“The brother on the left had excellent teeth and [on the right] rampant caries. These boys were brothers eating at the same table. The older boy, with excellent teeth, was still enjoying primitive food of oatmeal and oatcake and sea foods with some limited dairy products. The younger boy, seen to the right, had extensive tooth decay. Many teeth were missing including two in the front. He insisted on having white bread, jam, highly sweetened coffee and also sweet chocolates.”
It’s hard to imagine the typical Italian or Frenchman wondering what to eat. Here in America so much seemingly contradictory research exists about what to eat, and findings seem to change every year. From the low-fat craze of the eighties (which, unfortunately, continues today) to the Atkins diet, to The China Study and on and on the question is “What are the right things to eat?”
The problem with modern research is that it starts with a clean slate. Its goal is to find the “one thing” that’ll make us healthier. The gold standard for science in the double-blind, placebo-controlled study; unfortunately there is no such study for ancient wisdom (or common sense). Wouldn’t it be great if we could find out what diets were like before our modern world? Enter Dr. Weston Price (1870-1948) of Cincinnati, Ohio.
In the early 1930s, Price and his wife traveled more than 100,000 miles to study the diets and health of isolated indigenous people in Africa, South America, Australia, Polynesia, Europe, northern Canada, and the Pacific Northwest. As a dentist, Dr Price was searching for a cause of dental decay and physical degeneration that he observed daily in the patients in his practice. Price wanted to seek out people “who were living in accordance with the tradition of their race and as little affected as might be possible by the influence of the white man.” Wherever he found them — regardless of race, diet and climate — they were a “picture of superb health”: they had strong physiques, perfect teeth, no arthritis, no tuberculosis, no degenerative diseases, and they were cheerful, happy, hardy folk.
That picture was a radical contrast to other, less isolated groups of the same peoples, who exhibited a catastrophic health decline the closer they got to the “trade foods” produced by industrial society (processed foods grown by synthetic farming methods), in the form of the “white man’s store.” His worldwide findings clearly showed that dental caries and deformed dental arches, resulting in crowded, crooked teeth, were merely a sign of physical degeneration, resulting from what he had suspected – nutritional deficiencies. He found it took only one generation of eating industrialized food to destroy health and immunity. When Dr. Price analyzed the foods used by isolated indigenous peoples he found that they provided at least four times the calcium and other minerals, and at least TEN times the fat-soluble vitamins from animal foods such as butter, fish eggs, shellfish and organ meats.
What I find fundamental in Price’s research is that people ate the foods that were local and in season. So while the people of the Loetchental valley in Switzerland consumed large amounts of raw dairy products from cows raised in the Alpine pastures, they consumed absolutely no fish. While the people of Fiji consumed no dairy, the large bulk of their diet came from the sea. Their diets varied because their different geographic locations offered different food resources.
Modern research studies, however, seem to look at a country where the people seem healthier, have lower incidence of heart disease, obesity, etc. and subsequently conclude that we Americans should eat the exact same diet. Thus the Mediterranean diet, the China study (that primarily touts a vegetarian, low animal fat diet), etc. I would suggest that Dr. Price’s significant scientific contribution was that good health starts with eating whole, unprocessed food that is locally grown and in season. Though the diets throughout the world varied widely, they did have many things in common:
1. All groups studied consumed minerals and fat-soluble vitamins from high vitamin butter or from sea foods, cod liver or seal oil, or animal organs with their fat.
2. Foods were grown on soil that was naturally high in minerals, and no chemical fertilizers or pesticides were used.
3. All food was eaten liberally in the natural season in which it grew.
4. Sweets (even good, natural sweets) were used rarely or sparingly, only for occasions of ritual, celebration, or special feasting.
5. In each diet there was some daily source of raw, unaltered protein from sources such as meats, sea foods, nuts, cheeses, eggs, milk, or high quality sprouted seeds. Some sort of sea plant or mineral was a part of most diets. Inland sea deposits were treasured and used thriftily.
6. Each life style was such that people engaged in vigorous physical exercise on a regular basis, either in work, play, dances, games, sports, or hunting and food gathering.
7. All diets contained some form of fermented food . This would include milk cultures, pickling, and other methods of fermenting. I recommend people make their own sauerkraut– it’s easy, cheap and a great source of probiotics.
8. All ate whole foods, not fractionalized parts of foods. They did not remove the fiber content of their natural foods by refining them. Most foods were eaten raw or very gently and lightly cooked.
9. They all breast-fed their young. Most of them fed special protective foods to their young of child-bearing age in preparation for conception, pregnancy, and lactation. Most of them had some means of spacing the children at least three years apart, to protect the health of the newborns and their mothers.
10. Last but not least, they were able to instruct their young in these important principles, thereby protecting their genetic heritage. They ate the foods of their ancestors.
For a summary of the diets in Dr. Price’s own words go here.
Good health is our natural state and it begins with what we put in our body. By paying attention to what our ancestors ate we can reclaim what has been lost through the modern industrial food complex.