In the US, one person in three suffers from allergies, one in 10 will have ulcers and one in five is mentally ill. Every year a quarter of a million infants are born with a birth defect who then undergo expensive surgery or are hidden away in institutions. Other degenerative diseases – arthritis, multiple sclerosis, digestive disorders, diabetes, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy and chronic fatigue – afflict a significant majority of US citizens. And learning disabilities such as dyslexia and hyperactivity make life miserable for 7 million young people and their parents.
These diseases were extremely rare only a generation or two ago. Today, chronic illness afflicts nearly half of all Americans and causes three out of four deaths in the US. Most tragically, these diseases, formerly experienced only by the very old, now strike children and those in the prime of life. We have almost forgotten that our natural state is one of balance, wholeness and vitality.
Things were not so bad in the 1930s, but the situation was already then serious enough to alarm one dentist in Cleveland, Ohio. Dr Weston Price was reluctant to accept the conditions exhibited by his patients as normal. Rarely did an examination of an adult patient reveal anything but rampant decay, which was often accompanied by serious problems elsewhere in the body such as arthritis, osteoporosis, diabetes, intestinal complaints and chronic fatigue. But it was the dentition of younger patients that alarmed Price most. He observed that crowded, crooked teeth were becoming more and more common, along with what he called ‘facial deformities’ – overbites, narrowed faces, underdevelopment of the nose, pinched nostrils and lack of well-defined cheekbones. Such children invariably suffered from complaints that would sound all too familiar to mothers today: frequent infections, allergies, anaemia, asthma, poor vision, lack of co-ordination, fatigue and behavioural problems.
Price had also heard utopian stories about the good health of primitive cultures. He resolved to find out if the ‘backward’ societies that the US was intent on evangelising and colonising were indeed healthier than his own. For the next 10 years, he travelled to various isolated parts of the earth, where the inhabitants had no contact with ‘civilisation’, in order to study their health and physical development. Once he had gained the confidence of the tribal or village elders, Price did what came naturally to him – he counted cavities. The results were startling. He found groups of people in whom less than 1 per cent of their permanent teeth were decayed. He found 14 isolated groups in all where tooth decay was rare to non-existent; these were people who had never seen a dentist and never brushed their teeth. Freedom from caries always went hand in hand with freedom from disease – both chronic disease like cancer and heart disease, and infectious disease like tuberculosis. In Price’s day TB afflicted much of the world in epidemic proportions.
These investigations occurred at a time when there still existed remote pockets of humanity untouched by modern inventions, but one modern invention – the camera – allowed Price to make a permanent record of the people he studied. He took photograph after photograph of beautiful smiles, and noted that ‘healthy primitives’ were invariably cheerful and optimistic. Such people generally showed ‘splendid physical development’. The women gave birth with ease. Their babies rarely cried and their children were energetic and hearty. Many other observers have reported a virtual absence of degenerative disease, particularly cancer, in isolated, so-called ‘primitive’ groups.
Price studied a number of societies that were in transition, where stores or outposts had been established and native foods replaced by the products of western civilisation – sugar, white flour, condensed milk, canned foods, chocolate, jams and pastries – what Price called the ‘displacing foods of modern commerce’. His photographs capture the suffering caused by these foodstuffs – chiefly rampant tooth decay. Even more disturbing, they show the change in facial development that occurred with modernisation. Parents who had changed their diets gave birth to children who no longer exhibited the tribal patterns. Their faces were more narrow, their teeth crowded, their nostrils pinched; unlike those of their healthy ancestors, these faces do not beam with optimism. In other words, the photographs demonstrate that the displacing foods do not provide sufficient nutrients to allow the body to reach its full genetic potential.
The diets of the healthy ‘primitives’ Price studied were all very different. In the Swiss village where Price began his investigations, the inhabitants lived on rich dairy products – unpasteurised milk, butter, cream and cheese –, dense rye bread, meat occasionally, bone broth soups and the few vegetables they could cultivate during the short summer months. The children’s teeth were covered in green slime, but Price found only about one per cent decay. The children went barefoot in frigid streams during weather that forced Price and his wife to wear heavy wool coats; nevertheless childhood illnesses were virtually non-existent, and there had never been a single case of TB in the village.
Hearty Gallic fishermen living off the coast of Scotland consumed no dairy products. Fish formed the mainstay of their diet, along with oats made into porridge and oatcakes. Fishheads stuffed with oats and chopped fish liver were a traditional dish, and one considered very important for growing children.
The Eskimo diet, composed largely of fish, fish roe and foodstuffs from marine animals, including seal oil and blubber, allowed Eskimo mothers to produce one sturdy baby after another without suffering any health problems or tooth decay.
