تغذیه و سلامت بشریتکتاب: سلامتی در 100 سالگی / فصل 6
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6 - Nutrition and the Health of Humanity
You are not old until regret replaces your dreams.
The distressing contrast between the eating habits and health of the elder and younger Okinawans is a sad reenactment of a pattern that has taken place in many indigenous cultures as they have become colonized by Western influences and processed foods. Beginning in the nineteenth century and becoming nearly unstoppable in the twentieth, it is a pattern that has devastated the cultural traditions of native peoples in nearly every corner of the globe. And it began to be thoroughly documented in the 1930s.
The 1930s were an interesting time in the evolution of modern civilization. Photographic equipment was just becoming relatively inexpensive and portable, and yet there were still many cultures and tribes of people worldwide who had not yet been exposed to the growing influence of Western culture. And it was in the 1930s that an American dentist named Weston A. Price traveled to nearly every corner of the world, camera in hand, seeking to understand the relationship between the food people were eating and the health they were experiencing.
As he trekked around the globe, Price specifically sought out people who were still eating their native foods. He asked about their dietary habits, then examined and photographed their teeth. At the same time, he undertook similar studies and took similar photos of people from the same cultures who had become exposed to Western foods and who had begun to substitute foods like white flour, white sugar, marmalade, and canned goods for their native diets.
The differences, as shown by the many photographs in Price’s 1939 book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, were startling. Time and again, Price found that those people who were still eating their native diets had very little if any dental caries (decay or crumbling of teeth) and appeared to be in radiant health, while their counterparts who were now eating refined and processed foods from the West were exhibiting massive tooth decay and malformation of their dental arches as well as suffering from a growing cascade of illnesses and dysfunctions. Price came to believe that dental decay was caused primarily by nutritional deficiencies, and that the same conditions that promote tooth decay also promote disease elsewhere in the body.
For nearly a decade, Weston Price and his wife, Monica, traveled each summer to different parts of the world. Their investigations took them to isolated Swiss villages and to an island off the coast of Scotland. They studied Aborigines in Australia, Maoris in New Zealand, traditional Eskimos in Alaska, indigenous tribes in Canada and the Florida Everglades, Peruvian and Amazonian natives, South Sea islanders, and tribespeople in Africa.
All told, Price found fourteen different tribes whose diets, though radically different from one another, seemed to provide not only nearly complete immunity from tooth decay, but also extraordinary resistance to illness. And in every case, he also found that when members of these tribes began to eat what Price called “the displacing foods of modern commerce,” the results were uniformly disastrous. While eating their native foods, they enjoyed robust, vibrant, and nearly disease-free health, but when they began eating imported white flour, sugar, jams, jellies, cookies, condensed milk, canned vegetables, margarine, vegetable oils, confections, and other refined foods, their health rapidly deteriorated.
Price was a dentist, and his principal concern was the teeth and dental arches of the people he encountered. He found that as long as these people consumed their native diet, their mouths and jaws developed so that they never experienced crowded teeth, overbites, under-bites, or tooth decay. When their wisdom teeth came in, they always had plenty of room. But as his photographs poignantly show, once they abandoned the wisdom of eating their native foods for eating “civilized” foods, the results were ruinous. Now all kinds of dental problems that had been previously unknown became rampant.
And it wasn’t just dental problems. Price found that as people shifted to refined foods, birth defects increased, and people became more susceptible both to infection and to chronic disease. As people ate ever more refined and devitalized foods, he said, they and their offspring became increasingly weaker and more prone to all kinds of diseases.
THE DAMAGE DONE BY PROCESSED FOODS
Before eating such foods, Price said, native peoples enjoyed magnificent health and exhibited superb physical traits. He wrote of their eyesight with awe, pointing out that they could see many stars that are visible to those of us in the modern world only with the aid of telescopes. The Maori of New Zealand, he said, could see the moons of Jupiter with their naked eyes. The proof was that they could describe the moons to someone looking through a telescope, and their descriptions were accurate.
