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Which Food is Best?

by Stephen Byrnes(more info)

listed in nutrition, originally published in issue 61 - February 2001

One of the most frequent questions I am asked as a naturopathic doctor and nutritionist is, "What is the best diet? I hear so much conflicting information in the media. One day, soy is good for you; the next, it isn't. One day margarine is OK; now, it isn't. I hear that red meat is bad for me; then I hear that it isn't."

These are good questions that deserve answers.

In today's world of ever-increasing chronic disease, preventive nutrition and medicine are paramount and the foundation of good health is a healthy diet. But just what IS a 'healthy diet'? Who are we to believe? Should we become vegetarians, or keep eating meat? Should we eat a low-fat diet, or not care?

While finding the specifics of the diet that is right for you depends on your individual needs and food tolerances, you might be surprised to know that the answer to that perplexing question, 'What is a healthy diet?', has already been answered. About 70 years ago, a peripatetic dentist and his wife embarked on a series of journeys around the world that defined the parameters of a 'healthy diet'. The man was Dr Weston A Price, DDS, and his findings, published in his classic work Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, should enable all of us to define the general guidelines of healthy eating, with the particulars worked out according to our own needs.

Dr Price's Nutrition Studies

Dr Price was a Canadian-born dentist who married an American. By 1930 he'd had a glorious and distinguished career, overseeing a massive study on the negative effects of root canals that has become the foundation of today's holistic dentistry movement. Over the years of his practice, however, he noticed that his patients were suffering more and more chronic and degenerative diseases. He also noticed that his younger patients had increasingly deformed dental arches, crooked teeth and cavities. This definitely concerned him: he had not seen such things just ten or fifteen years ago. Why was it happening now? Price also noticed a strong correlation between dental health and physical health: a mouth full of cavities went hand in hand with a body either full of disease, or generalized weakness and susceptibility to disease. In Price's time, tuberculosis was the major infectious illness, the 'white scourge'. He noticed that children were increasingly affected, the ones with the lousy teeth.

Dr Price had heard rumours of native cultures where so-called primitive people lived happy lives, free of disease. He hit on an idea: why not go find these people and find out: 1) if they really are healthy, and 2) if so, find out what they're doing to keep themselves healthy. Being rather well off financially, he and his wife started travelling around the world to remote locations. They were specifically looking for healthy peoples who had not been touched yet by civilization – at that time, such groups were still around.

Dr Price and his wife went just about everywhere in their journeys. They travelled to isolated villages in the Swiss Alps, to cold and blustery islands off the coast of Scotland, to the Andes mountains in Peru, to several locations in Africa, to the Polynesian islands, to Australia and New Zealand, to the forests of northern Canada, and even to the Arctic Circle. In all, Price visited with fourteen groups of native peoples.

After gaining the trust of the village elders in the various places, Price did what came naturally: he counted cavities and physically examined them. Imagine his surprise to find, on average, less than 1% of tooth decay in all the peoples he visited! He also found that these people's teeth were perfectly straight and white, with high dental arches and well-formed facial features. And there was something more astonishing: none of the peoples Price examined practised any sort of dental hygiene; not one of his subjects had ever used a toothbrush! For example, when Price visited the first group, isolated Swiss mountain villagers, he noticed right away that the children's teeth were covered with a thin film of green slime, yet they had no tooth decay. What a difference this was from the children in Ohio!

Dr Price also noticed that, in addition to their healthy teeth and gums, all the people he discovered were hardy and strong, despite the sometimes difficult living conditions they had to endure. Eskimo women, for example, gave birth to one healthy baby after another with little difficulty. Despite the Swiss children going barefoot in frigid streams, there had not been a single case of tuberculosis in any of them, despite exposure to it. In general, Price found, in contrast to what he saw in America, no incidence of the very diseases that plague us 'moderns' with our trash compactors and cellular phones: cancer, heart disease, diabetes, haemorrhoids, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, osteoporosis, chronic fatigue syndrome (it was called neurasthenia in Price's day), etc.

