Dietary Traditions: The Legacy of Weston Price
How can we know what to believe about diet and nutrition these days? Let’s first take a look at some of the information that’s simply confirming age-old principles that we’d overlooked or hadn’t seen in the proper perspective before.
Weston A. Price was a dentist and nutritionist who travelled to many remote areas of the world in the 1930’s to observe what kept non-industrialized cultures so healthy. What I think makes his work stand out as an important guide for us is that his research looked at such a wide variety of cultures and dietary traditions, and found some connecting threads that bring to light some general principles for healthy eating.
There is no one right way to eat; the human race is highly adaptable with a great deal of biochemical and metabolic individuality. Each school of nutritional thought may simply be attuned to a different subgroup of people, and like the blind men in the old story, be holding onto a different part of the elephant.
But from another point of view, the sense that we’re all unique can lead us to look at so many different parts while not seeing the broader needs that apply to the whole. While one part of the elephant isn’t the whole, I’d also say that some generalizations can be very useful. For example, we can say that in our diets, refined carbohydrates are generally poor quality food for everyone, and more nutrient-dense foods are going to serve us better.
The known categories of modern medicine often don’t serve us well as catch-alls for complex, chronic conditions, and yet there are many ways in which universal principles of human nutrition can apply to all of us equally because we all evolved with the same basic biological functions. Often the approach of searching for answers under a microscope, in this age of specialization, misses some of the more general approaches that can be very effective.
For example, humans didn’t evolve to eat a low-fat diet, and overwhelming evidence from nutritional anthropology shows us that no group of people who were eating their native diet ever ate a low-fat diet, while all vibrantly healthy groups ate high fat diets.
As our culture became industrialized and we moved further from our dietary traditions that grew out of humans’ intimate relationship with the earth, we developed styles of eating that don’t support health anymore. To see this, we don’t need to pour over microscopic biochemical concepts, as vibrantly healthy groups of people never had to do in order to be well and free from the myriad of modern diseases we’re plagued with these days.
I’ve spoken to some folks in Europe, particularly a woman from Austria who says that in the south of Europe especially, people are still widely in touch with dietary traditions and eat as their ancestors did with not a thought in the world about nutrition. As you go further north, the diet and the connection to ancient traditions deteriorates, as does the health status of the people.
There’s no doubt that modern scientific knowledge can certainly help enhance our understanding, and has its uses. But let’s look at where our emphasis on modern science and standard nutritional guidelines has taken us, regarding nutrition–even for those who are eating -relatively- good diets by those standards, are we robustly healthy? What do we mean by adapting -well- ?
I personally expect more from diet; I expect it can be a powerful support for coping with all the mental, emotional, metabolic and environmental stresses so that we can function at a very high level. I’ve seen this happen, where a therapeutic diet has transformed suffering into radiant health.
Maybe most of us have adapted to less than optimal ways of living and eating, and maybe some of us get by, even make progress within certain parameters. I’m looking to go further. I generally don’t see people adapting well, and I think we can do better.
When people think they are doing well enough, I would question whether “well enough” is enough to prevent serious degenerative disease down the road. These days we have so many choices about what to eat and what to use for medicine. We’re not intimately connected anymore to a lush natural environment teeming with foods that are perfectly matched to our biological needs, so we have to seek them out deliberately, and sometimes figure out intellectually which ones those are.
But I think there are many more ways that we’re all the same in those needs, than ways in which we’re different. You could take someone on a Standard American Diet, give them a very generic “species-appropriate” diet for starters, and it would be a quantum leap in their nutritional status. Then you could tweak the macronutrient ratios later, to accommodate their particular constitution. That’s how I’d come up with the diet that their body at that particular time would run best on.
Then those ratios might be adjusted, and different types of foods emphasized or deemphasized depending on the need for specific therapeutic protocols (which we all need just by dint of living in the modern world).
