Feel Like a Million: the Catharyn Elwood Interview

Nutritionist Catharyn Elwood, author of "Feel Like a Million," discusses the health problems created by nutritional deficiency, the hazards of modern industrially processed food, and the health value of natural whole foods.

Feel Like a Million - Catharyn Elwood

Catharyn Elwood's nutrition book "Feel Like a Million" became a best seller following its publication in 1956.


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Nutritionist Catharyn Elwood is the gracious, camera-shy author ofa book on nutrition and health which still sells briskly after ten printings and a circulation of over half a million copies. A slight lady who wears her hair braided in a ponytail down to her hips and volunteers that she's "one year younger than Adelle Davis,"  Miss Elwood seems to take the quotation from Socrates on the title page of that book — "One cannot get closer to the gods than to bring health to one's fellow men" — as the credo of her life.

Catharyn graduated from the Agricultural College in Logan, Utah (now Utah State University), continued her studies at Cornell and received an M.S. in food and nutrition from the University of Maryland. She now teaches at Montgomery Junior College in Washington, D.C. and at the University of Northern Virginia Community College.

The following interview with Miss Elwood was conducted last September by Hal Smith at the School of Living's "Conference on Adequate Action for a Human Future" held near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

PLOWBOY: You were sick and frail as a child, Miss Elwood. Other authorities in your field such as George Oshawa and Michel Abehsera were also very ill before they began to concern themselves with nutrition. Does it take a knock-down drag-out bout with sickness to really turn us on to the value of proper foods and good health?

ELWOOD: Yes, it does seem to work that way. I often find people who had radiant health as children falling to pieces as 40 and 50-year-olds from bad eating habits, whereas someone brought up in a delicate condition someone who had to struggle for the answer to his health problems  has probably learned the value of eating well to supply his body with the necessary repair and building materials. The people who are fortunate enough to learn this later in life can sometimes make themselves even more robust than those who are born with good health and lose it.

In my own case, I didn't walk until I was 19 months old, and even then they had to put special shoes on my feet because my ankles turned. My baby teeth decayed (of course that was because of an indulgent father who always brought me candy) and I had something wrong with me every year in school. Sometimes I was out for two or three months at a time. I had pneumonia, smallpox, measles, chickenpox the whole gamut of childhood diseases and always very serious cases.

Even today, my face tells a story of nutritional crippling from childhood. My face is pinched and my dental arch is narrow. This caused my teeth to crowd one another as they came in, and some had to be pulled. Such crippling will show throughout life.

PLOWBOY: Feel Like A Million was first published in 1956. What changes, if any, in national attitudes toward health and foods have you noticed since then?

ELWOOD: The changes have been fantastic! It's like a tidal wave. In Washington we once had to advertise and do so many things to get a crowd out for one of my appearances, but now I'm wanted everywhere. People are anxious to learn about nutrition today. I'm going to repeat my class at Montgomery College because 340 people registered for the last one. Others at the University of Northern Virginia heard about the course so I'm teaching it over there too.

PLOWBOY: How do you account for this change in attitude about nutrition?

ELWOOD: I don't know. Perhaps it's because we've hit rock bottom. Our diseases are so frightening, our hospitals so overcrowded, we don't have enough doctors and people are tired of having to live on drugs for the rest of their lives. I have a friend my age who is now on a drug program for Parkinson's disease. She has to take L-Dopa every day for the rest of her life. Vitamin B 6 is supposed to be a very specific natural treatment for Parkinson's disease, but here she is taking L-Dopa. People are tired of that and don't want to treat their bodies that way any more.

PLOWBOY: You recommend Adelle Davis. Are there other nutritionists that you endorse?

ELWOOD: Mercy, yes. I recommend anyone who's written anything good on nutrition. All our nutritional information really comes from the research laboratories and it's usually reported in the medical literature.

PLOWBOY: But there are so many "experts" and they often seem to contradict each other. How's the layman to know whose guidance to follow?

ELWOOD: I know the poor laymen are confused and I wish I could say that this is the way to do it. My program works and the people who follow it get results. They start feeling like a million instead of a million years old. You should read the fan mail. It's most rewarding.

But then I hear the success stories of other methods and, instead of criticizing them, I say, "Let's find out about it. How did you do it? How did you achieve the cure?" This has made me sympathetic to a good many things that are far out and which don't seem to make any sense.

