What we eat: Looking back for a better future
January 23, 2008
The last 80 to 100 years have ushered in a drastically different style of eating in comparison to the diets of our grandparents, and their grandparents before them. No longer are our food sources home and community-based. We have become global eaters, consumers of mass-marketed, highly refined and processed “foods.”
An examination of the diets of our ancestors offers a myriad of clues and possibilities to help us find our way back to healthy eating. It is noteworthy that traditional diets that have evolved independently in different parts of the world have a common nutritionally-sound basis. Biologically, humans are omnivores, “eaters of everything.” Compared to the modern Western diet, the diets of our ancestors included far more fiber, less saturated beef fat and no hydrogenated fat such as margarine or shortening. Instead, they consumed more natural fat, particularly the omega-3 essential fatty acid, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
Traditional dietary practices were closely linked to other social, cultural and spiritual traditions. Respect, awe and a spirit of reverent gratitude pervaded the rituals of obtaining, preparing, eating and sharing food. Indigenous cultures from around the world developed their early eating habits based upon the regional and seasonal availability of foods within their own regions.
In the 1930s Dr. Weston Price, a Canadian-born dentist with a keen interest in anthropology and health, discovered the devastating impact of replacing a traditional foods diet with a modern one on the health of primitive people. He conducted a famous research project, traveling the world and studying the dietary habits of some of the planet’s most primitive and isolated people. No matter where his research led him from the African continent to the Swiss Alps, from the Amazon jungle–to the Northern reaches of the Canadian Arctic–Dr. Price’s observations were consistent. He found that the ancient cultures that displayed remarkable longevity ate predominately vegetable-source foods. These cultures are often cited in support of a purely vegetarian diet, however, the healthiest groups also ate fish regularly. Dr. Price found that wherever geography permitted, fish and seafood played a major role in the diet and he believed that the beneficial fats found in fish most likely accounted for the superior health of these people who were free of dental and degenerative disease.
After many years of dedicated study and research, Dr. Price concluded that the overall health and resistance to disease of his subjects was far superior in the study groups who maintained a traditional diet consisting of the animals they could catch and the fruits, berries, nuts, grains and eggs they could collect. Dr. Price also postulated that human disease is caused by sub-optimal nutrient intake.
Traditional diets of long-lived peoples, whether or not they were predominantly vegetarian, shared certain other common features. Most foods were eaten raw, so they were high in fiber and rich in vitamins, minerals and enzymes. Foods were locally derived and unrefined. Dairy products were obtained from animals that had grazed on fresh, green pastures and these products were almost always eaten in fermented forms, such as yogurt or cheese. All sweet foods, including fruits, were eaten in season and therefore were rare treats rather than regular parts of the diet. Vegetable oils and fruit juices were also rare. Processed foods such as white flour, sugar and hydrogenated fats were nonexistent.
Wild greens, and seaweeds where available, have always been a very important component of traditional diets. These foods, rich in vitamins and minerals, were alkaline-forming in the body, and provided a counterbalance to acid-forming grains and meats.
The idyllic lifestyle and eating habits of the healthy natives studied by Dr. Price are in stark contrast to the overfed but undernourished inhabitants of North America. In the mad rush to modernize, our once-healthy dietary patterns have been reshaped and remolded by the clever marketing strategies of the fast food industry and multinational food producers.
Socio-economic changes such as both parents working, single-parent families, nuclear family isolation and the generally hectic schedules of modern life have all played a part in the popular acceptance of fast foods. The price we pay for “convenience” foods is far greater than the immediate monetary cost. When we consider the far-reaching health and environmental consequences of the popular use of these foods, we realize it is worth our investment in time and money to return to a natural foods diet.
The food choices we make have a significant effect on many others. Millions of agriculturally based cultures have been destroyed by the corporate food giants in their race to capture global markets by marketing junk foods as a glamorous and trendy alternative to traditional, nutritious diets.
The forced production of cash crops such as coffee and sugar have precipitated the destruction of agricultural communities around the world. Agriculture is no longer viewed as a source of food for these communities. It is not uncommon for farm workers to be too poor to afford the very foods they help to grow, harvest and process for our dining tables.
Farm workers frequently suffer from the devastating health effects of being exposed to toxic agricultural sprays used by agri-business; the same poisonous sprays that have been outlawed in North America, but are still used on food grown in third world countries (and sometimes exported back to North America).
Our overconsumption of animal-source protein is leading to the deforestation of lands for grazing. Polluting by-products from the raising and slaughtering of animals contribute to the contamination of the water table.
The lust for more profits is the sole reason for the deluge of empty, lifeless, overpackaged foods that line our supermarket shelves. Before loading up the shopping cart on your next trip to the grocery store, consider the natural resources wasted and the lives affected by your choices.
We must consider the plight of others affected by our lifestyles. It is not only our physical health that should improve as we move towards a more natural way of eating; our food choices must also improve the environment and contribute to the health and well-being of others.
Symptoms of Nutritional Deficiencies
|Anemia||Iron, vitamin B12, folate|
|Bleeding gums||Vitamin C, folate|
|Cardiac arrhythmia||Potassium, magnesium|
|Clotting abnormalities||Vitamin K|
|Dry, rough skin||Vitamin A|
|Healing abnormalities||Vitamin C, zinc|
|Liver damage||Vitamin K|
|Mental confusion, mood disorders||B vitamins|
|Mouth sores, inflammation||Riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6|
|Muscle cramps, wasting||Thiamine|
|Muscle weakness||Magnesium, potassium|
|Nerve damage||Vitamin B12|
|Night blindness||Vitamin A|
|Reduced immunity||Vitamins A and C, zinc|
|Rickets; bone deformities||Vitamin D, calcium|