Saturday, March 28, 2009

Storm & Family: Degenerating Raw Vegans

While individual dietary experimentation can be fascinating, far more valuable information can be gained by observing entire groups of people on certain diets. Weston A. Price's studies are a good example of this, as each unique primitive group he came across displayed varying levels of health on varying diets. What they had in common was beautiful cavity-free teeth and freedom from degenerative disease. All were healthy and vibrant beyond a modern person's wildest dreams. All included animal foods in their diet.

With this in the back of my mind, a friend of mine informed me of a family of 100% raw-food vegans. She handed me a DVD of the family that endorsed their diet and themselves as the ultimate way to optimal wellness. She simply said to me, "I think you'll find this very interesting."

The idea in and of itself was intriguing: an entire family on a raw vegan diet. What did they eat? Were the parents healthy? Were the kids healthy? What were their temperaments like? I was excited to observe the family with these questions in mind.

Here's a decription of the family from their website:

Storm has been eating a raw-vegan diet of fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds in their natural unheated state for over 30 years and is known for his body builder's physique. At 60 he looks far younger than his years. Jinjee started eating a raw diet 15 years ago. Her before and afters show her weight loss transformation. Our family is 100% raw-vegan and thriving! On this site we share our photos and stories, photos of the kids growing up raw, and videos of raw vegan cuisine being prepared.

Watching the DVD, it's clear that this is a family on a mission to be the healthiest people they can possibly be. Storm, the husband and father, is the most enthusiastic of the bunch, sharing his reasoning behind the "Garden Diet" (as he calls it) and stories about improved health in his family and others who have experimented with this way of eating. His physique is quite impressive for a raw vegan, although nothing close to some of the omnivorisitic hunter-gatherers I've seen. Over the years he'd eaten higher-fat and protein versions of the raw diet -- mostly nuts and seeds -- which seemed to be best years for him in terms of building muscle and being fit. Slowly he transitioned to a more low-calorie raw vegan diet, and now he drinks mostly fresh orange juice for his calories. A low-protein, low-fat, high-sugar diet. Whoa, dude.
Here are a few pictures of Storm over the years.

It's pretty easy to see that his transition from nuts to orange juice isn't helping him much. To be fair, he is 60-years-old now. But this ripped, omnivoristic Austrailian Aborigine (below middle -- not a raw vegan) amidst some other phenomenal physical specimens from his tribe looks to be about the same age or maybe older, and time doesn't seem to be hurting him much:

Of course, there's more to a person than their physical form. In addition to appearance, Weston Price also noted the generous, vibrant, and uplifting nature of the healthy primitives. So I kept an eye out for the overall temperament of the raw vegan family members while watching the film. In certain segments, Storm can be seen philosophizing about the raw lifestyle in a very solemn, kind of soft, muted tone. His eyes look relaxed and sedated. Other scenes find Storm all fired up and ranting like a madman with his eyes bugging out all over the place. There seemed to be some definite blood sugar swings going on, which would make sense since the man was living on orange juice during the making of the film. Lacking a proper balance of amino acids, fats, and b-vitamins -- not to mention a complete absence of fat-soluble vitamins -- Storm appears to be unstable and obsessive. Someone get this man some fatty meat!

Storm's wife, Jinjee, makes several appearances on the DVD, endorsing the raw vegan way of life as whole-heartedly as her husband. Yet Jinjee expresses difficulty in sticking to the diet. She describes periods where she reverted back to cooked foods, but she "knows" raw is the ultimate path to unimaginable health and energy -- if she could only stick to it for life! It's evident that she's torn between listening to her body -- which obviously is craving cooked foods -- and adhering to the arbitrary law of raw. Her pregnancies were either mostly raw or 100% raw, as she explains in the film. Video clips are shown of her pregnancies with each child, and it's a little disturbing how skinny she is for a pregnant woman (see photos).

