Let’s continue with our food theme from last week. Switching to a healthy diet is as confusing as it is daunting. Too often, we go in with the best intentions based on the best information, but we fail anyway. Then we are left wondering: Maybe omega-3s aren’t as good as they say, maybe carbs aren’t as bad as they say.
What we’re missing is context, and I got a great insight into this in an eye-opening book I read several years ago, The Jungle Effect by San Francisco physician Daphne Miller.
Rather than do a traditional good food-bad food analysis and try to construct a diet based on eating so-called good foods and avoiding the bad ones, Dr Miller did some reverse engineering. She found healthy populations living in “cold spots” with low incidences of western illnesses, and investigated what they were doing right.
Dr Miller zeroed in on five wildly diverse populations, typically living in isolated places. These included Copper Canyon, Mexico, Iceland, Crete, Okinawa, and West Cameroon. Call it the wisdom of traditional culture. What these people lacked in science they more than made up for in centuries of adapting and adopting to local conditions. A quick look:
Despite a high-carb diet, the 50,000 Tarahumara Indians who live in this remote and impoverished region experience extremely low incidence of diabetes, in direct contrast to their Arizona counterparts (the Pima). According to Dr Miller, quoted in Today’s Dietician:
I was surprised to find that the Tarahumara are eating a high-carb diet. But the type of carbohydrates are unrefined, such as their hand-ground tortillas, beans, and squash. It turns out that when these foods are combined, a lot of healthy interactions occur.
This diet is hardly exotic. Those who are accustomed to Mexican cuisine would hardly feel they were making an extreme switch.
It seems that it is not one food that is protective against heart disease. It is a combination (olive oil, fish, whole grains, grapes, fresh vegetable). Portions are small, eaten in season. Again, this is hardly an exotic diet. People throughout the Mediterranean have been eating this way since the dawn of time.
Here is a true man-bites-dog story. In a region of the world where the sun is scarce, these people experience low rates of depression, bipolar, SAD, and postpartum depression. What gives? Lots of fish (more per capita than anywhere in the world) is only part of the answer. Even those who don’t eat fish do well. For instance, the lamb eat tundra grass, which is high in alpha-linolenic acid which converts to EPA, the active ingredient in omega-3.
Icelanders don’t have many vegetables in their diet, but they do get a lot of mileage from the fresh produce they do eat, such as wild berries (rich in anti-oxidants), cabbage, and waxy potatoes (with a lower glycemic index), and moss (baked in bread, among other things).
Again, this is not an exotic diet. How hard is it to eat high-quality fish and berries?
In the remote village of Ntui, which Dr Miller identified as a “cold spot” for colon cancer, the people rely on stews flavored with vegetables, legumes, grains, and spices, with sparing amounts of wild meat and minimally processed oils. There is a heavy emphasis on fermented foods rich in probiotics (which may be a key piece of the puzzle to a healthy colon). Again, how hard is it?
In Dr Miller’s words, from Today’s Dietician:
In Okinawa, the elderly population has surprisingly low breast and prostate cancer rates. They don’t even do mammograms in older women there. When you walk through the markets, you see so many foods likely to help maintain a healthy glandular system, such as seaweed and soy. There is a soy controversy in the U.S. over whether it causes cancer, but in Okinawa, they were eating a lot of real soy in the unrefined form, like edamame.
Plus lots of green tea, a rich variety of fruits and vegetables and seafood, and (of all things) pork (from yam-fed pigs).
Lessons to Be Learned
This isn’t rocket science. These diets have survived the test of time. The ingredients may vary widely from locale to locale, but they all emphasize fresh and local food high in stuff that is good for you. These foods work together in synergistic combinations and are eaten in small portions. Processed food and refined sugar and other junk is virtually nonexistent.
How effective are these diets for you? There is a major catch. You will note, for instance, that omega-3 seems to be the magic ingredient in the Icelandic diet. But if your own diet consists mostly of junk food, the occasional piece of fish is hardly going to work wonders.
Another major catch: Doing your own cooking and food preparation is absolutely fundamental to a good diet. Your best intentions will be frustrated if you are not willing to get out the pots and pans. (Dr Miller is a strong advocate of this.) Once your know your way around the kitchen - as well as the local markets - experimenting with new food is not all that difficult. Invest the time and energy - the pay-off is huge.
Published On: March 22, 2013
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