Adventures in Science: Interview with Genevieve Stearns

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Watson Davis: Our Adventure in Science guest today is Dr. Genevieve Stearns, Research Professor at the School of Medicine at the State University of Ireland. Dr. Stearns, for a good many years you've been working on how best to feed children, an extremely important matter in this economy of ours, where we really like children, you know, in the United States- other places, other countries do too for that matter- but I think every mother, every doctor, every pediatrician- the kind of physician who treats, diagnoses, and takes care of children- they are very much interested in this matter of nutrition for children. Will you tell us what you think about it in general?

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Genevieve Stearns: We are very much interested in it too and are fond of children, and like to see them thrive. And so, we have studied for many, many years groups of children whom we- who are perfectly healthy children- and we bring them into the hospital- we did- bring them in, so that we could observe them very carefully and see how they did- how they thrived- under what we thought was good feeding care. It takes a long time to collect enough studies so that you can have a picture of the child all the way through from birth until maturity. So we spent about twenty five years working on the problem as we could.

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Watson Davis: Well Dr. Stearns, actually, uh, this is a little novel approach in part because so much of the time, of necessity of doctors have to be spent on- on children who are sick and here you've taken healthy children, in order that you can prevent children of the future from being sick. And you've studied how they get along- I presume you control some of the diets? That you give these children?

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Genevieve Stearns: Oh yes! Yes indeed.

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Genevieve Stearns: But you can't know how far a sick child is from the normal unless you know where the normal is. And what the normal child does with what he gets. So, at the time we started that wasn't known so we had to start with the normal. And it is a very great help in helping the sick children get back to normal.

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Watson Davis: Well it's a little reassuring, isn't it, that there are normal children-

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Genevieve Stearns: Oh yes!

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Watson Davis: In the American public- among the American people. I think sometimes if you hear about all the troubles that mothers, and doctors, and other have with children, you might get the idea there weren't very many normal children- there actually are a great many normal children.

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Genevieve Stearns: Oh yes.
Watson Davis: And, uh, the normal child- does the normal child nutritionally, and from a standpoint of physical condition, follow- pretty much- these tables that we read about, uh, that are issued or are those going to have to have some changes perhaps in the future?

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Genevieve Stearns: Well, uh, there's- the normal child is a very wide range. It isn't a single pattern child, and children are just as individual as we are. But you have to know how much any group of children will vary among themselves so that you have some sort of a guide as to how to go. But you can't fit all normal children into one pattern.

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Watson Davis: Well that's reassuring too.

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Genevieve Stearns: Uh huh.

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Watson Davis: How many children do you think you've studied over this period of great matter?

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Genevieve Stearns: More than a hundred.

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Watson Davis: More than a hundred?
Genevieve Stearns: Mhm.

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Watson Davis: With very detailed-

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Genevieve Stearns: Yes.

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Watson Davis: Uh, control and recording of what they eat. When they go off and eat a lollipop, uh, do you know that?

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Genevieve Stearns: They don't. They don't go off and eat a lollipop because we're with them.

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Watson Davis: Oh.

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Genevieve Stearns: But we see that they have the same things that the average child has. They play, they have playthings, they have sports, they go to school, they have outdoor exercise. We keep them just as like-

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Genevieve Stearns: The whole pattern of life is just as nearly like that of the average child in home as it is possible to do.

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Watson Davis: It's a very carefully controlled experiment then, in that sense.

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Genevieve Stearns: Unless it's carefully controlled, it isn't worth doing, you know.

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Watson Davis: I see, and do you start in early?

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Genevieve Stearns: We start it at birth.

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Watson Davis: At birth and they carry on through.

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Genevieve Stearns: But you can't study the same child all the time.

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Watson Davis: No, no I see.

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Genevieve Stearns: You pick up different groups of children. Different age groups. [[cross-talk]]

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Watson Davis: For different periods. [[cross-talk]] How long, normally, is one child under observation in this way?

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Genevieve Stearns: Usually, about six months. Some of the toddler-age. Because nobody had studied them, they're too hard to study. It takes tremendous patience. [[laughter]]

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Watson Davis: And a large staff.

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Genevieve Stearns: And loving care and a large staff. Some of them, we've had for as long as 20 months. And they were children of staff or students in the university who were willing to have us take of their children, so you know they felt assured we gave them really good care.

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Watson Davis: Well, I'm sure you did. It's most interesting and very useful to do it, seems to me. Now, in general, have you got some general conclusions? A few weeks ago, Dr. Stearns, you attended a meeting in New York on protein and nutrition, which was under the hospices of the New York Academy of Sciences and the DuPont company.

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Watson Davis: At that meeting, I know they talked about all sorts of things. Particularly, protein requirements of children. Now, what have you found out in that regard?

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Genevieve Stearns: Well, we found that the protein requirement will depend on the age of the child and on the rate of growth of the child, and the rate of growth of his muscles in particular. Because they're the biggest tissue of the body, and something we can watch quite carefully, in rate of growth. And children do not grow evenly throughout the period of childhood.

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Genevieve Stearns: They grow very rapidly in early infancy and begin to slow down in late infancy and keep on slowing down. Until by the time they're 5, they're growing very slowly. We used to wonder why that was true. But now we know it's because they are changing the pattern of their growth.