Macrobiotics, for example, doesn't make any sense there isn't any vitamin C in the strictest diets yet I know half a dozen people for whom macrobiotics worked when nothing else would. Whether it's a matter of resting the body, whether there's something soothing about brown rice, I don't know what it is but I've heard fabulous tales of success. (The macrobiotic diets have also produced some miserable failures. They do lack essential nutrients, especially the brown rice-only version,  and cases of macrobiotic-induced starvation, anemia, and abnormal susceptibility to disease have been reported.—Ed. )

I also know people who've overcome the most incurable conditions with fasting. Many things seem far out and absurd, almost ridiculous, yet the body manages. Who am I to say something doesn't work? We have a lot to learn yet about nutrition. I preach my own little method, which I know is easy to follow. It's pleasant eating, some of it's new enough to be fun, and the rest requires very little change from the kinds of food most people in our culture are used to eating. It gets results, but that doesn't mean that other nutritional programs won't get results too.

PLOWBOY: One of the experts I'm thinking of is the late J. I. Rodale, who warned against eating bread — even bread made of whole grains.

ELWOOD: I know. He warned against both bread and milk, the two staples of diets in many areas where civilization, while perhaps not so sophisticated as ours, has nevertheless thrived for centuries and continues to thrive. How can we explain it?

I think the point is that the body itself has lost much of its ability to digest and utilize food. And the foods we get today have been so tampered with, so changed by modern techniques of preservation, that we're not getting the same wholesome products we got before.

Take protein, for instance. Everybody's crying for more protein they can't get enough. And it's true. Corn used to be 10 % protein and now it's only 5%. We used to get wheat that was 18% protein, but now it's down to between 8 and 12%. Yet these decreases didn't have to happen. Dr. William Albrecht, the wonderful soil scientist from the University of Missouri he's retired now but what a champion for husbanding the soil! has produced wheat that is 32% protein.

Now, granted that content is only the the beginning if any of the eight essential amino acids are missing, you'll be in trouble no matter how much protein you eat but starting off with only half the protein you could be getting might well double that trouble. And it's all so unnecessary. This problem has come about because we've allowed the soil to be depleted of the minerals that the plants need for the development of protein.

PLOWBOY: How much protein should we get, by the way? Estimates generally range from 100 to 150 grams per day, but some experts say that much less is acceptable.

ELWOOD: That depends on how large you are and what you do. At the turn of the century, Drs. Fletcher and Chittenden put 26 men who worked hard both physically and mentally on a diet of a mere 50 grams of protein a day. The men stayed in fine health because they were in "nitrogen balance:" the protein they ate equaled the protein they eliminated. Undoubtedly, though, the proteins used in this experiment were far different from the proteins we're getting today. They weren't eating 5% corn.

PLOWBOY: There is currently a great deal of controversy about the "enrichment" of processed foods. Can synthetic additives really make commercially prepared and manufactured foodstuffs as nourishing as foods in which the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients are naturally present?

ELWOOD: Well, there's so much we don't understand about nutrition yet, and almost every day it seems we discover something vital in whole food that's not in processed foods at all.

When Dr. Roger Williams ran experiments in which he fed rats "enriched" bread, 76% of the rats died within 90 days if I remember correctly. That's frightening, as well as ironic, considering that it was Dr. Williams' brother who held the patent on synthetic vitamin B 1 and was responsible for the so-called enrichment of bread in the first place. The brother rammed that program through during the Second World War when other countries were stopping the high refinement of their food and when many of our finest authorities on nutrition men like Ancel Keys and the late Dr. Edward McCollum from Johns Hopkins University were fighting to stop food refining here. But we wouldn't do it. We played ball with industry and processed our foods and tried to make up the difference with synthetics. Which of course pleased the makers of those synthetics very much. Now twenty or thirty years later, we find that rats can't live on these manufactured foods.

Dr. Williams would now like to add pyridoxine and some other factors that have never been added to so-called enriched foods before because he's tested and found that the rats will live longer when these elements are added. We shouldn't put up with it, of course. The real answer is to stop depending on programs of "enrichment" altogether and return to natural foods.

PLOWBOY: How do you feel about the general use of vitamin supplements?

