Lately I've been reading Ancient Bodies, Modern Lives. The book is already dog-eared because there is so much interesting information in there. While some people have said that the paleo diet is "unwomanly" this book really makes it clear that women bear the brunt of the consequences of the inappropriate diets most humans eat these days. It also is a great reminder that diet isn't everything and aspects of human lifestyle that may seem trivial can have a huge impact.
A couple of months ago I read The Continuum Concept and I've been meaning to blog about it. This book was written the year I was BORN, but has some of the foundations of evolutionary medicine. Jean Liedloff believed that the human body expects certain things because of our evolutionary past and that there are consequences for subverting this. While living with indigenous people in the Amazon, she noticed how differently they treated their children compared to Western women. Unfortunately, she was not trained as a scientist or an anthropologist, so while she was able to understand that this was important and had huge consequences, much of her book is psychoanalytic speculation.
Ancient Bodies, Modern Lives is written by biological anthropologist Wenda Travathan. It's definitely an academic book, but it's very readable and clear that Wenda has been involved in a movement to allow women to give birth in a way more appropriate for our species. It's pretty much everything I wanted in The Continuum Concept and brings the evolutionary paradigm further by delving into biology.
The natural birth movement is often associated with unscientific sentiment, but after reading these two books it's clear that modern birthing and child rearing methods are a huge source of misery for women, men, and children. Some of the advice in these books is eminently practical and most of it shatters childbearing preconceptions I never even thought to question.
Obviously a baby in the paleolithic era was born vaginally. Lots of women think "thank god we live in the modern era, because I/my mom/many women would have died in other eras because they didn't have C-sections." But what if the C-sections aren't a boon of the modern era, but a consequence of modern life? Coincidentally I have a copy of The Vitamin D Solution and previewing it I turned to a page that said that "In 2008, Anne Merewood and D. Howard Bauchner and my team reported a landmark study indicating that women who had low 25-vitamin D levels were more likely to have a C-section....we concluded that a woman with low vitamin D levels is four times more likely to deliver by C-section..."
A baby in the paleolithic was also not placed in a crib to sleep alone. That might seem trivial, but an alone baby in the paleolithic was a dead baby. Wenda presents evidence that the Western ideal of having a baby sleep alone through the night is unrealistic and perhaps even harmful to both the baby and its parents.
A paleolithic baby was also breastfed. I think scientific research has made it obvious that any formula is inferior to the real thing, a testament to humanity's folly at playing god in issues of nutrition.
Then there is the obvious fact that women my age in the paleolithic were having babies, whereas I and most other women my age are actively trying to delay doing so. What are the consequences of delaying childbearing? Of hormonal birth control? These are important questions to consider.
And I will be considering them in the next posts.
Apparently anthropologists have found that many women crave clay during pregnancy. In most of the Western medical literature it is considered pathological, but:
Worldwide, clays are used to relieve diarrhea..., detoxify compounds, and provide minerals that are insuficient in the diet. In Africa, this practice is also employed by women seeking to relieve nausea of pregnancy and it can serve to bind toxins that would harm that fetus in this stage. When geophagy continues beyond the early stages of pregnancy, it probably adds important nutrients to the diet, especially calcium, essential for fetal skeletal development and maintenance of blood pressure in pregnancy.
Anthropologists Andrea Wiley and Sol Katz propose that clay as a source of calcium helps to explain the distribution of geophagy in African populations. Their survey of 60 societies confirms that whee dairying is practiced and calcium is available in the diets of pregnant women, geophagy is less common...
Given evidence that clay consumption occurs in chimpanzees and may have been practiced by early hominins, it seems to have a long evolutionary history. Certainly most of the sources of calcium sought by pregnant women today (dairy products) were not available to our ancestors and clay consumption may have made the difference between a healthy and unhealthy pregnancy. As with all practices, however, geophagy may have negative consequences, including exposure to pathogens in soil, iron deficiency, and lead poisoning.
Kombucha. It's a magical fermented health drink that cures everything because it was developed by wise ancient Chinese monks or something. It's fairly tasty once you get used to it, perhaps even delicious and refreshing. It doesn't have much sugar either.
Recently I had been drinking it habitually after finding out the 711 right around the corner carried my favorite flavors. Since I can't have beer anymore (*cries*) except the gluten free kind that tastes awful and a tablespoon of wine makes me blind drunk, Kombucha became my flavorful and refreshing drink of choice.
The problem was that around that same time I started feeling kind of sick in the afternoon. I just couldn't believe my beloved kombucha was the problem, so I initially blamed seasonal allergies.
At some point I looked at my spending habits and figured I shouldn't buy a $4 bottle of kombucha every day. I planned on buying a kombucha starter kit eventually. Miraculously, not only did my pocketbook get heavier, but the afternoon sickness went away.