Dr Price also noticed another quality about the healthy primitives he found: they were happy. While depression was not a major problem in Price's day, it certainly is today: ask any psychiatrist. While certain natives sometimes fought with neighbouring tribes, within their own groups, they were cheerful and optimistic and bounced back quickly from emotional setbacks. These people had no need for antidepressants.

Lest you think Dr Price made all of this up, he was sure to take along with him one modern invention that would forever chronicle his research and startling conclusions: a camera. Dr Price and his wife took pictures – 18,000 of them. Many of the pictures are contained in Price's masterpiece Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. The pictures show native peoples from all over the world smiling as wide as the Mississippi river, their perfect teeth shining bright.

What the People Ate

In addition to examining the natives, Dr Price also gathered considerable data about their distinctive cultures and customs, and these descriptions fill many of the pages of his book. Price took great care to observe what these people were eating, for he suspected the key to good health and good teeth was in good food. He was surprised to find that, depending on the people in question and where they lived, each group ate very differently from the other. For example, the Swiss mountain villagers subsisted primarily on unpasteurized and cultured dairy products, especially butter and cheese. Rye also formed an integral part of their diet. Occasionally, they ate meat (beef) as cows in their herds got older. Small amounts of bone broths, vegetables and berries rounded out the diet. Due to the high altitude, not much vegetation grew. The villagers would eat what they could in the short summer months, and pickle what was left over for the winter. The main foods, however, were full-fat cheese and milk, butter and rye bread.

Gaelic fisher people of the Outer Hebrides ate no dairy products, but instead had their fill of cod and other seafoods, especially shellfish (when in season). Due to the poor soil, the only grain that could grow was oat, and it formed a major part of the diet. A traditional dish, one considered very important for growing children and expectant mothers, was cod's head stuffed with oats and mashed fish liver.

Again, due to the extremely inhospitable climate, fruits and vegetables grew sparsely. Price noted that a young Gaelic girl reeled in puzzlement when offered an apple: she had never seen one!

Eskimo, or Innuit, ate a diet of almost 100% animal products with hefty amounts of fish. Walrus, seal and other marine mammals also formed an integral part of the diet. Blubber (fat) was consumed with relish. Innu would gather nuts, berries and some grasses during the short summer months, but their diet was basically all meat and fat. Price noted that the Innuit would usually ferment their meat before eating it. That is, they would bury it and allow it to putrefy slightly before consuming it. Innuit would also eat the partially digested grasses of caribou by cutting open their stomachs and intestines.

The Maori of New Zealand, along with other South sea islanders, consumed seafood of every sort – fish, shark, octopus, sea worms, shellfish – along with fatty pork and a wide variety of plant foods including coconut and manioc fruit.

African cattle-keeping tribes like the Masai consumed virtually no plant foods at all, just beef, raw milk, organ meats, and blood (in times of drought). The Masai considered vegetable foods fit for cows, not humans.

The Dinkas of the Sudan ate a combination of fermented wholegrains with fish, along with smaller amounts of red meat, vegetables and fruit. The Bantu, on the other hand, the least hardy of the African tribes studied, were primarily agriculturists. Their diet consisted mostly of beans, squash, corn, millet, vegetables and fruits, with small amounts of milk and meat. Price never found a totally vegetarian culture. Modern anthropological data support this: all cultures and peoples show a preference for animal foods and animal fat.[1,2]

Hunter-gatherer peoples in Northern Canada, the Florida Everglades, the Amazon and Australia, consumed game animals of all types, especially the organ meats, and a variety of grains, legumes, tubers, vegetables and fruits when available.

Price noted that all cultures consumed fermented foods each day. Foods such as raw cheese, cultured butter, yoghurt or fermented grain drinks like kaffir beer (made from millet) in Africa, or fermented fish, as with the Innuit, were an important part of native diets.

Curiously, all native peoples studied made great efforts to obtain seafood, especially fish roe, which was consumed 'so that we will have healthy children'. Even mountain-dwelling peoples would make semi-annual trips to the sea to bring back seaweeds, fish eggs and dried fish. Shrimp, rich in both cholesterol and vitamin D, was a standard food in many places, from Africa to the Orient.

