Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Tribal Fattening Practices

While in America "thin is in," in some cultures around the world "fat is where it's at." One such culture can be found in the desert-streaked country of Mauritania, located in West Africa. Here, the true marker of beauty and health in a woman is the amount of rolls she has. But there's one problem: human beings eating normal amounts of natural foods don't get obese and overweight, and the common foods available in West Africa include raw goat's milk, meat, millet, couscous, dates, peanuts, and other whole foods. While most of us in the Western world can easily become fat through years of eating fattening, unnatural, metabolism-altering foods like high-fructose corn syrup, trans-fats, and high-gluten white flour, the Mauritanian people don't have such "luxuries" -- so they resort to good old-fashioned force-feeding to accomplish the task.

The Mauritanian fattening practice, called leblouh, takes place when young women enter a tiny sandstone hut. Inside resides an old woman, the "fattener," whose primary job in the community is to make sure these young women (sometimes beginning as young as 5-years-old) become plump and, thus, attractive and suitable for marraige.

Obvious moral and ethical implications of this practice aside, I thought it would be interesting to find out just how much food is utilized to accomplish the fattening. I was surprised to find out that these women typically are force-fed -- to the point of nasuea and vomiting at times -- a whole-foods diet of up to 16,000 calories. This includes four meals per day of:

...crushed dates and peanuts with couscous and oil ... cloying, egg-size balls of around 300 calories apiece. Each girl eats about 40 per day, along with 12 pints of goat's milk and gruel ... (Source)

To bolster the fattening process, the women also must not get any exercise whatsoever, remaining in the huts for several years until they are married off. Additionally, because the task of eating such inordinate amounts of food is so physically challenging to the young women, the old woman "fattener" threatens to beat them if they refuse to eat.

Because the Mauritanian women are limited to traditional foods, which lead to satiety rather quickly due to high nutrient content and are difficult to overeat, some have sought out methods to increase their appetite unnaturally to be able to gain those extra pounds of beauty. One such method is the purchase of certain pharmaceuticals:

Sold secretly at city markets, they include hormones used to fatten camels and chickens, and steroids for asthma and cancer ... (Source)

The difficulty inherent in these traditional peoples' ability to gain weight while eating whole foods challenges the notion, once again, that carbohydrates lead to obesity. Here we have a culture whose only way of fattening young women is by force-feeding them massive amounts of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. If to fatten the young women it was only necessary to emphasize carbohydrates in the diet, as Gary Taubes and other low-carb proponents might suggest, then why must the women be forced to eat excessive amounts food to become overweight? Why not just eat millet and couscous and dates? Many modernized folks seem to have no trouble at all gaining unneeded weight while eating far less than 16,000 calories. Yet these Mauritanian women must resort to appetite increasing drugs or the threat of a beating while eating about that much food to do the same:

Although hardly skeletal at 5'6" and 180 pounds, Hawer [a 26-year-old Mauritanian woman] says she has trouble piling on weight, and was teased by plumper girls as a teenager. Recently, her husband told her that he "didn't like sleeping with a bag of bones. Desperate to be bigger, Hawer uses drugs to aid weight gain." (Source)

It's the quality of food that's the difference. Traditional versus modern food. High-fructose corn syrup, one the great fatteners in the indutrialized nations, would be a prized commodity in Mauritania.

One other interesting observation is that the older women in the culture, who have already gone through the fattening process during their younger years and have resumed eating a normal amount of traditional foods, appear to be at a healthy weight. Did they diet to lose their weight? I doubt it. Below is a picture of women who are campaigning against the practice of leblouh. All have gone through the leblouh in their youth, and none of them remain overweight:

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The People of the Deer

Lately I've been enjoying an anthropological narrative called People of the Deer by Farley Mowat -- the famed and tenacious environmentalist, humanitarian, and defender of true scientific inquiry. In this colorful true-story adventure, first published in 1952, Mowat finds himself drawn, as he so often does, to a place far away in the middle of nowhere in the deep northern territories of Canada. It is here that he befriends and lives among an Eskimo group called the Ilhalmiut and begins to understand how modern encroachment -- namely fur-trapping and government policy -- is negatively affecting the native peoples' ability to live in a place where their ancestors had thrived for thousands of years before them. Mowat writes, quite bluntly, in the foreward of the 1975 edition of the book: "Genocide can be practiced in a variety of ways." Similar to Weston Price, he is not hesitant to place blame on Western culture for the decimation and struggle of the traditional peoples with whom he became intimately acquainted. From the foreword:

We have long prided ourselves on being a democratic nation, dedicated to the altar of freedom. Freedom for whom? If it is only freedom for ourselves to do as we please at the expense of others, then our pious stance is even more abhorrent than that of any overt tyrant -- for ours is based on a vile hypocrisy.

