Traditional Diets


Traditional diets have been on the rise in recent times, no doubt largely because of their health benefits. Normally, however, "traditional diets" are not defined. Perhaps because it is thought that most people should know what these are. This leaves the majority of persons in a somewhat vague frame of mind, or wondering if some foods or eating habits constitute part of their, or some other peoples' traditional diets.

To reduce vagueness and to focus on the question, traditional diets are here defined (perhaps a better verb would be "construed" to avoid absolutist terms), as eating,

1. What is naturally produced in one's country or region in its natural season

2. According to the instructions of one's genes, or at least the food traditions of one's ancestors

It is important to note that what is here called "traditional diet," is not the same as that you will find in most other descriptions. Most settled communities have eaten the foods available in their geographic contexts until relatively recent times. But usual descriptions of traditional diets include foods, which are foreign to the region. Thus for example, descriptions of The Traditional Mediterranean Diet do not hesitate to include potatoes among the roots, beans among the legumes, tomatoes among the vegetables, etc, and even though all these foods are relatively late introductions. It is the same with maize in the traditional African diet, and so on.

We call a diet traditional, only when it adheres to the above two criteria. But most peoples of this world now eat diets that include foods that are not normally produced in their regions, but have been made available later. This is usually discussed in the text. But when the pyramid model is used to demonstrate a traditional diet, this should refer to the foods eaten before colonization, before foreign foods were transplanted on local soils. Hence such depictions are bound to be different from the "traditional diets" seen in the majority of publications on the subject. Needless to say, only a summary of such traditional diets is attempted, since it is impossible to thoroughly discuss the subject in the space allotted here.

The pyramid model

It has become customary to present some traditional diets in the form of pyramids. Provided one spends a little time examining such a food pyramid, the visual impact is usually enough to permit remembering both the foods involved and their relative frequency or amounts. In this respect, food pyramids are very helpful. But because fats contain more than twice the calories of proteins and carbohydrates, the amounts of the different foods do not correspond to the energy obtained from them.

For example, the principal source of calories in the Traditional Mediterranean Diet may well be olive oil. But this is never shown at or near the base of the pyramid, where it should be if energy was measured. This kind of representation may be misleading. Particularly in today's media, where there is a widespread tendency to replace verbal messages by visual imagery. What must be remembered in connection with food pyramids, is that vivid depiction or visual impact is not necessarily a measure of either aptness or accuracy.

Traditional uncertainties
Traditional diets may also give rise to other uncertainties. If the Mediterranean Diet is as good as scientists say it is, are other traditional diets such as these of Northern Europe, North America, Asia and Africa harmful, because they do not contain say, as much or even any olive oil?

Or replacing question by argument, Eskimos ate at least three times as much animal fat as most westerners and virtually no olive oil; yet they had very low rates of heart disease and other chronic degenerative diseases. So how can animal fats be bad runs the argument, voiced by even such people as Linus Pauling, a scientist with two Nobel Prizes and a man with a distinguished record in defence of the truth as he saw it, unburdened by the exigencies of scientific orthodoxy.

The usual reply is that a lot of this fat is fish oil, rich in omega-3 fatty acids like EPA and DHA, which constitute some of the best agents against heart disease and other chronic degenerative disorders. And there is little doubt about that.

The benefits of rawness

What has been forgotten in the above argument is that the Eskimos traditionally ate their foods raw, with all their enzymes intact. In fact, the very name "Eskimo" seems to derive from an Amerindian language and means "he eats it raw." A name later found offensive in Canada and promptly changed to Inuit, meaning The People. And though perfectly well meant, the name Inuit may be a disservice to the people, as it deprives them of reminders of earlier and healthier diets.

Eskimos are no singular exceptions in eating raw meat. In the 13th century, Marco Polo found on the Yunnan area of China that both the poor and gentry also ate their meat raw. Earlier, Arrian in his Nearchus' Periplus relates that in the 4th century B.C. the coast of the Ichthiofagi (fish eaters) was inhabited mainly by people who also ate their foods raw. That enzymes play a vital role in the Eskimo and similar diets is not often recognized, but there is ample and sound epidemiological indications of that, found in the diets of other peoples, this time in Africa.

