Saturday, May 23, 2009

So What's For Dinner?

Part 5 from my paper, "Modern Health, Primitive Wisdom: American Health History and the Findings of Weston A. Price."

"Meat, potatoes, and gravy. I don't like vegetables; I can't hardly eat any of them. The potatoes take care of all the vegetables."

-- Lena Stanley, Centenarian (Edelman 1999, p. 378)

The world of human health and nutrition is a bewildering labyrinth at times. Just about everybody has their own idea of what is and isn't healthy, and there are plenty of diet books, doctor's recommendations, health gurus, and dieticians out there to guide the way. Who is right? Who is wrong? What is the optimal human diet? It is questions such as these that can stir up confusion and debate. Yet, nutritional science is still in its infancy, having only been in the public light since the late 18th century. There is plenty of room for confusion and debate. As one nutritionist says, "It's all theory" (A. Minear, personal communication, January 17, 2007).

If we are to only work with what the last 100 hundred years of research and science has told us about how the foods we eat affect our health, we are left with but a small period of time upon which to base our ideas -- we only see how food has affected human health over a millisecond of the time that people have been eating. During this brief period of history, we have conducted multitudes of studies that make very convincing arguments for or against certain aspects of nutrition. An interested, research-oriented individual can find in books, articles, and journals many studies supporting a low-fat, high-carbohydrate way of eating, for example. That person can also find many resources that support the complete opposite -- extolling the benefits of high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet. Add in the varied interpretations by the scientists involved in these studies, as well as the opinions of independent researchers, the media, doctors, nutritionists, friends and family -- and that's when bewilderment arises.

This is where Weston A. Price comes in. His research and conclusions are drawn from a combination of modern and ancient dietary wisdom. The traditional population groups he studied had all been eating a certain way for thousands of years. With the aid of modern science, Price found that the foods these people ate provided needed nutrients in consistent quantities to allow for optimal growth and development -- and these foods worked for these cultures over thousands of years. In studying nutritional science, why work with only a miniscule piece of human health history (as in the last hundred years) when there exists a firm foundation in the dietary wisdom of primitive peoples -- a foundation built over thousands of years? In interpreting our own health, why not look to our ancestors and ask what kept them free from degenerative diseases? Dr. Barry Groves, a health researcher and author, puts it this way:

We should not be looking for answers to the diseases we suffer from today, but why many peoples in the world don't get them at all. That way we might stand a better chance of an answer to the dreadful plague of ill-health we are beset with.

It is extremely important for our modern world to acknowledge the findings of Weston A. Price. In considering Price's discoveries of healthy traditional cultures, we have the basis for a logical advancement in modern medicine: the creation of a benchmark that describes what true health looks and feels like. This is something that does not currently exist in the medical establishment. Though we have many tests and procedures to determine whether or not a patient is "normal" or "at-risk" for disease, we have no set standards for optimal human development. This was Price's idea in the first place: he wanted to find "control groups" of healthy populations who were not suffering from the physical and mental malfunction of his day -- he wanted to define what it meant to be truly alive and healthy:

Instead of the customary procedure of analyzing the expressions of degeneration, a search has been made for groups to be used as controls who are largely free from these affections (p. 1).

And this is what Weston Price found in primitive peoples across the world. He found in these people a new standard for human potential. But how can we define such a standard in a world where disease and deformities are the norm?

Like Price, we simply observe the people who are actually healthy. When we look at the photos that Dr. Price took during his travels, we witness a level of physical and mental well-being simply unknown to most modern human beings. When we see those broad faces, perfect teeth, and -- as Price stated again and again -- high moral character of primitive peoples, we are observing a higher degree of human health. It is readily apparent that primitive peoples have many qualities that modern people do not possess. Through the observation of these ancient cultures, whether through books, photographs, documentaries, or travel, it isn't hard to see that they are different -- and not just culturally. We can gain immense benefit from observing these differences and determining what they possess in health and well-being that we do not.

Minds and Hearts

Let us consider the way primitive people use their bodies and minds: how they respond to excitement or danger, the values they live by, the nature of their temperaments, and the way they breathe, eat, play, and live. Are they hyper-anxious? Do they steal, cheat, and murder? Do they have nagging physical problems, such as back, neck, and shoulder tension? In large part, the answers are: No, no, and no. We moderns can use the answers to such questions -- and the implications therein -- in the betterment of our own health. In addition to subjecting the "control groups" of healthy indigenous people to medical tests, let us also communicate with these people and sense with our hearts the degree of their well-being. Let us observe closely what separates them from us in body, mind, and spirit. And let us ask what we can learn from these differences.

