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Sheldon Margen, 85; Nutrition Pioneer Helped Establish Diet Guidelines

Times Staff Writer

Dr. Sheldon Margen, a pioneer in nutritional science whose research was used as a foundation for some of the dietary guidelines now listed on packaged food in the United States, has died. He was 85.

Margen, who also co-founded the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter, one of the first of its kind, died of cancer Dec. 18 at his home in Berkeley.

Starting in the 1960s, Margen helped to establish the minimum daily requirements of protein, trace minerals and other components of a healthful adult diet. He arrived at his conclusions in part by testing a wide range of diets, with help from volunteers.

In one of his quirkier studies, funded by NASA in 1965, Margen compared the effects of a liquid diet and a diet of solid foods. The immediate goal was to determine the best option for astronauts. For two weeks, six volunteers lived on liquid starch and sugar, egg albumen, citrus acid, natural oils, minerals and vitamins. Six others ate solid foods, primarily meat, cinnamon toast and fruit cocktail.

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“The problem was to figure out how to get enough nourishment into the diet and do so using consumable food,” said Dale Ogar, managing editor of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter, who worked with Margen on various projects for more than 30 years.

Volunteers who took part in the project favored the liquid food option, Margen announced in a news conference in June 1965. He warned, however, that neither option was recommended for long-term use. Either would upset the body’s familiar nutritional balance and could lead to mental and physical difficulties, he said.

Well aware of food fads and trends, Margen often recommended a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains and low in saturated fat. He spoke against quick-loss diets, arguing that they destroy protein and vital tissue.

He corrected a misconception that grapefruit burns fat, saying that no food can do that. He opposed a popular weight-loss diet that consists primarily of meat and eggs, citing such dangers as kidney failure and mineral deficiencies.

He also was cautious about vitamin supplements, saying in interviews that he personally did not take vitamin C, beta-carotene or other antioxidants. “When people start using supplements, they will start forgetting these things come in foods,” Margen told USA Today in 1992.

Much of what he garnered in his research and testing was included in the Wellness Letter, a monthly publication launched in 1984 to offer practical advice about staying healthy. He defined “wellness” as “the optimum state of health and well-being an individual is capable of achieving.” To make it the subject of a monthly newsletter “was considered one of those flaky California ideas,” Margen later told USA Today.

“The Letter was conceived at a time when there was not much in the way of health information,” he said in a 2001 interview with the Contra Costa Times. Since then, he noted, “interest in self-help has grown a great deal.”

Currently there are more than 300,000 subscribers.

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At Margen’s recommendation, proceeds from the newsletter have been used to benefit students at the Berkeley School of Public Health. A number of scholarship and work-study programs have been funded by the newsletter’s royalties, which amount to about $11 million to date.

With Dr. John Swartzberg, he wrote several books based on the contents of the newsletter. Their first book, “The UC Berkeley Wellness Self-Care Handbook” (1998), offers home remedies for such minor health problems as poison ivy and snoring. Their second, “The Complete Home Wellness Handbook” (2001), defines common medical problems, explains their causes, suggests remedies and prevention methods and advises when to call a doctor.

A native of Chicago, Margen moved to Los Angeles with his parents when he was young. He graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in zoology. He earned his medical degree at UC San Francisco in 1943.

He married Jeanne Sholtz in 1944 and spent the first two years of marriage as a doctor in the U.S. Army during World War II.

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After the war, he practiced medicine in the San Francisco area until he joined the Berkeley faculty in 1956. He was appointed chairman of the university’s Department of Nutritional Sciences in 1970. Nine years later, he moved to Berkeley’s School of Public Health. He retired in 1989. Earlier this year, the library at the School of Public Health was named after him.

In addition to his wife, Margen is survived by three sons and two grandsons. Donations in his name can be made to Doctors Without Borders, Amnesty International and Planned Parenthood.


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