Its the time of year when many people start thinking about improving their lifestyle and eating more healthily. Some people will be tempted to follow one of the many fad diets.
This article is an excerpt from the Ebook 29 Billion Reasons to Lie About Cholesterol, and describes the need for an individual approach to nutrition.
A multi-billion dollar diet industry has emerged that includes an exhaustive range of fad diets. One of the main differences between each of these diets concerns the proportions of carbohydrate, protein and fat that is recommended. Some experts recommend a low carbohydrate/high protein and fat approach, whereas others advocate a high carbohydrate/low protein and fat program. The recommendations between different diets can be poles apart yet each program has numerous success stories in support of it. How can completely opposite approaches achieve the same results?
When the authorities establish nutritional recommendations for a whole country, they attempt to provide a simple ‘one size fits all’ set of guidelines. This certainly makes their job easier but unfortunately it bears no relation to the realities of nutritional science. If we look around the world we can see that different cultures have historically eaten very different kinds of foods. Genetically people adapted to the range of foods that were available to them in their immediate environment. Nutritional wisdom was passed down from one generation to the next and each successive generation remained healthy.
During the 1920s and 1930s a dentist by the name of Dr Weston Price travelled around the world to study the foods eaten by traditional cultures. His work is summarised in a classic book titled Nutrition and Physical Degeneration (1). Dr. Price studied a great variety of different cultures from North American Indians to Australian Aborigines and New Zealand Maori.
Within each of the cultures he studied, Dr Price found that people stayed healthy as long as they stick to their traditional diets – the foods that were eaten by their ancestors. However, whenever a group of people tried to follow a different diet, and in particular, consumed processed ‘modern’ foods, they became affected by the degenerative conditions that plague the industrialised world.
Our metabolisms evolve over tens of thousands of years. Modern technology has allowed people to migrate across vast distances but during this time our metabolic makeup has not changed a great deal. Here in the UK, as with many other countries around the world, we have a real melting pot of cultures and genetic heritage. This has resulted in a wide range of different nutritional requirements. Some people may be suited to the general high carbohydrate/low fat diet that is recommended to everyone. However, many other people will not be suited to this and they may need much more protein and fat than carbohydrate in order to have lots of energy and good health.
Over the last few decades experts have been trying to find the villain in our food. Some say it is carbohydrate, and others blame fat. As we have already seen, dietary saturated fat and cholesterol have bore the brunt of this approach. However, an assessment of nutrition from a global perspective reveals a number of case studies that may help us to learn more about the link between what we eat and our health. The purpose of this chapter is to discuss a few of these examples that demonstrate the need for an individualised approach to nutrition.
In the early 1920s Dr Victor Levine from the Creighton School of Medicine planned a trip to Alaska to study the health of native Eskimos. In a New York Times article he was quoted as saying: “The Eskimos seem to be more capable of resisting disease and hardships than those of more southern climates. Yet they defy all the known laws of nutrition. They eat large amounts of protein and fats, but are short on other vital elements without which we in this part of the world could not live at all for any length of time” (2).
Indeed, the native Eskimo at this time was highly admired for having excellent health. Dr Western Price also commented on the health of the native Eskimo, by stating that it was amongst the best that he had encountered on his travels, and that he was “deeply concerned to know the formula of his [the Eskimos’] nutrition in order that we may learn from it” (1).
Another researcher: Dr Cleave, a surgeon captain in the Royal Navy, was interested in the low rate of heart disease in Eskimo communities. Dr Cleave observed that the Eskimo followed a highly carnivorous diet, being abundant in meat and fat, yet there was an absence of heart disease (3).
Dr Cleave studied many traditional cultures around the world. He documented the importance of wholesome natural foods and an evolutionary approach to nutrition. In particular, he was concerned with the effect of consuming refined carbohydrates such as white flour. These investigations led to the discovery of what Cleave referred to as the incubation period for degenerative disease. This is related to the amount of time it takes for signs of disease to become apparent within a community after people start consuming refined carbohydrates. Cleave generally found that this incubation period was 20 years for diabetes and 30 years for heart disease.
Back in 1974, when Dr Cleave published his book summarising his research (3), he had already begun to understand the mechanism by which high blood glucose (sugar) levels damage the arteries and cause heart disease. He also commented on the absurdity of the idea that saturated fat causes heart disease – stating that this idea has no logical foundation from an evolutionary point of view.
The findings of Dr Levine, Dr Price, Dr Cleave and many others, have since been confirmed by the increasing rates of disease in all countries that increasingly adopt refined foods and abandon traditional foods. Of the many examples of this, the story of the Eskimo is among the most striking. Since when native Eskimos abandon their traditional eating patterns and follow a western diet their rate of diabetes and heart disease increases drastically.
Native Eskimos in America now have a higher rate of disease than the general population. Having once been studied for their incredibly low rates of diabetes and heart disease, Eskimos who eat western foods suddenly be- come at high risk for these diseases. For example, native Eskimos are now 2.3 times more likely to have diabetes, 1.6 times more likely to be obese, and 1.2 times more likely to have heart disease than their white American counterparts (4).
The decline in the health of native Eskimos has been more rapid than what has been seen in other cultures. But this was predicted by Dr Price decades ago and it is exactly what would be expected when we look at nutrition from an evolutionary point of view. As stated above, the traditional diet followed by Eskimos consisted mostly of protein and fat based foods. These foods included large quantities of dried salmon (as each piece of fish was broken off it was dipped in seal oil), fish eggs, whale skin and the organs of sea animals. Other foods included caribou, nuts, kelp, and cranberries (1).
Native Eskimos from Alaska are given the same nutritional guidelines as the rest of the American public. They are advised to eat more fruits and vegetables (up to nine servings a day), eat whole grains, cut down on fatty foods and limit the amount of fat in their diet (5, 6).
