[Think] of an experience from your childhood. Something you remember clearly, something you can see, feel, maybe even smell, as if you were really there. After all, you really were there at the time, weren’t you? How else would you remember it? But here is the bombshell: you weren’t there. Not a single atom that is in your body today was there when that event took place . . . Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made.
― Steve Grand
Just a thought about how we are so much more than our atomized stuff, before we talk about that stuff.
In a previous post with a similar title, I talked about how acknowledging that there are differences in the way we all respond to different foods should not overwhelm the fundamental fact that we are all human beings. We are not cows, rabbits, or tigers. We can say that people of Northern European extraction often thrive on large amounts of dairy, while their Southeast Asian counterparts cannot. We can say that those of Southeast Asian extraction can often tolerate larger amounts of rice than those from Northern European families. But we cannot say that this means Southeast Asians will optimally thrive on a vegetarian diet. This is to deny their fundamental nature as human beings–who were designed so that they absorb nutrition most easily from meat and fat. You can’t get away from the fact that one definition of being physically human is that while you can eat starches and vegetables, you tend to carnivory–we are designed to benefit the most from meat. For more info on that, check out previous blog posts, or check out some of the science here. Do note these points that are relative to actual science and documented history:
1. You don’t have a big enough stomach and digestive system to handle a lot of plant matter.
2. You crave fat.
3. You live in a bizarre time in human history, when you can have fruit and vegetables 24/7, 365 days a year. Unless your progenitors were from tropical climes, they didn’t eat kale, spinach, mangoes and tomatoes just whenever they felt like it.
Ok, with all that being said, I want to take the opposite tack today and discuss the fact that there are differences in people and how they’ll respond to certain foods. And those differences seem to have some relation to your ancestry and some relation to where you grew up and what you’ve eaten all your life. It’s all very fascinating.
I first ran into these concepts through this study. Very, very basically, what they did was to act on the known fact that ALL food causes some inflammatory response in the body. After all, food, and even air, are basically foreign invaders. I like this, because this presents the same kind of logical challenge as the opening quote: the very things you absolutely depend upon to survive–air and water–are the things that are killing you, since science now seems to see inflammation as the primary agent in aging. You will die, in large part because you eat and drink. No matter how “pristine” your diet, it will still get you in the end.
Anyway, certain foods cause more inflammation than others. What these researchers did was to speculate on whether a food that a people group has been eating for a long time would cause less inflammation than a relatively new food. So they fed Aboriginal Australians wagyu beef (brand new) and kangaroo (traditional food). They saw significantly more inflammation with the beef. The article left a lot of questions unanswered, but the concepts were rather fascinating.
As I pondered, some more questions started surfacing. I mentioned already the dairy question–the more Northern European your ancestry, the more likely you are to not only tolerate it, but actually thrive on it. The Maasai of Africa, too, thrived on milk, as do Tibetans and Mongols. If you’re Greek and you don’t eat yogurt and cheese you might be disowned. But head to South American or Southeast Asia and you run into myriads of people who can’t tolerate dairy at all.
This kind of thing crops up everywhere: some Chinese people swear by Traditional Chinese Medicine. Some Westerners see a benefit from it; some it makes really sick or is worse than useless. I mentioned MCT oil in a previous post. When I have some, I feel a rush of energy and my whole day goes better. It actually makes me feel physically hot, like my metabolism is racing. Not jittery like caffeine, but energized and ready to go. In fact one time I had some at The Sister’s and then I forgot and had some more in coffee a half hour later. I had to go outside and run three blocks and back. Trying to sit still I felt like I would die from heat stroke.
Just another occasion to prove the adage: “Just because some is good doesn’t mean more is better.” Take note all you broccoli eaters.
Anyway, I’ve told lots of people about this and lots of people I know have tried MCT oil. But it doesn’t have the same effect on everyone. The Roommate likes it ok, but it doesn’t do much for her that coconut oil doesn’t also do. Or butter. More interestingly, some of my blood relatives–like The Sister–saw some increase in energy, but not like I felt. Brother #4 didn’t really notice all that much. Others–like Brother #3–reacted exactly like me. We both had some on a Sunday morning and were so hot and energized in church we could hardly sit through it. And no, I had not told him to expect anything like that, so he didn’t psych himself into it.
There are at least two big factors at work here. One is bacterial, and the other is genetic.
Bacterially speaking, when you were born you had gut and skin bacteria colonies like those of your mother. By the time you were 4, there were noticeable differences based on what you were fed and what you were exposed to. Those differences can affect how you respond to a food. This is something scientists are just starting to explore. They’ve noticed that many obese people have a certain kind of gut bacteria while thinner people have a different one. They’ve noticed that most Japanese people have a bacteria in their stomachs that digests seaweed. If you weren’t born in Japan, you probably don’t have this bacteria and cannot get nutrients from this seaweed.
