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.


elec said...

Nice work -- really captures the essence of the subject, in my opinion!

Ryan Koch said...

Thanks, elec!

PaleoRD said...

Ryan, you make excellent points that I often struggle to communicate with my friends and family. They cannot understand why I eat a lot of red meat, drink whole milk, use butter, and even eat raw eggs without concern.

Now, how do you deal with people who insist that fruits and vegetables are necessary for optimal health? I's say that fruits are neutral, and vegetables taste horrible so most people are in denial about them or hate them for a good reason (horrible flavor).

Long live Weston A. Price!

Ryan Koch said...


Thanks for the comment.

I don't frequently engage my friends and family in discussions about nutrition, as it's a subject much like religion: everyone has their perspective/beliefs or are simply regurgitating someone else's.

If somebody is truly interested in my reasons for eating the way I do, I explain in detail that much of what we know about nutrition is based on a poor foundation of faulty science. I give a few examples -- usually Ancel Keys is a good one. I then explain that our ancestors lived healthfully into their 70s and beyond eating "harmful" foods like butter, lard, and red meat. There was no heart disease until sugar and hydrogenated fats crept in. There was no diabetes, cancer, or other modern degenerative diseases either.

Weston Price usually comes in at this point, and I explain his findings and reiterate some of the above statements. If I have his book around, I show the interested person(s). The most important point to make, IMO, is that every primitive diet had animal foods in it, and that these foods -- particularly the fat and cholesterol-rich ones -- were held in high regard and sought after for childrearing.

It's also fun to share some anthropological findings about the human diet, especially regarding our mass consumption of meat during our evolution. Twern't no veggies in the Ice Age!

The key is to share all of this stuff with an interested person. I'm not a big believer in force-feeding information down others' throats. I'm also not a big believer in debating somebody who obviously "knows" they're right -- this happened a few times to me during discussions, and what a hopeless venture that was!

In the end, though, I feel that it's the example that we carry which influences others. Here's my credo: Laugh often, be a good and honest person, and live and let live.

Oh yeah, and eat satisfying food!

patrick said...

Aha! In doing my research delving into the labyrinth of nutrition and real sustenance, I run into the guy who got me started on all this. Good work Ryan!
But still the mystery continues, deepens...Yes primitive peoples are vibrantly healthy, but we still observe that around the world they had dramatic differences in diet.
I'm glad that a couple months back you posted your research into the zulu and how they were excelling on a high carbohydrate diet. In that you concluded that fructose was the real culprit.
But still I'm questioning that fact with the ojibway, where maple sugar was a huge focus of the year's harvest, and the fructose-rich sugar, being portable, was used extensively as a travel food.
Perhaps the indigenous had some magic in th bodies beyond nutrition!
thanks for your research,

Ryan Koch said...

Hey, Patrick! Good to hear from you, buddy.

I always love your questions -- quite a thinker you are. Yes, you're correct that every primitive group had varying diets. Some ate high-carb, some low-carb. Some ate lots of fish, some ate a little or none. Some consumed huge amounts of dairy, while others never touched the stuff!

Because of these varying diets with their varying foods and macronutrient contents -- and because primitive peoples were, as you say, vibrantly healthy on these diets -- I don't believe there is one "right" way of eating for anyone.

However, that being said, many modern folks with poor health may have to use certain diets in a therapuetic context to recover from years of poor diet (i.e. low-carb for diabetes/insulin resistance). For many of us, though (especially us young bucks), we can simply cut out the bad foods -- like sugar, hydrogenated fats, and refined white flour -- and return to good health in a matter of months.

That's the first, and most important step. I believe eating nutrient-dense foods, such as butter, liver, and whole milk, is the next. Especially if we are to have optimaly healthy children, which is really what this primitive nutrition stuff is all about, IMO.
Anyway, to address your comment about the Ojibway and their maple syrup consumption, I actually began a post while back on this very subject and never got around to finishing it. The research I did, if I recall correctly, reported the Ojibway to be seasonal mass-consumers of maple syrup -- up to a pound a day during harvest season (March & April). Outside of harvest season, maple syrup was used sparingly to sweeten wild rice or other dishes.

Wild Rice and the Ojibway PeopleThe rest of the Ojibway diet centered around wild rice (also gorged upon during harvest and used in moderation the rest of the year -- maybe 5 or 6 cups/day for most people, which would amount to less than 200 grams of carbs) and wild plants and game. They certainly ate their fair-share of meat and fat (I believe bear fat was their main fat source).

So, Patrick, ol' buddy, while I don't dispute that the Ojibway consumed massive quantities of maple syrup during harvest season, this wasn't the normal year-round eating behavior of this particular food. And, yes, it is high fructose, but being natural, it's different chemically than high-fructose corn syrup or refined sugar. That may diminish its harmful effect, although I'm not sure it makes a safe food to eat gobs and gobs of. Seasonally gorging as the Ojibway did may not harm you, but keep in mind that they did this out of necessity during more recent times due to animal food shortages.

I should also mention that the diet composition varied from group to group within the Great Lakes region. Some tribes ate very little wild rice and maple syrup, instead consuming mostly animal foods for sustenance.

Nice, website, BTW, Patrick. Hope you're having a good time up there in the Northwest!

Anonymous said...

An excellent answer!
And thanks a lot for your research.
So it seems that distortion to the underlying nature of food, as with modern processing(hydrogenation, refinment etc.), rather than the form, is a big factor in causing degenerative diseases, if you will, a distortion to the underlying nature of the body.
I think that looking at the relatively high-carb diet of the Ojibway though rises questions about the role of ketosis in native north american peoples.
When I sent a similiar question to the Weston Price foundation, Sally Falon told me that Price didn't find the eskimos he was studying in a state of ketosis. It was more like an adaptation to their diet...
Anyway, I guess we can draw no conclusions based on a life that we haven't seen in a time that we haven't seen, it remains something of a mystery...
For now I'm satisfied with your answer.
Thanks Ryan! And good luck in the canyonlands!

