Would you like to have the leanness and vitality of the Masai warrior? What about the jovial mood of the Inuit, the endless endurance of the Tarahumara, or the robust old age of the Okinawa?
Traditional civilizations offer a fascinating study, because time and again they present us with people who surpass modern urbanites like us in almost every way other than the price of the device in their pockets. While Paleo folks will tell you the biggest problem to our diet happened 10,000 years ago (when agriculture began), I would say the last two centuries have been far worse.
Old-fashioned diets are massively varied in nature (forget about defining them by a fat:carb ratio!), but the benefits to them are similar all around the globe.
Let’s see what we can learn from them.
No Chronic Disease
Dr. Daphne Miller once volunteered in a remote part of Peru, without any roads, accessible only by river, where people had no choice but to eat local and organic, in the truest sense of both terms.
She had this to say:
“What was really surprising to me was that even amongst the most elderly patients that I was taking care of (and there were people who really were quite elderly in the village), I was not seeing any of the “bread and butter” diseases that I take care of in San Francisco. I wasn’t seeing the diabetes and the heart disease and the depression and the colon cancers, the things that are in my office every day of the week here.”
Weston A. Price, the research director for the American Dental Association, conducted one of the world’s most thorough and convincing studies into how switching from a traditional diet to a modern diet destroys human health.
He focused on teeth, as was his medical specialty, and found that cultures that still stuck to their ancestor’s diets had excellent teeth. Their wide palettes had room for all of their teeth to be straight and properly formed, and cavities were extremely rare.
However, in every single case he came across, when studying other groups that had chosen (or been forced) to adopt a western diet, their palettes shrunk, their teeth became crooked, and cavities formed where before there were none.
When I first learned about this research, I couldn’t help but woefully prod one of my own fillings with the tip of my tongue, wondering what it would be like to have perfect teeth, and not only that, but have no conception of “tooth problems”.
We’ve known for a long time that sugar causes dental plaque, so why are we still not talking about the benefits of a low-carb diet for your teeth? We can see the possibilities by looking at the lowest-carb and highest-fat traditional diet on the planet – that of the Inuit of the icy northern wilderness. Weston Price was fascinated by their “physical excellence and dental perfection such has seldom been excelled by any race in the past or present.”
Perhaps it’s not saying much that our ancestors were happier than we are.
Between 10 and 20 times as many Americans are clinically depressed now as 50 years ago, and antidepressant sales rose by 400% between 1990 and 2011. In the UK it’s no better, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down.
The modern world keeps on producing unhappy people.
Hundreds of possible factors could be debated here, but diet and lifestyle are undoubtedly significant. I’ve already talked about how gluten sensitivity can leave you feeling blue, even if there’s nothing to feel blue about, and there are many other ways that we can be affected by what we eat. Whatever the “mechanisms” for happiness may be, however, traditional cultures seem to have a greater mastery of it than we do.
The Inuit, for example, fascinated Weston Price not only through their “dental perfection”, but also their joyful nature, stating, “The expression of the countenance is one of habitual good humour.” You’d have thought that living in such a harsh and unforgiving physical environment, these folks would be harsh and unforgiving themselves.
Instead, joyfulness and a great sense of humor is what describes them.
Many other cultures have also been studied through the lens of their mood and attitude towards life, and time and again they prove to be enviably content.
Long and Energetic Life
People often make the point that our ancestors died young, so why follow their example?
Two con-founders in particular skew mortality data on ancestral life expectancy:
- Infant death
- Sudden death
I cannot tell you how grateful I am to modern medicine for what it’s done for both our chances of survival at birth, and our chances of pulling through an acute disease or serious injury.
In ancient times, if you were lucky enough to be conceived you had about a 2 in 3 chance of surviving to age five. The Hadza tribe, who still live as hunter gatherers to this day, do not consider a child to be fully human until it has survived three lunar cycles, to psychologically protect themselves against the high chance of these infants dying.