Dietitians and other ‘experts’ focus on reducing the fat content of the diet, but surely attention should be given to the dissimilarities between the traditional Eskimo diet and the one which is now being advised. Traditionally, the Eskimo would simply not have any grain based foods available to them. Neither would they have access to the majority of fruits and vegetables that are found in warmer climates. Their metabolisms have evolved to thrive on protein and fat based foods – the foods that were available to them. Otherwise these people would not have survived.
It is curious that the most significant health problem among native Eskimos is diabetes. As we have seen in the previous chapter, one of the main contributing factors to the development of diabetes is having high blood glucose levels - being caused by a diet that has a high glycemic load. A high carbohydrate/low fat diet that contains grain based foods has a high glycemic load and causes blood glucose levels to rapidly increase after eating.
It is logical to suggest that native Eskimos are more susceptible to the adverse effects of a diet that has a high glycemic load. Their metabolisms have historically only had to deal with relatively small amounts of glucose. An Eskimo’s body is not used to dealing with the rapid increase in blood glucose that is associated with a low fat / high carbohydrate diet. It would take tens of thousands of years for them to adapt to this but it has been introduced to them suddenly in just a few decades.
North American Indians
American Indians suffer similar rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease as do native Eskimos (4). The traditional diet of the American Indian was in many cases almost entirely made up of the wild animals of the case (1). This included: deer, buffalo, bear, moose, and fish. A small amount of plant food from berries, wild celery and corn was also eaten (7). When Dr Price visited the American Indians who were following their traditional way of life he was shown how they managed to keep themselves free from diseases such as scurvy.
When a moose was killed it was opened up at the back and two “balls of fat” just above the kidneys were taken out and cut up into small pieces. Each member of the family was then given a piece to eat. The Indians knew that eating a small amount of this part of the animal would prevent them from getting scurvy (1). The “balls of fat” were in fact the adrenal glands of the animal. We now know that the adrenal glands provide one of the richest sources of vitamin C available from any food. The vitamin C available from the adrenal glands of the moose protected the American Indians from scurvy. They had discovered this nutritional secret long before ‘modern civilisation’ had built laboratories to measure the nutrient content of foods.
American Indians are advised to reduce their fat intake, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, eat low-fat cheese, skimmed milk, egg substitutes and soft margarines, and to cook with vegetable oils (7). Again, these guidelines rep- resent a diet that is very different from their traditional diet – which included a large amount of protein and just a small amount of carbohydrate. The glycemic load of the traditional diet would be much lower than the diet that is now being recommended to American Indians. Increasing the glycemic load in this way, can only increase the risk for diabetes and heart disease for these people.
In addition, low-fat foods that are more heavily processed such as low-fat cheese, skimmed milk and egg substitutes are not whole foods – they are denatured and low in vital nutrients. Whereas the meats that was traditionally eaten were packed with life supporting nutrients. A lower intake of vital nutrients further increases the risk for disease. For example, these nutrients are needed to protect the blood vessels and arteries from damage.
Australian Aborigines are probably the oldest living race of people in the world (1). The traditional diet of the Aborigines depended on the district. Those who came from the coastal regions thrived on dugong, sea cow, shell fish and other types of sea food. This was supplemented with some sea plants. Whereas people living in the interior districts thrived on land animals (such as kangaroo and wallaby), eggs, insects, leaves, berries, peas and roots (1).
Dr Price found that ‘modern’ nutrition was having a disastrous effect on Australian Aborigines. After consuming ‘modern’ foods for a relatively short period of time the fertility of these people had reduced to the point where the death rate far exceeded the birth rate. In summary, Dr Price wrote: “They demonstrate in a tragic way in inadequacy of the white man’s dietary program” (1).
In the mid 1980s Professor Kerin O’Dea published an article in the journal Diabetes to document how a group of Australian Aborigines virtually recovered from diabetes in five weeks by returning to their traditional diet (8, 9).
Swiss – Loetschental Valley
At the time when Dr Price visited Switzerland, the most serious disease for the country as a whole was tuberculosis. However, the beautiful Loetschental Valley had not experienced a single case of this disease. The food here consisted mainly of rye bread and cheese. The cheese was eaten in slices as large (and thick) as the slice of bread and it was made from the milk of cows that grazed on the grass near the snow line of the mountains. This cheese contained natural butter fat, which was the pride of the people and revered for its life-giving properties. All of the dairy foods were unpasteurised and provided an excellent source of vitamins and minerals.
Although the Swiss of the Loetschental Valley thrived on a diet that contained a significant amount of grains (in the form of rye bread) certain African tribes have not fared so well. For in Africa, there appears to be a connection between the health of a particular group of people and the portion of the diet that is made up of grain based foods. Table 4A lists some of the African tribes that were studied by Dr Price. Generally, the tribes that consumed larger amounts of animal based foods were much more immune to dental cavities.
Among tribes who traditionally ate more foods of animal origin (which contained large amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol) it was not uncommon to find a complete absence of dental cavities. However, those tribes that extensively used cereal grains as food had around 6-7% of their teeth affected by dental cavities. It is widely accepted that dental health is a reliable indicator of nutritional status and general health. In addition, the tribes who consumed more animal based foods were generally physically stronger than those following a cereal or grain based diet.
Animal Vs Plant Based Food
Researchers with an interest in the evolution of dietary habits and how this relates to health have investigated traditional diets around the world. They have found a huge variety in the composition of traditional diets. For example, the amount of meat that was eaten ranges from 270 grams to 1,400 grams per person per day (10). Figure 4A illustrates the composition of various traditional diets. It can be seen that the percentage of the diet that was made up of animal foods and plant based foods varied tremendously.