Fat and Deer Hairs

While the book contains many fascinating tidbits, among the most intriguing are Mowat's detailed descriptions of the traditional Ilhalmiut diet and their shifting health as a result of Western influence. When he first arrives at the small settlement of Ilhalmiut, the author is welcomed with a tray of meat that might make any Westerner's stomach churn:

Half a dozen parboiled legs of deer were spread out in a thick gravy which seemed to be composed of equal parts of fat and deer hairs. Bobbing about in the debris were a dozen tongues and, like a cage holding the lesser cuts of meats, there was an entire rib basket of a deer.

Still hungry? There's more!

There were side dishes too ... a skin sack, full of flakes of dry meat ... a smoking bundle of marrow bones ... neatly cracked to so that we would have no trouble extracting the succulent marrow. (p. 82)


The cooking varied somewhat, but the food did not. The rule was meat at every meal and nothing else but meat, unless you could count a few well-rotted duck eggs which served as appetizers. To satisfy my curiousity I tried to estimate the quantity of meat Hekwaw [a member of the tribe] put away each day. I discovered he could handle ten to fifteen pounds when he was really hungry... (p. 85)

It doesn't take Mowat long to identify the key ingredient of the Ilhalmiut diet: fat. From his own experience on lean meat for an extended period of time, he describes the vast importance of fat in an all-meat diet through his battle with an affliction which he names, for want of a better term, mal de caribou, also known by a great many arctic explorers, prisoners of war, and human carnivores as rabbit starvation:

... persistent diarrhea was only part of the effect of mal de caribou. I was [also] filled with a sick lassitude, an increasing loss of will to work that made me quite useless ...

Mowat's guide -- a half-Eskimo, half-white man named Franz -- prepared and administered a peculiar remedy:

... he took out a half-pound of precious lard, melted it in a frying pan, and, when it was lukewarm and not yet congealed, he ordered me to drink it. Strangely, I was greedy for it ... I drank a lot of it, then went to bed; and by morning I was completely recovered ... I was suffering from a deficiency of fat and did not realize it. (p. 88)

Death and Disease Among the Ilhalmiut

Concerning the health of the Ilhalmiut people, Mowat goes into extensive historic, anecdotal, and statistical detail while attempting to get at the root of the Northern natives' plight of disease and illness following the arrival of Western culture. It's no secret to those who have studied into the writings and theories of nutritional heroes such as Weston Price, Sir Robert McCarrison, T.L. Cleave, and others that when modern foods such as white flour and sugar are introduced to a traditional culture ill health follows, worsening from generation to generation. Farley Mowat joins the ranks of these great independent thinkers when he waxes sensible, explaining his own theory as to why the people of the far North and other native peoples in history have succumbed to tuberculosis, measles, and small pox:

Perhaps you have heard of the decimation of the forest Indians brought about by disease, by lack of adaptability, by inherent laziness and indolence or by other causes ... you have never heard the truth, for all of these apparent causes are manifestions of the real destroyer, which is -- starvation. If you ask about the thousands of Indians and Eskimos who die each year of tuberculosis, if you ask about the measles and smallpox epidemics which ... have destroyed over one-tenth of the Northern natives ... these people too die of starvation ... (p.91)

Is it just me, or is Mr. Mowat on to something here? He goes on to tell the story of an Inuit tribe he lived with in the winter of 1948, the Idthen Eldeli -- literally meaning "Eaters of the Deer":

In 1860 ... there were about 2000 members of the Idthen ... when the deer moved ... the Idthen people followed after ... [they] anually traveled over a thousand miles through the Barrens.

In the eighteenth century the famous explorer Samuel Hearne journeyed ... with a band of these Indians and he speaks, as do many others, of the almost superhuman endurance and physical capacity of the Idthen people.

In the winter of 1948 when I lived with the Idthen ... they numbered a little over 150 men, women, and children who spent the winters on their scanty trap lines, starving through the cold months until they could fish for life along the opening rivers ... They are a passive, beaten, hopeless people who wait miserably for death. (p. 92)

What could be the instigator of such an unfortunate circumstance? Ol' Farley doesn't mince words:

Starvation first came to them when they began to subsist on a winter diet which now consists of 80 percent white flour, with a very little lard and baking powder, and in summer almost nothing but straight fish. The Idthen people now get little of the red meat and white fat of the deer, once their sole food. Three generations have been born and lived -- or died -- upon a diet of flour bannocks and fish eaten three times a day and washed down with tea. Each of these generations has been weaker and had less "immunity" to disease than the last. (p. 93)

Government aid: giving natives the short end of the stick in America since 1492. It's interesting how what Mowat refers to as starvation can also be seen as a displacement of native foods, as Weston Price pointed out in the 1930s. Either way, the result is lowered immunity and degeneration. Mowat's solution for the dilemma of this "starvation?" Here it is, in characteristic common sense:

Surely there is but one way to cure a man of the diseases which are the products of three generations of starvation, and that is to feed him. (p. 95)

Let them eat meat and fat!