Perhaps a good start would be to eat the way our ancestors did. In returning to the food traditions of antiquity in the United States, we have a chance to restore our health. Much has changed in American food habits over time. Most people would say that our nutrition has improved immensely in modern times; after all, we have progressed in technology, medicine, and hygiene -- isn't it obvious that we would have enhanced our nutrition as well? With all of the knowledge that we have accumulated in the sciences, children are still being born with facial and dental deformities. These deformities are not questioned so much as they are accepted. In fact, they aren't even referred to as deformities as they were in Weston Price's day, and they are not at all believed to be connected with nutrition as Price's research revealed.

In the U.S. these days, it is just part of life to have your wisdom teeth removed, have a narrow face, get braces, or develop a chronic health condition. We assume we are advanced enough to know if something isn't right with human growth and development. Yet again, how can we know that something isn't right if we don't have any clue as to what is "right" in the first place?

Once again, traditional peoples like our American ancestors paint a picture of how human beings are meant to be. Our ancestors provide -- through their facial and skeletal development and lack of degenerative disease -- an example of close-to-optimal health. I say "close-to" because Americans at the turn of the century still did not match up to the vibrant glow of the aforementioned primitive cultures of Price's studies, all of which were completely free from disease and deformity. However, early Americans were far healthier in many ways than we are today. And, as was suggested earlier, all things in consideration: early Americans' lifespan closely matches the life expectancy of today.

Once we observe the characteristics -- physical, mental, and spiritual -- in traditional peoples across the world, it is readily apparent that modernized populations are sorely lacking. It is only sensible then to ask how traditional peoples attained such refined attributes. It was apparent to Weston Price that diet was a key factor, and this is my assertion as well. Centuries of nutrient-dense foods have allowed for the creation of superb human beings in traditional societies:

One immediately wonders if there is not something life-giving in the vitamins and minerals of the food that builds not only great physical structures within which their souls reside, but builds minds and hearts capable of a higher type of manhood ... (p. 27).

The "minds and hearts" of primitive people provide our modern civilizations with a lucid, inspiring picture of what true health is. We are given a wonderful opportunity to observe these examples and ask how we can attain this health through employing traditional food habits and following the wisdom that our ancestors have left for us.


Edelman, Bernard. (1999). Centenarians: The Story of the 20th Century by the Americans Who Lived It. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Groves, Barry (2005). Our love affair with fat -- a historical perspective.

Price, Weston A. (2003). Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. La Mesa, CA: Price- Pottenger Nutrition Foundation.

Friday, May 15, 2009

What About Cholesterol?

Here is Part 4 in a series of blog posts adapted from my paper, "Modern Health, Primitive Wisdom: American Health History and the Findings of Weston A. Price."

It is commonly believed that saturated fat and cholesterol are primary culprits in the current heart disease epidemic in the United States. We have already taken a look at saturated fat, but what about cholesterol? Is there any substantiation behind the claim that a high-cholesterol diet leads to clogged arteries or dangerously high blood cholesterol levels? What about early Americans and other traditional people who ate cholesterol rich foods and did not suffer from heart disease?

Returning to Weston Price's studies of traditional cultures, one finds that the most prized foods were very rich in fat and cholesterol. Some of these foods include liver, butterfat, fish eggs, and a variety of rendered animal fats, such as lard, tallow, and chicken fat. These cholesterol-rich foods are also rich in fat-soluble vitamins, the catalysts responsible for proper protein and mineral assimilation, and may be the key to rearing healthy children with round faces. Price found no evidence of heart disease, cancer, and other degenerative diseases in the people who enjoyed such nutrient-dense foods. On the contrary, he found primitive people to be the most vibrant and healthy people he'd ever seen.

Like other traditional cultures, early Americans saw no reason to avoid cholesterol-rich foods. They savored hearty, nutrient-dense foods that were high in cholesterol. Butter, cream, egg yolks, lard, tallow, and untrimmed animal meats (including organs) were not disdained -- these foods were thoroughly enjoyed and used extensively in recipes of all kinds. Before the advent of nutritional sciences and USDA food pyramids, turn-of-the-century Americans were enjoying such foods while having no knowledge of cholesterol and its function in the human body. They were unknowingly supplying their bodies with a nutrient that is very supportive to good health.

