I’m a big fan of NPR, but for some reason I seldom listen to Fresh Air. Thankfully, a friend of mine alerted me to a piece on last week’s show entitled How Western Diets are Making the World Sick. I recommend giving the segment a listen, as well as reading guest Kevin Patterson’s piece Diseases of Affluence.
Image from Maisoneuve web site.
When I was listening to the Fresh Air piece, I got a little frustrated with Terry Gross’s questions. First, she asked what the difference was between whale meat and fried chicken and French fries. Patterson’s reply was simply to say that the Inuit (about whom he was speaking) were much more active in the process of obtaining that whale. I sputtered and wished I could shoot back with a comment about how whale meat and fat, from an animal eating the diet it was MEANT to eat and also not confined in a small space, would be higher in beneficial fats. Plus, there’s really no comparison to that kind of fat and the fat usually used to make fried chicken and French fries: usually vegetable oil, full of omega-6 fatty acids, rancid, and, if it has any soybean or corn in it, likely genetically engineered. Gross also lumped sweet and salty diets together as problematic. While I agree about the sweets (we don’t need the sugar and any excess is automatically stored by the body as fat), I don’t think salt is the same kind of problem. Yes, most processed food in the stores are full of sodium, but that’s not the same thing as real salt.
Patterson’s article is an interesting read. He describes experiences with indigenous people in different parts of the world, like the Inuit, Afghans, and Pacific Islanders. In each case, he notes all their recent occurrences of diseases like type 2 diabetes, very seldom found outside of the industrialized world. In each case Patterson notes that the onset of these diseases come in direct relation to urbanization of these people. To my disappointment, he does not look nearly as much as the major changes in the people’s diets.
Some of Patterson’s observations about the difference in bodies are worth noting:
“[O]ur bodies are not normal. The Afghans’ bodies are normal. We are so commonly ill we take it to be normal.”
“Metabolic syndrome’s elevated insulin level is why we order a second Whopper; getting fatter, cruelly, stimulates our appetite.”
“Westerners are made ill by diseases the Afghans avoid–even among the very elderly, traditional peoples do not suffer cardiovascular disease–while the Afghans perish from diseases we are too rich to tolerate.”
(talking about the Inuit)“[M]ostly what the people here eat are Cheez Doodles and Pepsi. They are among the least expensive foodstuffs available. Milk is three dollars a litre. Bread, two dollars a loaf. Anything perishable is flown in and carries its air freight in the price. The pop and the chips are trucked in over ice on winter roads and last all year. It is precisely the same circumstances that prevails on Hiva Oa, Nauru and Saipan.”
Thus far, Patterson doesn’t quite seem to make the connections with leaving behind ancestral diets and the change in health, but he points out all the pieces in that puzzle through the article: leaving behind home areas and culture and food in favor of full modernization, down to foods coming from chemistry labs instead of the land. Hopefully he’ll ask more questions in the coming years. Who knows? We might just have another Weston Price in the making.
Who was Weston Price?
Dr. Weston A. Price was a dentist in the early 20th century. In his quest to determine why younger patients were coming to his practice with dental issues when their parents and grandparents never showed such problems, he started to look at the teeth of tribal peoples. This led to travels around the world, studying isolated people on every continent, and trying to determine why their teeth were so strong and healthy. Eventually Dr. Price came to believe that good teeth were not merely something nice to see, but a sign of overall health. Further, dental problems were an indication that the person was suffering from nutritional deficiencies.
In most every case he saw among these people, those bad teeth came when people abandoned their traditional diets in favor of Western foods. These foods were often very refined, higher in sugar, lacking fats the body can properly utilize, and no longer included cultured foods. His conclusions were published in a book called Nutrition and Physical Degeneration.
If the traditional food movement could have a patron saint, it would be Dr. Price.
I have to admit that I have yet to read Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. From what I understand, it does have some very good information but can also be xenophobic. Hopefully Kevin Patterson will come across a copy in the near future. Perhaps he and I can read it together as a book club?