We used to live in a world where a little cut could quite easily kill you through bacterial infection. These days, we hurl ourselves around at 100 km/h because we know that even if we get into an accident survival is still quite likely.
This amazing success in protecting us against acute dangers has lead, I think, to a general blind faith in the effectiveness of standard drug-based medical care in all areas of health.
Modern medicine is amazing at treating acute infections and the like, but it’s continually proving itself to be less than apt in the area of chronic disease.
Chronic diseases are the afflictions of the modern world, and instead of killing us young, they simply make our lives worse to experience, and slowly rob us of functionality until we grow old and frail.
So to say that traditional diets are a poor choice because our ancestors had a shorter life expectancy is to completely miss the benefits of their lifestyle. Infant mortality, bacterial or viral infection, violent death, and other such concerns of the barbarian, they all skew the median number way down, while forgetting that old-age survivors the risks of a pre-medical world did so in vibrant health, right into old age.
Imagine what is possible for our lives if we combine the two. Adopt both the robust health of the traditional diet with the safety net of the medical institution, and you have the chance for the longest and happiest kind of life that has ever been possible in human history.
How to Eat a More Traditional Diet
Traditional diets are varied, with all manner of different macronutrient ratios and meat to plant ratios, such that you can’t just give one diet and then dust your hands of the issue. That’s a wonderful thing, too. It means your diet doesn’t need to be restrictive for it to be healthy. In fact, it shouldn’t be restrictive. It should be as varied as you like, so long as it comprises of real food.
John Berardi defended his right to nutritional agnosticism in this post, saying that sticking to any one nutritional dogma is “the antithesis of good coaching”. I totally agree, unless you would call “eat good food” a dogma!
Although we don’t have one strict protocol that works for everyone, there are commonalities and principles that we see expressed again and again, and by understanding these, we can develop our own life-enhancing versions of traditional diets.
1. Eat Plenty of Fat
We are well adapted for fat-burning.
Traditional Inuit eat as much as 75% calories from overall fat. They get this from fish and whale blubber, and add this to an almost total lack of fruit and veg, it might seem surprising that this diet seems to protect very well against heart attack and cancer.
The Pacific Islands house a number of diverse traditional diets, eaten by groups that were free from chronic disease. Here are three of them, and the percentage calories they obtained from fat:
- Kitaya: 21%
- Pukpuka: 38%
- Tokelau: 54%
Much of this fat came from tropical plant sources, such as coconuts.
The Masai, nomadic pastoralists of Kenya and Tanzania, obtain roughly 60% of their calories from fat, and are well known, again, for their vitality and robust health. Rather than fish or vegetables, the Masai reached this impressive fat intake through raw fermented milk and cow meat.
Clearly, there’s no hard and fast rule about where your fat comes from, but you won’t easily find an example of low overall fat intake in human history.
2. Throw out the Vegetable Oil
The Los Angeles Veterans Administration Hospital Study was a trial designed to study the effects of a high saturated fat diet on heart disease, as opposed to a diet high in polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), which are found in abundance in vegetable oils and seed oils.
The researchers chose a high PUFA diet only because an overall low-fat diet was attempted in a pilot study, and was met with “considerable resentment” (haha, I bet it was). They looked for an alternative that was supposed to reduce serum cholesterol, and settled on the high PUFA diet.
They tried to find some “precedent” for this type of diet, but could find nothing. Only one population, the Burmese, is known to have even approached a modern level of PUFA intake.
The results of the study were that the high PUFA diet actually didn’t help heart disease at all, and instead increased risk of cancer for their patients.
Think back to those Pacific Island groups, the Kitaya, the Pukpuka, and the Tokelau, who each had varying amounts of fat intake. Despite this, the percentage of their calories that came from PUFAs was the same in each, and was only 2%.
Vegetable oils and seed oils are highly processed. You can’t squeeze a sunflower seed and collect the oil dripping out of it. It takes an intensive industrial process to produce such an unnatural concentration of these oils. Cut them out.