Cholesterol is not a fat -- it is a waxy alcohol that is not utilized for energy by the body; it does not supply calories. Rather, it is absorbed directly by the intestinal wall without needing to be broken down like fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. The amount that is absorbed by the body generally amounts to less than 50%. Cholesterol plays a key role in brain growth and development (especially in infants), cell membrane integrity, and the healing processes of the body -- thus, it is usually present in scar tissues where there is a repair process happening, as in arteriosclerosis (scarring of the arteries). In addition to all of these functions in the body, cholesterol is the raw material for our hormones. This includes sex hormones and adrenal hormones (also known as "stress hormones"). The adrenal hormones are especially needed in the modern world where stress is a constant part of our lives (Enig, 2000, pp. 48-50, 56-58).

The story of how such a vital nutrient went from being revered in the early century, to being maligned and feared in modern times, is well-documented in The Cholesterol Myths, by Uffe Ravnskov. In this book, Ravnskov makes it clear that there is very little reason for Americans to fear the theory that dietary cholesterol contributes to heart disease and high blood cholesterol levels (the diet-heart theory). (Interestingly, according to the author, blood cholesterol levels may not have any pertinence in evaluating the risk of heart disease.) Several population groups are cited by Ravnskov that consume substantial amounts of cholesterol-laden foods and do not have heart disease or high blood cholesterol levels. This includes both modern and primitive populations. It is also noted by Ravnskov that the studies upon which the diet-heart theory are based are either flawed or skewed to prove the truth in the theory.

One of the pillars of the diet-heart theory is The Framingham Heart Study, which is often referred to as proof that high cholesterol levels lead to a greater risk of heart disease. Ravnskov found this study to be flawed in a number of different ways. The director of The Framingham Heart Study had this to say about the final results of the project:

In Framingham, Massachusetts, the more saturated fat one ate, the more calories one ate, the lower the peoples' serum cholesterol ... we found that the people who ate the most cholesterol, ate the most saturated fat, ate the most calories weighed the least and were the most physically active (as cited in Enig & Fallon, 2001, 5).

Such inconsistencies in the diet-heart theory have spawned an entire network of scientists, researchers, and health professionals who call themselves The International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics, or THINCS. This organization has among its members many reputable individuals who have taken it upon themselves to disseminate unbiased information and engage in discussions concerning the science and health effects of dietary cholesterol. Armed with this information, the interested individual can arrive at his or her own conclusions about whether or not one should worry about cholesterol in the diet, as well as determine whether or not high-cholesterol foods were detrimental to early Americans.


Enig, Mary G. (2000). Know Your Fats : The Complete Primer for Understanding the Nutrition of Fats, Oils and Cholesterol. Silverspring, MD: Bethesda Press

Ravnskov, Uffe (2000). The Cholesterol Myths: Exposing the Fallacy that Saturated Fat and Cholesterol Cause Heart Disease. Washington, D.C.: New Trends Publishing.

Next up, the thrilling conclusion: "So What's For Dinner?"

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Big, Fat Changes in American Foods

Part 3 in a series of posts adapted from my paper, "Modern Health, Primitive Wisdom: American Health History and the Findings of Weston A. Price."

Over a hundred years, we have conquered tuberculosis and pneumonia, improved safety measures in work environments, developed methods to increase food supply, and improved infant survival rates. Yet the quality of our lives is now diminished through conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. These changes in disease patterns over the last century correlate strongly with changes in diet. Aside from an increase in processed food consumption since the early 1900s, our consumption of fats and oils has shifted quite dramatically in terms of quality (not so much quantity, contrary to popular belief). In other words, the type of fats (animal, fruit, and vegetable) and specific fatty acids (saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated) that Americans ate one hundred years ago were very different from those that are eaten today. The table below provides an overview of the changes that have taken place.

Much of the fats that Americans have eaten for centuries -- and that many traditional cultures have eaten for thousands of years -- have been mostly saturated and monounsaturated. Animal fats top the list in 1890 as the fat of choice for cooking, baking, and spreading. Yet, heart disease (commonly believed to be caused by animal fat consumption) was far less prevalent during this era. In 1990, we see vegetable oils are leading the way, while animal fat consumption is so minimal that it does not make the list. For the first time in history, people are ingesting large amounts of polyunsaturated oils extracted from seeds and grains. These oils are often unknowingly eaten in prepackaged foods, as they are the oil of choice for the modern food industry due to their cost-effectiveness. Most potato chips, for example, use corn, canola, or soybean oils -- none of which were consumed in significant amounts by our ancestors.
As the type of fats and oils that the United States consumes has changed in the last 100 years, degenerative diseases have became more and more common. Saturated fat consumption has been blamed for causing many modern diseases. Modern Americans are claimed to be eating too much saturated fat and have been encouraged to cut back as much as possible to prevent disease. Is saturated fat to blame? If it were, one would expect the consumption of saturated fat to have increased substantially since the early century. This has not been the case, however:

