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May 9 / Tom Woodward

Health in a Modern World – Series Preview

Before I get to anything, I have to give a shout out to my mom for Mother’s Day!  We had a great family reunion last weekend down in LA with my mom, stepdad, grandma, aunt, uncle, and cousins.  We had some great meals, played games, and had a lot of laughs. It’s a lot of fun to see everyone and catch up since we all live in different cities. After breakfast on Sunday, my mom, my stepdad Robert, and I spent a good amount of time around my grandma’s dining room table discussing the ins and outs of eating healthy.  One of the main takeaways from the conversation was not the difficulty of making a commitment to eat healthy, but rather the difficulty of staying faithful to that diet in the modern world.

As I see it, over and above their own desire to eat well, there are two significant factors that keep people from maintaining a healthy diet:

  1. Misconception about what is and is not healthy
  2. Social pressure to eat certain food

Imagine for a second that you were transported back in time and placed in a tribe of hunter gatherers such as the Kitavans, the Masai, the Inuit, or a native american tribe in 16th century North America.  Living among these tribes, you would consume a diet of game meat, seal fat, fresh fish, unpasteurized milk, root vegetables like taro and yams, leafy vegetables, seeds, nuts, well prepared whole grains, and fruit.  In these cultures, you would immediately take notice of how little technological and medical advancement there is.  There is no knowledge of germ theory, insulin, saturated fat, cholesterol, or triglycerides.  There are no pharmaceuticals, no heart surgeons, no diabetologists, no 24 hour fitness, no food pyramid, no blogs devoted to health and wellness, no FDA, no USDA, and no nutritionists or personal trainers.  Yet in these tribes, you will encounter no obesity, nearly zero incidence of cancer, no food allergies, HIGH cholesterol, excellent blood glucose levels, perfect teeth, robust body composition, and nearly zero incidence of heart disease and diabetes.

Despite all of the expert opinion, conventional wisdom, and misconception that swirls among us in the modern world each and every day, you would be hard pressed to find a single rational individual who could look back on the incidence of chronic disease in those tribes and contradict their lifestyle.  Yet these are messages we are receiving every day:

  • Saturated fat is bad.
  • Cholesterol levels are important.
  • Salt is bad.
  • Meat will give you colon cancer.
  • We need 4-6 servings of grains per day.
  • Fortified processed food is heart healthy.
  • Pharmaceuticals are necessary.
  • Ailments like heart disease, diabetes and cancer are hereditary and can’t be avoided.
  • Exercise will make up for any deficiency in diet

With this type of advice, we find ourselves in the middle of an epidemic of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, all of which is encapsulated in Gerald Reaven’s Metabolic Syndrome.  Cancer rates, autoimmune diseases, and food allergies are also increasing substantially.

To be fair, it is not simply the advice we’ve been given but rather a social shift in the concept of what a moderately healthy diet should be.  First consider your typical young Inuit, Masai, or Kitavan.  Growing up in one of those tribes, you’d adapt your food habits to your parents and the rest of society.  You would see your father catch fresh fish and hunt game and your mother collect fruit and tubers, and soak and prepare whole grains.  Your friends and village members would all sit down together and celebrate the hunting and the gathering of that day with a meal.  Ask any young Kitavan what is an average meal, and they would say without hesitation, fish, tubers, and coconut.

Fast forward to the United States about 150 years ago.  While you’d no longer watch your family hunt and gather food, you might grow up in a rural area where your mother and father buy food from the local grocery store.  While the food is bought rather than obtained directly, the food on your table will still have some similarities to the tribal meals.  Ask a young American kid at the end of the 1800’s what an average healthy meal is and he would say, steak, eggs, butter, vegetables, bread, and potatoes.

Now consider the present day.  While a hunter gatherer tribesman and a young American settler may have been separated by a few thousand years, the natural food composition of their diet is strikingly similar.  However, only 150 years later, we now have products in our food system that would literally appear to be from another world to the tribesman and the settler.  Children are raised not on freshly caught fish or bought steak, but take out pizza, fast food, candy, and soda.  Socially, our children are growing up with the idea that these food products are normal.  And the frightening thing is that by a certain definition, they are normal.  If you look at the young tribesman or settler, the normality of the food they were eating had nothing to do with how healthy or unhealthy it was.  It had to do simply with the fact that this is the food their parents ate, their friends ate, and their whole social circle deemed acceptable.  While that socially acceptable diet used to be composed of all natural food, children are now being socialized to accept products with refined grain and sugar as ‘normal’.  The effects of this shift has had profound, measurable changes in obesity levels and chronic disease.

This becomes the main thrust of my second bullet point at the top of the post.  A young Kitavan or American settler would not have been eating a diet that their family or friends would have called ‘healthy’, but rather it was a diet that was considered normal.  However, try eating that ‘normal’ diet in the modern world.  Fresh meat, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds.  Soaked and fermented grains.  Unpasteurized milk. No processed food AT ALL.  People would look at you not in acknowledgement of your healthy eating habits, but in slight shock and awe that you could eat in such a socially unacceptable way.  They would be stunned that you won’t take part in the ritual of pre-meal bread. Of chips and dip appetizers. Of movie popcorn and soda. Of a hot dog and french fries at a baseball game. Of pizza or ice cream at office lunches and birthday parties. Of candy on Halloween, Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas.  These things are all as American as, well, apple pie. The way we’ve integrated processed and fast food into the fabric of our society has effectively ‘moved the goalposts’ for health.  What is considered healthy now is a diet of ‘moderation’.  For most people, this means they try to eat as well as they can most of the time while letting themselves have some indulgences occasionally. Notice how subjective and vague that statement is.

I think this becomes an enormous factor for busy people who have good intentions about eating correctly.  While their heart is in the right place and they may know what they should eat to stay healthy, the pitfalls of convenience eating and non-stop bombardment of social pressure to eat less than ideal foods is often too difficult to overcome. With all of this in mind, I’m going to do a series of posts called Health in the Modern World.  In each post, I’ll describe in detail a tip or trick to remain steadfast in the face of social pressure to eat poorly.  I know anyone who has tried to live a healthy lifestyle has been confronted with these kind of temptations and pressures, so I’d be very interested to hear all of your experiences and how you deal with each situation.


  1. Mom / May 10 2010

    Thanks for the Happy Mother’s Day shout out! And thanks again for the time you spent talking with us about healthy eating. It was enormously helpful, especially the debunking of misconceptions. I’m not sure we realize how much influence the media, news included, has on our ideas of what is and what isn’t good for us.

    I’m very glad you’re raising your voice with all the others out there, telling the truth. I’m proud of you — and the meals you gave us work perfectly with our lifestyle.

    Keep blogging!
    Love, Mom :-)

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