Human Health Quadrants


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I made this last week hoping to use it as a tool to talk with people about paleo and other alternative diets. It can be often be difficult because so many people tell me that foragers are not healthy and that our modern life is the best. They have images from National Geographic of impoverished "primitives"  and the "didn't they only live to be 30" meme in mind. Often they will tell me that they are so glad for modern life because if they had been born back then they would have died because they need a C-section or had some horrible case of strep throat. 

They aren't really separating environmental issues from food. In much of modern middle class America, our environment is low-risk. Notice that I didn't say better. There are plenty of things wrong with our environment ranging from over-sanitation to lack of sunlight. In fact there might be chronic low grade risks in the modern environment from environmental contamination, too much light, etc. But we generally don't have to worry about risky childbirth, lions, tribal warfare, malaria, tuberculosis, hunting accidents, and all kinds of nasty things that are out there in the wild. 

Our hazards are largely caused by an inappropriate diet that leaves us with obesity, diabetes, cancer, IBS, GERD and other diseases that are almost exclusively present in modern society. The standard american diet leaves us in quadrant III, not worrying about lions, but worrying about blood sugar and BMI instead. Pairing nutrition appropriate for human beings with the benefits of modern life allows us to move to quadrant IV. Notice I include Whole Foods Vegan there. I certainly believe you can lose weight on such a diet, I just don't believe it's an optimal diet. A truly optimal diet like WAPF or paleo allows the possibility of raising truly healthy children with well developed teeth and bones. Personally veganism also wasn't adequate to help me heal from GERD and my teeth weren't in such great shape afterwards either. But I'm throwing a cookie here to vegans that at least don't eat processed crap, vegetable oils, and sugar. They are better off than most, especially if they are utilizing fermentation of grains, legumes, and vegetables. A vegetarian diet that includes fermented dairy and eggs is even closer to being appropriate nutrition for our econiche. 

Modern Hazda Forager

You'll notice that modern hunter-gatherers have less appropriate nutrition and a harsher environment than their paleolithic predecessors. Civilization has pushed them into unwanted land that less oppressed foragers would have shunned. They also struggle with diseases introduced by outsiders.

Nomads and agrarian peasant cultures are also relatively healthy. They are eating neolithic foods, but they have been eating them long enough to know how to derive nutrition from them and minimize their antinutritional factors through fermentation and soaking. Lots of people look at these cultures and think "oh, well I guess their genes adapted to agriculture and it's OK for me to eat this Nutrigrain bar since my ancestors were agrarian." Nope, most of the adaptation was not genetic, but technological. People figured out that if they fermented and limed their corn they didn't have malformed bones. I tell people who are skeptical of paleo to go ahead and eat grains, but at least embrace the technology so many of us have forgotten that allows us to not poison ourselves with them. So many people read about the Tarahumara made famous in Born To Run and think that their health means some boiled corn on the cob is superfood. Wrong- the Tarahumara soak and lime their corn.  

Himba pastoral herder

I don't do grains much myself because while these technologies these traditional societies came up with are amazing, they don't completely rid grains of their problems. Most of these cultures still preferred meat and ate grains and legumes only because they couldn't afford it. Traditional agrarians aren't fat or diabetic, but their height and bone structure just doesn't approach that of coastal foragers from the studies I've read.

Regardless, this chart isn't any sort of rigorously scientific study- we could probably argue for days where to place things, but it's a decent matrix for separating appropriate nutrition from other factors. That's definitely only one part of the picture, but it's a very important part. The other pieces are important too- sunlight, community, loving child rearing, a not too sterile environment,  and being physically active for example. But dealing with the diet is a great first step.