Over the course of the 19th century, as heart disease has increased and cancer has become a common cause of death in the United States, saturated fat consumption has remained quite stable. Monounsaturated fat consumption has increased substantially. Yet this change pales in comparison to the growing popularity of polyunsaturated fat in the American diet. In the 1950s, with polyunsaturated vegetable oils gaining favor by the edible oil industries (whose primary motivation was to make a profit), Americans began eating more and more of these unnatural, man-made fats -- fats which were traditionally only consumed as whole foods, such as grains, vegetables, seeds, and nuts.

In her book, American Food Habits in Historical Perspective (1995), Elaine N. McIntosh states: "Essentially, the consumption of animal fat has declined since 1940, and the consumption of vegetable oils has increased steadily since 1909, overtaking animal fats in 1950" (p. 210). The transition from a diet rich in saturated and monounsaturated fatty acids (mostly from animal fats) to a diet high in polyunsaturated fatty acids (vegetable oils -- many of which are hydrogenated trans fats) has been one of the most significant changes in human nutrition in the past 100 years.

Source for above tables:
Enig, Mary G. (2000). Know Your Fats : The Complete Primer for Understanding the Nutrition of Fats, Oils and Cholesterol. Silverspring, MD: Bethesda Press

Next, Part 4: "What About Cholesterol?"

Friday, May 1, 2009

Were Early Americans Really Living Shorter Lives?

This is Part 2 in a series adapted from my paper, "Modern Health, Primitive Wisdom: American Health History and the Findings of Weston A. Price."

Looking deeper into the life expectancy statistics that are used to gauge our country's health status, one quickly finds that it is not a simple black-and-white procedure. Many factors create discrepancies in the data. One prime example is the role that infant mortality rate plays in determining life expectancy data. As the mortality numbers of the overall population are added up, every infant death contributes a "0" to the tally, significantly impacting the final average. Below is a graphic representation of the result of this phenomenon. (blue = infant mortality; yellow = average lifespan.)

In the above figure, we see that infant mortality rates in 1900 are quite high at 14 %. Correspondingly, average life expectancy of newborns in 1900 is very low at 47.6 years. In 1992, with infant deaths (along with infectious disease, undernourishment, and death from injury) being largely controlled by medical technological advancements, the infant mortality rate drops drastically to less than 1%. For that year, we find that life expectancy has risen by nearly 30 years compared to data from the year 1900.

It is also important to note that the data for life expectancy in the above figure is only representative of the number of years a newborn infant is expected to live. In other words, at age "0" a white person in 1900 is expected to live up to 48 years; in sharp contrast, a white person born (age "0") in 1992 is expected to nearly 77-years-old. However, if the 1900 person escapes infectious disease, injury, miscarriage, and undernourishment and manages to reach 40-years-old and beyond, the numbers shift significantly (blue = 40+ life expectancy in 1900; yellow = 40+ life expectancy in 1992):

Here we see that if a white American in 1900 reaches age 40, he/she can expect to live 28 years longer (age 68). A white American in 1992 is expected to live 39 years longer (age 79). This is a difference of 11 years. Furthermore, if the 1900 person should live to age 80, he/she is expected to reach age 85. If the 1992 man lives to 80 years, he can expect to see age 87. This is a difference of 2 years. Thus, it can be seen in the above figure that as the age of the individual increases, the gap between the life expectancy data of 1900 and 1992 diminishes. Returning to the first figure, which is based on newborn (age 0) life expectancies, we find a much larger gap in the data -- a difference of nearly 30 years.

Once again, we must remind ourselves of the many changing factors over the century that play an important role in interpreting this data: better hygiene, control of infectious disease, increased food supply, and improved infant outcome. Such influential factors must be taken into consideration when using lifespan data to analyze the health of the United States population throughout the century.

American Food Habits in Historical Perspective (McIntosh 1995, 219-220)

National Vital Statistics Reports (Department of Health and Human Services, National Center for Health Statistics 2006)

Next Post, Part 3: "Big, Fat Changes in American Foods."