Think about that for a second. You can run down to Whole Foods’ seaweed and acacia berry section and read all about the amazing health benefits of seaweed–we know how good it is because look at all the old Japanese people who eat it every day!–and for you it’s all a lie. You actually can’t get any nutrition out of it no matter how much of it you eat. Just like my Chinese friend isn’t getting any “essential calcium” out of the milk in her Starbucks cappuccino, because the lactose gives her the runs too quickly for it to be of the slightest benefit.
The second factor here is genetics. This can apply to everything from how well you tolerate spicy food to whether you can stand the taste of cilantro, to whether you prefer the taste of sour things. So the question then becomes: What do I do in order to eat what’s good for me and makes me feel good?
Well, short of doing DNA testing to find out exactly where all your ancestors came from and what precise anti-cilantro genes you might have, it all is going to boil down to trial and error. To me, these are the lessons we can carry away:
1. Although we’re all going to thrive best eating a greater proportion of meat and fat and minimizing refined carbohydrates of all kinds–because of the way we’re made–there’s plenty of tweaking possible within those general parameters. Sister-in-Law #1 eats a lot of chicken. It’s great, but I have to eat a red meat or some kind of fish at least every other day to feel my best. A few of my Chinese friends are thriving even though they eat a lot more fruits and vegetables than I do. They still eat more fat and meat than anything else, and they’ve stopped eating bread and sugar at all, but they feel fine with lots of vegetables. The Roommate, meanwhile, can barely tolerate a couple vegetables once or twice a week.
2. Just because some people group somewhere has eaten something and it seems to be good for them doesn’t mean that it will have the same benefits for you. Whether it’s Japanese seaweed, Brazilian acacia berries, Chinese mushrooms, or Korean kimchi–just because a lab test can detect all those nutrients in there doesn’t mean your body can get any of them out. If you didn’t grow up eating it, you might not have what you need to digest it efficiently.
Now, I can already hear you asking, what about all those people groups you’ve mentioned as proof that a high-fat diet is good for us? Aren’t you doing the same thing you just told us not to do?
They only illustrate the general principle. You don’t have to eat exactly what they ate, only the way they ate. Vikings ate fish, Mongols ate lamb, Comanche ate buffalo (throwing the lean muscle meat portions we eat today to the dogs and eating and rendering only the fattest bits), Maasai ate beef, milk and blood, Tokelauans ate coconuts, Inuit ate seal. The Native American tribes on the Pacific Northwest coast yearly fished thousands of candlefish (ooligan), so called because of their extremely high fat content (16-20% and not like that “healthy” fat in salmon. Oh no. Saturated and almost identical to lard or bacon fat), rendered the fat, and not only ate it themselves but used it as a highly valuable trade item. The run only lasted a few weeks a year, but the importance of it to people all over that area can hardly be overstated:
From Our Box was Full: “The arrival of the oolichan. . . was traditionally announced with the cry, ‘Hlaa aat’ixshi halimootxw!’ or, ‘Our Saviour has just arrived!’ [Ooligan] was a prized gift in feasts and between neighbors. This was one of many gifts the people were permanently indebted for…Ironically, when missionaries later sought ways to deliver the story of Jesus Christ with the proper degree of moral weight, sanctity, and personal importance to their audience, they grasped the example of the ooligan, universally revered as friend, saviour and healer by native peoples.
The saturated fat kept nicely when rendered, and there was actually an “ooligan trail,” so important was this trade item.
The point is that I’m not saying you should eat ooligan because some tribe did it once and they were healthy so obviously it’s a miracle food. Eating like them doesn’t mean you have to eat exactly what they ate. What they prove is not that seal blubber is a miracle food–they prove that humans thrive on a high-fat, moderate protein, low-carb diet. There have been people groups–diverse in geographic location and genetic heritage–who’ve eaten in the same way, albeit with different foods, throughout human history. There has never been a thriving vegan people group anywhere.
3. You’re going to go through some trial and error in the process of finding what works for you. Be ok with that. Start out with things you already like that fit the general profile, and then see if you prefer chicken to beef, bacon to eggs, cheese to yogurt or whatever. Just make sure you’re eating the best quality you can, that you’re eating enough fat vs. protein and that when you think you really just need a few carbs that you have given yourself enough time to really get over the “carb flu” and get used to not eating it. That “I feel better” could be exactly like when the alcoholic feels like crap till he gets his first shot of the day. When you can honestly say you no longer daydream about pizza, candy bars or french fries, then you can try eating some berries or sweet potatoes and seeing if they actually make you feel better.
Plato says he’s hungry
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