Well-muscled hunter-gatherers in Canada, the Everglades, the Amazon, Australia and Africa consumed game animals, particularly the parts that civilised folk tend to avoid – eg, organ meats, blood, marrow and glands (particularly the adrenal glands) – and a variety of grains, tubers, vegetables and fruits.
African cattle-keeping tribes like the Masai consumed no plant foods at all – just meat, blood and milk. South Seas islanders and the Maori of New Zealand ate seafood of every sort – fish, shark, octopus, shellfish, sea worms –, along with pork meat and fat, and a variety of plant foods including coconut, manioc and fruit. Whenever these isolated peoples could obtain seafood they did so – even Indian tribes high in the Andes. Insects were another common food in all regions except the Arctic.
Price’s studies convinced him that the best diet was one that combined nutrient-dense whole grains with animal products – particularly fish. The healthiest African tribe he studied was the Dinkas, a Sudanese tribe on the western bank of the Nile. They were not as tall as their near neighbours the cattle-herding Neurs, but they were physically better proportioned and had greater strength. Their diet consisted mainly of fish and cereal grains. This is one of the most important lessons of Price’s research – that a mixed diet of whole foods, one that avoids the extremes of the carnivorous Masai and the largely vegetarian Bantu, ensures optimum physical development.
Purists argue that, as with grains, man should not eat dairy products because the keeping of herds dates back only a few thousand years – a drop of time in the evolutionary bucket. But there are and have been many healthy milk-drinking populations – including disease-free traditional Europeans, Americans up to WWI, Greeks and other inhabitants of the Mediterranean, Africans, Tibetans, the long-lived inhabitants of Soviet Georgia and the hearty Mongols of northern China. Even today, the use of relatively processed milk products is associated with longevity in countries like Austria and Switzerland. Modern milk, however, is denatured through pasteurisation and homogenisation, stripped of its valuable fat content, filled with antibiotics and pesticides, laced with additives and synthetic vitamins, and comes from cows that are bred to produce huge amounts of milk and which are fed everything under the sun except what cows are supposed to eat – green grass. There is evidence to link such milk with a whole gamut of modern ailments, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, autism and allergies.
Other practices common to traditional groups throughout the world include: the use of animal bones, usually made into broth that is added to soups, stews and sauces; the preservation of vegetables, fruits, grains and even meats through the practice of lacto-fermentation to make condiments, meat products and beverages; and the use of salt. In areas where salt is not available, sodium-rich grasses and other plants are burnt and added to foods.
Familiar lacto-fermented foods include old-fashioned sauerkraut and yoghurt. But almost any food can be preserved by this method, which encourages the proliferation of beneficial bacteria. The lactic acid these bacteria produce is an excellent, natural preservative that prevents spoilage in plant foods as pickles and chutneys, meats as sausage and haggis, milk as a variety of soured products and grains as chewy breads and thick sour porridges. Lacto-fermented beverages are ubiquitous in traditional cultures – from kaffir beer in Africa to kvass and kombucha in Slavic regions. Lacto-fermented foods are artisan products (instead of mass produced items preserved with vinegar and sugar), taste delicious and confer many health benefits. They add valuable enzymes to the diet, and enhance the digestibility and assimilation of everything we eat.
Gelatin-rich broth also enhances digestion and provides the gamut of macro-minerals in easily assimilated form. Broth-based soups are snack foods in Asian countries, usually prepared in ‘mom-and-pop’ shops, and they form the basis of both peasant and gourmet cuisines throughout Europe. But in most Western countries the stock pot has given way to convenience foods, the meat-like taste of which derives from flavour enhancers like MSG and other neurotoxic additives.
Eating for justice
The first happy lesson gleaned from a study of traditional diets is that healthy food can and should taste good; that we can put butter on our porridge and cook in lard; that it’s OK to consume whole milk, fatty meats, liver and onions, lox and cream cheese, shrimp and lobster, even insects if you like them; that heavenly sauces made from bone broth and cream confer more benefits than pills and powders and ersatz low-fat concoctions. Wisely used, technology can take the drudgery out of cooking and help us bring properly grown and prepared foods to the marketplace. Wrongly used, technology produces breads that are soft and sweet rather than sour and chewy, Coca-Cola rather than cottage-industry lacto-fermented soft drinks, bouillon cubes rather than home-made broth, and sugar-embalmed ketchup with infinite shelf life rather than enzyme-rich condiments and pickles preserved to last a few months in a way that adds nutrients instead of taking them away.
The second lesson is that healthy eating is good for the ecology. The building blocks of a healthy diet are pesticide-free foods grown in mineral-rich soils and healthy animals that live free to manure the paddocks of thousands of farms instead of suffering misery and disease in confined factories. The road to health starts with a willingness to pay a decent price for such food – thus rewarding the farmer who preserves the land through wise farming practices rather than agribusiness that mines the soil for quick profits.
