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Lessons From Nutritional Anthropology
Category: Diet and Nutrition
Source: How And When To Be Your Own Doctor
The next logical pair of questions are: how healthy could good
nutrition make people be, and, how much deviation from ideal
nutrition could we allow ourselves before serious disease appears?
Luckily, earlier in this century we could observe living answers to
those questions (before the evidence disappeared). The answers are:
we could be amazingly healthy, and, if we wish to enjoy excellent
health we can afford to cut ourselves surprisingly little slack.
Prior to the Second World War there were several dozen sizable
groups of extraordinarily healthy humans remaining on Earth. Today,
their descendants are still in the same remote places, are speaking
the same languages and possess more or less the same cultures. Only
today they're watching satellite TV. wearing jeans, drinking
colas--and their superior health has evaporated.
During the early part of this century, at the same era vitamins and
other basic aspects of nutrition were being discovered, a few
farsighted medical explorers sought out these hard-to-reach places
with their legendarily healthy peoples to see what caused the
legendary well-being they'd heard of. Enough evidence was collected
and analyzed to derive some very valid principles.
First lets dismiss some apparently logical but incorrect
explanations for the unusually good health of these isolated
peoples. It wasn't racial, genetic superiority. There were
extraordinarily healthy blacks, browns, Orientals, Amerinds,
Caucasians. It wasn't living at high altitude; some lived at sea
level. It wasn't temperate climates, some lived in the tropics, some
in the tropics at sea level, a type of location generally thought to
be quite unhealthful. It wasn't a small collection of genetically
superior individuals, because when these peoples left their isolated
locale and moved to the city, they rapidly began to lose their
health. And it wasn't genetics because when a young couple from the
isolated healthy village moved to town, their children born in town
were as unhealthy as all the other kids.
And what do I mean by genuinely healthy? Well, imagine a remote
village or a mountain valley or a far island settlement very
difficult to get to, where there lived a thousand or perhaps ten
thousand people. Rarely fewer, rarely more. Among that small
population there were no medical doctors and no dentists, no drugs,
no vaccinations, no antibiotics. Usually the isolation carried with
it illiteracy and precluded contact with or awareness of modern
science, so there was little or no notion of public hygiene. And
this was before the era of antibiotics. Yet these unprotected,
undoctored, unvaccinated peoples did not suffer and die from
bacterial infections; and the women did not have to give birth to 13
children to get 2.4 to survive to breeding age--almost all the
children made it through the gauntlet of childhood diseases. There
was also virtually no degenerative disease like heart attacks,
hardening of the arteries, senility, cancer, arthritis. There were
few if any birth defects. In fact, there probably weren't any
aspirin in the entire place. Oh, and there was very little mortality
during childbirth, as little or less than we have today with all our
hospitals. And the people uniformly had virtually perfect teeth and
kept them all till death, but did not have toothbrushes nor any
notion of dental hygiene. Nor did they have dentists or physicians.
And in those fortunate places the most common causes of death were
accident (trauma) and old age. The typical life span was long into
the 70s and in some places quite a bit longer. One fabled place,
Hunza, was renowned for having an extraordinarily high percentage of
vigorous and active people over 100 years old.
I hope I've made you curious. "How could this be?" you're asking.
Well, here's why. First, everyone of those groups lived in places so
entirely remote, so inaccessible that they were of necessity,
virtually self-sufficient. They hardly traded at all with the
outside world, and certainly they did not trade for bulky,
hard-to-transport bulk foodstuffs. Virtually everything they ate was
produced by themselves. If they were an agricultural people,
naturally, everything they ate was natural: organic, whole,
unsprayed and fertilized with what ever local materials seemed to
produce enhanced plant growth. And, if they were agricultural, they
lived on a soil body that possessed highly superior natural
fertility. If not an agricultural people they lived by the sea and
made a large portion of their diets sea foods. If their soil had not
been extraordinarily fertile, these groups would not have enjoyed
superior health and would have conformed to the currently
widely-believed notion that before the modern era, people's lives
were brutish, unhealthful, and short.
What is common between meat-eating Eskimos, isolated highland Swiss
living on rye bread, milk and cheese; isolated Scottish island Celts
with a dietary of oat porridge, kale and sea foods; highland central
Africans (Malawi) eating sorghum, millet tropical root crops and all
sorts of garden vegetables, plus a little meat and dairy; Fijians
living on small islands in the humid tropics at sea level eating sea
foods and garden vegetables. What they had in common was that their
foods were all were at the extreme positive end of the Health =
Nutrition / Calories scale. The agriculturists were on very fertile
soil that grew extraordinarily nutrient-rich food, the sea food
gatherers were obtaining their tucker from the place where all the
fertility that ever was in the soil had washed out of the land had
been transported--sea foods are also extraordinarily nutrient rich.
The group with the very best soil and consequently, the best health
of all were, by lucky accident, the Hunza. I say "lucky" and
"accident" because the Hunza and their resource base unknowingly
developed an agricultural system that produced the most nutritious
food that is possible to grow. The Hunza lived on what has been
called super food. There are a lot of interesting books about the
Hunza, some deserving of careful study. (Wrench, 1938; Rodale, 1949)
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