Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Evolution of Healthful Diets

Last week I finished reading Why Some Like It Hot by Gary Paul Nabhan. Published in 2004, the book is a sound treatment of the adaptation of peoples to their local diets. I must say - it got off to a really slow start. But the latter chapters on the indigenous peoples of the American Southwest and Native Hawaiians were really interesting. Communities where obesity and diabetes were epidemic recovered health by returning to a diet of traditional crops and foraged wild foods. This book is not a platform for some wiggy blood type diet, or a pseudo-anthropological call for people to return to being hunter-gatherers. Rather, it's a reasoned treatment of science and culture, and their impact on human and environmental health.

Nabhan reasons that the increase in diabetes these days can be attributed to four things:
1) a loss of wild foods
2) a loss of diversity in crops and livestock
3) the unnecessary refining of so many foods, resulting in the loss of fiber
4) the development of so many additives to industrial foods, additives to which our bodies have no long term adaptation.

One of the things Nabhan points out is that human adaptation to local food stuffs does not seem to take hundreds of thousands of years, but more like just hundreds - fewer generations than many scholars have thought. (Let's hear it for evolution!)

In the chapter on the Waianae community on Oahu he quotes Dr. Terry Shintani:
"In traditional medicine it is recognized that there is really only one disease that all of us must learn to resist: arrogance. It is simply arrogant to think that we can violate the laws of nature and get away with it."

The implication is that we need to eat our native foods, the ones to which our people's bodies
have adapted over generations.

But this left me pondering - what about those of us who are dispersed and dislocated from the places where our ancestors lived? Surely that's a lot of the human community these days?
If you are Pima living in southern Arizona, or Hawaiian or hapa living in Hawaii - well fine. But what if you are from Africa via Jamaica living in Toronto? from Japan living in Sao Paolo? from Croatia living in Auckland? from Oaxaca in Chicago?

What if you are from assorted northern European tribes living in the Mediterranean climate of California? Some of the things that might be traditional foods for my sort of person would be grains that grow in crummy climates, like rye and oats - rhubarb and berries, particularly berries in the heath family - fish from the North Atlantic and Baltic - root vegetables native to Europe, turnips maybe? But that'd be racking up some food miles to eat that diet. While a few might be grown here, most aren't. And even when someone tries, they just aren't right somehow. You can keep California blueberries and Oregon cranberries as far as I'm concerned.

So to be healthy are we all supposed to go back where we came from?

1 comment:

John Leech said...

Q: What if you are from assorted northern European tribes living in the Mediterranean climate of California?

A: Which explains my enthusiasm for real ales... but not for nopales con huevos.

We do seem to adapt much quicker ... centuries perhaps... I suppose the tomato & potato are examples... (now are potatoes Irish or Andean?)

Andean. Thanks, people of the high cold country.

Up here in the Pacific NorthWest on the 'wet side' of the Cascades (not in the rain shadow, alas) urban gardeners grow many things, given time and tenacity: I suppose it's more a tribute to Findhorn, Alan Chadwick, and Aussie assertiveness (in one case) than anything local. Blueberries tho ... well, in Wisconsin there are better, but still...

Speaking of Wisconsin, it's the home of wild rice - not just cheese curds ya know.