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Diet Controversies

by Udo Erasmus(more info)

listed in nutrition, originally published in issue 10 - February 1996

Let us take a short walk through different diets that traditionally sustained human populations on different parts of the globe. We will show the involvement of fat and oils in these diets, and begin a process of looking more closely at how the fat present in our foods impact our health.

Some nutrition writers suggest that by nature man is a hunter who, since the dawn of our species, has lived on a diet high in animal proteins and fats. These writers, mostly North American or European and affluent, cite evidence of primitive hunting spears, arrows, animal bones, and other artifacts of the hunt found around remnants of fire pits in archaeological sites on all continents. They use historical records of the past to confirm their personal preference for diets high in meats.

Equally vociferous, and marshalling a similarly impressive set of evidence, are writers who claim that man was always a gatherer of seeds, grains, roots, nuts, berries, and herbs. Seeds and implements for crushing and preparing seeds have also been found in archaeological digs. Three-quarters of the world's present population lives on a diet based around vegetables and grains (including rice, millet, corn and beans, buckwheat, wheat, rye, oats, barley, spelt, triticale, sorghum, quinoa, and amaranth). These people consume few animal products. Eggs, meat, blood, or milk products are special treats for festive or religious occasions.

It is not clear why these two sets of writers insist that man should have been rigidly one or the other. Survival is a practical matter, and it makes sense that during millions of years of history, climactic changes, and migrations, our ancestors ate whatever they found in their environment and climate. In a state of affluence, we can afford to speculate. In a state of hunger, we eat what we can find and catch.(1)

A third set of writers considers man's original foods to have consisted mainly of raw fresh greens, with some flowers, fruits, and roots, and an occasional inadvertent supplement of under-leaf insect eggs or worm. Gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans live on such foods. This kind of diet required no tools or fire, and would have left little archaeological evidence of its existence.

Climactic Differences and Diet

In tropical climates, vegetables, fruits, and seeds are the foods easiest to obtain. Tropical people would have favored them. Vegetables and fruits are rich in minerals, vitamins, enzymes and fiber, but low in fats. Their seeds contain ample fats.

Plains grow grasses and grains, and plains people became gatherers and later, farmers. Plains also provided lean, low-fat animals such as buffalo, antelope, gnu, and other wild cattle. So, on early plains, we find hunters who followed the animals, herders who tamed these grazing animals and lived on meats, blood and milk, and farmers who grew food plants. People of the North depended mainly on high-fat, high-w3 animal and fish foods. Winters were long and cold, and vegetation was sparse.

People along coasts, lakes and rivers included fish in their food supply. In each area, man adapted himself to the foods available, and learned the skills required to live.

Seasonal differences in diets. Seasonally too, there were differences. Summer grew fresh, perishable vegetables and fruits rich in minerals, vitamins, and water lost as sweat in summer heat. For winter, seeds, nuts, grains, roots, and dried foods were stored. Storable foods contain concentrated energy, the fuels that keep us warm in cold weather - starches, proteins, and fats.

Animal-based diets. Traditional Inuit and Northern Native diets come closer to being animal-based. The people ate virtually the entire animal. Organ meats such as liver, eyes, gonads, adrenals, and brain were preferred to muscle meats. Some organs were eaten raw. Nutritional analysis - which became possible only in recent history - confirms that organ meats are superior to muscle meats, being richer in EFAs, minerals, and vitamins, and of equal protein quality. Stomach contents (including lichens, mosses, seaweed, and plankton) of animals were also eaten. In summer, the people collected herbs from the almost barren land. These bits of vegetable matter provided fiber and vitamin C, which are difficult to obtain in sufficient quantities from animal sources.

Plant-based diets. Completely vegetarian (vegan) traditional diets are unknown. Insects and their eggs provided animal products, as did the occasional trophy of rat, gopher, or possum. Dairy products were commonly used in some parts of the globe. Many people relied on greens and grains for their main meals, but occasionally got their hands on meat, eggs, fish, milk, or blood. Grain eaters got vitamin B12 - an animal product required in only minute quantities and virtually absent from plant products - from insect-infested grain kernels, dried insects crushed in grains, or from insect eggs. Modern methods of grain storage use fumigants to prevent insect infestation, and thereby rob vegans of a source of vitamin B12.

Changes in Dietary Preferences

Changes in our food habits took place over history, especially in the last one hundred years. Processing became widespread. Many traditional and time-tried balanced and healthful food habits were lost.

Organ meats have taken a back seat to muscle meats that are low in several minerals, several vitamins, and both EFAs.

After domesticating wild animals, changes through breeding and feeding took place. Commercialization of a limited range of stocks resulted in limitations in diversity, quantity, and quality of fats in animal foods.

Processing brought about changes in the fat, mineral, and vitamin content of foods, as well as introducing into our food supply many substances foreign to human body chemistry.