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Genevieve Stearns: And, we knew that the legs and arms will grow through childhood, much more rapidly than the truck and head grow. And the child has learned to walk, at about a year of age, and he's running around. And it takes a great deal more muscle to hold a little body upright and move it around the room than it for a small baby to lie on its back and wave some very short legs in the air.

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Genevieve Stearns: And, so, during this time, he is growing slowly, he is changing his muscle growth. That's growing very rapidly, far more rapidly than the average person realizes. And he almost, his muscle growth is, amounts to practically half of his total body increase in weight during the first three, during the years from 1 to 4.

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Genevieve Stearns: And if he doesn't get enough protein to make good muscle, then by the time he's 4 years old, his little shoulder blades are sticking out at a sharp angle and he stands with his stomach sticking out in front, what doctors call fatigue posture. But if he gets enough protein, then he maintains a very good body position and is very, very active.

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Genevieve Stearns: Some parents have said to me, "Oh, when we feed them badly-", jestingly, because no one would feed them badly. But a child who is fed, enough protein, has so much more energy and is so much more active than a child who is not fed well. But because these children aren't very hungry, they don't eat a much as they did when they were babies, total food.

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Genevieve Stearns: They're very, and they're very independent. They want to eat it themselves. So families have to compromise and give them things they can eat very easily themselves. Mashed potatoes and gravy, and bread and butter.

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Genevieve Stearns: and they need more protein foods,

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and they need to be taught to eat higher protein foods,

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they need to be taught to chew meat, very early

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so that they would do it when they become older

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and, uh, a little meat, and egg, and two/three glasses of milk a day

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make a great deal of difference

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in the amount of muscle that a child can grow at this period.

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Watson Davis: Well protein for muscles is a good slogan then isn't it
Genevieve Stearns: It is

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Watson Davis: and particularly for these youngsters at this age,
Genevieve Stearns: we think so, particularly, yes, uh-huh

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Watson Davis: and you say it's meat and eggs and milk

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Watson Davis: for, for these
Genevieve Stearns: for us, yes, many countries can have those proteins

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Genevieve Stearns: but we can, because there are cheap cuts of meat,

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that are very nutritious.

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Milk, dried skim milk is just as nutritious,

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and very cheap, so at almost any level,

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that we have to spend on our food

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we can get good nutrition.

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Good protein nutrition

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Watson Davis: well that's that's very interesting and you need a lot of that, to-
Genevieve Stearns: You need a lot of it.

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Watson Davis: Well how about the older people, although you haven't been working in that field

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you know about it, should there be a higher protein intake if you're -

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Genevieve Stearns: well, uh, most, you mean adults?
Watson Davis: Yes.
Genevieve Stearns: Most adults-
Watson Davis: Or adolescents-

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-adolescents can still and will take indefinite amounts of protein

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if they're allowed to through childhood they need a high protein diet

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and until they have their growth completely,

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but unfortunately most of us adults overeat

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Watson Davis: You mean retired businessman shouldn't have steaks perhaps, or-
Genevieve Stearns: Oh yes, he doesn't-

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Genevieve Stearns: He doesn't need a steak as big as his two hands, [[laughter]]

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his adolescent son can use it and handle it very well

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but the tired businessmen would do probably a lot better

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if he cut at least a third off his diet

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and exercised at least twice as much or more, regularly.

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We tend to eat the food our children should have

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Watson Davis: And do the children eat the food that we ought to have?

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Genevieve Stearns: Yes, they eat too much carbohydrate and not enough protein, the average school-child in America.

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Watson Davis: One idea that I've heard suggested was that a person who is normally thin and a person who is normally fat ought to order the foods they like and then exchange. Would that work, do you think, Dr. Stearns, in some of these cases?

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Genevieve Stearns: Well I think if the person who's normally thin is lucky, he probably has better dietary habits than the person who's normally fat. Although a stocky-build person, who has a big frame, is always going to need much more food. But Americans, adult Americans, all, practically, all overeat.

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Watson Davis: But that doesn't really apply--

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Genevieve Stearns: And under-exercise.

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Watson Davis: That's, that's the adults. But the children actually--

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Genevieve Stearns: The children will be much more active, with a good diet. You see, I come from a farm-state. And any farmer can tell you-- [[cross-talk]]

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Watson Davis: Iowa. [[cross-talk]]

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Genevieve Stearns: Iowa, yes. Any farmer can tell you, he watches his protein supplements, very carefully, with his animals. Unfortunately, many of them watch more carefully with the animals than they do with their children. And that is equally true of city people. They don't seem, they think as long as a child is full, that's all that matters.

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Watson Davis: Would you advocate, Dr. Stearns, that you ought to pay as much attention to your children as your livestock?

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Genevieve Stearns: Certainly. [[laughter]]

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Watson Davis: Because, after all, they are one of the great resources. The human resources are extremely important in this country. And it seems to me that the kind of research that you're carrying on so long and so intensively, and so effectively, is very important in order that mothers and fathers can know how best to feed their children.

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Watson Davis: Well, thank you very much, Dr. Stearns. Our Adventures in Science guest today has been Dr. Genevieve Stearns, research professor at the School of Medicine at the State University of Iowa.