The last major feature of native diets that Price found was that they were rich in fat, especially animal fat. Whether from insects, eggs, fish, game animals or domesticated herds, primitive peoples knew that they would get sick if they did not consume enough fat. Explorers besides Dr Price have also found this to be true. For example, anthropologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who lived for years among the Innuit and Northern Canadian Indians, specifically noted how the Indians would go out of their way to hunt down older male caribou for they carried a 50-pound slab of back fat. When such animals were unavailable and Indians were forced to subsist on rabbits, a very lean animal, diarrhoea and hunger would set in after about a week. Despite all of the negative publicity they have received over the last few decades, the fact remains that the human body needs saturated fats to assimilate and utilize proteins, and saturated animal fats contain high amounts of the fat-soluble vitamins, as well as beneficial fatty acids with antimicrobial properties.[3]

Of course, the foods that Price's subjects ate were natural and unprocessed. Their foods did not contain preservatives, additives or colourings. They did not contain added sugar (though, when available, natural sweeteners like honey and maple syrup were eaten with relish). They did not contain white flour or canned foods. Their milk products were not pasteurized, homogenized or low fat. The animal and plant foods consumed were raised and grown on pesticide-free soil and were not given growth hormones or antibiotics. In short, these people always ate organic.

What the Samples Showed

Dr Price was eager to analyse chemically the various foods these primitives ate. He was careful to obtain preserved samples of all types for analysis. Basically, the diets of these healthy peoples contained ten times the amount of fat-soluble vitamins, and at least four times the amount of calcium, other minerals and water-soluble vitamins than Western diets at that time.

Because of the consumption of fermented and raw foods (including raw animal products), Price noted that native diets were rich in enzymes. Enzymes assist in the digestion of cooked foods.

Price noted that all peoples had a predilection and dietary pull towards foods rich in the fat-soluble vitamins. Price considered butter from pasture-fed cows, rich in these vitamins as well as minerals, to be the premier health food. The fat-soluble vitamins A and D are only found in fats of animal origin, like butter, cream, lard and tallow, as well as in organ meats.

Unfortunately, when native peoples turned away from the nutrient-dense diet of their ancestors, trouble soon began. To this, let us now turn.

The Roots of Disease

When Dr Price visited the various primitive groups, he noted that white European civilization had begun making inroads into the areas where they lived. Some of the native peoples opted to leave and move into areas where it was more 'modern'. Dr Price also had the opportunity to compare white colonialists who were living alongside, or close to, the native peoples he was studying. What he found was what he thought he would find: disease and dental decay.

When people read Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, it often changes their lives because not only does it describe how healthy people look, feel, and eat, it also shows in painful detail what happens to those people when they abandon their native eating patterns and adopt modern foodstuffs. The pictures Price took of natives and moderns on what Price disdainfully called 'the displacing foods of modern commerce' are horrifying and stand in stark contrast to the pictures next to them of healthy, smiling natives. Nutrition writer and Price enthusiast Sally Fallon explains:

His photographs capture the suffering caused by these foodstuffs – chiefly rampant tooth decay. Even more startling, they show the change in facial development that occurred with modernization. Parents who had changed their diets gave birth to children who no longer exhibited the tribal patterns. Their faces were more narrow, their teeth crowded, their nostrils pinched. These faces do not beam with optimism, like those of their healthy ancestors. The photographs of Dr Weston Price demonstrate with great clarity that the 'displacing foods of modern commerce' do not provide sufficient nutrients to allow the body to reach its full genetic potential – neither the complete development of the bones in the body and the head, nor the fullest expressions of the various systems that allow humankind to function at optimal levels – immune system, nervous system, digestion, and reproduction.[4]

And what were the offending foods that these unfortunate people consumed? Why everything we find on our grocer's shelves: sugar, white flour, jams, jellies, biscuits, condensed milk, canned vegetables, pastries, refined grain products, margarine and vegetable oils.