Shortsighted farming methods deplete soils of minerals, decreasing the mineral content of foods grown in these soils. Unripe harvest prevents full nutritional content from being developed. Transport and storage result in nutrient losses. Processing takes the heaviest nutritional toll.

Food consumption is also influenced by religious, philosophical, moral, ethical, and faddish considerations. In times of plenty, we can afford to indulge in speculations, and to base our food choices on these speculations. Statements such "Taking the life of conscious creatures is wrong!" and "I don't think that anything that died in agony can be good food for humans!", are valid ethical considerations, but during famines, they usually occupy a position of low priority. These considerations are not based on the rigors of nutritional science which, at its best, deals objectively with the essential components of human nutrition, their minimums and optimums for health, and digestible sources of these essential nutrients in nature.

Nutritional science takes the side neither of vegetarians nor meat eaters, but attempts to improve the health of both through better food choices based on nutritional information.

In the following chapters, we examine the fat content of different diets and foods. We can observe how the fat content of our diet has changed over history. This may give us insight into why present diets that appear to be the same as past diets, now result in diseases of fatty degeneration.

Some diets build and maintain healthy bodies. Others do not. In this chapter, we rate the most common diets for oil content and their ability to maintain rebuild health.

High-Complex Carbohydrate, Low-Fat Diets

The Pritikin diet (developed at the Pritikin Longevity Center in California) is the most popular of many high-complex carbohydrate (80%), low-fat (10% or less) diets. The newly popular Dean Ornish's diet is another. A third is nutritionist Paavo Airola's diet, which is similar to Pritikin's diet in its makeup, but contains less protein and a better balance of oils.

Pritikin and Ornish's diets work for people who overate themselves fat and sick on a typical affluent Western and North American diet rich in protein, white flour, white sugar, and super-rich (over 40%) in hard and altered fats. Pritikin-type diets are mostly whole-grain and vegetable diets plus a little fruit, with meats used mainly as condiments. They reverse many of the degenerative changes in cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, hypertension, and senility.

Once a person becomes healthy, Pritikin-type diets may be dangerously low in fats. Fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K require fat (or oil) for absorption, which is impaired when total fat intake is 5% or less. Pritikin's diet comes too close to that lower limit (food at the Pritikin Longevity Center contains only 7% fats), especially for older people whose digestion and absorption are suboptimal. Diets containing less than 5% fats are correlated with cancer in places like the Philippines, most likely due to impaired absorption of vitamins A and E, which protect against cancer-causing free radicals.

W3s have been shown to inhibit tumor incidence and growth. Pritikin and Ornish's diets are low in w3s, to which they pay no attention at all. The fats in their diet programs contain essential fatty acids (EFAs), but there may not be enough of them because of the low total fat content.

For people who spend time outdoors in sunny, warm climates like California, sunshine may compensate to some extent for a low supply of EFAs, but in winter, in northern latitudes, and in smoggy and indoor environments, more EFAs are required. A diet that contains 15 to 20% of calories as fat (one-third to one-half of that as EFAs) and a balanced w6:w3 ratio is more likely to ensure health over the long term.(2)

For hot southern tropical climates and summers, the Pritkin diet's grain content may be too high. A lighter fare of fresh fruit and vegetables needs to be emphasized. People who spend their time in air-conditioned rooms under artificial lights may need more EFAs than Pritikin's diet supplies, even in the tropics.

An engineer, Pritikin developed his diet to meet his own needs. He was obese and had clogged arteries in his 40s, and he reversed both conditions. His arteries were clean when he was autopsied in his 60s. But Pritikin died of suicide after battling leukemia.

Pritikin's diet is a step in the right direction for this generation's over-fat, over processed way of eating. However, in the long run, it may kill those who are not overfed.

High-Protein, High-Fat Diets

High-fat, low-carbohydrate diets include Atkins, Stillman, and Drinking Man's diets. These diets assume that man has always been a hunter, which is open to debate, and that he has always eaten a diet high in protein and fat, which is not true.

High-protein, high-fat diets may be a short-term way around grain intolerance for people that have developed allergic reactions to grains (especially wheat). But systematically improved, enriched, and balanced nutrition is necessary to reverse such allergies (when they can be reversed). Avoidance of the offending food(s) might be necessary in some cases.

High-protein, high-fat diets are weight reduction diets that promise the loss of pounds and inches while we eat all we want. They work because fats are digested slower and suppress appetite longer than carbohydrates (especially refined carbohydrates). Fats also produce ketones, which reduce hunger even more. Refined carbohydrates, a large part of many overweight people's diets, are omitted completely from the menu or allowed only in small quantities. This is the best way for some people to eat. People differ in their food requirements for health.

