The Presidential Assassin Lurking at Your Next Cookout

It was his second time celebrating the Fourth of July at his job. And it'd be his last...

President Zachary Taylor was listening to speeches at a groundbreaking celebration for the Washington Monument. And it was sweltering outside.

Once it was finally over, he chugged water and ice-cold milk. And he also snacked on some raw veggies and fresh cherries.

But that night, his stomach started hurting. Then he started vomiting.

The following day, the feverish Taylor started having bloody diarrhea, too.

Over the next three days, the vomiting, cramps, and bloody diarrhea worsened. And on July 9, 1850, his body gave out and he died at the age of 65.

The president's official cause of death was cholera – a bacterial infection in the gut – from drinking contaminated water. Back then, primitive sewage systems meant summertime outbreaks of cholera were common.

Some medical historians think the culprit could have been contaminated water used to wash the cherries, or the milk being raw and/or spoiled. After all, this happened back in 1850, before milk pasteurization became common practice.

It's estimated that 48 million Americans come down with food poisoning each year from eating contaminated food. Gastrointestinal intruders also land 128,000 folks in the hospital every year. And worse, 3,000 end up dying.

The most vulnerable folks include very young kids and infants, adults aged 65 or older, and anyone with a weakened immune system. A startling 50% of older Americans who get sick from salmonella, listeria, E. coli, or campylobacterinfections end up in the hospital. As for the biggest offender, norovirus takes top prize for being the most common cause of food poisoning in the U.S.

Symptoms like nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, diarrhea, weakness, fever, chills, and headache usually start from two to six hours after dining on the unfortunate dish. Some pathogens can cause symptoms to rear up in as little as a few hours. Others may take days – even weeks – to emerge.

And even if you don't die from a foodborne illness, you could end up permanently damaging your body in other ways...

Those outcomes range from kidney failure caused by E. coli... to painful arthritis due to salmonella... to neurological problems caused by your immune system attacking your nerves resulting from campylobacter infections.

But you can keep two simple acronyms in mind – CSCC and FFF – to foil the potential killer lurking in that potato salad...

Clean, Separate, Cook, and Chill ('CSCC')

Clean: It goes without saying – wash your hands with soap and warm water. Clean the sink and counter space before washing fresh produce. Make sure to use cold water, though... Giving your veggies a hot spring bath can trigger the cells to absorb water – and any bad bugs. Use clean cooking utensils. And wipe down surfaces with a bleach-based solution to kill the particularly hardy norovirus.

Separate: You've done your duty of washing your leafy greens to remove any, say, salmonella bugs. But chop up those leaves on a board smeared with juices from a raw chicken, and that bacterial ball could land back in your court thanks to cross-contamination.

Cook: Get a food thermometer to be extra safe. Poultry should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit, for instance.

Chill: Don't leave out any perishable food for more than two hours – chuck them in the refrigerator. If the food is sitting out at, say, a picnic when it's 90 degrees outside, wait no longer than an hour before refrigerating. If you're thawing frozen meat, poultry, or seafood, do it in the fridge.

Fibrous and Fermented Foods ('FFF')

In the spirit of (hopefully) easy-to-remember mnemonics, here's my little acronym for fibrous and fermented foods. And you should strive to eat them every day.

That's because a healthy diet rich in both types of foods is key for a healthy gut... which very well may be your bulletproof vest against a nasty pathogen.

Loading up on fermented foods boosts the diversity of the population of microbes living in your gut. That's according to a December 2023 study published in Science... The more different kinds of bugs you have, the more likely one of them happens to prefer the same food as a pathogen. By gobbling up the food, that gut bug of yours prevents the bad bugs from growing their numbers.

The fiber you eat is like a meal from a Michelin-star restaurant for your gut bugs. In return for this premium feast, the bugs in your colon tip you in short-chain fatty acids, or SCFAs. SCFAs are chemical byproducts of gut-bug fermentation. And they regulate how your neutrophils work.

(Neutrophils are a type of white blood cell. They're often referred to as the "first responders" of your immune system. That's because these cellular EMTs are one of the first immune cells to arrive at the scene of an injury or infection to your body's tissues.)

In fact, a November 2023 study found that compared with a low-fiber, high-sugar diet, a high-fiber, low-sugar diet was associated with greater inactivation numbers of the listeria-causing bug.

If you do come down with food poisoning, though, stick to bland, low-fat, and low-fiber foods that are easier to digest. (And remember to get plenty of fluids if you have diarrhea or vomiting.) But once you've made a full recovery, you'll want to be proactive in rebuilding a healthy, balanced gut-bug population...

I love Greek yogurt for a protein-packed boost of beneficial bacteria. And I especially love cabbage in its sauerkraut and kimchi incarnations. Grab refrigerated sauerkraut that's labeled "raw," "unpasteurized," and/or "probiotic" to get the live goodies. The unrefrigerated, shelf-stable stuff still has lots of fiber, vitamins, and minerals... But it's otherwise a probiotic graveyard.

So this summer, don't let a foodborne illness ruin your fun. Foil the enemy with a two-pronged defense... Block them with safe food-handling practices and bolster your innate immune system while you're at it.

By the way, there's another disease of the gut out there – one that will kill roughly 53,000 Americans this year. And it's also estimated that the U.S. will rack up nearly 107,000 new cases of it. I covered it in a recent Retirement Millionaire issue, which you can try out a subscription of right here.

What We're Reading...

 Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
May 23, 2024