Africa's relevance

The Masai and the Samburu people inhabiting the East African plains subsist on enormous quantities of full fat raw milk often together with blood drawn from their cows, mixed in oblong gourds that hang from their shoulders by leather straps. The milk is high in the same saturated fats and potentially as risky as the Eskimo diet.

But there is one important difference between the Eskimo hunters and the equatorial herders. The Masai and Samburu diets have no fish-derived omega-3 fatty acids like EPA and DHA. For they despise fish and nothing would induce them to taste it. Yet both these people enjoy sound health considering their environment. It is true the cow's highly complex stomach can manufacture a variety of fatty acids from grass. But cow's milk contains such low quantities of long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids including EPA and DHA, that they are usually reported as zero.

The dietary reason for the healthy status of East African herders does not appear to be the adequacy of omega-3 fatty acids in their diet, but rather some other relevant and health-inducing benefits.

The case of Europe

The same was probably true with the ancient tribes of the Franks, Gauls, Saxons, Suevi and others who inhabited the forested regions of northern Europe. They also had most of their foods as nature bestowed them, with a minimum of processing that left their enzymes largely unimpaired.

In other words, they evolved a diet that was as natural and appropriate for their environment, as the Mediterranean diet was for Greeks and Romans, and African diets for Africans. Most diets of these ancient peoples were healthy and safe, because they were a lot closer to the diets and eating habits of their ancestors, and ultimately to the coded instructions of their genes.

Their recent descendants by contrast, eat largely against the instructions of their genes, because of the many changes they have introduced in their ancient diets and eating habits. The inevitable result is disease. Additional if sad proof of that is that even our house pets have begun to die of similar diseases to our own, because we have so radically changed their diets as well.

A change in disease patterns

But probably the most forceful proof of all is in the change of our disease patterns. Until the beginning of the 20th century, the killer diseases of humanity have been infectious diseases like cholera, malaria, typhus, yellow fever, contagious diseases like tuberculosis, or epidemic diseases like the plague, smallpox, etc. After the middle of the century most, if not all, of these had all but disappeared.

In the meantime, a gradual change had started to take place. By the end of the 20th century, up to 8 out of 10 overall deaths in western society are caused by chronic degenerative disorders, like arteriosclerosis, high blood pressure, other circulatory problems, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, various forms of cancer and so on.

Pathologically, these two sets of diseases have absolutely nothing in common. No disorder in the second group may be traced in any of the diseases of the first group. Moreover, most of these chronic disorders were either unknown at the beginning of the 20th century, or played a very minor role. Even more amazing from what we know today, no such radical change in disease patterns has ever happened before in the history of humanity. Why did it happen during the 20th century?

A revealing answer

The explanation is obvious when we ask, what do all these chronic degenerative disorders have in common? The answer is as simple as it is revealing. They are all food-relatedDespite whatever other predisposing factors may be present, be they hereditary or environmental, most degenerative disorders are food dependent. They can be provoked by the wrong nutrition, and prevented by the right one. And if we did not have them before the 20th century, it is basically because our traditional diets prevented their proliferation.

There are of course other explanations for the sudden and forceful appearance of chronic degenerative disorders during the 20th century, such as our ever-increasing longevity. But as explained under African Traditional Diets and elsewhere, such explanations may be "logical," but they are contradicted by the existing evidence.

What is an indisputable fact is that during the 20th century we strayed further away from the eating habits of our ancestors than ever before. Fast foods, junk foods, prepared foods, foods robbed of all nutrients save starch and loaded with salt, fat and sugar. Chronic degenerative disease was the inevitable result. Hence, the importance of "traditional diets," even where neither clear-cut food amounts may be set, nor unambiguous time-limits may be drawn.