As noted earlier, the major infectious disease at Price's time was tuberculosis, the 'white scourge'. Price took several photographs of children, usually the children of either Europeans or natives who had adopted the modern foods before their children were born. They are disturbing in their depictions of suffering. Some of the children were too sick to be moved to better lighting for photographing. Others had pus visibly draining from their lymph glands and abscessed teeth. Invariably, parents and children who had adopted modern foods were highly susceptible to tuberculosis and other degenerative diseases.

Price accurately and ominously predicted that, as Western man consumed more refined sugar and substituted vegetable oils for animal fats, disease would increase and reproduction would be more difficult. Today, some 25% of Western couples are infertile, and rates of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease have skyrocketed. Price was truly a modern Cassandra of Troy – prophesying the truth, but with no one listening.

A Return to Sanity, Please!

For many decades, Price's work has been buried and forgotten. Due to the efforts of the Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation and the Weston A Price Foundation, however, and the republication of Price's book for the public, that is fortunately starting to change. Several prominent nutritional doctors have traced their philosophical heritages back to Weston Price and his work. Abram Hoffer, founder and developer of orthomolecular psychiatry; Jonathan Wright, noted author; Alan Gaby, medical columnist; Melvyn Werbach, nutritional author; and other medical doctors all sing the praises of this ingenious dentist. Nutritional anthropologist H Leon Abrams, associate professor emeritus at the University System of Georgia and author of over 200 papers and 8 books, points to Price as a 'giant, ahead of his time with a message relevant to us all'.[5]

Price's conclusions and recommendations were shocking for his time. He advocated a return to breastfeeding when such a practice was discouraged by Western medicine. He urged parents to give their children cod liver oil every day. He considered fresh butter to be the supreme health food. He warned against pesticides, herbicides, preservatives, colourings, refined sugars and vegetable oils; in short, all the things that modern nutrition and agriculture have embraced and promoted the last few decades. Because of the anti-fat, pro-vegetarian rhetoric so prevalent today, Dr Price's message usually falls on perplexed ears, but the results of his research speak for themselves.

And the Answer Is?

So the answer to the question, 'What is a healthy diet?' is this: eat a diet that closely matches the diets of the peoples Dr Price visited. The elements of this diet are:

1. Traditional diets contain no refined or denatured foods;
2. All traditional cultures consume some sort of animal protein and animal fat;
3. All traditional cultures consume some sort of fermented foods or beverages every day;
4. Seeds, grains, beans, and nuts are soaked, sprouted, or fermented before cooking/eating;
5. All primitive diets contain some salt – usually sea salt;
6. All traditional peoples consumed seafood of some sort;
7. Native diets are low in sugar, even natural ones;
8. Traditional diets are typically rich in healthy fats, especially animal fats.

By incorporating these simple dietary guidelines into our lives, we'll do ourselves a major service in staving off degenerative disease and in creating a sound future for our offspring. Let us make the decision to follow these guidelines. It is only by following the wisdom of traditional diets that we can attain our biological salvation.

Further Information

Web Sites on Dr Price's research:
http://www.WestonAPrice.org
http://www.Price-Pottenger.org

References

1. Abrams H Leon. Vegetarianism: An Anthropological/Nutritional Evaluation. Jnl of Applied Nutrition. 32: 2. 1980.
2. Abrams H Leon. The Preference for Animal Protein and Fat: A Cross-Cultural Survey. In Harris M and Ross E eds. Food and Evolution. Temple University Press. 1987.
3. Enig Mary. Know Your Fats: The Complete Primer on Fats and Cholesterol. Bethesda Press. 2000.
4. Fallon Sally. Nasty, Brutish, and Short? The Ecologist. Jan/Feb 1999. Also posted on http://www.westonaprice.org
5. Abrams H Leon. Preface to Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. Keats Publishing. 1989 ed.

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About Stephen Byrnes

Stephen Byrnes ND, RNCP, is a nutritionist and naturopathic doctor. He is the author of over 100 articles and papers published worldwide. His new book, Diet and Heart Disease: It's NOT What You Think (Whitman Books, 2001) is available from amazon.com or your local bookstore. Visit his website to receive his free ezine: www.PowerHealth.net

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