking was that insulin resistance develops over time, and that some nutritional deficiencies might not show any lasting symptoms until they've been drawn out for a longer time. Both of those things occurred to me, anyway.

For what it's worth, my husband is one of those people that can eat anything, with little variety or nutrient value, and goes through phases where he eats a lot and other times doesn't eat much at all. He only started eating more variety in the past couple years, and even now it's difficult to get him to eat vegetables; he's a meat and starch kind of guy. He's slender but all muscle, about 3% body fat, and never gets sick; he gets a mild cold not even once a year, and I've only seen him WAY sick twice in the nine years we've been together, one of which was food poisoning. He can not exercise at all for a couple years before he even loses muscle (he's an engineer in a desk job). It's way weird. He was a gymnast when he was a kid, then played soccer and was a male cheerleader, and all I can figure is that his body formed the framework back then -- everything gets burned up fast, and goes to muscle if it goes anywhere else -- and has kept the same system/priorities running regardless of what goes in. Not very scientific, I know, but I don't have any better explanation. He has great difficulty gaining any muscle beyond his natural range, or fat either, though.

For what it's worth, apparently his father was very similar at my husband's age -- and now his father is 60-something and overweight, and I believe has been for maybe ten years or so. Still decent health though. A pretty good run, overall, but yeah, stuff does catch up with most people as they get older.

This post reminded me of that guy that has eaten two Big Macs a day for a billion years, though. That guy was really skinny and apparently had decent health. Some people have unusual metabolisms is all I can figure.
posted by Nattie at 9:48 PM on August 26, 2011

The complete lack of fiber could lead to some pretty significant digestive issues another 10-20 years down the road. It's not a matter of not eating fiber being worse for you at 35 than it is at 20 -- it's the fact that by the time you hit 35, you've been doing this for 30+ years and the effects of not eating fiber are cumulative. (Diverticulosis, etc.)

If you're interested in more, I think the typical diagnosis for this kind of behavior is Picky Eater Syndrome. Some of this can also be sensory processing issues.
posted by pie ninja at 5:04 AM on August 27, 2011

Thanks for the clarification!
posted by Mapes at 5:11 AM on August 27, 2011

Does he ever eat candy? About the only benefit you could argue for candy is that it often contains vitamin C.
posted by maryr at 7:55 AM on August 29, 2011

I think a lot of the shock and fear comes from the idea that junk food is "devoid of nutrients", which just... isn't true. Or, furthermore, that "junk food" = any food not currently enjoying a moment in the nutritional spotlight. So you end up in a place where unless it's a goji berry juice fast, it's not really food.

To be perfectly frank, while I totally dig veggies and eat a more varied diet than a lot of people, there are weeks on end where I survive mainly on diet coke and grilled cheese sandwiches. Today I had *gasp* two starches (pasta and potatoes, too, the carbs of DOOOOOOOOM!) and only one veg at lunch, and I'm still alive to tell the tale.

Also, anyone who eats fresh meat on occasion won't get scurvy. So there.
posted by Sara C. at 4:03 PM on August 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

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