The one exception is olive oil, but then, those little guys are so naturally oily that you almost could squeeze out the fat with your hands. There’s the clue that they’re okay.
3. Eat Animals (all of them!)
No, I don’t mean to eat all the animals on Earth. I mean to eat all of each animal you eat, not just the muscle meat that we’ve become so enamoured by in the West.
If you despise the idea of eating another living creature for moral reasons, I totally respect that, but please don’t shun animal products for health reasons.
Weston Price found that all groups he studied incorporated some animal meat in their diet. Like the rest of their diets, the animal “products” were very varied, ranging from whales to insects. Anything that was available (and not poisonous) was considered a part of the menu.
They also ate all of the animal. It turns out a potential problem for a lot of Paleo folk who eat only muscle meat is an overabundance of methionine, which increases our need for nutrients found in abundance in the rest of the animal, including organ meats, skin, bone marrow, and gelatin. (Leafy greens can also meet this need, if eaten in abundance.)
Stew up some bone broth, stir fry some heart, chuck some liver in a casserole. Organ meats were highly prized by traditional cultures. They didn’t have the science to back them up, but somehow they intuitively knew that the organs were much more valuable than the muscles.
Follow their lead.
4. Avoid Refined Grains
Grains have been used for thousands of years in traditional diets.
That doesn’t mean they’re “natural” for us to eat. Of course, this depends on how to define “natural”. You could say it’s not “natural” for us to live in climates where we’d be too cold if naked. We learned long ago that if we wrap ourselves in clothes made from furrier animals, we could travel to new areas of the globe where we had never set foot before.
Similarly, we discovered how to move into new, perhaps “unnatural” areas of food consumption by once again utilizing our ability to manipulate things in our environment. There’s evidence that some of us ate a little bit of grain before even agriculture.
After we started growing grain ourselves, we of course started to eat more of it, and the damage to human health became apparent.
Thousands of years is not enough time for our genes to evolve significantly, but it’s more than enough time for good ideas to evolve.
In that time, traditional cultures that relied on grain found ways to gently process grain such that the negative consequences of eating it could disappear.
People knew exactly what they were doing, too. See this comment on an article outlining traditional diets on the website of the Weston Price Foundation, written by a lady called Anya:
“This comment is to answer the previous comment on soaking grains. I grew up in Ukraine and as a child I spent many summers in my great Grandma’s village where old traditions were/are still respected and practiced. They soaked all grains to “make it better for the stomach”. They also soaked grains used to feed the pigs to make it “better for the animals”. They considered grains “damaging” if they were not soaked and/or leavened.”
Guess what our modern grain is like?
Unsoaked, unfermented, unsprouted.
The old traditions that we used to practice to reduce the damaging effects of grains have been thrown aside in favor of faster, cheaper, higher-yield processes.
The reason for this is a simple consequence of distancing.
Who do you think has more of a vested interest in whether your bread is “better for the stomach” – Monsanto, or your Grandmother?
I should mention that the DNA of the grain we eat today has also been adulterated for the purpose of higher yield, but this is not the time to get into that.
Suffice it to say: If you’re happy to source old strains of grain, (einkorn or emmer bread for example), and sprout, ferment, and soak them yourself, then turn them into bread, more power to you, but the fact is that grain only found its way into our diets in the first place because they are simple to grow and the seeds last a long time without refrigeration.
While traditionally sourced and prepared grain is “better for the stomach”, we no longer need things that last without refrigeration. There’s no nutritional benefit in even traditional grain that we can’t get in abundance elsewhere.
In Conclusion: Traditional diets comprise of real food that address the Four Pillars of Health. They prized the most nutritious parts of the animal, they turned their grains benign in lengthy processes if they had any at all, and they didn’t have any access to modern processed foods.
If we follow their lead, we can enjoy the abundant physical health of the past, with the miraculous safety net of modern medicine. Those are great odds for a good life, and I for one intend to make the most of them.
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