America: the land of freedom and endless opportunity, right? Well, yes, in addition to being the country whose citizens are increasingly susceptible to poor health and lifestyle disease. According to a recent article published in the New York Times, adopting uniquely “American behaviors” is contributing to the rapid decline in health and quality of life of American-born children of immigrants relative to their foreign-born ancestors. Immigrants still come to the US, drawn by the appeal of a highly advanced healthcare system and the opportunity for greater income, but their health suffers along the way. Unfortunately, although the NYT article introduces a critical point to the discussion on our nation’s deteriorating health, it falls just short of asserting any real responsibility in a food system that promotes the over-consumption of cheap and nutritionally deficient foods.
Although there is no doubt that behaviors such as smoking, drinking and the overzealous participation in activities like the ‘Cinnamon Challenge’ are contributing to the worsening health of relatively new American families, but I believe that the primary reason for compromised health is the result of the displacement of traditional foods that have nourished ‘primitive’ communities for generations. In place of these traditional foods, immigrants (and the rest of the population) eat the Standard American Diet, which includes highly processed, increasingly toxic foods of questionable quality and little nutritive value.
A New, Old Way of Thinking
One of the best resources I have found that emphasizes the importance of traditional foods is the work of Dr. Weston A. Price whose extensive research on isolated, non-industrialized groups have helped quantify the impact of a Western diet on human health. And, with the ongoing work of the Weston A. Price Foundation, the work of Dr. Price continues to illustrate just how detrimental the displacement of traditional diets with the industrialized foods of our society can be, and how this dietary shift is the primary source of the physical, mental and moral distortions that are consuming developing economies and creating further disparities between younger generations and their ancestors.
No Such Thing as the Perfect Diet
One of the primary tenants of Dr. Price’s work, and the idea that makes his approach uniquely valuable, is the notion that there is no one perfect diet that will ensure lasting health and wellness. Through the study of multiple traditional groups, Dr. Price found that the length and quality of life is completely dependent upon the consumption of foods characteristic to a groups beliefs and geography. For example, the healthful diet of isolated and traditional Swiss communities includes liberal amounts of rye, fresh dairy products (butter, cheese, milk) and the occasional piece of meat, while the Eskimos of frozen expanses of North America have been able to thrive for centuries on a diet of fish, organ meats and a few seasonally available nuts and berries.
The Wisdom of Traditional Foods
It is believed that these vastly different diets were able to provide superior physical and psychological health to a variety of groups because of their ability to recognize, ‘the presence of Divinity in the life-giving qualities’ of foods naturally produced to support life in an environmental unique to each region and its inhabitants. By extension, followers of Dr. Price also believe that the traditional foods of our ancestors were able to motivate specific physiological adaptations that have subsequently been passed down through the generations to encourage the continued participation in the traditional eating philosophies of our ancestors. They believe that it is only when we start to counter these traditional dietary tendencies that we develop the minor gastrointestinal annoyances (gas, indigestion, bloating), and eventually more serious lifestyle diseases (diabetes, heart disease, neurological impairment) that have unfortunately become commonplace in industrialized economies.
Eating Traditionally in the Industrialized World
I believe that restoring the collective health of our modern, industrialized society is as straight forward as eliminating the foods that don’t come more-or-less directly from nature. More simply, consider removing everything from your diet that comes in a package. There are obvious exceptions to this rule – packaged grains, nuts, fruits and vegetables – but mostly everything that has been altered by human hands should be avoided. And most everyone– especially here in the US– could benefit from eating more plant-based foods!
One last time, I want to re-emphasize the notion that there is no one ‘perfect’ diet. As long as we take into consideration our heritage and the foods our bodies have grown to embrace, health and wellness will most certainly follow. We are all unique in our nutritive need and we must embrace that individuality so that we can live long and joyous lives.