Tuesday, August 30, 2011

What is ancestral health?

The vegetarian movement is gaining speed. Walking into the local Whole Foods Market this summer, I noticed a large banner hanging inside the entrance that recommended a “plant-based diet.” A New Yorker interview with co-CEO, John Mackey, suggests that the vegan at the head of the company would like to lead Whole Foods shoppers away from the meat counter. One of my food heroes, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who once killed a chicken on live television, has recently declared himself a mostly-vegetarian.

My own dietary practice is guided by a belief that people have always eaten meat. While I share a concern for animal welfare, I believe the ethical answer must include satisfaction of our animal needs. A fear of meat suits the industrial food complex, frankly: it’s cheaper for them, and has a higher profit margin, to sell you an overprocessed “burger” out of the freezer case than to make truly healthy meat—properly raised, humanely slaughtered, and untainted—available to everyone. The industry moves slowly, so while they’re turning their barge around, they have some cash crops to unload on the consuming public. I’m even cynical about the health news cycle. They all chant in chorus, from fad to fad: first fat was bad for us, then carbs, and now protein. Eventually, they’ll have to cycle back around again, or there will be nothing left to eat.

The plant-based approach has a challenger in the ancestral health movement. “Ancestral health” is an umbrella for practices that attempt to closely emulate the way people ate and moved a long time ago, with the aim of curing or preventing diseases of civilization. Although there are varying interpretations, the general assumption within the ancestral health movement is that for most of our history as a species, people ate a diet that met our nutritional needs quite well, and that diet has never come in a box or a can, had a nutrition facts label, been manufactured, or been entirely devoid of animal products. Where those in the ancestral health movement begin to disagree with one another is on the matter of how long it’s been since we ate the right diet for human health.

According to those who advocate the “Paleo diet,” our ideal diet is the one we evolved to eat, fifty thousand years ago. People who follow it vary in the strictness of their interpretation, generally deferring to Dr. Loren Cordain’s book (and blog), "The Paleo Diet," as the first and most orthodox guide. Internet discussion tends to concentrate on certain pet topics: what kind of exercise people regularly got in the Paleolithic, and whether some agricultural food or another is permissible on the diet, are common subjects. Paleo is popular with the CrossFit crowd. My other friends, the ones who shop at Walmart and BJ’s, and even the ones who shop at Whole Foods, have mainly never heard of the Paleo diet. I start by explaining the basics of the Paleo diet. You can eat meat, fruit, and vegetables (but no nightshades), and nuts. No dairy, grains, beans or lentils, on the assumption that before agriculture was invented, ten thousand years ago, no one ate dairy and wild grains were too small and sparse to be a significant food source.

After the Paleolithic era came the Neolithic, with its revolution of human innovation: farming was the first of these technologies, and its benefits gave us more leisure, food security, and hence, more people, to invent even more things, including ways to feed even more people.

Haven’t we managed to find any healthy ways to eat in the last ten thousand years? Dr. Weston A. Price was a dentist who traveled around the world, looking at people’s teeth. He found some commonalities among the many different indigenous people who still ate pre-industrial diets in the early twentieth century. They had terrific teeth, for starters. They also lacked certain malformations that we think of as perfectly normal today: narrow faces, overbites, crowded teeth, wisdom teeth that have no room in which to erupt. In some of these cultures people traditionally ate only dairy, or had very little meat, or ate a lot of seafood. All of the people in the cultures Dr. Price found ate animal products, some nearly exclusively. They all had cultured foods in their diets, and ate at least some of their foods raw (including raw animal products). Those who ate grains and legumes soaked, sprouted, and fermented these foods before eating them.

It would appear that, for at least some people who are gluten or lactose intolerant, some of the staples of agricultural diet are undigestible. Even greater numbers of people suffer ill health from eating sugar, factory-farmed meat and dairy, and refined flour. Both the Weston A. Price people and the Paleo people believe that industrial foods are bad for your health. They disagree on whether to accept the compromise we made ten thousand years ago.