What is a traditional diet?

Masai Warror 1906

By a traditional diet, I mean one that has been eaten for hundreds or thousands of years, by an ongoing culture of people with good health. Every isolated native population that we’ve found in the last 100 years fits this: they have all had great health, good teeth, and no signs of the “Western diseases” of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, cancer, or osteoporosis. They are all lean and strong. Older people in these cultures are also lean, fit and vigorous.

As soon as they start eating a Western diet, particularly wheat, refined sugar, and canned food, their health suffers. Teeth rot, children have malformed dental arches and crowded teeth, and Western diseases become the norm. This change has been documented in group after group over the last 100 years.

What makes a traditional diet so healthy? Or, put another way, what is it that makes our diet so unhealthy? Why do we think that we are meant to degenerate as we age, that a little pot-belly is normal, that gaining 1 to 2 pounds per year is normal?

The carbohydrate/fat content of traditional diets is all over the map (the table is as a percentage of calories):

Group Location Carbohydrate Fat Protein
Kitavans Pacific Islands 69% 21% 10%
Swiss Alps Loetschental Valley 35% 46% 19%
many hunter-gather groups World Wide 20% 65% 15%
Inuit winter diet Alaska 0% 80% 20%

All of these groups, from very high carb to zero carb, from extremely low-fat to extremely high-fat, were vibrantly healthy on these diets, with great teeth and none of the chronic Western diseases.

What can we learn from these cultures? My list:

  • all of these cultures limit average protein to no more than 20% of calories, but it is possible to be healthy on a wide range of fat to carbohydrate. So limit your protein intake, and eat what works for you in terms of fat and carbohydrates.
  • don’t eat much sugar. The fructose half of table sugar, or the fructose sugar in fruit, is toxic once it gets above 25 grams per day (100 calories). It is much healthier to eat less than 12 grams per day (50 calories). Fructose raises uric acid, affects blood vessel health, and unbalances your calcium to phosphorus ratio, which causes cavities and osteoporosis. If you are trying to heal yourself, or to treat osteoporosis or dental cavities, don’t eat sugar or fruit at all.
  • wheat, other grains, and legumes must be properly prepared to be fit to eat. All of these plants have strong defenses against being eaten, and traditional diets fermented, soaked, or sprouted them. Even when optimally prepared, they still affect many people. Wheat in particular has a number of defenses that cannot be broken down, and is not a healthy food. Industrial food does not prepare these ingredients properly, so is not healthy. Instead of grains and legumes, eat root vegetables such as sweet potato, rutabaga, parsnip, turnip, carrots, taro. White rice is also ok, because polishing the rice removes most of the anti-nutrients, which are concentrated in the rice bran.
  • vegetable oils are not part of a traditional diet. These oils have high levels of trans-fats, high levels of polyunsaturated fat, and most have high levels of omega-6 fats. Eating them leads to weight gain and inflammation. Instead, eat natural, non-industrial fats: butter, coconut oil, palm kernel oil, cocoa butter, beef tallow, lard.
  • industrial food generally has a mix of improperly-prepared grains and legumes, sugar, and vegetable oils, not to mention manufactured flavoring and preservatives. It is also highly addictive, and overeating it leads to weight gain. Instead, eat natural, whole food.

An excellent book on how to eat is The Perfect Health Diet, by Paul and Shou-Ching Jaminet.

Bon appetit!

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What should we eat?

Traditional diet

Traditional Diets

Diet affects more than just our weight — it is an integral part of good health.

We can learn a lot from looking at what has worked for thousands of years, from cultures eating traditional diets. The most visible effect of diet is on our teeth and dental health.

Weston Price was a dentist with an interest in how nutrition affected health and dental health in particular. He visited numerous cultures while they were still eating a traditional diet.


Cavities with Western Diet

His book, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, is a classic. The photos in this post are from Chapter 12, “Isolated and modernized New Zealand Maori”.

People eating a traditional diet had one cavity per thousand teeth, with wide jaws and strong perfect teeth.

People eating a modern Western diet had large numbers of cavities, as you can see in these photos. When we visit a dentist to have our teeth repaired, it is because of our diet. Good health includes healthy teeth.


Dental development with Western diet

It is not just cavities — people eating a typical Western diet tend to have narrow jaws, without enough room for their teeth. The result is dental deformities.

The modern need for orthodontics comes from deficiencies in our diets and lifestyles. What we see in our teeth is reflected in our bones and collagen — osteoporosis and poor-quality collagen is also a result of diet and nutrition.

Our birthright is good health, with strong healthy teeth and bones. We just have to find our way back to what has worked for generations.

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“Eat less, exercise more”?

Conventional wisdom is that you have to eat fewer calories and exercise more to lose weight. But is this really true?

There are experiments with rats that are illuminating: Rats fed a standard rat chow, and allowed to eat as much as they like, do not gain weight. But when the rat chow is puréed, the rats eat more and gain weight.

Rats fed Ensure, a liquid nutrition supplement, do not gain weight on the vanilla or strawberry flavors, but do gain on the chocolate flavor.

These and many other experiments show there is something about processed food that can cause weight gain. For the chocolate Ensure, it is likely the extra dopamine reward from the chocolate that causes the food to be somewhat addictive, so the rats eat more than they need. In the case of the puréed rat chow, it could be a stronger flavor/calory reward that causes the rat’s weight set-point to increase. Rats fed standard supermarket food also gain weight, and it affects us the same way.

The other side of the coin is what happens when you exercise. Exercise makes you to want to eat more, because you are burning more calories. So if you exercise and eat to appetite, you’ll eat more and not lose weight; if you try to eat the same amount or less, you will be very hungry and can end up on an eating binge.

Gary Taubes wrote a good book, Why We Get Fat, which explores the association between diet, exercise and weight loss. His conclusion is that very few people can eat less and exercise more to lose weight — for 95% of us, any weight loss is temporary, and comes back with a vengeance.

Nonetheless, there are ways to lose weight and keep it off. They involve changing what you eat, so that you don’t eat addicting food; how you eat, to improve your insulin and leptin feedback systems so you don’t feel hungry; and using strength-training to increase muscle mass and improve your insulin sensitivity. More in the next post.

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