ELWOOD: I think they're marvelous if people are deficient, and I don't know anybody who isn't today. I hope I can live to see the time when our food is so highly nourishing grown properly, prepared properly and stored properly that we won't need supplements, but until that day arrives I'm certainly in favor of them.

PLOWBOY: Which supplements do you generally recommend?

ELWOOD: Well, people are so anemic today. Many adult women and one of every three children under the age of six is anemic and the disease has many causes. Iron supplements will help when anemia is a direct result of a lack of the mineral in the diet. Sometimes, however, the iron is there but we just lack the stomach acids to dissolve it. Another type of anemia hemolytic occurs when the red blood cells die too young because of a vitamin E deficiency. Whole grains contain vitamin E but 98% of the grain we eat is refined. So where are we going to get this vitamin unless we supplement our diet with wheat germ or vitamin E capsules?

There are other deficiencies that supplements will help. Dr. Linus Pauling, you know, has recently pointed out our woeful need for vitamin C. I would argue with him slightly about the fact that he's content to get this vitamin from ascorbic acid when we know from many tests that foods with natural vitamin C are effective when ascorbic acid isn't, but I can't be dogmatic here either. Ascorbic acid does get results and I applaud every statement that Pauling makes.

To give another specific example, everyone who knows anything about nutrition knows that the health of all the mucous membranes depends on vitamin A. Such people have a wonderful remedy for colds: When they feel one coming on, they take 100,000 units of vitamin A in addition to the massive doses of vitamin C that Linus Pauling recommends, and that clears them up in a day or two.

We should also realize that lack of the B-complex vitamins in our diet can be very serious. There isn't an area of the body that isn't affected by this deficiency. The B-complex is naturally found in wheat germ, the bran of grain, and rice polishings, none of which makes up a noticeable portion of the average modern processed diet. The missing B vitamins and a lot of protein too may be supplied by a yeast supplement.

By the way, I had an awfully interesting experience recently that illustrates the importance of just one of the B-complex vitamins: B 6 , or niacin. A boy in my first class at Montgomery College had one of the worst complexions I've ever seen. When he asked if I could help him with his skin, I told him to take 3,000 milligrams of niacin and 3,000 of vitamin C every day. Later in the year, he came up to me with what can only be described as a new face and said, "I didn't tell you that I'd been depressed and thought about suicide before. Now I'm reborn! I'm going back to school and I'll never be able to thank you."

Niacin is also the courage vitamin and I tell everybody, "Don't go through a day when you feel discouraged. For heaven's sake, take some niacin." I don't usually recommend single vitamins like that, because if you take only one while others are lacking, their deficiencies will accumulate and get serious. Certainly, though, I recommend niacin for people who would otherwise have days when they're mentally disturbed, blue, and despondent.

The point is, however, that all the vitamins are essential. If you eat only foods that are deficient day after day, the deficiencies pile up until maybe you'll have to take vitamin supplements all your life.

PLOWBOY: What about multiple vitamins then?

ELWOOD: Yes, they can be useful. If a person is generally run down, it's probably because he lacks several vitamins at once. I'm not opposed to an individual taking a general supplement, especially as he gets older, given the food that most of us eat nowadays. But unless the deficiencies constitute a condition that's so serious it can't be corrected, we shouldn't have to take such supplements indefinitely. The idea is to recognize our deficiencies, make them up, and then gradually wean ourselves away from supplements by eating good, pure, naturally grown foods.

PLOWBOY: What is the difference between organic and nonorganic vitamins? Does it really make a difference which we use?

ELWOOD: That question calls for a long answer (laughs), but very briefly, we have come to call "organic" those nutrients that have gone through the process of growth: the iron which is offered to you through spinach, kale, or apricots, for example. If the nutrient is part of a mineral rather than animal or vegetable substance, we call it "nonorganic." That's really the only difference. Some people's bodies can make good use of the non-organic nutrients, but we know that the organic substances are more easily and completely digested.

PLOWBOY: Many tests have shown that chemical fertilizers are bad for the soil, but what about plants? What difference does it make to a plant whether its nutrients are artificial or natural? Isn't it true, for example, that phosphorous is phosphorous no matter where it comes from?

