Keeping it Real: Food

You'll read here often, and other places: nutrition is 80% of your overall health. The rest is accounted for by activities such as work, exercise, and play.

I'm going to be doing some bits of review over the next few days, as there's quite a few new subscribers. I'm also reorganizing the general "fitness" category from the old blog into more specific categories on this one, such as diet related, exercise, cooking (food porn), and so on.

I was all prepped to give a brief primer on what foods to eat and by coincidence was reading Scott over at Modern Forager, where he drew attention to a post of his from a few months back that really explains it perfectly. There's also a Part II. Even though I'm predominantly "low carb," as it goes well with my inner carnivore, I do eat vegetables, very often have fruit for breakfast and desert, and I even eat starchy potatoes now and then. What I very nearly never eat is stuff that is not real food. I also avoid grains, most particularly wheat, because we simply didn't evolve to eat it. Refined sugar? Same thing. In both cases, it's the concentration that's the chief problem. Ancients could never have gathered sufficient grass seed to mill into flour for the various grain-based products we have in abundance. If you look, you can surely find the disastrous results for primitive peoples formerly on their natural diets and, subsequently introduced to white flour and sugar. I'll be covering that a lot over time.

But even though I'm low carb, you rarely see me linking to any of those low-carb / Atkins guys. I wish them well, but so many of them are falling into a trap. How? Because they have lost sight of the really good probability that the reason Atkins can work is that it focusses on real foods, contains very sufficient amounts of protein to preserve and promote lean mass even in caloric deficit (I hate that term; we metabolize food, we don't "burn" calories), and provides sufficient essential fatty acids with the necessary fat-soluble vitamins to ensure the proper distribution of minerals like calcium (think: bones and teeth, not atherosclerotic lesions).

Back to Scott Kustes.

We can argue about low carb, low fat, The Zone, Ornish, Atkins, and Weight Watchers until we’re blue in the face. But civilizations have thrived on diets of varying macronutrient proportions throughout history. The Inuit ate a diet of almost no carbs and mostly fat with no ill effects. The Masai drank cow blood and milk and ate meat like it was going out of style. As the nutritionists gasp, I’ll mention that the Masai achieved prime health too. The diet on the island of Okinawa is heavily weighted towards vegetables and rice with some fish and little meat, high in carbs, low in fat. Again, very good health; Okinawans have excellent longevity.

For more on the amazing Inuit, see here. They don't get cancer, either. Also, one might consider the Kitavans. Excellent health, but on a high carbohydrate diet. But: they eat real food. And once again, my favorite neurobiologist (everyone should have one), Stephan, has a great series on the Kitavans.

Cardiovascular Risk Factors on Kitava, Part I: Weight and Blood Pressure
Cardiovascular Risk Factors on Kitava, Part II: Blood Lipids
Cardiovascular Risk Factors on Kitava, Part III: Insulin
Cardiovascular Risk Factors on Kitava, Part IV: Leptin
Kitava: Wrapping it Up

Need more convincing? Well, there's the Kuna.

Back to Scott, again.

So it’s not so much about the macronutrients, as long as you’re getting enough protein and fat to allow the body to function properly. It’s about the types of food being consumed. Dr. Weston Price noted that traditional civilizations thrived until they were introduced to processed grains and sugars, at which point, health declined markedly. We all know someone that follows a low-fat diet or low-carb diet by eating every processed product in the store that excludes their chosen macronutrient (”Angel Food Cake is a fat-free food!”). They rarely make the progress they’d like to. Why? Because before you can worry about macronutrients, you need to focus on food. You don’t eat nutrients. You eat food.

Speaking of Dr. Weston A. Price, DDS, his amazing work, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, is perhaps the most shocking and eye-opening book I may have ever read (still reading, actually). Long story short is that he was appalled at the tooth decay of Western Civilization and set out on a 10-year quest around the world to find and document people who had no evidence of tooth decay. He found lots. This was in the 1920s and 30s. You guessed it: all relatively primitive peoples on traditional diets that included no white flour, sugar, canned or packaged goods. Soon, I'll post how he discovered how to get cavities in teeth to re-calcify  (in one documented case, 42 of them in the mouth of one girl). Hint: fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and a "secret" one I'll reveal later, in another post. Clue: none of them are to be found in any vegetable sources whatsoever; it's meat, baby, and especially organ meats. If your mom made you eat liver from ruminators and forced cod-liver oil down your throat, she was a wise woman. Of course, these results were verified and his work published in medical journals 60 years ago. I would never even mention it, otherwise.

I recently came across the following quotes from Dr. Loren Cordain's free newsletter (paleo Diet, in the Acknowledgments section to the right).

George Catlin, the famous chronicler of American Indians, circa 1832-39, glowingly used these words to describe the Crow tribe: "They are really a handsome and well-formed set of men as can be seen in any part of the world. There is a sort of ease and grace added to their dignity of manners, which give them the air of gentlemen at once. I observed the other day, that most of them were over six feet high . . ." "It is but to paint a vast country of green field, where the men are all red – where meat is the staff of life . . . ." .

