DEAR DR. BLONZ: How long can a body go without food? A friend who just suffered a devastating loss has been unable to eat anything. She says she has no appetite, and when she tries to eat anything, her body rejects the food and she throws up. Of course she is losing weight, and has this pale, unhealthy complexion. -- S.F., Santa Clara, California
DEAR S.F.: Deprived of nourishment, the body undergoes a series of adaptations designed to extend life and scale back unnecessary usages of energy. Normally there is constant action in our digestive system: enzymes to be made, cells maturing or being replaced, digestive muscles primed to go. But with no food coming in, the digestive system goes "lights out." When foods are then reintroduced, it can bring about queasiness or nausea until the system is again firing with all cylinders.
Without incoming calories, the body slows down its metabolic rate and lowers its temperature. This means that there will be less circulation near the skin surface, which is one of the reasons why people who go without food feel chilled and tend to have a sallow look about them.
As a friend, you represent an essential source of support. The fact that she is not able to eat indicates that professional assistance may be needed to help her through this rough time. Don't wait.
In the meantime, the body requires more water than any other thing we ingest, so encourage your friend to consume water -- perhaps even sport drinks, as they provide some electrolytes and calories.
If pressed, the human body can survive for many weeks without food, but we would last only a few days without water. The outcome depends on one's state of health, the amount of excess energy (translation: body fat) present at the start of the fast, and whether the body received essential hydration and electrolyte support during the deprivation. I would hope that your friend finds the solace she seeks before testing the limits of her endurance.
DEAR DR. BLONZ: I have read that chromium can alter DNA. I have been taking 200 micrograms a day of chromium picolinate for approximately eight years. Should I be concerned? -- R.S., Glendale, Arizona
DEAR R.S.: Many individuals take supplements that contain chromium. There was some preliminary research reporting that chromium picolinate might have an ability to damage DNA. The research did not really apply to chromium naturally present in foods, or to chromium picolinate taken as a supplement.
At present, dietary chromium has a relatively good safety record, but I will keep you informed if that changes due to more recent studies. The level you are taking is in the National Academy of Science's safe and adequate range, which is set at 50-200 micrograms per day. The "No Observed Adverse Effect Level" (the level at which there are no credibly substantiated adverse reactions) for chromium is 1,000 micrograms per day. Read more on chromium at tinyurl.com/jf8mjgx.
Send questions to: "On Nutrition," Ed Blonz, c/o Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to email@example.com. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.