ELWOOD: Of course, there's a tremendous argument about that, with proofs offered by both sides. I tend to take the word of the real plant authorities such as Dr. Albrecht and the followers of the biodynamic method of composting. According to them, naturally fertile soil's main advantage is the micro-life it contains. They say that a single pin head of humus the decomposed organic matter that makes up nature's fertilizer contains as many micro-organisms as there are people in New York City. The whole theory is very technical but the general idea is that it's this micro-life that helps make naturally grown nutrients more completely available to the body.

PLOWBOY: Alright. Several times now, you've said that the right foods will supply all the nutrients we need. What heads your list of nearly perfect foods?

ELWOOD: Growing, sprouting seeds. Sprouts have the life-element in them. They contain vast quantities of vitamin C and have been such effective cures for that old killer, scurvy. Because of their tremendous vitamin B content, they're marvelous for beri-beri and its pre-symptoms of worry, agitation, indigestion — all those B-complex deficiency diseases that started with the refining of food.

PLOWBOY: What are the best seeds to sprout and how do you do it?

ELWOOD: Mung beans are the easiest. That's the bean the Chinese use so much and which you find in chop suey. The Chinese sprout them in five-gallon tins by punching a few drainage holes in the bottom of the cans, pouring in several pounds of seed and keeping them moist.

You can do the same thing on a much smaller scale and, if you do it right, you'll get sprouts two or three inches long. I like to soak mine at least 8 to 24 hours, depending on the temperature (in the winter they need more soaking than in the summer), until they swell. Then it's simply a matter of keeping the seeds in the dark and properly moistened. Flush them with fresh water three or four times a day and allow them to drain properly and one tablespoon of seeds will make a whole cupful of sprouts.

As soon as you've mastered the art, you'll have sprouts every meal. If you can't get quality food from the stores, you'll get it from your own little garden right in the kitchen. For about three cents a day you can harvest a tremendous amount of nourishment. I'm doing a book on the subject now called How to Sprout Your Way to Health on Pennies a Day.

PLOWBOY: In Feel Like a Million you stated that the greatest sin against America's health is the use of refined carbohydrates. What, exactly, is wrong with refined flour and sugar? Let's take flour first.

ELWOOD: I guess it would be easier to list what's right with it. To begin with, much of the minerals and B-complex vitamins in grains is lost for direct human consumption when the outer covering the bran is discarded and used for animal feed. The protein is also destroyed and you're left with starch, which can't be digested without the B-complex. Removing the bran, then, results in nervous disorders, obesity, and constipation.

The bleaching agent nitrogen trichloride used to make white flour whiter is poisonous and some investigators link it to ulcers, schizophrenia, and multiple sclerosis.

Finally, the germ of all the grains has within it a reproducing power in the form of vitamin E. This vitamin is used in the manufacture of RNA and DNA, it's vital for both fertility and individual cell repair, and lack of E can lead to muscle deterioration and sterility. As might be expected, this vitamin is also removed during the refining process to prevent spoilage of the flour.

PLOWBOY: And sugar?

ELWOOD: I believe the time will come when everyone recognizes that the real cholesterol problem is caused by refined sugar. Doctors Yudkin and Cleave in England have proven that. There are groups of people around the world who eat lots more saturated fats than we do and never have a cholesterol problem. The difficulty follows indulgence in refined sugar and you can't get away from it if you eat the foods of commerce. Even canned foods have brine in them, made of sugar and salt. There's more sugar than fruit in the fruits packed in heavy syrup. You get sugar in everything today, even mayonnaise and ketchup. And the soft drinks and their terrible, devastating reaction of sugar with the teeth! I remember when diet colas were first advertised as having no sugar. Of course, as soon as cyclamates were exposed as a health hazard, the manufacturers started adding sugar to their diet colas again.

PLOWBOY: Few experts on nutrition, it seems, have linked sugar to cholesterol in this way. Most, in fact, continue to attack the cholesterol problem by recommending that we cut our consumption of eggs and substitute vegetable oils for butter and animal fat. Some even carry on heated arguments about specific vegetable oils. Do you recommend a particular one?

ELWOOD: Sunflower oil has the most unsaturated fats and is bound to be the craze, but there's much more to it than that. We must know, for example, how the oils are processed and the temperatures to which they are heated during that processing. Heat, you know, destroys the vitamin E complex which is the preservative that prevents the unsaturated fatty acids from making the seriously detrimental hydrogen peroxide in the body. Even cold-pressed oils rise somewhat in temperature during their manufacture, but if the process is done carefully, this heating can be kept at an absolute minimum.

