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June 8, 2008

It’s one of those buzzwords I’m hearing whenever people talk or write about nutrition these days. It often goes hand in hand with the condemnation of processed foods. Before those silly nutritionists came along, the store often goes, people knew about food: They had the wisdom of their culture and their diets were perfect and healthy. We have since lost touch with this knowledge (for the most part) and are paying the price with all our heart disease, diabetes and obesity (of course).

And really, I’m not going to completely shit all over this idea. But I think, like many decent ideas about nutrition, people become so convinced of the gospel truth of it that they lose all ability to think critically. I have seen some unbelievable blow-outs over raw cow’s milk, Okinawans, and most especially the role of saturated fat in heart disease. I don’t claim to be an expert on any of these things (although I will say that a lot of people pushing all sorts of food agendas got their degrees from Google University) but I do want to make a few quick points to keep in mind the next time you encounter some of the more common arguments for traditional diets.

1) There is no such thing as a ‘traditional’ diet that can apply to all cultures. I have seen some claims – usually from the most hardcore low fat/high fat diet supporters – that try to dismiss or twist traditional diets that don’t fit a particular pattern to better fit their particular theory. But most of the actual research is pretty clear that a ‘traditional’ diet can include all sorts of ratios for macronutrients.

2) Be wary of any sort of claims that border on giving our ancestors some kind of mystical power when it comes to picking food. You know what most traditional diets consisted of? The stuff that was handy. The plants that were native and/or grew well in the climate, the animals that were most abundant or could be raised easily on the land. It is amazing to most modern people (or it is to me anyway) to think of the kind of knowledge about local growing seasons and wild plants that was once probably common knowledge, but it’s really not magical.

3) Correlation does not equal causation. It is amazing how often that needs to be repeated. Even when people understand it as it applies to one area of research, they’ll completely forget when it comes to claims of the superior health enjoyed by people eating a traditional diet. People having lower rates of certain diseases might be related to their lower sugar intake and it could also be related to a lifestyle with a lot more physical labor or less modern stress or less pollutants. If the only “proof” someone has is “This group doesn’t eat much fat and they have low rates of heart disease” then that’s not really proof at all. That statement should be the start of research, not the conclusion.

4) It’s easy to romanticize the past. People living in harmony with the land, eating only the freshest of ingredients with no processing beyond grinding and cooking. Or, you know. being in real danger of starving to death during winter or after a bad growing season. A lot of the traditional cultures had much shorter lifespans and much much higher infant mortality than our own. It doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from their knowledge, but let’s not get carried away. Almost no culture in any time period has enjoyed the health and lifespan that we enjoy today. And while it is tempting to imagine that if we could somehow combine their magical nutritional knowledge with our modern medicine and sanitation, that we could all but eliminate some diseases – that idea is just a fantasy. And personally, a world without Liz Lovely cookies ( ) is not a world I want to live in.

5) Be skeptical of any extraordinary claims and any conspiracy theories. Raw milk cures asthma? An Okinawan diet cures diabetes? Really? Well, probably not. Not that *some* people haven’t experienced these things, but here’s the thing, if these effects were near universal, the people pushing these ideas would be publishing results or at least loudly demanding more study. Usually they seem pretty content to rely on anectdotes and there’s a reason for that.

That said, I do believe there can be good things learned from looking at traditional diets. I’ve said before on this blog that it makes sense to me that our bodies might function better when we eat those foods closest to the ones we evolved eating. But I also think it’s good to keep in mind that we have a lot more people to feed and that a lot of modern food processing has also enabled us to ensure plenty of food for everyone.  Looking at traditional ways of eating might help us make food better, but we’ll never, on a large scale, be able to go back in time. And seriously, most of us wouldn’t want to.

ETA: Just because I’ve had this song stuck in my head the whole time I’ve been thinking about and writing this post.

  1. jamboree permalink
    June 9, 2008 1:32 am

    Very good points, all. I’m amazed that people would genuinely want to go back in time to ‘live off the land.’ Do people really want to live through a potato famine or winter months of eating nothing but black bread?

    Yeah, didn’t think so.

  2. AndyJo permalink
    June 9, 2008 6:25 am

    Heh… The concept of a “traditional” diet always amuses me, particularly because people make lots of assumptions, and they imbue the “western” diet with all kinds of evil — yet it is just as traditional as, say, the Chinese diet.

    My father’s side of the family is from Germany. Their “traditional” diet would have consisted of meats, sausages, whole milks, cheeses, cream, lots of potatoes (after the discovery of America), root vegetables, cabbages, etc. Some fish around the coastal areas, but salted heavily for preservation. Oh! and sweets.

    My mother’s side of the family included native Americans from the northern bit of Mexico that borders the US areas, plus Spaniards. The “traditional” mexican diet would consist (in the pre-columbian period) of corn, beans, found plants and animals, ant eggs, maguey worms, grasshoppers and other insects, and corn smut (tastes good!). Oh! and sweets! (and let’s not forget chocolate even though they prepared it differently).

    I ask… What is a “traditional” diet in my own context? 🙂 Ant eggs, anyone? Perhaps a bit of Weinerschnitzel?


  3. June 9, 2008 7:24 am

    I had the song in my head from the moment I read the title of your post on the feed. 🙂

  4. pennylane permalink
    June 9, 2008 10:11 am

    And we do live longer than at any time in the past so it’s not as if our modern eating practices are making us drop like flies. I wonder if some traditional diet backers would be interested in using traditional medical practices, too? Bring on the bloodletting! Ahem. Alas, selective romanticization of the past is an all too common phenomenon.

  5. June 9, 2008 10:20 am

    Have you read Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food?” He’s a big proponent of more “traditional” diets, but he also points out one of the things you touch on here, which is that people all over the world have wildly different definitions of “traditional.” His take on it is that our bodies can get what they need from pretty much any diet that involves actual food, but that they can’t process food “product” because it’s a relatively new introduction to our bodies. In other words, if you want cheese, eat cheese. Don’t eat some processed, synthesized cheese “food” pressed into little sandwich-sized slices.

    It’s actually a really interesting book. I liked it because it did address the stuff you’re touching on here, which was the same stuff (especially the “different cultures have different diets” angle) that had always bothered me from a logistical standpoint.

  6. MrsDrC permalink
    June 9, 2008 10:58 am

    THANK YOU! I have an online friend who goes on and on about “the makers diet” it’s not a “diet” it’s what was AVAILABLE! Geesh, why is that so hard to understand?

    And the thing about heart diesease…how ’bout cuz they never lived long enough for it to show up, and if they did would anyone have known what it was? If you “study” any group who’s life expectancy was only mid 20’s then it looks like they didnt suffer anything that we do now…cuz they died from something else before cancer could set in!

  7. June 12, 2008 3:38 pm

    YES to this post. Thank you for writing on this topic. While I agree that an all-processed-food diet is probably not ideal, people everywhere are getting a little too obsessed and misty-eyed about the virtues of a “traditional diet.”

    This mainly bothers me because, as pennylane says:

    And we do live longer than at any time in the past so it’s not as if our modern eating practices are making us drop like flies.

    Amen. I don’t think this gets pointed out enough.

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