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Traditional diets promote optimal health

by Margaret Auld-Louie

When it comes to choosing the optimal diet for our health, there is a lot of conflicting information out there, ranging from vegetarianism to macrobiotics (grains and vegetables) to the Paleolithic diet (meat, vegetables and no grains). We like to take the same approach with humans that we take to our pet's diets. With dogs and cats, it makes sense to look at what their wild ancestors ate, since that is what their bodies are designed for (raw meat, bones and organs).

With people, it makes sense to look at what traditional cultures, untouched by Western civilization, have eaten for thousands of years. Today there are few cultures that have not had contact with civilization. Fortunately, there was a researcher who investigated the diets of many traditional cultures in the 1920's to 1930's, when travel to them became easier but before these cultures started eating Western foods. This researcher was Dr. Weston A. Price, a dentist from Cleveland. Being a dentist, he studied the teeth of these people and discovered that people on traditional diets had healthy, almost cavity-free, beautiful, straight teeth in uncrowded, broad jaws. When the children of these people changed to a Western diet, they had crowded, crooked teeth in narrow jaws with lots of cavities. The cause was clearly not genetic (unlike what we have been told), as children in the same family would either have beautiful, well-spaced teeth or crooked, unhealthy teeth depending on what their diet was.

Dr. Price studied the diets of traditional cultures all over the world, from remote villages in Switzerland to Eskimos to the South Pacific. His work is now being carried on by Weston A. Price Foundation, founded in 1999 by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig, PhD. Sally Fallon summarizes Dr. Price's research by identifying the 11 underlying characteristics of healthy traditional diets.

The first characteristic is that they contained no refined or denatured foods. Just refined sugar, white flour, vegetable oils, canned foods and condensed milk were enough to cause havoc to traditional people's health. Today we have many more refined foods including high fructose corn syrup, pasteurized, skim and low fat milk, hydrogenated fats, isolated protein powders and many food additives and preservatives.

The second characteristic is that they all contained animal foods, which was actually a big disappointment to Dr. Price. He had hoped to find a healthy traditional culture that was vegetarian but he did not. Today, we have a myth that a vegetarian diet is the healthiest diet. Many people assume I must be vegetarian because I don't eat the standard American diet, I avoid junk food and eat healthy food. Actually, my diet is high in organic animal foods. While a vegetarian diet can be useful short-term for cleansing, it does not promote optimal health long-term and can be especially damaging for children. For more information on the drawbacks of a vegetarian diet, see: http://beyondveg.com/.

What Dr. Price found was that at a minimum, the traditional cultures ate dairy products and insects. As an example, east Indians eat dairy products and their grains are typically infested with insects, which provide essential nutrients. When they move to England, their health sometimes declines since their grains are now free of insects. The people Dr. Price found with the broadest faces and thickest skulls (indicating the best diet) ate fish and shellfish. Also, he found that traditional cultures went to great trouble, energy and risk to obtain animal foods. For instance, people living in the Andes at 12,000 feet would hike down to the sea to get fish roe (eggs). The reason for this is there are critical nutrients that only occur in animal foods, such as the fat soluble vitamins A and D, as well as cholesterol. Cholesterol has been demonized by the media but it is an essential nutrient for optimal development of the nervous system, brain and digestive tract. So it is especially critical for children. B12 is another nutrient found only in animal foods.

The animal foods most concentrated in nutrients, particularly these fat soluble vitamins, such as butter, liver, fish eggs, cream and animal fats, which we are told today not to eat, were the sacred foods of traditional cultures. These foods were eaten by children, pregnant women and parents-to-be because the cultures intuitively understood the importance of the nutrients in them, particularly for the developing nervous system. For instance, in China, pregnant or nursing women ate up to 10 eggs per day. In the Native American cultures, infertile couples would go on a "bear fat" diet and that usually cured the problem. While beta carotene in plants can be converted to Vitamin A, children don't have all the enzymes yet to make this conversion so they have a higher need for foods rich in Vitamin A, not beta carotene. Maybe the high levels today in children of learning disabilities, ADHD and autism have something to do with our modern diet. Even adults can have problems making the conversion from beta carotene, particularly diabetics.