Lots of people ascribe fairly magical powers to fermented foods and many sick people down barrels of sauerkraut and kefir believing they will provide them health. But we have to remember that people with food sensitivities also often have cross reactions to pretty much EVERYTHING. Yeast is a fairly common sensitivities for those sensitive to gluten, but fermented foods also contain other potentially irritating ingredients like amines and histamine. In the end, while paleolithic people would have probably consumed lots of bacteria and yeasts, modern fermented foods have them in very high amounts.
So if you are having a problem, don't blame it on "detox." Take a good look at your diet, even at foods you think are healthy. Fermented foods can help heal, but they can also cause reactions.
Sunday, April 11, 7:30-10pm
Farmers Market Sweep
622 Degraw St., Brooklyn
Tickets, $12 in advance, $15 at the door
Bikeloc, a team of cycling locavore enthusiasts will take their love for the local food movement on the road this summer in a cross-country bike tour of small farms. Meet the mend behind the madness at a local food trivia night, Farmers Market Sweep, aka Brooklyn’s first food-themed game show. Aaron Zueck and Robert DuBois of Bikeloc, Louisa Shafia author of Lucid Food, Ava Chin of the New York Times, Joanna Shaw Flamm, editor of spoonandtrowel.com as well other prominent foodies will go head-to-head in a battle for the title of Champion Locavore.
The game show will be followed by the savory sounds of Smoothe Moose Laboratories featuring Brooklyn based cellist and electronic musician Cosmo D who will be serving it up with beat master DJ Saucy Crotch. If you’re interested in making a local snack for the event, please contact Aaron at
I'll be competing. We'll see if the bachelors in agriculture was worth it.
Scientists have found that Japanese people seem to possess gut flora for digesting seaweed that Americans do not. The sample size for the bacteria collection is fairly small though. They theorize that the Japansese might have acquired the bacteria through eating raw seaweed. An interesting implication they make is that this bacteria not only affects the digestion of seaweed, but carbohydrates in general.
I wonder if it's more a reflection of the homogenized American culture we live in then anything. Plenty of my recent ancestors consumed seaweed as well in both Scotland and Wales- mostly laver, but they also used seaweed as livestock feed and fertilizer. Coming to America (by force or choice), they lost this tradition. Perhaps the loss of a tradition is more than just a loss of cultural knowledge, but an loss of a species inside us as well. When we are reviving traditions these days, it's often in the context of a sterile food system that might not allow us to truly regain what we lost.
I found this picture and became jealous of my old self. I made this in Sweden. It was fish roe, sea buckthorn berries I collected in the autumn and froze, thyme from our window garden, and a real treat...early spring honey. We collected it our bee course because it was ending, but most beekeepers don't collect that early. It tasted heavily of airy sweet dandelions.
A few years back, a government agency promoting the American agrarian ideal shipped baby chickens and piglets to Koyukon Indian villagers- people who have been hunters, trappers, and fishers all their lives. Some folks took to the notion, built pens, raised healthy pigs and successful flocks, and eventually found eggs under their hens. That's when things started going awry. After watching the chickens grow, many couldn't bring themselves to eat the eggs, and it was even worse to think of dining on the birds or pigs. "People felt like they'd be eating their own children," a Koyukon woman told me. "A lot of them said, from now on they would only eat wild game they got by hunting. It felt a lot better that way.
That's from the excellent Heart and Blood by Richard K. Nelson. I actually recommend this book more to former vegans than I do The Vegetarian Myth, because it's an incredibly well written eco-humanistic journey through our place in nature. I've been meaning to give it one big post, but it's hard to do because it's such an amazing book...so I guess I'll keep doing posts about it until I keep thinking about it.
Having experience with farming, I can say that there are animal husbandry methods that make me uncomfortable. People make much ago about foie gras, but they would find other more common methods just as distasteful if they were exposed to them. But they aren't. People live in a fantasy land where Bessie the cow gets retired to Green Acres when her milk production goes down and chickens die a painless death for McNuggets.
Knowing what I know about human evolution, my uncomfortableness with animal husbandry makes sense. Paleolithic humans may have kept animals, but only as allies like dogs, not as future food. With the domestication of animals comes the issue of killing something you raised yourself, that often bears some resemblance physically or behavioral to your pets and children.
I've had this problem in particular with goats. Domestic goats, unlike sheep or chickens, often crave human contact and react towards humans in a way similar to dogs. I think most of my readers would have a hard time slaughtering a domestic goat, even if they have pretensions against sentimentality. I've known goat dairy farmers to cry when sending away the male kids who have been born so they can be raised for meat. Although this disconnect and unhappiness among farmers has certainly gotten worse since the USDA mandated all slaughter for sale for non-poultry animals be done in a USDA inspected slaughterhouse that is usually unpleasant and far away from the farm.