But the point I want to bring out is that the foods that form the basis of the human diet are more similar for all of us than they are divergent. Clearly cultural traditions have varied tremendously in their repertoire of foods, and the biodiversity of plant and animal life and their seasonal availability meant that people in different locales at different times were eating very differently. But among all that diversity, there are important connecting threads that I think are often being missed.
The multitude of opinions are always present in these discussions. But there are some things that are so widely seen, about what foods humans thrive on. I would question whether someone eating unsoaked grains and beans, high-carb and high-starch diets, and little or no animal foods, are adapting well to that diet. I’ve never seen anyone eating vegetarian or other unprecedented diets for many years in vibrant health. I myself was vegetarian for 27 years and largely socialized with vegetarians eating best-case vegetarian diets. I saw no one who was sustaining good health over long periods of time. I think we’ve lost our frame of reference for what good health can be.
I’ve listened to clinicians who have seen hundreds of patients over 20-year time frames. I’ve looked at Weston Price’s observations, along with these modern-day clinicians and put the pieces together. The people I’ve seen who are overcoming serious disease not only to put symptoms in remission but to recover to a greater wellness– and the people I’ve seen who are managing the huge modern day stresses with grace and ease and enduring energy, are the ones who are eating diets that fall into the category of traditional diets. Not all the same diet, but certainly the common denominators are there.
Those traditional diets are based largely on organic animal foods raised on pasture, with a high percentage of raw foods. Fats are the highest macronutrient content, then protein, and only lastly carbs. Those are the ratios that are seen across all the diverse diets of native people who lived vibrantly long lives. Our constitutions are weaker and we’re dealing with so many unprecendented pressures in these times. But we’re still human.
Now, of course we have the added challenge of how to get there from where we are. Especially with compromised digestive systems as we all have to some degree, we need to find our own way of evolving toward an optimal diet, which can mean bringing a lot of creative tricks into the picture.
When I talk about what’s “right” for people, I don’t mean to do another version of the round-peg/square-hole scenario that has worn us thin. Many of us are coming from some rather unpleasant experiences with conventional diagnoses that have misjudged and misunderstood us. We feel that much of modern medicine and dietary conventions don’t seek to understand our individual needs but wants to fit us into their little boxes that more conveniently fit their boxy protocols. So we’re seeking different forms of support from different systems that are capable of understanding the paradoxes and contradictions of who we are.
I’ve immersed myself in many systems that made my feel more understood, that met me where I am instead of my being required to meet them. But in all the detailed differentiation, I came to sense that some of the broader patterns were being overlooked. For me it was a distinctly new step in my evolution of healing, to move slightly to the side of, if not away from, the highly individualized approach.
In my effort to be understood personally, I was missing what was relevant universally, what makes me part of the human family. Seeking to be so exquisitely understood in my uniqueness, I had separated myself in a way that was keeping me from understanding what was the same about me and every other human on the planet.
The roots of that need to separate can be long and deep. We’ve all had someone, a person or institution in our past that told us what to think, what to feel, how to behave, slapping generic rules on us that neglected and dishonored our various needs as individuals. I know that for me, the rebellious and defiant urge still motivates a lot of what I do. But I also don’t want to be looking so closely at myself that I miss the larger view of what I have in common with all others.
“What works for me” can be a slippery slope. If someone is truly happy with their health over the long run, that’s what I call “working”. But we each get to assess for ourselves what we can live with, what kinds of compromises we feel comfortable making; these are all very personal and sometimes delicate decisions that can easily be insensitively bulldozed over when dietary or other health dogmas are being spouted.In describing and trying to define more clearly what an optimal human diet is, I don’t mean to discount those personal considerations. I just want to bring a different perspective to the discussion.
It’s been said that health is nature unimpeded. There’s something there to be obeyed not in a rigid way but something in our original, primal nature that determines our needs. As we reattune ourselves to a more natural way of living, I trust that our choices will become more aligned with the natural order of things, so that there’s less conflict between them. Then our lives will consist less of imposed rules about what we’re “supposed” to be eating, and more of trustworthy instinct guiding us to our best choices.