Food lessons from times past?
An election campaign has dominated the UK media for the past seven weeks. The relentless rallies, canvassing, debates, claims and counterclaims have been at a level of intensity to rival the divisions within the scientific community over what we should eat. Tomorrow we go to the polls, so the political heat should start to fall. However, there is no sign of the debate over what we should eat cooling down any time soon, but ironically there is a piece of common ground in the world of food, with one straightforward recommendation that most people seem to endorse:
eat more “real,” as opposed to processed, foods
As I have pointed out previously, calorie counting is unsatisfactory when it comes to evaluating food. Of course, calories are a perfect arithmetical measurement of energy for Big Food and the diet industry to employ to compare their products to real food. But fully appreciating and understanding food encompasses the sophisticated biochemistry of foodstuffs, and not just in determining the benefits of nutrient-dense real food, but also in assessing the problems associated with energy-dense, nutrient-poor processed food. It’s the difference between consuming food with minimal processing and refining, maximising nutrition from natural ingredients that help protect the body, rather than foods with artificial substances that risk damaging it. So, I was intrigued when I recently came across a book first published almost eighty years ago, long before the expansion of the sophisticated and addictive processed food system we know today; it seems its author, Weston Price worked out the importance of eating real food when processing was still in its infancy.
The wisdom of the ages?
The book in question is called Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, and it is at the top of my summer reading list, but I’m so excited to have discovered it I can’t resist sharing the basic story. Published in 1939, Weston Price’s key conclusion was the importance of embracing a diet full of nutrient dense foods, while cutting down on processed ones. What I find particularly intriguing is how in what was a very different time to ours he established how this was true in a diversity of diets all around the world. In this era of globalisation I doubt the same level of indigenous diversity exists, so this may also be to be an important record from a world largely lost to us.
The thrust of his case is inherent in the book’s title, with his study setting out to demonstrate the importance of whole food in promoting wellness, as well as alerting us to the physical degeneration and indeed destruction that comes from a diet of processed foods.
A dentist and dental researcher, Price and his wife travelled the world to investigate how diet contributed to health. Visiting hundreds of cities in 14 countries, as well as some of the most remote regions of the planet, he noted the minimal tooth decay, high immunity to tuberculosis and overall excellent health in those groups of people who ate their indigenous foods. He also found that when the people were introduced to processed foods, such as white flour, white sugar, refined vegetable oils and canned goods, signs of degeneration quickly became quite evident. Dental caries, deformed jaw structures, crooked teeth, arthritis and a low immunity to tuberculosis became rampant. I can’t wait to get into the detail and will report back!
Fast forward 78 years
Food processing has become much more sophisticated since 1939 and the products infinitely more ubiquitous. People talk about a slow death from fast food, but obesity does not get a mention on death certificates. Its “gifts” do: heart disease, lifestyle cancers, type 2 diabetes, stroke and kidney disease. Yet still the critical importance of what we eat is largely ignored in the fight against the rise of chronic disease. I think Weston Price would be appalled. I believe it is critical for better health that the huge difference between real and processed food is made clear to the general public, with a good place to start being the suggestion of the prominent real food alliance campaigner, Dr Robert Lustig, that type 2 diabetes should be renamed “Processed Food Disease”.
Of course the nutritional community has a critical role to play. If instead of debating the finer points of individual nutrients it can unite and promote the point that real food should be the foundation in constructing any diet, this would be a major step in the right direction, not least because it is a simple message everyone can understand.
It may require a complete overhaul for how many people eat, but one step at a time.
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