I think it's partially a recognition of this inappropriate relationship that humans now have with animals that more and more people are interested in hunting from former vegans to Betty Fussell, an 82-year old NYC food writer who I met at a hunting workshop.
Last night I heard Joel Salatin speak in NYC. I was kind of surprising that he would speak on Easter Sunday. I grew up in Georgia and Easter was a big holiday there, but pretty much everything was open here and lots of people turned out for his lecture.
I only saw the first one, which was about whether or not the local food movement is elitist. Salatin mainly talked about how regulations hinder the development of new local food businesses and make food more expensive. I was familiar with this argument because I did my senior thesis on regulatory obstacles to a healthier local food system and Salatin's book Everything I Want to Do is Illegal was one of my starting points.
You can read his original essay on the subject here. What does this have to do with paleo? Well, the main food regulations affect are animal foods, though produce is becoming more controlled thanks to the spinach, peanut, and tomato food poisoning outbreaks that killed and sickened Americans.
The standard regulatory argument is that risk is risk and every farm should be regulated the same way. I personally disagree with that. Part of the rational behind regulations is that people are victims because they can't make a rational consumption decision due to the structure of our food economy. People wouldn't purchase things made unsafely if they could see the production, but they can't and it's pretty unrealistic to expect most people to closely keep tabs on food factories 1000 miles away. Of course a private certifying agency probably could, but it's equally unrealistic for libertarians to expect the US to drop all food regulations.
Even if you are not libertarian, it's clear that most regulations on food producers are unfair. I went to a big agricultural school sponsored by the government. Much of the technology used on farms is developed by such universities and most of it is geared towards large farms. That's an unfair advantage. So when regulations are written they typical require capital that would be unrealistic for a small farm to own or use. Also, there is rent seeking behavior- manufacturers of this expensive equipment often are the loudest advocates for more regulations. Things are changing- there is a foundation around here that is working on small scale mobile slaughterhouses, but they are facing an uphill battle. The mobile slaughterhouse has to have a separate trailer with an office and bathroom for the USDA inspector. They can't just use the normal bathroom in the farm office, regulations stipulate the inspector has to have their own.
Another subsidy is that large feedlot operations are pretty much allowed to pollute. I don't see why they should be allowed to sully steams they don't own. Small farmers often take great care of their land and the environment in general. Many factory operations also employ illegal workers and the government turns a blind eye, while small farmers struggle with the challenge of having legal workers, which is more than just paying minimum wage, it's often also paying worker's comp and dealing with some draconian state employment laws.
Contrasting with shoppers in the grocery store who really would have a hard time really knowing where their food comes from, people who purchase directly are able to talk to the farmer and often able to visit and work on the farm.
The consequences for all these regulations are stressed farmers who have to haul their cattle hundreds of miles to the nearest USDA slaughterhouse and more expensive meat. One of the reasons poultry tends to be cheaper is that there is an exemption that allows small farmers to slaughter on-farm . Why chickens slaughtered on farm are safe but goat aren't never struck me as logical. The safety of an animal to eat has more to do with the skill of the butcher than the magic of a USDA inspector. I'd certainly rather have animals killed by my own butcher that I know.
Either way, read the book, it's great and will help you understand why small farmers have such a tough time. Salatin also addressed the global agriculture problem. He mentioned how large companies like Monsanto who often claim to be the savior of the third world often don't acknowledge that the green revolution is often the cause of the problems in the first place. He mentioned how the old Thai system was diverse and grew rice alongside fish and vegetables. Replacing this system with rice monoculture created the vitamin deficiencies that the GMO golden rice is supposed to cure.
Another factor is that contrary to popular opinion, small sustainable farmers aren't Luddites. There have been massive increases in the efficiency of many sustainable methods like composting in the past 50 years. Such methods are more sustainable not just from an ecological perspective, but from an economic perspective. In unstable third world countries introducing methods that require imported seeds, pesticides, machines, and oil just isn't appropriate.
Salatin also talked about the choice aspect of the matter. I don't make much money myself, but in the past I had to be on all sorts of expensive medication. Now that I eat a better diet, I don't need those pills and inhalers, which unlike grassfed beef, just masked the symptoms and did nothing to nourish or heal me. Joel Salatin mentioned how tests done at the local ag school showed high levels of CLA, a fat that shows strong anti-cancer properties, and DHA, which is the most prized of the omega-3 fatty acids that promote good health in general.
