One of the best books I’ve read on human health is Nutrition and Physical Degeneration by Dr. Weston A. Price. Contrary to many of his colleagues in the field, Dr. Price wasn’t content with the explanation of cavities and declining oral health as just a natural part of human life, and he therefore sat out to figure out the true causes of disease. While Dr. price was primarily interested in dental health, he quickly discovered that poor oral health goes hand in hand with low overall health status, and his research therefore expanded into many other aspects of general fitness.
A typical approach in medicine is to study the disease itself in an attempt to specify the important etiological factors in that disorder. However, unlike most other physicians, Dr. Price felt the best way to understand disease was to study those who weren’t afflicted. With such a common condition as tooth decay, this might seem like an impossible task – And it almost is, at least in the modern industrialized world. In a world filled with highly processed food, antibiotics, and environmental toxins it’s likely very hard to achieve optimal oral health, even with intense flossing and toothbrushing.
It’s generally accepted that gingivitis and tooth decay largely result from an inflammatory oral microbiota, and as we know, the western lifestyle is a master manipulator of the microbiome. So, even though Dr. Price’s studies took place before the antibiotic age and prior to the introduction of some of the most inflammatory foods in the western diet, the best approach for finding healthy populations was to look outside the developed world. So, Dr. Price packed his research equipment and got his wife to come along on his quest to find the true causes of tooth decay and periodontal disease.
In the early 1930s, Dr. Price began his investigations of traditional non-westernized populations. Sometimes, these societies were completely cut of from the “modern”, industrialized world, and Dr. Price therefore had to spend days just getting to the right location. Most of the populations he visited were not pure hunter-gatherers, as they didn’t subside exclusively on wild plants and animals or lived in ancestral-type settings. However, they were all virtually unaffected by western lifestyle, lived in small communities, and still stuck to a so-called traditional lifestyle.
Dietary patterns among primitive people
Naturally, Dr. Price found that dietary patterns varied greatly between different cultures. However, there are also some common characteristics of traditional diets, chief of which include:
- They ate no refined or denatured food.
- None of the populations Dr. Price visited were vegetarians. They all ate some type of animal source food, whether it was seafood, meat, eggs, or dairy products. Some animal foods were eaten raw.
- Primitive diets are very high in micronutrients.
- Most populations ate some type of fermented food.
- Seeds, grains and nuts were soaked, sprouted, fermented or naturally leavened in order to neutralize naturally occurring antinutrients in these foods.
- Total fat content varied from 30% to 80% but only about 4% of calories came from polyunsaturated oils.
- Their diets contained nearly equal amounts of omega-6 and omega-3 essential fatty acids.
Essentially, their diets contained a mix of paleolithic foods (seafood, grass-fed pasture-raised meats, eggs, vegetables, fruit, fungi, roots, and nuts) and neolithic foods (cereal grains, legumes, and dairy products). Some populations, such as the Inuit hunter-gatherers, ate a pure paleo diet, while others, such as the people in the Lötschental Valley in Switzerland and the Scottish and Gaelic living in the Outer Hebrides, relied heavily on grains. However, as mentioned, cultures who ate a grain-based diet generally used some type of traditional processing technique when preparing the grains for consumption. This is a general theme when in comes to nutrition and human evolution. While all the foods that were available to our paleolithic ancestors can be eaten in their raw form, many of the foods introduced after the agricultural revolution, such as grains and legumes (some debate regarding the consumption of legumes in the paleolithic) require a lot of processing before they are edible. And this is where some of the problem with the modern diet lies. We’ve strayed away from these traditional processing techniques, and in combination with dramatic changes to the human microbiome, this has led to a rapid rise in grain- and gluten-related disorders.
It’s not just the grain products we’re eating today that are vastly different than those consumed by traditional populations. Better soil quality, pasture-raising, and different processing techniques are just some of the things that resulted in a superior food quality compared to today’s standards. One example of this is dairy products. While the dairy-consuming primitive cultures Dr. Price visited mostly ate high-fat cream, raw milk, butter, or fermented dairy products from grass-fed and healthy cows, most westerners consume pasteurized, fat-reduced, and homogenized milk from grain-fed animals. As Dr. Price’s studies show, there’s a big difference between these types of products in terms of micronutrient and macronutrient content, enzymes, and bacteria.
Basically, isolated traditional populations ate high-quality food, either whole or processed through traditional means.
While diet has a significant impact on human health, we know that other factors also play a substantial role. There are many differences between the traditional populations Dr. Price visited, which is to be expected when you investigate cultures of such diversity. However, just like with diet, there are some common characteristics:
- Some type of regular physical activity. Hunting, walking, farming, etc.