High-protein, high-fat diets are basic Western 'meat and potatoes' diets without the potatoes. High-fat diets can lead to ketone-induced kidney damage. Too much protein produces an excess of ammonia – a toxic protein breakdown product that can damage the liver, kidneys, and brain before the body turns it into less harmful urea. Excess urea is part of the cause of gouty arthritis. High-protein diets also increase chances of developing allergies, because proteins are potent allergens. Food allergies may result in digestive and absorptive problems, nutrient deficiencies, and immune impairment common to allergies.

EFA intake is not considered at all in these diets. The fats they contain are usually rich in saturated fatty acids (SaFAs) which are associated with cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and moderately with cancer.

Traditional Northern Diets

Inuit and Northern natives adhering to traditional diets consume mostly animal foods rich in fats and proteins, but are free of most of our common degenerative diseases.2 They do suffer strokes due to lack of vitamins C and E, and kidney damage and osteoporosis due to high protein. The fats in their diets come from fish and marine mammals containing large concentrations of highly unsaturated w3 fatty acids.

When these people lose their traditions and adopt Western diets, they lose their immunity to the degenerative diseases common to Western cultures.

The Affluent Western Society's Diet

Most people consuming the foods eaten by affluent Western people suffer degenerative diseases sooner or later, no matter which race they belong to or where on earth they live. Few people are genetically immune to damage from Western diets containing over 40% hard and altered fats, 40% refined carbohydrates, 6% complex carbohydrates.

People who move to the West from places and diets free of degenerative disease, and people who adopt the Western diet wherever they live, begin to degenerate within one generation after they adopt the Western life-style. The Western diet contains too much SaFAs and altered fatty acids, too much protein, too much w6 oil, too little w3 oil, too few minerals and vitamins, too few antioxidants, and too little fiber.

Before the industrial revolution, white flour had to be made by slow, time-consuming sifting methods. Only the rich could afford white flour, and only the rich suffered degenerative diseases By designing mass production machinery for the process, white flour production has become very efficient, and we can all now afford the flour that produces the ailments due to nutrient deficiency. A folk saying tells us that if we want to be healthy: "Though you be rich like a king, eat like a pauper."

Reconciling Differences

We reconcile the fact the one high-fat diet protects against, while the other high-fat diet fosters degeneration, by differentiating between healing (EFA-rich) and killing (saturated and chemically altered) fats, and between nutrient-rich natural and nutrient-poor processed foods.

Diets free of refined sugars, which turn into SaFAs and rob our body of vitamins and minerals necessary for fat digestion and metabolism, support health. Diets free of refined and altered oil products support our health. Diets low in SaFAs and altered fats, which interfere with EFA functions, support health.(3) Diets free of processed foods that lack many vitamins and minerals support health. Diets free of de-natured fat products support health. Diets rich in enzymes support health. Diets containing nature's rich endowment of essential mineral and vitamin co-factors support health. Diets containing both EFAs or their derivatives in adequate amounts and right balance support health.

Diets high in SaFAs and altered fats, which interfere with EFA functions, interfere with health. Diets containing refined carbohydrates add to the load of SaFAs and are also deficient in vitamins and minerals. Diets low in refined carbohydrates are an improvement over diets that contain them in larger quantities.

People who cannot tolerate certain complex carbohydrates (grains) may do better on a fat and protein diet, but the fats in such diets should be chosen to contain one-third to one-half of their fatty acids as EFAs or EFA derivatives. Both EFAs are present in hemp, flax, and fish oils, and are also present in soybeans. Beef, mutton, pork, cheese, and butter are poor sources of EFAs, and margarines and shortenings are unreliable sources of EFAs as well as being toxic.

A diet deficient in essential nutrients can be prevented from leading to degenerative diseases if properly nutrient-enriched with whole foods, fresh juices, super-foods, or concentrates of essential vitamins, minerals, and EFAs.


(1) Our teeth are less able to tear flesh than those of meat-eating animals (carnivores), and less able to grind than those of vegetarian animals (herbivores). Our intestine is longer than that of carnivores and shorter than that of herbivores. Our body is less powerful than that of carnivores, making us less capable to catch and kill, and slower than that of most herbivores. Biologically speaking, we appear to be mixed eaters (omnivores).
(2) All other essential nutrients, including the antioxidant minerals and vitamins, must also be optimized for optimum health.
(3) Japanese fishermen and West Coast North American Indians on traditional fare, similar to that of these Northerners, are also free of most degenerative diseases.

Extract from the book Fats that Heal, Fats that Kill by Udo Erasmus. Published by Alive Books, BC, Canada. Third (revised and updated) edition, 1993. Available in the UK from ION Bookclub Tel: (00) 181-877 9993 or Savant Distribution Tel: (00) 113-230 1993. Our interview with Udo appeared in Issue 12 May/June 1996.


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About Udo Erasmus

Udo Erasmus, Ph.D. is a researcher, educator and consultant specialising in fats and oils, cholesterol control, essential fatty acids, omega-3, flax, natural therapies for degenerative conditions, nutrient enrichment, detoxification and human health. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

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