I once saw olive oil made outside Athens in a 100-year-old press that cut the olives and squeezed the oil into terracotta jars. Oil processed and stored that way lasts for years and years. Some has been found still good after two centuries. It's fantastic. They haven't taken out the vitamin E and they haven't destroyed anything.

Oil should taste like the product from which it comes, but all oils taste alike today, which says something about how they're manufactured. The processors say that the modern consumer doesn't want peanut oil that tastes like peanuts, but we'd want it if we could get it and could get used to it.

PLOWBOY: Is margarine preferable to butter?

ELWOOD: Oh no, it depends on how each is made. Quality butter from well-fed animals has many nutrients that margarine doesn't contain. There's a "Factor X," to site one example, that's supposed to help prevent arthritis. It comes from cows fed on beautiful, fresh green feed such as is found in Alpine meadows early in the spring. The people in the Swiss Alps make butter from this milk and store it for the rest of the season.

PLOWBOY: You and other authorities on nutrition have often said that pasteurization destroys much of milk's value. If raw milk isn't available, what's the alternative?

ELWOOD: I guess the best thing to do is get yourself a goat. People who have growing families should have some milk, although I think milk has been acclaimed beyond its real value. It isn't as perfect a food as we once thought, perhaps because the soil no longer adequately feeds our dairy animals, or because they're penned in, or because of the antibiotics and drugs our agri-business now uses on them.

Another complication is the fact that some people just cannot digest milk. If you live in a rural area where milk is definitely a staple, such as Bulgaria and the middle European countries, your body will keep producing the enzymes that digest it. But when you live in a country like the United States where we don't use so much milk, it's quite common for your body to lack the milk-digesting enzymes once you're weaned and have your teeth. You can run into all kinds of trouble allergies, for example if you continue to drink milk after your body loses its ability to digest this food.

There's also a growing question about the hormones the natural, animal hormones, not the synthetic, injected ones in milk which cause such rapid growth. These hormones are in cow's milk to make baby calves grow very fast, but human babies were not designed to mature that rapidly and the robust growth which cow's milk gives to children may actually be harmful in the long run.

PLOWBOY: But, of course, not everyone will want or be able to get a goat. Many of us will continue drinking cow's milk. Pasteurized, at that. In such a case, I believe you recommend adding powdered skim milk to pasteurized milk to restore what the pasteurizing destroys.

ELWOOD: Yes, and I also add a little fresh bran. One of the enzymes destroyed by pasteurization is phosphatase. Without it, our bodies can't use phosphorous and without phosphorous we can't assimilate calcium. A tablespoon of fresh bran added to a glass of milk will supply some of the phosphatase destroyed by pasteurization.

PLOWBOY: I know that you endorse, one dairy product, yogurt, very strongly. Why is that?

ELWOOD: Because it offers the colon so many friendly bacteria and because it has a high mineral and protein content if it's in a slightly acid state. Yogurt is very easy to digest, too.

PLOWBOY: Your mention of calcium a moment ago reminds me that you also suggest getting this element from bones and egg shells. How?

ELWOOD: One simple way is to soak the bones or shells in vinegar or lemon juice; lemon juice is better because it acts faster. Pour off the liquid and use it in drinks, soups, salad dressings, anything. Dolomite is another good source of calcium.

PLOWBOY: You've written that meat is digested fairly easily, which is usually disputed by vegetarians. Do you think vegetarians are at a disadvantage nutritionally?

ELWOOD: That's a complicated question which, again, depends on food quality. There are a good number of people who can't get along without meat. They digest it easily, they've had it all their lives, and they depend on it. But, as gland specialist Dr. Melvin Page of Florida says, there are other people who just cannot digest meat very well at all.

Weston A. Price searched out primitive peoples unacquainted with commercial foods who were in superb health and reported on them in his book, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. Many of these people were meat eaters, but when they killed an animal they took the tenderloin and steaks which we put such a high price on and threw them to the dogs. The people then dug in and got the nutritional dense organs the liver, stomach, all the glands and they thrived.