Cabeza de Vaca, the Spanish Explorer, saw native Florida Indians in 1527 and called them, "wonderfully well built, spare, very strong and very swift. Similar observations of the indigenous inhabitants of Florida were made in 1564 by the French explorer Rene Laudonniere, who noted that, "The agility of the women is so great that they can swim over great rivers, bearing their children upon one of their arms. They climb up, also, very nimbly upon the highest trees in the country. . . . even the most ancient women of the country dance with the others". In his account of California Indians in 1869, Begert notes, "the Californians are seldom sick. They are in general strong, hardy, and much healthier than the many thousands who live daily in abundance and on the choicest fare that the skill of Parisian cooks can prepare".

Captain Cook who visited New Zealand in 1772 was particularly impressed by the good health of the native Maori, "It cannot be thought strange that these people enjoy perfect and uninterrupted health. In all our visits to their towns, where young and old, men and women, crowded about us, prompted by the same curiosity that carried us to look at them, we never saw a single person who appeared to have any bodily complaint, nor among the numbers that we have seen naked did we perceive the slightest eruption upon the skin, or any marks that an eruption had been left behind . . . . A further proof that human nature is here untainted with disease is the great number of old men that we saw. . . . appeared to be very ancient , yet none of them were decrepit; and though not equal to the young in muscular strength, were not a whit behind them in cheerfulness and vivacity."

For a good 15 years, I've actively eschewed the idea that primitive peoples have anything to teach us. I was dead wrong. The clear facts clearly demonstrate otherwise. That doesn't mean I want to live in the primitive manner they lived. What I want to do is benefit from their wisdom in a modern context.

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  1. Bill on September 8, 2008 at 13:21

    So it's not that the atkins diet works by cutting carbs down to 20 grams a day, it's the real food you eat.Yes because there are some tribes that eat a fairly high carb diet but are lean and muscular correct?and not eating any prossesed food your health will return and lose weight,boy you really grabed my attention with this post.But what about the insulin factor?


  2. Richard Nikoley on September 8, 2008 at 13:48


    This was really designed for a general audience and not really people with specific issues, such as people not already severely insulin resistant. I believe you mentioned you're at 300 pounds, so, obese. Probably pretty resistant and so a very low carb would definitely be my approach in that case.

    And, for me, I'm pretty low carb anyway, as I love the meat and fat. However, the point is that if someone really prefers vegetables and starches, then at least that have the option of doing that with whole foods, then they can see if it keeps them in good health.

  3. Stephan on September 8, 2008 at 15:32


    That's a great way to sum it up! I like your comment about not wanting to live like a HG but wanting to learn from them. Imagine what a good lifestyle and modern medicine (antibiotics, vaccines, surgery etc.) could do together!

    I wish more people would pay attention to this type of information. The fact that it's passed from the mainstream memory has crippled us. People are listening though. They know the standard approach isn't working. That's why they come to sites like ours.

  4. Dave on September 9, 2008 at 16:04

    It's not "ancient wisdom" that led primitive peoples to eat natural foods, it's that that was all they had.

    I'm not knocking the lesson, but your "What I want to do is benefit from their wisdom in a modern context" comment got on my nerves. No wisdom necessary, on their part.

  5. Richard Nikoley on September 9, 2008 at 20:15

    I'm not so sure, Dave.

    Are you so sure you could live entirely by your own devices out in the wild?

    And whatever it is, at least these small groups lived by their own means and authority. They had no authority but their own and survived anyway. Just like all human beings, they too can default on their responsibility to survive, and those are nitty gritty responsibilities, trivial for us, but then look at the result for so many people.

    If that's not is some sense wisdom, then I guess I'm at a loss for understanding what you think the term means.

  6. sig on August 8, 2009 at 01:09

    to survive in times where there were no text books you would have to have great amounts of knowledge. Although survival is natural and what your trying to say is that any dumb idiot can fight for his life and survive. But you cannot deny that bringing up a family, feeding them, caring for them when they are sick and surviving for generations, without being told how, must take some brain power (and physical power). Some would say that it is only commonsense. But where scientific information, text books and authorities rule what is right and wrong these days commonsense has been neglected, even ridiculed (until proven) and what these primitive peoples had we have to call wisdom since we are so far removed from what they knew.

  7. jll on August 24, 2009 at 05:24

    It does seem that many of the diets of primitive peoples are, at the very least, superior to modern diets. Nonetheless, it would be fascinating to see direct comparisons between these diets: the Masai vs. the Inuit vs. the Kitavan vs. the Okinawan diet. All of them seem to be good, but I bet one of them is the best.

    Furthermore, there are also primitive people who eat grain-based diets and are not very healthy. I forget the name of the tribe I'm thinking of, but as I recall, they lived near where the Masai live, and consumed a lot of carbs in the form of grains. Whereas the Masai are tall and thin, they were short and stodgy.

    The one thing in common with all the healthy diets appears to be a very low intake of processed grains. I can't see how the elimination of those (wheat especially) could be anything but beneficial.

  8. JLL on August 24, 2009 at 05:29

    I forgot to add that it seems that another common thing that appears in healthy, primitive diets is saturated fat consumption. Sure, some of the diets are low in fat, but I've yet to see people thriving on a diet with the fat portion consisting mostly of PUFAs.

    • Richard Nikoley on August 24, 2009 at 09:02

      Agreed. We're big lovers of it around here (you might search the blog
      for 'saturated fat' to see just how much).

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