Vitamin D is also essential in the diet, since we would have to spend about half an hour in the sun at noon every day, with no clothes on, to get enough from the sun. Even cultures living in the tropics have a lot of Vitamin D in their diets. So these animal foods rich in Vitamins A and D are very important for health.

The third characteristic of traditional diets is that they were extremely nutrient dense. The diets of traditional cultures had much higher levels of vitamins and minerals than we get in our diets today. Everything they did maximized nutrients, such as their choice of food, how they raised their foods and how they prepared them. They grew food on fertile soil, ate organ meats preferentially to muscle meats, ate animal fats rather than vegetable oils, raised animals on pasture rather than in factories, ate dairy products raw or fermented and would travel far to get foods that were super nutritious, such as fish eggs. With our faith in modern medicine, we have forgotten the importance of nutrition. For instance, we used to feed cod liver oil to our children but now we vaccinate them instead. This started with the publication of Baby and Child Care by Dr. Spock, who advocated vaccinations instead of cod liver oil.

The fourth characteristic of traditional diets is that although they cooked some or even most of their food, they always ate some animal foods raw. The plant foods were usually cooked, as there are a lot of toxins in plants. But they always had some raw animal foods such as raw milk, butter, cream or cheese, raw marinated fish or raw meat. One important nutrient destroyed by heat is vitamin B6, which is found in raw dairy and meat.

The fifth characteristic of traditional diets is a very high food enzyme content. Enzymes are destroyed by heat—118 degrees wet heat or 150 degrees dry heat. We know from animal studies that if you only give animals cooked foods, so the diet has no enzymes, the pancreas and salivary glands expand. That's because they have to work harder to make enzymes to digest the food. Some of the best sources of enzymes are raw dairy products, especially cultured or fermented, raw meat and fish, raw honey, tropical fruits and foods or drinks that have been lacto fermented (such as raw sauerkraut or Kombuchu). Traditional cultures typically ate some lacto fermented foods with every meal as a condiment, to help with digestion.

The sixth characteristic of traditional diets is that they took great care in preparing their seed foods. By seed foods, we mean any nut, grain or legume (bean). Unlike modern diets, where we eat seeds whole with no preparation or just grind them up (as in flour), traditional cultures would sprout, ferment and soak their seed foods before eating.  The reason for this special care is that these foods contain enzyme inhibitors that block digestion as well as phytic acid which blocks mineral absorption. Also, they can contain certain starches and gluten, a protein, that are difficult to digest. The reason for all these anti-nutrients is that they act as a natural system of preservatives, to keep the seed from sprouting until it's in the right environment. A seed will sprout given moisture, warmth, slight acidity and time; then these preservatives get deactivated. So it's much easier for us to digest seeds if we provide them with these four factors for sprouting, instead of eating them full of their natural preservatives. Herbivores are able to digest seed foods because they have stomachs with two to four chambers and bacteria, where they can soak and ferment the seeds. We don't have this type of digestive tract, and traditional cultures intuitively understood this. Therefore, they would soak and ferment seeds before eating them. For instance, many cultures would make some type of bread and then set it aside for 2 weeks to ferment, before eating. Sourdough leavening in bread helps make the bread more digestible.