He wrote of the Aborigines of Australia, who could see animals moving a mile in the distance, and whose skill in tracking was so uncanny that it was as though they possessed a sixth sense. Over and over again he found indigenous people who had for countless generations built superbly functioning bodies which they maintained in excellent health as long as they ate only their traditional native foods.
But, Price warned ominously, once modern Western foods became part of native peoples’ diets, the destruction developed rapidly. He wrote:
[Indigenous peoples like] the Aborigines of Australia have reproduced for generation after generation through many centuries—no one knows for how many thousands of years—without the development of a conspicuous number of irregularities of the dental arches. Yet in the next generation after these people adopt the foods of the white man, a large percentage of the children developed irregularities of the dental arches with conspicuous facial deformities. Again and again, Price warned of the menace of processed foods. To his eyes, their incorporation into the human diet represented a dire threat to human health and quality of life. “If a scale were extended a mile long,” he said,
and the decades measured by inches, there would apparently be more degeneration in the last few inches than in the preceding mile. This gives some idea of the virulence of the blight contributed by our modern civilization.… It should be a matter not only of concern but deep alarm that human beings can degenerate physically so rapidly by the use of a certain type of nutrition, particularly the dietary products used so generally by modern civilization. Price saw this tragedy occurring among all the indigenous peoples he visited. The peoples he studied were diverse. They were of widely different cultures and ethnicities, and they lived at different altitudes, latitudes, and climates. Yet in writing about culture after culture, Price speaks of the radiant health that was theirs before the advent of processed and refined foods, and the inevitable deterioration that ensued after such foods became part of their diets. It is not just his words that account for the power of Price’s message. Some of the photographs he took are inspiring depictions of the health enjoyed by native peoples in all corners of the globe while they continued to eat the foods that were natural to their environment. Others of his photos are graphic and haunting illustrations of what happened when these ancestral ways were discarded in favor of “civilized foods.” To Price, the conclusion was obvious: The consumption of sugar, refined flour products, sweetened foods, canned foods, polished (white) rice, and other processed foods brought the white man’s diseases to native populations. If people were to remain healthy, it was imperative that they resist dietary colonization and return to their ancestral wisdom and native diets.
IMMENSE VARIETY IN THE TRADITIONAL DIETS OF NATIVE PEOPLES
Remarkably, Price saw that these native diets upon which indigenous people had long thrived differed greatly from one another. They were, in fact, as varied as the environments in which the people lived. Tribes who made their homes near rivers, lakes, or the ocean typically based their diets on fish and other marine life. Those who lived in cold northern climates where plant life was sparse tended to base theirs on wild game. Yet others, living in more temperate areas, were mostly vegetarian, eating primarily whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, much like the Abkhasians, Vilcabambans, Hunzans, and Oki-nawans (none of whom Price ever met or studied). Some were essentially lacto-vegetarian in that their diet consisted mostly of plant foods such as seeds, nuts, whole grains, vegetables, and fruits, but also included dairy products. A number of others ate a diet that could best be called “pesco-vegan,” in that it did not include significant amounts of meat, dairy products, or eggs, but was rich in a wide variety of plant foods and in fish. Some, like the African Masai, ate primarily the blood, milk, and meat of their cattle. Others, like the Kikuyu tribe just to the northwest of the Masai, ate mainly sweet potatoes, corn, millet, beans, and bananas.
The diversity was endless. In some cultures, most of the food was cooked. In others, much of it was eaten raw. Some cultures ate liberally of dairy products from pastured cows, goats, or camels, while others lived “in isolation so great that [they] had never seen milk in any larger quantity than drops.” Some of these native peoples lived in ecosystems so inhospitable that they were forced to depend on only a few varieties of plant foods, while others enjoyed a great multitude of fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes. In some tribes, whole grains were the staples of the diet, and were considered sacred. In others, grains played little or no role, and other foods, including sometimes the livers of certain wild animals, were the ones held sacred.
