Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Darwin of Nutrition

Here is an excerpt from an article I wrote called, "Weston A. Price: A Search For True Health," recently published in The Bulletin of Primitive Technology, Spring 2009.

Following the realization that food was the major contributing factor in human health and disease, Weston Price kept a keen eye out for what specific foods seemed to keep the primitives in good health. It was already obvious that industrialized foodstuffs weren't supportive of optimal health, so now it was Price's mission to determine what particular “nutritional programs” contributed to the well-being of the primitive groups. What food traditions had thousands of years of trial and error resulted in? Dr. Price noted every culture's dietary habits, including special foods utilized during times of child-rearing for the man and woman. It impressed him that the primitives seemed to be aware of preventative measures beginning with the health of the parents:

A very important phase of my investigations has been the obtaining of information from these various primitive racial groups indicating that they were conscious that [physical degeneration] would occur if the parents were not in excellent condition and nourishment. Indeed, in many groups I found that the girls were not allowed to be married until after they had had a period of special feeding. In some tribes a six month period of special nutrition was required before marriage. (Nutrition & Physical Degeneration, p. 3)

Dr. Price was convinced by the ubiquitous nature of this practice that many ailments of modern civilization were caused by prenatal undernourishment and that many of these problems could be prevented by the proper nutritional reinforcement of the parents to be.

Curious about the nutritional content of the primitive diets – particularly those that were emphasized for child-rearing – he took several samples of foods from each locale in order to test them at his laboratory in the United States. Armed with such information, Dr. Price believed that he could then determine what all the varied diets of each culture had in common and further understand the nutritional wisdom of the primitives. When he analyzed the traditional foods, he was excited to find that, on the whole, foods in the native diets were four times richer in water-soluble vitamins and minerals and ten times richer in fat-soluble vitamins than the industrialized American diet of his day. Of the native foods studied, Price realized that the foods which the primitives most emphasized and often times considered sacred (especially for child-rearing) were rich in “fat-soluble activators:” vitamins A, D, and what he referred to as “activator X” – now understood to be vitamin K2. This included foods such as fish eggs, liver, certain insects, and other cholesterol-rich, fat-rich foods (see table below; foods high in fat-soluble vitamins are in bold).

The qualities of the foods, Price came to realize through testing native foods as well as conducting experiments in his laboratory, depended greatly on the quality of the soil and the feed given to the animals. For example, grain and hay-fed dairy products in the United States had far less vitamin and mineral content when compared with dairy products from the Swiss in Loetschental Valley, which was produced from cows grazing on “rapidly growing green grass” in the spring and summer and chlorophyll-rich hay in the fall and winter. Price determined that the color of the butterfat from such dairy products could accurately predict the nutrient-density: a deep yellow or orange color reliably indicated high vitamin content. The laboratory tests of traditional foods further bolstered his confidence in the “wisdom of the primitives.”

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Reality of Primitive People's Lifespan

Human lifespan is one of the topics that frequently comes up in my discussions with others about primitive nutrition and health. In our day and age, this subject has become a trendy factor in gauging the overall health of any given population or individual. If a person lives a long time -- say 100 years -- they are considered long-lived and must have lived a healthful life to reach such an impressive age. Yet, there are always anomalies to this assumption. Comedian George Burns lived to be 100 while smoking between 10-15 cigars a day. At 98, he joked, "If I'd taken my doctor's advice and quit smoking when he advised me to, I wouldn't have lived to go to his funeral."

Western cultures' obsession with lifespan has existed for a very long time. The Bible cites people living for hundreds and thousands of years in ancient times. More recently, researchers were fascinated by claims of the Hunzakats commonly reaching ages of 120 and beyond (this myth is dispelled quite well by this website). On the other end of this spectrum, many experts and laymen agree that primitive humans' lifespan was nothing to be impressed about: old age during those times was thought to be around forty years old.

Recently, I came across a study that blows all these distortions, assumptions, and obsessions out of the water. The study is a meta-analysis -- meaning it draws off of the research of many other related studies, and is titled "Longevity Among Hunter-Gatherers: A Cross-Cultural Examination." I suggest you give the full study a read, as there are many fascinating tidbits in it. The authors, Gurven and Kaplan, assembled lifespan and mortality data from around the world that included isolated hunter-gatherers (the closest living relatives to our paleolithic ancestors that we have), acculturated hunter-gatherers, isolated neolithic cultures, Western modern civilizations, and even chimpanzees for comparison. The authors focused solely on reliable demographic data from a handful of cultures. The table below sums up the results of the study well:

This data may come as a surprise to both romanticists of the ancients' supposed longevity, as well as to those that claim primitive human beings lived a life that was "nasty, brutish, and short." Here we have numbers that secure a middle ground amidst these two extremes. The authors of the study sum up their compiled information as follows:

The average modal age of adult death for hunter-gatherers is 72 with a range of 68-78 years. This range appears to be the closest functional equivelent of an "adaptive" human lifespan.

So there you have it. Convincing research suggesting that our hunter-gatherer ancestors are not at all far-removed from modern civilized human beings in terms of lifespan.