Can living in a city kill you?

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?

As always, you can find me on Facebook and Twitter.

I’m sharing this post over at Real Food Wednesday, Simple Lives Thursday, Fight Back Friday, and Monday Mania.

10 responses to “Can living in a city kill you?

  1. While I haven’t read Dr. Price’s work either, the small portions I have read are dated in the sense that indigenous peoples are referred to as “savages” and the like. As long as it is taken in the sense that it’s a sign of the those times, and that yes, we did refer to people that way back then, then Dr. Price’s work retains its value. It’s kind of like Song of the South–Disney won’t sell it any more because it is embarrassed by the racist content.

    But yes, I think Patterson is mostly missing the major point about diet. No doubt the urban lifestyle is not helping, but it’s the processed “food” itself that’s the major cause. It’s amazing how hard this idea is for most people, though. Whale blubber vs. Fried Chicken? Seriously?

    • It’s a shame most people don’t know the difference between whale blubber and vegetable oil too. Both are just gross things that will “make you *gasp* fat!” Just ignore the people who really eat all those gross things who stay in excellent health, even if they do have to worry about dangers that would never occur to us in the West. 🙂

  2. Great post! Even though some of Dr. Price’s work may seem dated to some people, the fundamental ideas are the same. I’m going to go check out Patterson’s piece now.

    I haven’t read all of Nutrition and Physical Degeneration either – I’ve read bits and pieces here and there online. I can’t afford to buy it right now. Part of me has considered printing it off of the website, but I don’t want to kill that many trees!!! It’s on my Amazon wishlist though!

    • Thank you! I’m actually toying with the idea of doing an online book group next year for N&PD so several people can read through it together at once. A lot of libraries do have it in stock (especially academic ones) so it’s not all that hard to get a hold of a physical copy.

  3. Dear blog author. I often read your blog on an iPad, and I personally don’t like that experience since WordPress has introduced the iPad theme (see for details). Unfortunately I can not opt-out to see your blog in its full splendor. Could I kindly ask you to consider whether you really like the way it looks on the iPad, and maybe turn off the iPad theme? This would certainly make my browsing experience much more pleasurable. Thanks a lot!

  4. Yeah, this is what I thought. WP sort of dropped this on us….

  5. Ugh. . .
    I tried to read this article but ONLY got as far as the pic.
    Excuse me whilst I hurl!!!!
    How did we, as a culture, get so ignorant of nutrition ? (I am talking about myself here too, folks.) I talked to a young mom the other day who said that the only veggie her husband would eat is corn . . . .
    Ummm ? ? ? ? ? Should I tell her that corn isn’t even a veggie ????

    • I agree. It probably happened around the time we listened to scientists saying they had NEW information, since new is always better. Not to disparage scientists though, since I once wanted to be one when I was younger.

  6. Pingback: What has been and what may come: most popular posts of 2011 | I Believe In Butter

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