As diverse as these diets were, they did, to Price’s eyes, have certain things in common. Most notably, none contained any refined or devitalized foods such as white flour, sugar, canned foods, pasteurized or skimmed milk, or refined and hydrogenated vegetable oils. And they all tended to be low (compared to modern diets) in calories. Price also noticed that all contained at least a small measure of animal food, even if only insects, fish, or milk. How interesting that the common features he found among the diets of all the healthy native peoples he studied are found also in the diets of the elder Okinawans, Abkhasians, Vilcabambans, and Hunzans.
A MAN AHEAD OF HIS TIME
At a time when many in the West looked upon native people as savages in need of the civilizing influence of Western culture, Weston Price saw the ignorance, the arrogance, and the destructiveness of this attitude. At a time when indigenous cultures were everywhere being destroyed by westernization, he wrote with immense respect for the ancestral wisdom of native tribes. I am sure that if his voice had been heeded, the cultures and the health of more indigenous peoples would have survived.
Moreover, Price was one of the earliest and most outspoken voices against the increasing tide of refined and processed foods. In this, he was something of a grandfather to the natural-foods movement of today. There is no telling how much suffering and disease would have been avoided if his message had been heard, and the shift to ever more processed and refined foods had been averted.
Though writing in the 1930s, much of what Weston Price said has withstood the test of time and has been corroborated by subsequent research. He was one of the first to observe that many of the common diseases in our culture—including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, arthritis, tooth decay, and obesity—were rare among indigenous peoples throughout the world whose diet was made of natural, fresh, unprocessed foods, grown in their environment. And he saw that when these peoples began to eat denatured and devitalized food, when sugar and white flour and canned foods made their way into their mouths and stomachs, the incidence of these diseases began to skyrocket. He was not exaggerating when he reported that many traditional peoples, often living a hand-to-mouth existence, maintained vibrant health, lived long, and enjoyed youthful vitality. It is a fact that in some cultures, most modern diseases were unknown, women had fast and comparatively painless childbirths, and men could run all day without fatigue. All this we know not only from Price, but also from many other researchers who have corroborated these views.
Author and cancer expert Ralph Moss has described what took place in the mid-nineteenth century, when well-trained medical personnel began to travel and even to live among indigenous peoples. The news they brought back was startling. These diverse populations, many of whom had little in the way of material possessions, were generally much healthier than their Western counterparts. True, some had high infant mortality rates, and they easily succumbed to infectious diseases they had never before encountered, such as measles, smallpox, and tuberculosis. But they had far less asthma, allergies, indigestion, heart disease, and cancer.
The almost total nonexistence of cancer was particularly striking, because it was at this very time that cancer rates in the West were beginning to skyrocket. This led the French surgeon Stanislas Tanchou, M.D., to formulate what became known as “Tanchou’s Doctrine”—the theory that the incidence of cancer increases in direct proportion to the “civilization” of a people. This doctrine came to be embraced by John Le Conte, M.D., an influential physician who became the first president of the University of California. Le Conte’s enthusiasm led to a host of medical missionaries, anthropologists, and others searching avidly for cancer among the native peoples of the world. But the result was always the same. For seventy-five years, not a single case of cancer was documented among the tens of thousands of native people studied by competent medical examiners. A Harvard-trained anthropologist named Vilhjalmur Steffansson, for example, lived for eleven years among the Eskimo and never saw a case. In later life, he wrote a book titled Cancer: A Disease of Civilization?10 Unfortunately, whatever protection these native populations had against cancer began to be lost when many began to adopt Western ways in the 1920s. From then on, the rates of cancer among native peoples began a steady rise, eventually nearly reaching those of white populations.