This brings us to the most fascinating portion of the film: the children. In Weston Price's studies of primitive populations, he discovered that adults suffered suboptimal health when abandoning their traditional diet for one rich in industrialized foods. The children of those adults then grew up with lowered immunity and physical degeneration. We'll get to the raw vegan kids shortly, but for now let's remind ourselves what a healthy traditional child (left) looks like compared to an unhealthy modernized child (right), according to Price:

Notice the round face, prominent cheek bones, wide nostrils, square jaw, and broad dental arch of the child on the left. Now observe the narrow face, sagging cheeks, pinched nostrils, weak jaw, and dental deformities of the child on the right. The child on the left was raised on nutrient-dense food (including animal foods high in vitamins and minerals), while the child on the right grew up eating processed foods like white flour and sugar.

Now that we've been refreshed as to what a healthy, properly-developed child on a traditonal diet actually looks like, take a look at the kids who Storm and Jinjee raised raw vegan (see photos).

Observe the narrow faces, weak jaws, pinched nostrils, and sagging cheeks of the raw vegan children. Like every modern child raised on a deficient diet, these children exhibit facial and dental deformities. The raw vegan diet -- though consisting of primarily whole foods in their "natural, unheated state" -- has not rescued them from the classic manifestations of poor physical development.

The theory of raw veganism is steeped in fanciful and delusional thinking. There has never been a group of human beings in the entire evolution of our species that were 100% raw vegans -- or even vegan for that matter. During Price's travels he was always on the lookout for a primitive population that subsisted solely off of vegetable foods. He never found one. Not only did every group utilize animal foods, they also made great efforts to obtain these foods and held them in very high regard -- particularly for child-rearing. Anthropologists and archaeologists have determined that meat and animal fat consumption (in some cases full-on carnivory) have been a mainstay in the human diet for several million years. Today, healthy traditional cultures all over the world eat cooked plant and animal foods and stay healthy from generation to generation.

Those that believe raw veganism is the ultimate path to wellness -- as Storm and his family do -- fail to take note of these facts and completely disregard hundreds of thousands of years of time-tested human foodways. We were left with the knowledge of proper diet by our ancestors -- perhaps we will only attain optimal health by returning to those food traditions of the past.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Can High-Carb, Low-Fat Be Healthy?

Compared to us moderns, many paleolithic and neolithic cultures who ate high-carbohydrate, starchy diets exhibited good health -- full sets of teeth and nicely developed noggins along with an absence of degenerative disease. A few of these cultures include the Kitavans (tubers, fruit, coconuts, & fish), the Kuna (plantain, yucca, kidney beans, fruit, & wild game/fish), and the traditional Peruvians (potatoes, quinoa, & guinea pigs -- seen in Nutrition & Physical Degeneration by Weston A. Price). As somebody who has adhered to a carbohydrate model (ala Taubes) in explaining present-day diseases and ill health, the fact that human beings can thrive on high-carbohydrate diets fascinates me. So let's explore this!

We'll begin by examining some of the obsevations of T.L. Cleave, who wrote an important book called The Saccharine Disease. In this book, Cleave notes that the rural Zulu of Africa (in the 1950s) were in good health on a diet comprised of 90% carbohydrate calories (Matt Stone recently blogged about this subject and sparked my interest). In contrast, the urban Zulu ate less carbohydrates (81%), yet had more diseases than the rural Zulu. Cleave concluded that the amount of carbs being eaten by the two groups didn't matter so much as the types of carbs. This seemed to make all the difference: the rural population ate maize and root vegetables while the city-dwellers consumed refined, industrialized carbs, such as sugar and white flour. Through observations such as this, T.L. Cleave, like Weston A. Price before him, showed quite convincingly that refined foods are the cause of modern degenerative diseases.

But this isn't the entire story. If we are to think critically about Cleave's theory, we find that he oversimplified things a bit too much, lumping all detrimental foods into one category: refined carbohydrates. What this implies is that a person can consume all the whole grains, fruits, and potatoes he or she wants without experiencing the "diseases of civilization": diabetes, obesity, dental caries and crooked teeth, gastrointestinal ailments, heart disease, etc. As long we avoid sugar and refined grains, we'll live in good health, just as the rural Zulu did. Hmmm ... maybe.

