Nourishing Diets: How Paleo, Ancestral and Traditional Peoples Really Ate
By Sally Fallon Morell
Grand Central Life & Style
There are a lot of funny ideas about how ancestral or paleo cultures lived and ate. Apparently, they ate lowfat foods and processed oils that were not to be reinvented or conceived of again for thousands of years. Clever people, those ancient paleos. In fact, I do think they were quite clever but perhaps in different ways. We have learned, however, that food and diets can be a very touchy subject. Say anything about paleo, vegan or whatever the current fad is and you will quickly learn Newton’s law of the Internet: for every action there is an unequal and opposite overreaction.
The word “primitive” often comes with certain baggage. To most, it implies ignorance, backwardness and low intelligence. However, when Weston Price studied these “primitive” people, he found them to be far ahead of the Europeans and Americans in some very important ways. He came to see himself as a missionary from remote native people to the “advanced” Euro-American civilization. The message was that we can learn much about how to eat, how to care for the land and how to regain our rapidly failing health.
This book gives us a tour around the world, starting, conveniently enough, with the letter “A,” as in Australia and Aborigines. When Western civilization first began to explore Australia, the explorers found it to be like a park, beautifully organized and sculpted by the Aborigines. Contrary to popular perception, the Aborigines did not have to work strenuously from sunrise to sunset to scrape out a meager subsistence. They had brilliant strategies for catching large amounts of fish and wild game quickly. They did not just hunt and gather. They cultivated. They grew crops. They irrigated. They ate a variety of vegetables and fruits. They ate grain and processed it into flour. There are amazing accounts of Aborigines working together with dolphins. Dolphins would drive fish toward the shore, making them easy to catch.
The first European explorers in America found a land similarly well managed. California, in particular, was like a paradise, teeming with life but not chaotic or disorganized. Today, California is still beautiful, but the scars of modern neglect and abuse are easy to spot. The Aborigines, Native Americans and South Sea Islanders understood the importance of fire in managing the land. Regular, controlled burns were essential to clean out the underbrush and increase soil fertility. I have learned from my Chinese wife that the Chinese also did that, and some probably still do. Here in the U.S., we have Smokey the Bear who is afraid of every little spark. He just doesn’t get it.
As this book treats us to a tour of the world, it not only tells us about what people ate but provides a lot of interesting history. This history is far more accurate than what you learned in public school. Trust me. Many of these ancestral peoples were physically very impressive. The Eskimo would carry one hundred pounds in the left hand, one hundred pounds in his right hand and one hundred pounds hanging from a strap clamped between his teeth and walk easily. Did they get that strong by eating kale and tofu? I don’t think so.
So what did all these people eat? There was tremendous variation in diets in different areas of the world. Some diets were high-carb, some were not. Some, like the Eskimo diet, were very high in fat, others not so much. Some ate bugs, some did not. Some had dairy, some were not so fortunate. Seafood was obviously more popular in coastal areas than inland. But there is one thing they all had in common. Some form of animal food was a key part of the diet. It may have dominated the diet or it may have been a small percentage of total food intake, but it was important. From the time of Weston Price up to today, no one has found a healthy culture that is totally vegan.
The China Study is often a favorite topic for vegan proponents who are promoting their point of view. Ironically, when you actually look at the data, they are so scattered and broad that they show almost no correlation of any kind between diet and health. What the study does show is that the Chinese are not vegan. Again, I have confirmation from my Chinese wife who is very serious about following traditional Chinese dietary principles. She is not remotely vegan and has no desire to be. Overall, Chinese cancer rates are about the same as American cancer rates. The Chinese may have fewer heart attacks, but they have more strokes. The Chinese average lifespan is less than the American lifespan. Much of that may be due to severe poverty in some areas and pervasive environmental pollution in other areas. The true traditional Chinese diet is a healthy diet for those who have access to it, but arguments that the Chinese should be the ultimate role models are a little weak.
Then, of course, there is the Mediterranean Diet. Just what is that, anyway? If you’re like me, you have the vague impression that it looks like something that is scraped off the bottom of a lawnmower. The name doesn’t tell you much because there are so many different diets around the Mediterranean. All of those diets feature important animal foods. These principles have been around for thousands of years. They are not new. There are many dietary fads that rise and then fall. I think Newton made some law about that, too. The “Blue Zones” have added another dimension to the argument about what a healthy diet looks like. Nourishing Diets takes all of the research into consideration and finds that the elders of the blue zones also included animal foods as important parts of their diets. Some of those Blue Zones are shifting to more politically correct diets. In Costa Rica, for example, the results speak for themselves. In the span of six years, the number of centenarians in one retirement home went from forty-five to two.
The most important information here is about who funded the Blue Zone project. It was largely funded by the National Institute on Aging, which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The NIH strongly endorses U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) dietary guidelines, which promote lowfat processed swill that has a poor track record of keeping Americans healthy. The processed food industry also contributed to the Blue Zone project. Sally aptly describes the Blue Zone project as damage control designed to stop people from realizing what the USDA guidelines are really about—a pack of lies put out by a government controlled by pharmaceutical lobbyists intent on keeping hospital beds full.
The end of the book provides recipes to help you put these “primitive” principles into practice. The thumb, of course, is UP for this book.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2018.