PAINTING THE WHOLE PICTURE
Clearly, Weston Price was on to something profoundly important. There is no doubt that there are aspects of modern Western civilization that are toxic, disease-causing, and carcinogenic. Overall, he did a remarkable job, particularly given that he lived and wrote when nutritional science was in its infancy. His work began long before Casimir Funk coined the word “vitamin.” However, it is also important to recognize the limitations of his views. In most cases, Price spent only a brief amount of time with each of the cultures he photographed and wrote about. He traveled primarily in the summertime, which gave him a partial picture of the peoples and the lands he visited. In most cases, he never saw the hardships of winter, nor the diseases and other difficulties that would come with the cold. Considering his intense interest in the health of the people he visited, it is regrettable that there are in his writings hardly any comments about infant mortality.
He did not speak the languages of his hosts, and typically lived with them for only a matter of days, or at most a few weeks—hardly enough time to gain a deep understanding of a culture that is different from one’s own. If the peoples he visited wanted to keep anything hidden from his Western eyes, they would have had little difficulty doing so.
Further, Price was not trained in cultural anthropology and had not undertaken the discipline of learning to identify and detach from his own cultural biases. The fact that everywhere Price went he saw the same pattern could be interpreted as evidence that he discovered a law of great significance. But it could as easily be taken as an indication that he had certain predilections that he took with him wherever he went and which influenced what he saw and did not see. If everywhere you go you see the same thing, perhaps that says as much about the eyes with which you are looking as it does about the places you are visiting.
Price wrote extensively and movingly about the demise of indigenous people’s health. As he describes it, the cause was always the white flour, sugar, jams, jellies, cookies, condensed milk, canned vegetables, margarine, vegetable oils, confections, and other refined foods they began to eat once they were exposed to Western ways. While I am certain that eating large quantities of such foods caused these people immense harm, and I applaud Price for illuminating this truth, it is important to remember that other developments were occurring at the same time that also contributed to the degeneration of native health that he so vividly catalogued and photographed. He barely mentions, for example, the role of unfamiliar germs for which indigenous peoples had no resistance, the health consequences stemming from the breakdown of social networks and kinship groups, the health implications of shifting to a more sedentary life, and the abuse of alcohol, which often became available to indigenous people through the same channels as processed food.
BEYOND IDEALIZING NATIVE PEOPLES
Unfortunately, in Weston Price’s zeal to show the damage done by processed foods, he portrayed all indigenous peoples prior to their exposure to such foods as essentially exemplary. In the more than five hundred pages of his book, for example, there is not a single negative reference to any feature of the lifestyles or the health statuses of any of the peoples he visited who were still eating their native food.
Indigenous peoples, like people everywhere, come in all shapes, sizes, and kinds. Some cultures have embodied great wisdom and compassion, while others have not. Most have found ways of living that have endured over time, though not all have developed lifestyles and customs that are worthy of emulation. There have been some indigenous peoples, for example, who have engaged in ritual human sacrifice, slavery, and the brutal oppression of women.
While some present-day hunter-gatherer communities such as the Pygmies and Bushmen in Africa are exquisitely cooperative and nonviolent peoples who embody a marvelous respect for life, other tribes have developed habits that are not so life-affirming. The Ache people, for example, are a small indigenous population who live in the rain forest of eastern Paraguay. They were studied between 1978 and 1995 by anthropologists Kim Hill and Magdalena Hurtado from the University of New Mexico and their colleagues. The Ache are indigenous hunter-gatherers who were relatively uninfluenced by the outside world until the 1970s. They are a strong and vigorous people who until very recently ate only their native foods. Price never visited them, but he would have found them splendid and impressive.
However, 40 percent of newborn Ache females do not live to see their first birthday. And it is the Ache custom to kill children whose parents die so that the tribe will have no orphans. Hill and Hurtado tell of interviewing an Ache man who had killed a thirteen-year-old girl who had been beautiful, healthy, and happy, simply because her mother had died in an epidemic.