Ryan Koch said...

Hey Patrick,

I just wanted to clarify one thing about ketosis: it is a temporary metabolic state. What that means is that when you reduce carbohydrates and shift to burning fat for energy, the body goes into ketosis, which can result in a sort of fruity breath and fatigue and rapid water-weight loss. This transitional period subsides in 1-3 weeks and then your body becomes keto-adapted, metabollicaly shifting to lipolysis -- burning fat for fuel. I can attest to this experience as I went through it when I switched to a near zero-carb diet for a time.

Keto-adapation and lipolysis may be what Fallon was referring to when she said that the Inuit are adapted to their diet. Modern humans have the same physiological capabilities, and my hunch is that most native Americans (and ancient humans) were keto-adapted, especially those living on game and little else (i.e. the Plains natives who ate little else besides buffalo).

Anonymous said...

Hey Ryan,
I actually sent a similiar question to the weston price foundation regarding the role of ketosis in primitive diets with high carbs and this is the response that I got:
"I think the point to draw from these observations is that carbohydrate-rich diets and fat-rich diets can both be healthy as long as they are nutrient dense and appropriate to the lifestyle of the group. There are benefits to ketosis, but there are also benefits to being in the fed, carbohydrate-replete state. It is normal to cycle through these states on a daily basis -- ketosis increases when we fast during sleeping -- and on other cyclical bases as the composition of the diet changes seasonally.


p.s. I tried the classic atkins ketosis induction but couldn't relly keep it going longer than the two weeks.
I like a good gallon of fresh raw milk a day!

Monica said...

Awesome blog -- I'm going to enjoy following it!

Ryan Koch said...


Thanks for posting that respose from the WAPF. That makes sense re: a high-carb diet and the role ketosis plays. I wonder if the types of carbohydrates make a difference. Eating starch, rather than fructose-rich carbs, for example, may allow for a more efficient transition into ketosis without effects such as intense hunger pangs and low-blood sugar.

I recall watching a documentary about modern Sudanese Dinkas who mainly subsisted off of millet and corn meal with very little fat and protein. They ate twice a day -- morning and evening -- which would have given their bodies plenty of oppotunity to transition into a fat-burning state between meals. Despite their high-carb diet, their bodies seemed well-equipped to burn fat for fuel.

Again, my hunch is that eating primarily starch allowed for this flexible metabolism. If instead they were consuming mostly fructose-based carbs, I wonder if they would have eaten more frequently and also developed diabetes, obesity, and the slew of health issues that comes with such a diet.

Re: Atkins induction: fat is the key. Were you eating enough? (60% of calories and above from fat is usually the norm.)

Keep drinking your milk, Patrick! :-)


Thanks for reading!

Dana Seilhan said...

You should read the book Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar, and Survival, by a woman last name of Wiley (I don't recall her first name at the moment). It's a bit heavy on the fruity prose at various points, but the gist is that certain attributes of our modern lifestyle have short-circuited our hormones, neurotransmitters, and metabolic processes and most of the blame might be laid at our use of electric lighting. She thinks it's confused our bodies into "thinking" it is always summer, and the concurrent availability of foods which should only be available in the summer months has prompted many of us to eat like it's summer all year round.

I don't like her buying into the notion that menopause is unnatural and ought to be medicated, and she's gotten in trouble with her peers since that book was published for treating patients (she's a PhD) with high doses of bio-identical hormones, but the question of poor nutrition in modern society is a huge puzzle and I think she stumbled across some of the missing pieces. Her book basically brings together a lot of data that had already been gathered and measured by scientists and the government--they just don't trot it out before the public for whatever reason. I mean, seriously, who's going to give up the light bulb?

I can attest that whatever problems I've had with my diet as an adult, I've definitely suffered sleep deprivation for most of the last 17.5 years.

Ryan Koch said...


That's an interesting read for sure. I've flipped through and read a few sections here and there a while back. Her basic premise -- that the light bulb has disturbed our sleep and, thus, our health -- can be challenged by a few counterpoints:

1) Human beings lived in varying latitudes with varying lengths of days. Some, like the Inuit, had several months of light or darkness, yet remained healthy.

2) People had light before the advent of the light bulb in the form of primitive oil lamps which used animal fats as a fuel. Campfires obviously provided light, as well.

3) Modern humans don't simply stay awake at night because of light bulbs. They also consume caffeinated beverages, alcohol, and/or take pills to keep themselves awake (especially those crazy college kids).

4) Most little kids sleep just fine with the light on!

5) Yes, our hormones and metabolic processes are out of whack, but aren't chemically-produced high-fructose corn syrup, trans fats, veggie oils, and white flour (and poor diet/nutrient status in general) a more likely factor in our restlessness and ill health? These things impact metabolism significantly in and of themselves.

Sleep problems for me are related to poor digestion and a lack of calories -- which, unfortunately for me, come hand-in-hand. When I eat enough good food and don't have intestinal hiccups (rare for me), I sleep well!

Disability Aids said...

I started with a simple base. Two parts water to one part finely ground. My hunch is that eating primarily starch allowed for this flexible metabolism. Keto-adapation and lipolysis may be to when she said that the Inuit are adapted to their diet.
I was more like a chili casserole with a crust. roast pork chops with baked apple, smashed mustard potatoes and steamed veg.