The seventh characteristic of traditional diets is that while the total fat content of their diets ranged from 30% to 80% (in the case of Eskimos) only 4% of calories came from polyunsaturated fatty acids. Traditional cultures did not eat the isolated vegetable oils that have become common in the last 100 years, such as corn, soy, etc. Today we get 20% or more of our calories from polyunsaturated fatty acids, which then get built into our cells and they don't work as well. The problem with polyunsaturated fats is that they're very fragile so when we remove them from the whole foods they occur in and use them as isolated oils, they break down and become full of free radicals. These free radicals accelerate aging, initiate buildup of plaque in arteries, depress the immune system, cause digestive disorders and damage the reproductive organs and lungs. When they're used in cooking, they break down further and become even more loaded with free radicals. The safest oils for cooking are saturated fatty acids. Saturated fats are actually needed for good health and they comprise at least 50% of cell membranes. They protect the liver from toxins, enhance the immune system, are necessary for proper function of the kidneys and lungs and help us utilize essential fatty acids. The short chain saturated fatty acids (found in butter and coconut oil) are antimicrobial—they help fight against bacteria, yeast and parasites and support the immune system. While proponents of the Paleolithic diet advocate a diet low in fat, traditional cultures are known to have hunted animals selectively to get the ones with the most fat. Animal fat was highly prized by traditional cultures.

The eighth characteristic of traditional diets is that there were equal amounts of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids. Our diets today are composed of almost all Omega 6. This is caused by our high consumption of vegetable oils as well as how we raise our animals. Typical supermarket eggs, from factory chickens, contain 20 times more Omega 6 than 3. Chickens raised outside on a natural diet contain high levels of Omega 3. Farm raised salmon contains much more Omega 6 whereas wild salmon are high in Omega 3. The Omega 3 oils are high in fish liver oil, fish eggs, egg yolk, brain, organ meats, seaweed, etc., the sacred foods of traditional cultures. These foods contain the Omega 3 fatty acids in the form needed by the body, EPA and DHA. Some foods, such as flax oil, contain precursors to these fatty acids which the body then has to convert to EPA. Not all people can make this conversion, particularly diabetics as well as people with diets too high in sugar, Omega 6 oils or trans fatty acids. In the case of animals, not all dogs can make this conversion and cats don't make it at all, since they are pure carnivores and would not have needed to do this in the wild. So relying on flax oil alone for Omega 3 fatty acids can lead to a deficiency.

The ninth characteristic of traditional diets is that they all contained some salt. If they didn't have salt flats, salt mines or ocean salt, then they would burn the ashes of sodium-rich grasses or drink blood or urine to get salt. Salt is an essential nutrient for protein digestion, the function of the adrenal glands and the development of the brain. The problem with salt in our diet today is that it is a processed food, with all the trace minerals removed and aluminum added to make it "pour when it rains". Whole salts like Celtic Sea Salt® (from the sea) or RealSalt® (from Utah) are healthy additions to the diet. Like sugar, your salt should not be bright white but should be gray, beige or pink, indicating the presence of minerals in it.

© The Grain & Salt Society®

The tenth characteristic of traditional diets is that they all made use of bones. They either ground them up and made a paste or more commonly, they made a bone broth. Bone broths are very high in minerals like calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, etc. in a form that is easy to absorb. Also, they are rich in gelatin, which promotes digestion and helps support liver function. Gelatin has been shown in studies to help many disorders including diabetes, digestive disorders, fatigue, jaundice and allergies.

The eleventh characteristic of traditional diets is that they fed special foods to parent-to-be (including men), pregnant women, nursing women and growing children, so the next generation would grow up healthy. These special foods were the sacred foods of the culture, such as raw butter and cream, fish liver oil, fish eggs, egg yolk, brain, organ meats, seaweed, algae, etc.

Now that we know the characteristics of healthy traditional diets, how can we incorporate this into our own diet to improve or maintain our health? One step is to start incorporating some of the "sacred foods" into your diet, such as cod liver oil, butter, organ meats and algae. Optimum Choices offers a superfood algae supplement that provides extremely concentrated nutrition such as Omega fatty acids and over 4,000 natural occurring enzymes: BioSuperfood and BioPreparation. For more details on improving your diet, we recommend the cookbook Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon, available on our books page.

The information in this article is from a seminar on "Healthy Traditional Diets" by Sally Fallon in Denver on September 20, 2003. Sally Fallon is co-founder of the Weston A. Price Foundation. For more information on the Foundation and a wealth of articles on nutrition, go to: http://www.westonaprice.org. The Foundation also publishes a quarterly journal for members that contains excellent articles on nutrition.

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