Spoiler alert: The ideal human diet is not what most Americans are eating.
Dr. Weston Price was a dentist who practiced in the 1930s in Cleveland. He became interested in the fact that people who lived native or traditional lifestyles seemed to be largely immune to dental cavities, while those who lived the modern lifestyle typically needed a lot of dental work. He set out on a 10-year journey that took him all over the world, comparing the diets and dental health of humans living a traditional lifestyle to what we would consider “normal” in our culture, to see if he could discover the ideal human diet.
One of his first discoveries was that many traditional people were amazingly healthy. Despite the popular image of tribal life as “nasty, brutish and short,” many of these groups were peaceful and healthy, with strong families and traditions. The differences he observed were not restricted to dental health; people who lived a traditional lifestyle were largely free of the “diseases of civilization,” including high blood pressure, cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. (The major cause of death in these groups was infection. The primary reason for increased life spans in civilized cultures is improved sanitation, not better nutrition or health care.)
Dr. Price’s primary nutritional discovery was that when native peoples dropped their traditional diets in favor of Western diets (especially white flour and sugar, but also including vegetable oils and canned foods), they paid a very steep price in the form of increased cavities and overall poorer health. He documented this change over and over again, from the frozen north of Canada to the tropical islands of the Pacific to the deserts of Africa. Time and again he was able to show the effects of what he called the “foods of commerce” on the health of people newly exposed to them.
He was even able to show differences within the same families. Older children, conceived while their parents ate traditional foods, were notably healthier than the younger ones carried by the same parents while on a diet of Western foods. The primary differences he noted (as a dentist) were increased cavities and crowded teeth in those exposed to the Western foods.
Dr. Price coined the term “nutrient dense” to describe foods that traditional cultures ate. They had two advantages over modern foods: they were less processed, and the foods (either plant or animal based) were raised in their natural habitat. The traditional methods of farming were done without chemicals to increase yield or to kill pests. Animals were raised without being fed unnatural foods to “fatten them up” or in closely confined areas where they were almost unable to move, living in constant stress. This allowed foods to maintain most of their nutritional value; Dr. Price found that most native diets had five to 20 times more minerals and 10 times more fat-soluble vitamins than diets made up of commercial foods. (He is not alone in this observation, as Loren Cordain, author of “The Paleo Diet,” makes the same statement.)
Dr. Price also was not a fan of artificial vitamins. He wrote that an isolated, single form of a vitamin (he used the example of Vitamin D) is not how it occurs in nature. Vitamin D is actually a combination of several (poorly understood) factors whose function cannot be duplicated by a single molecule in pill or shot form.
The core foods he found that traditional cultures ate were meat, eggs and other animal products (more on that next week); whole grains (remember, this was before the Green Revolution, in which grains were extensively crossbred to increase yield); fruits and vegetables. While all the cultures had some form of cooking, they also ate a portion of their foods raw.
There is some controversy about what constitutes a “nutrient-dense” food. My wife insists that chocolate absolutely qualifies, and I know better than to argue with her. But for the most part there is agreement that free-range or wild-caught meats and minimally processed, organic veggies and fruits are the mainstays. Many traditional cultures use fermentation to preserve food and to improve digestibility (think yogurt, sauerkraut, or kimchi). Unlike canning or other modern forms of preservation, this form of “processing” does not lower nutritional value, but rather improves it.
More recently, author Michael Pollan recommends avoiding anything that wasn’t available to your grandmother. He also suggests to avoid foods with five or more ingredients, as they likely qualify as “foods of commerce.” He also recommends steering clear of anything promoted as “heart healthy” or that makes any other health claims such as being high fiber or low fat. “Real foods,” such as broccoli or apples, don’t have to promote themselves as healthy.
The opposite extreme — foods accused of containing “empty calories” — are also easy to spot. Popular as they are, Twinkies just don’t qualify as “nutrient dense” from any perspective.
Dr. Michael Noonan practices chiropractic, acupuncture and other wellness therapies in Old Town.