Homesteaders often enjoy looking back and learning how the old-timers did things. We look back at their lives as not necessarily easier, but more simple and wholesome. We look to our ancestors to learn how they survived, how they built their homes, raised their animals, maintained their gardens, and how they raised their families. So, can we also learn from them how to best feed ourselves? Indeed we can.
Weston Price was a well-known dentist and researcher who worked during the 1930s and 40s. Many diet theories are developed and then foisted upon the people with the hope that the results will match the expectations of the nutritionist (and sometimes the hopes of the agribusiness that has endorsed the theory). On the other hand, Weston Price started by finding healthy populations of people and asking if their diets shared any common characteristics.
In his research, he traveled to isolated populations as diverse as alpine villagers in Switzerland, the Maori of New Zealand, Inuit tribes, and Gaelic communities in the Outer Hebrides. He started by looking for people who were free of cavities, gum disease, and orthodontic issues such as crowded teeth. He found that groups who were free from these dental troubles usually also enjoyed generally good health, were free of mental illness, and had easy childbirths.
Clearly, the quality of food, from its production to its processing, was a strong factor in the quality of life. This message was made even more clear when he viewed the children of parents who had abandoned their group’s traditional foods for modern, processed food. Within one or two generations, health had deteriorated.
Animal Products and the Weston A. Price Diet
One common characteristic shared by all of the traditional diets was the importance of animal products. This runs smack into the common beliefs of new dietary trends but it would come as no surprise to our ancestors. In the 1920s, heart disease was still a rare occurrence but rose steadily until it came to be the leading cause of death in the 1950s and today it causes at least 40 percent of all U.S. deaths. If the current warnings against saturated fat and cholesterol are true, then we can assume that there was an increase in animal fat consumption between 1920 and 1950—however, animal fat consumption declined by 20 percent and butter consumption dropped from 18 pounds per person per year to four. What did increase was the consumption of vegetable oils such as margarine, shortening, refined oils (by a whopping 400 percent), sugar, and processed food (by 60 percent).
Weston Price concluded that animal fats were valued by traditional peoples because they provide a powerful, sustained source of energy. We also know that they are the building blocks for cell membranes and hormones. Additionally, these animal fats help to carry fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, E, and K as well as assisting the conversion of carotene to vitamin A and the absorption of minerals. The list of foods that contain substantial amounts of fat-soluble vitamins is fairly limited: butter and whole milk products, organ meats, lard, eggs from poultry and fish, shellfish, oily fish and fish liver oils, and insects (yum).
However, it is not sufficient to load up on fast-food burgers and chicken nuggets. And this is where Weston Price’s ideas work so well with homesteading. Weston Price stressed the quality of animal products. It is important to consume animals that were pasture-raised and fed “real foods”, not corn and soy pellets. This includes chickens who have eaten insects, cows who grazed on fresh, quickly growing green grass, pigs who soaked up vitamin D from the sun, and fish that actually swam in clean waters. Unfortunately, for most people, it is hard to find “real food” such as these.
It is also interesting that all of the traditional diets included some raw animal products. While some of you may enjoy the European steak tartare or Japanese sushi, many of us can incorporate raw animal products by consuming raw egg yolks (Rocky, anyone?) and raw dairy products such as artisan cheeses and unpasteurized milk. [For more on the benefits of raw milk, see “Got (Raw) Milk?”]
Weston A. Price on Carbohydrates
While some opponents of Weston Price’s work may argue that his ideas are just another version of the low-carb, high protein diet, Price did observe that most traditional peoples ate carbohydrates. It is interesting to note, however, that the Inuits, the plains Indians, and the people of Greenland ate a diet almost entirely of animal products and their skulls show little evidence of tooth decay. The problem lies not with carbohydrates in their natural, whole state but in the all too common refined carbohydrates of today. These types of carbohydrates are hard for the body to digest and so the body needs to use its own reserves of vitamins, minerals, and enzymes in order to metabolize such foods. In addition, refined carbohydrates wreak havoc on the body’s insulin regulation system. And since carbohydrates are already depleting the body of vitamins, minerals, and enzymes, the glands and organs will begin to deteriorate. This, in turn, leads to endocrine problems such as degenerative diseases, allergies, obesity, alcoholism, drug addiction, depression, and behavioral problems (sounds like modern American life, no?).
There’s another little known problem with carbohydrates. Whole grains contain phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors, both of which interfere with digestion. Traditional societies usually soaked or fermented their grains; bulgur, a sprouted wheat, is used in Middle Eastern dishes such as tabbouleh, ogi flour from fermented millet is used in Africa, and most European countries have traditional forms of fermented porridges such as kiesiel and braga. This process allows for a “predigesting” that made the enzymes more available. This can be done through sprouting, overnight soaking, and sour leavening.
Another characteristic of traditional diets that will appeal to homesteaders is the use of fermented vegetables and fruits. This characteristic is appealing because it offers another method of preservation that doesn’t require freezing, canning, or root cellars. In addition to preservation, fermentation offers many health benefits. Lactobacilli is produced in the process and this good bacteria helps in digestion, increases the availability of vitamins, produces useful enzymes as well as antibiotic and anticarcinogenic substances. Healthy flora in the intestinal tract not only improves digestion but also greatly enhances the immune system.