We have an innate knowledge of what we like and what we need. When we have a hunger for something, we should satisfy that hunger as long as it's with good natural foods.

PLOWBOY: What about the nutritional value of wild edibles?

ELWOOD: Such as Euell Gibbons recommends? I think he's just priceless. A lot of people are picking up wild foods now. Lamb's-quarters, for example, is a beautiful wild green as pretty as anything you grow in the garden and good when slightly cooked. Purslane is another common garden weed a soil cover that is simply delicious and most nutritious. Don't pull purslane out of your vegetable patch, cultivate it! It's great for salads.

PLOWBOY: You also have a use for carrot tops, don't you?

ELWOOD: Oh yes, they make delicious tea. It's a shame to throw them away.

PLOWBOY: I know you recommend brewer's yeast very highly, but I have trouble with its taste. Is there a way to make it more palatable?

ELWOOD: Well, you probably just haven't come across the newer forms of brewer's yeast. It used to be a by-product of beer, but now it's made by a process that uses the whole product and it's much tastier than it used to be.

PLOWBOY: How is brewer's yeast different from baker's yeast?

ELWOOD: It's entirely different. Brewer's yeast is much better for you because it stops growing when you eat it and all the nutrients it contains become available to your body. Baker's yeast, on the other hand, keeps growing after you ingest it and feeds on the very nutrients it's supposed to supply. Of course, there's always an exception to every hard, fast rule ... such as the doctor in California who uses baker's yeast as a supplement and gets wonderful results. It's another of those discrepancies we can't account for.

PLOWBOY: You've often indicated that the preparation of food can be as important as the food itself. What is the proper way to prepare foods while minimizing nutritional loss?

ELWOOD: I guess you really have to start with the quality of your seeds, the planting and the environment in which they grow. Harvesting must be done carefully and produce must never be left lying in the sun after it's picked the vitamin C losses will be tremendous.

Vegetables should be well scrubbed, not peeled, and eaten quickly while very fresh. If they must be stored, they should be refrigerated as soon as they're brought in.

Of course I'm a great raw-fooder and I don't cook anything I can eat raw. Even though I have bad teeth, they still need this fresh living substance, and the intestinal tract needs bulk to feed the bacteria that produce some of the necessary B-complex vitamins.

I think we'd be better off if we threw out our stoves, but if you do cook for heaven's sake use low heat and use covers. One of my favorite ways to prepare vegetables is by making soup. I run the produce through a little grinder, put it in a pot with some stock and bring the mixture to a boil. Right away I have a delicious soup.

PLOWBOY: Do you have any advice for overweight people?

ELWOOD: Natural foods will slenderize you. And if you're underweight, they'll help you put on those needed pounds. Many years ago I had a roommate who was so skinny she looked tubercular. She weighed 85 pounds and her hip bones stuck out. I was the same height and overweight at 130. So we both went on a vegetarian, raw food diet. After two months of sprouted wheat, an occasional baked potato, and a very fine quality raw milk, we both weighed 110 pounds.

PLOWBOY: Was it the amount of food you ate, or the foods themselves?

ELWOOD: We both ate the same amount. She gained and I lost. A beautiful balance will occur within your body when you stop eating unhealthy, refined commercial foods.

PLOWBOY: Do you think there's a danger that education about nutrition will become a panacea? If many personality and mental problems can be traced to nutritional deficiencies, isn't it too easy to say the millennium will be realized if we'll all just eat properly?

ELWOOD: We're born into challenging and difficult environments and have enough problems without having to cope with hunger, too. Ancel Keys said he could make any person partially crazy by withholding food semi-starving him then restore the individual to sanity by returning him to a proper diet. Even though that theory has been proven by thousands of experiments with animals, the far-reaching effects of food on personality and ability are not yet fully appreciated. Conditions are changing, however, and more people are beginning to realize that they're actually being starved by what I call "fraud foods".

PLOWBOY: I've heard that you and some of your most enthusiastic students have started a project designed to encourage that growing realization.

ELWOOD: Yes, it's called Hope Of the World, or H.O.W. It's a non-profit organization designed to raise funds for the establishment of an experimental rural community in which we'll do research on the relationship between bio-organic gardening and nutrition. We hope that the community will support itself as a health resort-school and by selling its garden produce and crafts. We want H.O.W. to be a model ecologically sound community.