It seems everybody knows someone who knows someone who got scurvy during uni. So there was this guy, they say, who ate nothing but instant noodles for a month. Or pizza, according to one report from a Lifehacker staffer. Or porridge, according to one long-running Scottish legend.
Photo: Tushchakorn (Shutterstock)
I have my doubts about these stories. Our staffer, questioned about the pizza-eating scurvy sufferer, wasn’t sure if the time period was one month or six months. And the student’s symptoms? “Eye patch and wooden leg.” OK buddy.
But the scurvy legends live on, so let’s take a look at whether it’s possible to eat so badly you give yourself scurvy, and how long it would take.
What Is Scurvy?
Scurvy, best known as an archaic disease of long-distance sailors, results from a deficiency of vitamin C. Large amounts of vitamin C are found in citrus fruit, like lemons and oranges, but they’re in plenty of other foods too, including most fresh fruits and vegetables.
When 15th and 16th-century sailors went on months-long voyages, they often lived off salted meat and a type of cracker called hardtack. That’s a nearly vitamin C free diet. An experiment in 1747 hinted that citrus fruit could cure the condition, but the medical establishment that believed in the four humours thought it would be going a bit too far to believe in a magical life-giving substance lurking in fruit.
The mystery wasn’t totally solved until the 1930s.
This vitamin is so important because we need it to properly make connective tissue. Collagen is a protein in connective tissue that holds our body together; it’s found in skin, muscles, blood vessels, organs — just about everywhere. Without vitamin C, the body can make collagen, but it can’t link the strands of collagen to each other. The body starts to fall apart.
This can mean losing teeth, but that’s more of a cartoon-friendly visual than a good clinical description of symptoms. At first, a person with scurvy feels tired and achy. Later, they get other symptoms, including swollen gums and a rash that results from bleeding under the skin. They may end up with open sores and yes, they can lose their teeth.
How Long Does It Take to Develop Scurvy?
Historically, we only found scurvy in situations where people went without fresh food for months or years at a time: cities under siege, for example. Could a month of eating pizza or instant noodles do the same thing?
Scientists at the National Institutes of Health studied almost this exact question when they had “healthy young women” spend a month eating a diet that was nutritionally complete except for vitamin C. They could choose their food off a special menu so long as they didn’t eat more than 5mg of the vitamin per day — one ketchup packet for your burger would be fine, but seven would put you over the limit.
After 28 days, most of the women had blood levels of vitamin C that the researchers considered to be severely depleted. They didn’t have symptoms of scurvy, though. (The researchers just wanted to measure how much vitamin C the body needs; they stopped before they actually gave anyone scurvy.)
So a single month of eating terribly won’t do the trick, although two or three months might.
I’m still doubting the pizza story, though. Tomato paste has vitamin C — maybe not a lot, but your descent into scurvy would be a more gradual one. An extra-large slice of Domino’s has nearly 5mg of vitamin C and if you’re living on nothing but Domino’s you’ll certainly have multiple slices per day.
How Much Should I Worry?
“Given our current diet, where 60 per cent of what we eat is highly processed, it may be easier to contract vitamin C deficient scurvy than you might imagine,” says Rachele Pojednic, an assistant professor of nutrition at Simmons College.
You probably won’t recognise the first symptoms, either, because they tend to be fatigue and irritability. Of course an exhausted college student eating nothing but ramen is going to be a little bit tired and cranky.
“Personally, I worry a lot about the rise of scurvy (and other nutrient deficiency diseases),” says Pojednic, “due to the rising rates of eating disorders we are noticing, not to mention these diets that eliminate whole food groups” — supposedly now there is a carnivore diet.
If you’re jealous that polar bears can eat nothing but meat while you can’t, that’s because they make their own vitamin C and don’t need to get it in their diet. We, and a few other animals like guinea pigs, are not so fortunate. So if you’re going to attempt to live off nothing but instant noodles, at least invest in a supply of vitamin pills.