While Cleave may or may not have been right about the general nature of refined carbs and their effects on human health, one glaring hitch in his theory is the fact that he overlooked something very simple: the chemical differences in carbohydrate foods and how these differences may be major factors in present-day diseases. In other words, it's not as simple as whole foods vs. refined foods -- it's also a matter of the qualities of the foods. To illustrate this, let's evaluate two of the evils that Cleave proclaims to be the cause of modern man's health demise. On one hand we have white flour: a starch -- also known chemically as a polysaccharide -- which is broken down to glucose in the body. Sugar, on the other hand, is a disaccharide with a significant difference: it's composed of glucose and fructose, which the body handles quite differently than it does starch. Gary Taubes, author of Good Calories, Bad Calories, explains sugar's disaccharide nature in the body:

"The fructose will stimulate the liver to produce triglycerides, while the glucose will stimulate insulin secretion. And the glucose-induced insulin response in turn will prompt the liver to secrete even more triglycerides than it would from fructose alone, while the insulin will also elevate blood pressure apart from the effect of fructose." (p. 201)

The effects of fructose and glucose on the formation of AGEs (junk proteins in the body implicated in age-related chronic diseases) is also interesting. Taubes writes:

"Glucose [alone] ... is the least reactive of all sugars, the one least likely to attach itself without an enzyme to a nearby protein, which is the first step in the formation of AGEs. As it turns out, however, fructose is significantly more reactive in the bloodstream than glucose, and perhaps ten times more effective than glucose at inducing the cross-linking of proteins that leads to the cellular junk of [AGEs]. Fructose [induced-AGEs] ... seem more resistant to the body's disposal mechanisms than ... glucose. It also increases markedly the oxidation of LDL particles, which appears to be a necessary step in atherosclerosis." (p. 201)

Glucose -- the "least reactive of all sugars" -- appears to be the most ideal carbohydrate to consume if we are to avoid disease. Fructose seems to be the worst. Together, as sugar or honey or high-fructose-corn-syrup -- all glucose/fructose combinations -- they are the worst of the worst. It's kind of like putting Vin Diesel and Chuck Norris in an action flick together. Not good. You know somebody's gonna die.

So perhaps it is sugar (more specifically, fructose) and not refined foods like white flour or white rice (starches) that lead to our modern health ailments. It's hard to say for certain which food caused problems when evaluating primitive cultures as Cleave and Price did because, in every case examined, where there was smoke there was fire: white flour and sugar were being eaten at the same time. Yet, if it were all refined carbohydrates that lead to ill health, then how are we to explain healthy cultures on a diet centered around white rice such as the Japanese and Koreans? These cultures also consume animal foods in the form of fish, beef, and eggs -- all cholesterol-rich foods. Yet they have little heart disease. What's missing, which many industrialized cultures consume plenty of, is excessive sugar and high-fructose corn syrup (particularly in the form of soft drinks). Fructose intake in these countries has been very low traditionally, although it continues to grow from year to year.

I was actually in Seoul, Korea recently and noticed that almost everybody was slim and healthy-looking. The only obese Koreans I observed were a few children here and there. As consumption of soda, candy, and other fructose-sweetened products are increasing, displacing the starch calories in the diet, it appears that nation-wide obesity (and its slew of health complications) is on the rise.

With all of this to consider, we are left with a question: is fructose the culprit in present-day chronic disease? A man by the name of Dr. Richard Johnson theorizes that it is. His research strongly indicates this food as the main player in everything from diabetes to heart disease. The more and more I research it, the more I am convinced of such a theory. The Nutrition & Metabolism Society had this to say in a paper on fructose:

The alarming increase in fructose consumption may be an important contributor to the epidemic of obesity and insulin resistant diabetes in both pediatric and adult populations.

And this (italics mine):

A high flux of fructose to the liver, the main organ capable of metabolizing this simple carbohydrate, disturbs normal hepatic carbohydrate metabolism leading to two major consequences... perturbations in glucose metabolism and glucose uptake pathways, and a significantly enhanced rate of de novo lipogenesis and TG [triglyceride] synthesis, driven by the high flux of glycerol and acyl portions of TG molecules coming from fructose catabolism. These metabolic disturbances appear to underlie the induction of insulin resistance commonly observed with high fructose feeding in both humans and animal models.