To give another example of the heights (or depths) of decadence reached in some peoples long before the coming of refined and processed foods: When the Spaniard Hernán Cortés first entered the Aztec capital in Mexico in 1519, he found a thriving society in which twenty thousand people per year were being sacrificed by the Aztec royalty. Captives were taken to the top of pyramids where, upon a flat stone ritual table, they had their hearts ripped out. Then the limbs were removed, cooked, and eaten by the royalty.
Though we can learn wonderful things about health and the positive possibilities of human culture from many traditional ways of life, there are very real dangers in romanticizing indigenous people. We need to be discerning.
Today, many of Weston Price’s followers consume a great deal of meat and milk and zealously push others to do the same, citing his admiration for the health of the Masai, whose diet consisted primarily of the blood, milk, and meat of their cattle. In Price’s eyes, the ability of the Masai to dominate their neighbors proved the superiority of their diet. He wrote, In every instance these cattle people dominated the surrounding tribes. They were characterized by superb physical development, great bravery, and a mental acumen that made it possible for them to dominate.…The Masai until checked carried on a relentless warfare, consisting largely of raids, in which they slaughtered the men and carried off the women and children and drove away the cattle or goats. Although Price saw such warlike and aggressive behavior as evidence of strength and health, another view would see it as bloodthirsty and cruel. Our needs today, in an ever more connected world, are not for a diet that enables us to raid and dominate our neighbors, but for one that enables us to live healthy lives in harmony with one another and the rest of creation. Our needs are not for a diet that makes us more aggressive and warlike, but for a diet that enables us to live fruitful lives, strong in well-being within ourselves and the ability to live in peace with others.
In his glorification of native peoples, Weston Price urged us back—back to a simpler time, back to a less technological time, back to a time before modernity contaminated our lives and polluted our environment, back to the diets of our ancestors.
But we no longer live in the world of our ancestors. What is available to us is different. Just as each of the intact native peoples Price visited in the 1930s was finely attuned to the foods in their surroundings and had learned to live in harmony with the world in which they lived, we must now learn how to live healthy lives and to eat wisely from the foods that exist in our environment. Certainly his work speaks compellingly to anyone willing to listen about the dangers of white flour, sugar, candy, canned foods, and the other processed foods that caused these people so much harm. It is of great consequence for us to listen, because the majority of the packaged foods screaming at us to buy them from the aisles of our supermarkets, and most of the foods sold in our fast-food chains, are refined, devitalized, and adulterated foods. We must hear what he had to say because 30 percent of the calories in the modern Western diet today come from sugar, and 98 percent of the wheat eaten today in the West is eaten in the form of white flour. The harm done by the movement away from natural whole foods is literally incalculable.
But very few of us can go back to the diets of the ancients. The world has changed irrevocably. Living off wild plants and caribou is not practical in New York City.
We cannot all depend on fish as some native peoples have done, because most of the world’s fisheries are now depleted or in steep decline, and because our oceans and lakes are polluted and many of today’s fish are high in mercury and other toxic contaminants. We cannot all depend on wild game because there is not nearly enough of it, and many species are nearing extinction. We cannot all eat grass-fed beef because there is not nearly enough rangeland to feed our growing numbers. And if we eat commercial beef today we may well be contributing to the destruction of the rain forests and to the extinction of the few indigenous peoples who remain intact.
Like it or not, we cannot go back. Our task is to use our intelligence and discernment to determine the optimal way of life for ourselves, our families, and our societies here and now.
The direction now is not back to a past that can never be again. Our direction is forward. Forward to creating agricultural systems and diets that permit us to live long, vibrant, healthy lives along with the other six billion of us on the planet. Forward to using our wisdom to become better stewards of the planet, to living more lightly on the earth, to reducing our ecological footprint.
Our task is not to return to what Price called “the glory and power of the people who lived proudly in past centuries.” Our task is to honor the past, learn from it, and move on toward a healthy and sustainable future.
We must treasure tradition, but we must also embrace change.
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