Monday, August 17, 2015

The Myth of the Ideal Diet

I'm currently engaged in a most interesting discussion about the merits, or lack thereof, of animal foods with a vegan and a really-limit-your-animal-foods person on Facebook. I've never met either one of them, but they're delightful, interesting and the whole conversation is civil and respectful. So it can happen. I know we often only hear about the mud-slinging, but rational, polite discourse can occur online and I think we should shout 'hurrah!' when it does.

So hurrah!

Anyhoo, as you all know, I'm not a vegan. In fact, I recently bought half a grass-fed cow from a rancher in Maine. As a former vegetarian, I've been converted to the moo-side, but I think it's important to note that there is no one ideal diet for everyone. Our nutritional needs change, and our dietary habits shift based on a number of factors. 


A few months ago, I read a most interesting book, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration by Dr. Weston A. Price. I know, snappy title. Sounds like a real page-turner. I'll own that it's a bit dry in spots, but the premise is fascinating. 

Dr. Price was a dentist from Cleveland, Ohio. He noticed that dental health was declining in his practice with each subsequent generation. He wondered why this might be, so with his wife, Martha, he embarked on a lengthy tour of the world in the early 1930s. The Prices visited remote areas of the globe, tracking down isolated people groups to study their teeth. They started in the Swiss Alps, visiting a village that was not yet connected to the modern world by road and traveled through Europe, to arctic regions of North America, islands of the South Pacific and remote African tribes. 

As you might imagine, the diets of these different people were as varied as the landscapes in which they lived. The Swiss lived on raw milk, cheese and a type of sourdough bread, the Inuits of the arctic ate only fish, meat and a little seaweed, the Masai of Africa ate meat, milk and animal blood, the South Pacific islanders ate mostly fish, fruit and vegetables, and so on. In short, the people ate what was available. Foods that were difficult to digest were prepared in ways to aid digestion. The prized cuts of meat were always the fattiest, particularly the organs. Our now expensive tenderloins would have often been fed to the dogs. 

Instead of finding people riddled with cavities and heart disease, Dr. and Mrs. Price found the opposite. In these communities, the people who consumed their traditional foods enjoyed remarkably good dental and physical health. The only ones who suffered were those who had adopted the sugary refined foods of the modern diet. 

One picture Dr. Price took from an isolated island in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland is particularly telling:

The island had only recently been connected to the mainland via ferry service, and with the ferries came all the modern foods--refined flour, sugar, jams, Crisco and tinned foods. The brother on the left worked at the ferry dock and enjoyed the modern foods. His teeth began rotting and the father said this son struggled to get out of bed in the morning. The brother on the right ate the traditional food the islanders had been eating for centuries--mostly codfish and oats, traditionally prepared. He had no dental decay and excellent health. Not a varied diet, but whole food and no 'displacing foods of modern commerce,' as Price called them.

These men are brothers. Same genes, different food. 

Dr. Price found the same tragic effects in every place he visited. These 'displacing foods of modern commerce' resulted in rampant tooth decay and illness.

As I've been discussing the meat/plant debate on Facebook, I'm struck by what a luxurious age we live in. We are no longer constrained by what is seasonal, what is available wherever we live. We can get pretty much any food, any time. This tremendous liberty is, in some respects, a blessing. I'm guessing oat-stuffed codfish gets pretty old after a while. But the dark side is navigating our way through this sea, both literal and figurative, of food options we have set before us. There is so much choice. And not all of it is to our benefit. 

There are many lessons to be learned from Dr. Price's research, but one key take-away is this: a steady diet of sugar and refined foods is not good. For anyone. Apart from that, there are many, many ways of eating that can be good for us. Take your pick!


  1. True! While I eat mainly plant-based for a variety of reasons, my biggest goal is to get processed food out of my diet and eat in season as much as possible. Convenience is great, but it comes at a huge cost to our health and environment. A real eye-opening book is "Salt Sugar Fat" by Michael Moss about the processed foods industry. Kind of a dense read, but fascinating and scary.

    1. Yes, I've read Salt Sugar Fat. Good read! Processed food is scary, but oh... it's so convenient! I'm very sympathetic to those who indulge in it regularly. It's just so quick and easy. !

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