Sir Robert McCarrison is not a household name, but in the 1920s this honorary physician to the King, head of post-graduate medical education at Oxford and proponent of nutrition, played an influential role in the birth of the organic food movement in Britain — and perhaps in contemporary nutrition research as well.

I thought about him again, reading a New York Times article on calorie restriction and longevity, a field of study gaining more weight (so to speak).

Based on studies McCarrison had done in north India starting in 1907, he found that a simple “peasant” diet of beans, whole grains, dairy products like yogurt, and very little meat and alcohol led to remarkable health among a tribe known as the Hunza. Aside from a frugal diet, the Hunza also burned off a calories working on terraced mountain fields in the thin mountain air of the Himalayan foothills.

I came across McCarrison while researching my book Organic Inc., and became fascinated with his work, since his findings filtered down into contemporary thinking about “whole” foods. Now they are echoing in nutrition research as well.

McCarrison, like researchers today, fed varying diets to rats (now they use monkeys). He found that rats on the north Indian whole food diet “lived happily together.”

Rats fed a diet of the “poorer classes in Britain,” which consisted of white bread, margarine, sweetened tea with milk, boiled cabbage ,and tinned meats became “stunted” and lived “unhappily together.” They soon began to bite the attendants and then kill and eat the weaker animals.

Much of this work was later romanticized (the Hunzas became something of a Shangri-La to the early organic movement, in the way that westerners often romanticize the East) but the findings still hold weight.

The NYT caught this nutritional dichotomy in a graphic, comparing a calorie-restricted diet of soybeans, carrots, tofu, seaweed, and the like with the eggs and bacon, sandwich and fries, and steak dinner of a high-caloric western diet. It could well be the diet McCarrison promoted nearly a century ago.

Would I want to eat it? That’s another issue entirely, more relevant to the difficulty of maintaining “healthy” diets.