So, a return to traditional foods would be a way of taking power away from the multinationals and giving it back to the artisan. The kind of food processing that makes food more nutritious is the same kind of food processing that the farmer or the farming community can do in situ – eg, making sour milk and grain products, aged cheeses, pickles, sausages, broth and beverages. All the boxed, bottled and frozen products in modern supermarkets – the crisps, biscuits sweets, margarines, fizzy drinks and TV dinners – have made fortunes for a few and impoverished the rest of us. The way we eat determines not only how healthy we will be, but what kind of economy we have – the kind where a few people make millions and millions of dollars, or the kind where millions of people make a decent living.
Myths about traditional diets
MYTH 1: Traditional diets were largely vegetarian
Price’s African trip enabled him to compare primitive meat-eating groups with those of similar racial stock that were mostly vegetarian. The Masai (pictured), Chewya, Muhima, Watusi, and Neurs were all cattle-keeping people. Their diets consisted largely of milk, blood and meat. These tribes were noted for their fine physiques and great height; in some groups the women averaged over 6 feet tall, and many men reached almost seven feet. Price found six cattle-herding tribes that were completely free of dental decay. All members of these tribes exhibited straight, uncrowded teeth.
Bantu tribes, such as the Kikuyu and Wakamba, were agriculturists. Their diet consisted of sweet potatoes, beans, bananas, millet and kaffir corn or sorghum. It is a mistake to think these groups consumed no animal products at all, however. Some Bantu tribes kept a few cattle and goats for both milk and meat. They also ate small animals such as frogs, and put a high value on insect food. It is significant that groups that consumed mostly plant foods ate special animal foods during gestation and lactation.
MYTH 2: Primitive diets were low in fat, particularly saturated animal fat
Northern Canada’s wild male ruminants, like elk and caribou (pictured), carry a large slab of back fat weighing as much as 40 to 50 pounds. The Indians and Eskimo hunted older male animals preferentially because they wanted this back-slab fat and the highly saturated fat found around the kidneys. Other groups used blubber from sea mammals like seal and walrus.
Dietary saturated fats actually play many important roles in human biochemistry: Saturated fatty acids constitute at least 50 per cent of cell membranes, giving them stiffness and integrity; they play a vital role in the health of our bones; they lower Lp(a), a substance in the blood that indicates proneness to heart disease; they protect the liver from alcohol ingestion; they enhance the immune system; they are needed for the proper utilisation of essential fatty acids; they are the preferred food for the heart; and they protect us against harmful micro-organisms in the digestive tract.
Even more important, animal fats are carriers for the fat-soluble vitamins A and D that are needed for a host of processes, from prevention of birth defects to healthy immune systems and proper development of the bones and teeth. Price found that traditional north American diets contained at least 400 per cent more minerals and 1,000 per cent more fat-soluble vitamins than the US diet of his day. The richest sources of vitamins A and D are the very foods modern man eschews: animal fats, organ meats, lard, fish eggs, shellfish, eggs and butter.
A surprising source of nutrients in traditional diets is shrimp, which contains 10 times more vitamin D than liver. Shrimp sauces and pastes are used throughout Africa and the Orient. This is the most likely explanation for the low rates of osteoporosis in these regions, as well as the virtual absence of diseases linked to vitamin-D deficiency such as colon cancer and multiple sclerosis.
MYTH 3: Traditional diets led to shortened life-spans
Arctic explorers reported great longevity among the Eskimo. And Australian Aborigine communities were noted for the large number of old people, for whom special foods were reserved that were easy to gather and hunt. The diets of traditional groups noted for longevity are rich in animal fats. The inhabitants of Vilcabamba in Ecuador and the long-lived inhabitants of Soviet Georgia, for example, consume fatty pork and whole milk products. A Soviet study found that longevity was greatest in rural communities where people ate the most fatty meat.
MYTH 4: Grains, seeds and pulses were avoided
Carbohydrates, in the form of whole grains and related seed foods, are not absent in healthy traditional diets – even in the diets of hunter-gatherers. What researchers often overlook is the fact that seed foods (grains, legumes and nuts) are prepared with great care in traditional societies – by sprouting, roasting, soaking, fermenting and sour leavening. These processes neutralise substances in whole grains and other seed foods that block mineral absorption, inhibit protein digestion and irritate the lining of the digestive tract. Such processes also increase nutrient content and render seed foods more digestible. For example, in India rice and lentils are fermented for at least two days before they are prepared as idli and dosas. In Africa the natives soak coarsely ground corn overnight before adding it to soups and stews, and they ferment corn or millet for several days to produce a sour porridge called ogi.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist July 2003