- “Adequate” sun exposure (and/or plenty of vitamin D from food)
- “Adequate” circadian rhythms
- “Adequate” exposure to microbes
- Low exposure to pollutants
- Low levels of chronic stress
Does this ring a bell? Besides a paleolithic diet, these environmental factors all characterize the ancestral natural environment and are considered the keys to achieving a normal phenotype (1,2,3,4). Basically, the non-westernized populations Dr. Price visited lived in an environment that was fairly similar to the environment of our paleolithic ancestors. If we exclude the pure hunter-gatherer populations and focus on the remaining cultures we find that they were in between the ancestral way of life and the modern, western lifestyle .They still ate a diet based on nutritious whole foods, but many had started including grains and dairy products in their diet. They were still physically active, but generally not as active as our prehistoric ancestors. The same principle applies to many of the other lifestyle components previously mentioned.
The transition from a traditional dietary pattern to the western dietary pattern is characterized by a rapid decline in health
Let’s get to the root of the article. Dr. Price found that hunter-gatherers and primitive, non-westernized populations were virtually free from diseases of civilization as long as they stuck to their traditional lifestyle. Tooth decay was almost unheard of in all of the societies, and inflammation-related illnesses were pretty much absent. Some of the cultures didn’t even have a name for cancer.
Is it possible that these primitive peoples had some type of genetic protection? No, Dr. Price showed through his studies that non-westernized people who moved and adopted a western lifestyle experienced a rapid decline in health. This transition was characterized by declining oral health, and perhaps most interestingly, future generations developed a more narrow face, with corresponding dental deformities and/or crooked teeth. This is further evidence that nutrition doesn’t only affect health and longevity, it also impacts growth, development, and physical appearance. Dr. Price’s findings make it abundantly clear why dental arch deformities, a narrow facial structure, and other deformities are so common in the western world.
Here are some of the cultures Dr. Price visited: (Image source)
Isolated and modernized Swiss
Isolated and modernized Eskimos
Primitive and modernized North American Indians
Isolated and modernized Melanesians
Facial and dental arch deformities as a result of poor nutrition
I also wanted to include this picture from Nutrition and Physical Degeneration showing a white boy born and raised in Alaska on imported foods. Dr. Price notes: “His facial deformity includes a lack of development of the air passages, so that he breathes through his mouth. Lack of bone development creates the crowded condition of the teeth. Note his narrow nostrils.” This type of deformity is very common in the developed world and is primarily a result of a highly processed and refined western diet.
In the end I want to highlight that although I believe we can learn a lot from Dr. Price’s studies, they do have some limitations. First of all, while these traditional people were in excellent health, it could be that they would have been even healthier on a different diet and lifestyle.
The fact that many of the populations Dr. Price studied were healthy on a grain-based diet has been used as an argument against the paleo diet philosophy. However, there are a couple of reasons why we can’t draw any firm conclusions from this data.
- It’s possible that these cultures would have been even healthier if they ate an ancestral-type diet.
- They generally processed their grains in a different way than we do today.
- The grains they ate are different in many ways than the ones we eat today.
- Other lifestyle factors could have a protective effect. E.g., increased exposure to microbes.
Also, it’s important to note that although Dr. Price’s studies were fairly comprehensive, they didn’t give us a lot of data on longevity, comparisons of different traditional diets, etc. His studies give us a framework/structure to work upon, but they don’t give us an overview of the optimal human diet. As I see it, combining this evolutionary perspective on nutrition and lifestyle with modern science is the best approach when dealing with human health.
Key takeaways from Dr. Price’s findings and other studies of hunter-gatherers and non-westernized populations still eating traditional diets (1,2,3,4,5,6)
- The transition from eating a diet based on simple whole foods to a western-type diet leads to a rapid decline in health. The western diet doesn’t only impact our own body, but also the health, growth, and development of our children.
- Humans can be lean and healthy on a wide range of diets.
- Food quality matters a lot.
- Humans are healthiest when we live in an environment that is somewhat in consistence with the ancestral natural environment.
- Traditional processing techniques make cereal grains and legumes more nutritious and easier to digest.
- Facial and dental arch deformities are associated with malnutrition and/or consumption of a highly processed western diet.
- Contrary to what some paleo purists say, adding in some neolithic foods, such as high-quality dairy products and legumes (were probably consumed in minor amounts in the paleolithic), in your diet shouldn’t be problematic. Some data even suggest that many of these foods are beneficial to health.
- Environment and lifestyle (especially diet) shape our health.
If you want to find out more about Dr. Price’s epic work, pick up a copy of Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. In his book he covers other subjects that are closely related to those I discuss in this article, such as mental and moral deterioration, prenatal nutrition, soil depletion, and plant and animal deterioration.