Again, the quality of the food is of the utmost importance. Ideally, organic vegetables and fruits grown in healthy soil should be used. Traditional peoples harvested the plants during their peak growing time and obviously they used plants that were available locally.
These fermented foods were used in societies all around the world. In fact, many of our condiments, such as mustard and ketchup, were actually fermented vegetables added to the main meal. Many of us are familiar with German sauerkraut, Mexican salsa, and Korean kimchi and many of us have pickled cucumbers, made fruit chutney, or produced fruit butter and preserves. Like most modern food production, the industrialization of fermentation has robbed the food of many of its nutrients. Vinegar is commonly used, which makes the products more acidic than is beneficial and most of the products are pasteurized, killing all of the beneficial bacteria. For the greatest benefit, try making your own fermented fruits and vegetables.
Foods to Avoid According to Weston A. Price
Opponents of Weston Price’s work argue that the people of the WAPF (Weston A. Price Foundation) are only touting his work because it appeals to the population’s desire for meats and full-fat foods. While it is true that people following this way of eating do get to partake of delicious foods like bacon and, this way of eating will not appeal to the vast majority of Americans. Why? Because Price’s work definitively illustrated the ill effects of packaged convenience foods and “white” foods such as bleached flour and sugar. The switch to this type of diet leads to a degeneration that was visible within one or two generations. However, most Americans are not going to give up box food and sugar anytime soon. Furthermore, this type of eating, as you can guess, requires extra time in either food production or finding quality sources as well as in food preparation. But homesteaders aren’t known for taking the easy way out!
So what foods should be avoided? We have already discussed the detriments of vegetable oils and of pasteurized, homogenized dairy. We also know why we should avoid white flour products and other hard to digest, over-processed carbohydrates. Other foods to avoid as much as possible are sugar, food additives such as MSG and soy.
Hard to believe that in 1923, a U.S. Farmers Bulletin recommended one pound of sugar per person per week. Most people are now aware of the dangers of sugar, but our sugar consumption has actually increased. Here is just a short list of the dangers of sugar:
- Compromised immune system
- Severe mood changes
- Tooth decay
- Body’s minerals are stripped away in order to digest the sugar
- Spike in insulin levels
- Pancreatic damage
- Premature aging
- Autoimmune diseases
Of course, the devilish thing about sugars is that they are found in nearly everything you purchase from the grocery store or restaurant (even more reason to eat at home).
While it is best to eliminate the use of sweeteners as much as possible (remember, our ancestors ate sweets very rarely, only during truly special occasions or festivals). However, an easier transition is to begin using natural sweeteners such as raw honey, maple syrup, stevia, raw fruit, and Rapadura (dehydrated cane sugar juice). Do not replace a bad sugar habit with an equally bad artificial sweetener habit!
Like sugar, most of us know that MSG is a no-no and, also like sugar, MSG is in many, many foods under aliases such as hydrolyzed vegetable protein and “natural flavoring”. Among other problems, MSG can cause damage to the brain, retina, and the hypothalamus. It kills glutamate receptors and the neurons connected to them and has been implicated in the rise of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and more recently, in the rise of autism (it can cross the blood-brain barrier in unborn children). Other additives to avoid are food coloring (do you really want to eat something that is named with a number?), sulfites, nitrites and nitrates, artificial sweeteners, BHA, and BHT. Unfortunately, there are over 14,000 man-made chemicals approved by the FDA for food production. Home cooking is starting to look better and better, no?
Okay, most of us already know that sugar and food additives are best avoided. But soy (edamame)? Isn’t that the new magic health food? First, you may have heard that soy contains phytoestrogens (components in plants that act like the hormone estrogen). These phytoestrogens disrupt the endocrine system, which in turn may cause hypothyroidism, infertility, and breast cancer. Highly processed soy products also usually contain high levels of aluminum, MSG, phytic acid, and toxic chemicals such lysinoalanine and nitrosamines. Furthermore, the consumption of soy increases the body’s need for B12 and vitamin D while reducing the assimilation of calcium, magnesium, copper, iron, and zinc. Note that we are talking about processed soy products, not fermented miso or natural edamame.
The diet recommended by Weston Price and WAPF is based on good science but also on good old common sense. Avoid processed food and nourish your body with whole, natural foods. If you are not raising your own animals and growing your own produce, look for sources for pastured, humanely-raised animals free of antibiotics and growth hormones, and enjoy fresh meat and raw dairy. Find a local farm that sells produce free of pesticides and artificial fertilizers and prepare some fermented dishes for the best absorption of those nutrients. Experiment with “alternative” grains such as millet and amaranth and enjoy old favorites with a new flavor lent from soaking in yogurt or whey. You have looked to your ancestors to learn how to garden in the traditional way, how to preserve the harvest, and how to live a simpler life. Now follow your ancestors’ traditions of feeding the body and soul in a nourishing way.
Most of the information in this article and all of the recipes are from Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats, or from the Weston A. Price Foundation website.