What I'm getting at here, in a long-winded, haphazard sort-of-way, is this working theory:
  • Fructose in excessive quantities (i.e. standard American diet) is detrimental to human health.
  • Starch alone is not detrimental to human health.
  • A high-carbohydrate, starch-based diet -- that includes animal proteins & fats -- is a viable diet for long-term health.
  • Human beings can thrive on a wide variety of diets -- a high-fructose diet does not seem to be one of them.
All of that being said, there is one important caveat to consider. If a person is already affected by diabetes and/or obesity or some other degenerative condition, a simple reduction in fructose may not provide health improvement. When the metabolism or equilibrium of the body is disturbed in such an unnatural way (theoretically from over-consumption of fructose), starch or any other carbohydrate may exacerbate the condition further. For these kinds of people, a low-carbohydrate diet may be the most therapeutic diet for the long-term.

I'd also like to add that, although fructose -- and not carbohydrates in general -- may be the true instigator in degenerative disease, a high-fat, low-carb diet has advantages that a high-carb diet does not: lipolysis, stable blood sugar, greater satiety, lack of hunger, more "protective" and nutrient-dense foods, and so on.

Not to mention the fact that the more carnivoristic tribes of ancient and contemporary history dispaly greater strength, minimal dental caries, and denser bones compared to agricultural, starch-eating peoples. Here's Dr. Price's observation in Africa:

In contrast with the Masai, the Kikuyu tribe...are charcterized by being primarily an agricultural people... [they] are not as tall as the Masai and physically they are much less rugged... teeth with caries [were] 5.5 percent ... 36.4 percent [of the population]. (pp. 138-139)

Therefore, although it's interesting that human beings can live in good health on a starch-based diet, I'll stick with a low-carb (100 grams or less), diet rich in animal products, thank you!

ADDENDUM TO THIS POST: Stephan from Whole Health Source challenged me on the notion that it is fructose alone that leads to the diseases of civilization. Read the comments section for our debate and witness Stephan -- the master of persuasion -- single-handedly alter my perspective on this issue ...

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Medicated Child & Weston A. Price

Last night I watched a PBS Frontline episode called "The Medicated Child." The show covered many aspects of the unfortunate -- and most likely unnecessary -- phenomenon of prescribing antipsychotic and/or behavioral medications, such as lithium and ritalin, to children as young as 3-years-old who are diagnosed as ADHD or bipolar. Arguments were provided for both sides of the issue, but in the end it seems plain obvious that kids should absolutely not be given meds that have never been fully evaluated to be safe and effective for adolescents and infants. It is also readily apparent that drug companies could care less who they're hurting by encouraging widespread use of these potent medications. This is especially evident when Frontline reveals that drug companies suddenly became interested in testing the effects of behavioral meds on children only when the Clinton administration gave adequate monetary incentive for doing so.

But all of that is another issue having more to do with politics and ethics. A far more intriguing question that I would like to address is: why are children exhibiting behavioral abnormalties? What is the root of all this madness? Surely it's not a deficiency in meds!

When I seek to answer a question like this, I always consider nutrition and physical health to be huge contributers. And I always think of my good buddy, Weston A. Price. This man truly observed something revolutionary about the physical and mental health of primitive populations on poor diets, and it is this radical observation that I thought of immediately when I saw a particular scene in The Medicated Child:

A woman is explaining the inadequate brain activity of a young boy to his family through the use of a color-coded brainscan. One sees the boy's brain and its array of greens, oranges, yellows, and reds. Then, next to that, a "normal" brain is shown with a very different color pattern. The woman points to different areas in the boy's brain and says, "This is abnormal and indicates that there is not very much activity here." Okay, so far very interesting. Then she turns the family's attention to a part of the brain called some fancy scientific name, which is visibly smaller than a normal brain. "That's where the problem is," she tells the family, who all seem very impressed.

My question is: What the heck is so impressive about this diagnoses? Where are the answers as to why this happened in the first place? How is this a satisfying experience in the least bit?

Doctor: "Your son has an abnormal brain. Here are some meds to fix it."