He said it's a shame that libertarians, free marketers, and conservatives have so often been reactionary against healthy eating, but the tide is turning. I agree. While paleo dieters come in all stripes, a growing segment is people traditionally associated with the right.
Want to know what's in season? Interested in seeing what foods you can look forward to next month at your local farmer's market? A local foods wheel is an attractive addition to your kitchen that can answer these questions.
Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be one for every region, but perhaps some commenters can point me to more.
Jessica Prentice's wheels are beautiful with bright colors and wonderful illustrations. She has two: one for the SF Bay Area and another for NY Metro Area. Comparing them is fairly depressing, I'm admittedly jealous of the year round bounty in San Francisco. The NY one has the addition of a larder, which shows foods available year round like beef, so you can feel better when you turn the wheel to December and only see some turnips.
Chew On This also has a NY Wheel, which is much more detailed since the creator lives in NYC, but less colorful. The Forty Culinary Herbs wheel is the real treasure, as it shows herbs you never would have thought to use and different ways to use and preserve them. It's a great way to find ideas for a simple quick supper as it shows what herbs go best with various ingredients like poultry or fish. I've been cooking with lots of fresh herbs lately and also growing them myself. I don't think I'll be able to grow all forty in my apartment though!
Reading the fat acceptance bloggers on Jamie Oliver's new show, is a typical argument of theirs goes like "Food Revolution is awful because it is portraying fat people as unhealthy! Plenty of skinny people are unhealthy too, but they target the fat people for shaming!"
I totally agree with that actually. Focus on appearances distracts from real health problems. It's easy to pick on people who are overweight, but food related illness doesn't discriminate based on weight. As a skinny adolescent, I suffered from all kinds of terrible health problems related to my diet. Candy and soda didn't make me overweight, but it surely contributed to the stomach problems, headaches, and fatigue I suffered from.
As a child growing up the South, many of my friend's fathers succumbed to heart attacks. They were slim men in their 40s.
The old argument that being obese isn't genetic because where are all the the fat hunter-gatherers? While a few statues from the Stone Age seem to glorify curvy ladies, skeletal evidence has yet to be found. BUT there is strong evidence that gene expression can be determined by the maternal diet, gut bacteria, and environmental toxins. All three have been linked to obesity. There is no question that some people are going to have a much harder time with their weight than others. And once someone is obese for a long it's likely that the metabolism is altered enough that they are going to really have a tough time losing it and keeping it off.
Because of an appearance-focused approach to health, plenty of skinny people I know think they are healthy despite eating terrible diets. Not to stereotype, but while Swedes I knew when I lived in Sweden ate relatively healthy, sugary alcoholic drinks and bags of gummy "godis" were a regular part of their diets. For awhile I was confused...how were people eating these awful candy gummy craps and sugar berry flavored vodka soda and looking so good? The answer is probably in the healthy full fat whole foods that are still part of the diet there (in America we both eat crap AND don't eat much nutritious food). But when I started meeting my friend's parents it became clear that there are still effects to these foods, they just show up later. Sweden isn't too far away from the United States in heart disease rates.
For all the blather about Americans being fat, Eastern Europe leads for heart disease per capita. Type 2 diabetes is really hitting other countries hard too- India in particular, despite their "healthy vegetarian diet." So much for meatless Mondays having a huge health effect...but really, what India and Hungary have in common is love for fried processed carbs and massive amounts of sugary desserts without much actual nutrition in between. But maybe diet isn't really even that much of a factor: "In a study of Japanese migrants in the United States the cultural upbringing was the strongest predictor of coronary heart disease. Those who were brought up in a non-Japanese fashion but preferred the lean Japanese food had a heart attack almost twice as often as those who were brought up in the Japanese way but preferred fatty American food."
In the focus on food we often forget about other factors like lifestyle.
I applaud Jamie's expose of the venality of our school lunch system, but I just don't think some homemade pasta is going to cut it. Also as a Southerner, I'm also a little annoyed that it's not a fellow Southerner leading this effort. One of the principles popular in the food justice movement is providing both healthy AND culturally appropriate food. It's too bad that the Southern culture has really been lost.
I often hear about how sending away the Native Americans to government schools caused them to lose their culture. But it wasn't just Native Americans who lost their culture because of government schools. Watch the food being served to those kids in Food Revolution. Some people think Southern food is fried pablum like that, but it's not. They aren't being served Southern food, they are being served industrial gruel. In fact, I'm sure real Southern food is illegal under the USDA guidelines. That's too bad, because my Southern ancestors were living into their late 80s even a hundred years ago on ham hocks, collard and mustard greens, turtle soup, crawfish, buttery grits, and full fat buttermilk. The awful Paula Deen flour and sugar creations are to Southern food what fry bread is to Indian food- neither authentic nor traditional.