Parents: "Wow, thanks, doc. You're a life saver."

Stop. Hold the phone. Why? Why is his brain abnormal? Just because? Of course not. There are simple answers that are easily overlooked by all of the "experts" because they're used to thinking about things in such a complex fashion. What if, for example, the son is nutritionally deficient? What if he needs an improved diet? While nutrition appears to be the most fundamental root cause of illness -- especially when we see these kids on Frontline eating twinkies and corn dogs and goldfish crackers -- these are questions that are never addressed by the doctors. ADHD caused by too much sugar? Naw, couldn't be! Could it be that these children need more animal fats and proteins in their diets? No way -- that stuff causes heart disease!

It seems like the further we progress scientifically, the more we forget the simple questions and answers. For example, when "experts" are asked why more and more kids are diagnosed as bipolar, the answer is unsatisfying:

Top experts offer a range of reasons. They acknowledge some of the increase is likely due to bipolar being mislabeled; some think "bipolar disorder" has become a catch-all diagnosis for kids with a range of problems. But many experts say the increase is simply because doctors are better at identifying bipolar in children today than they were 10 years ago. They believe these kids have always existed, but that doctors failed to recognize the symptoms of bipolar and called these children oppositional or diagnosed them with ADHD. Some experts also cite evidence of a genetic link behind the rise in childhood bipolar, and some even speculate that environmental factors are playing a role in triggering childhood bipolar. source

First of all, that's quite an assumption that these kinds of kids have "always existed." A quick evaluation of primitive populations will find the opposite to be true. Second, not one of these mainstream experts even speculates the cause may be related to diet. Yet, even if we are to attribute behavioral abnormalities to nutrition, we still don't get a satisfying answer. Even if we instruct families to cut out sugar and other junk foods and add more animal fats/proteins to the diet, and as a result we see dramatic shifts in a child's behavior, we still haven't answered the question of "why does the child have a smaller, more compressed brain structure than a normal brain?" And why is this phenomenon becoming more and more common? Again, we return to nutrition as the root cause, but this time let's focus on the diet the child was raised on and the diet of the parents before conception and during pregnancy. Now we're getting somewhere.

Here we return to good ol' Dr. Price. His study of primitive populations showed that, with inadequate nutrition of the parents in the prenatal period and when provided with a deficient diet postnatally (during the formative years when still growing), a child develops facial, skeletal, and dental deformities. In other words, rather than a child having a nice round face, square jaw, wide nasal passage, and all 32 teeth, the child has a narrow face, sagging cheeks, pinched nostrils, and crooked teeth. All of these changes are due to inadequate nutrition, not genetics. And with these deformities comes an overall more "squished" brain due to poor formation of the skull. This can potentially lead to poor blood flow and, thus, abnormal brain function. Children with ADHD have 3-4% less brain volume than children without ADHD.

To further add to the argument of poor nutrition/poor skeletal development being the cause of behavioral disorders, it's interesting to note that every single child in The Medicated Child exhibited facial deformities. Most kids had overbites, some were mouth breathers, and all had narrow faces. For a visual example, return to the top of this post and observe the child on the DVD cover.
In summary, I theorize that the root of behavioral abnormalities is:
  • Inadequate nutrition (animal fats/proteins) of parents prenatally
  • Inadequate nutrition of child postnatally, during developmental years
  • A combination of the above leads to the child's skeletal deformities, part of which is comprimised brain volume due to underdeveloped skull
  • Smaller brain volume, in addition to poor diet, leads to poor brain function and, thus, behavioral abnormalities
All of that being said, with nutritional intervention (nutrient-dense, animal food-rich diet) a child may improve and function well. If this isn't enough, other therapeutic interventions and/or medication (as a last resort) may need to be utilized. In the end, however, it all starts prior to conception with the diet of the parents. If we are to truly resolve these disorders -- and many others -- it is necessary rebuild our children's health generation by generation until we return to the legacy of optimal health left by our primitive ancestors.
For a fascinating article on facial and dental deformities, check out this article: "Is it Mental or is it Dental: Cranial and Dental Impacts on Total Health," by Raymond Silkman, DD.