One of the things I noticed while working on family farms is that meat is not as abundant on many farms as it is in our grocery stores. Farms provide us with a surplus of any food you want, but this is not how an isolated farm works. Along with limited meat, you cannot rely on the chickens to always produce enough eggs for everyone year-round depending on the farm. What you do rely on is dairy including fresh raw milk, yogurt and cheese for times when you are not milking, seasonal fruits both raw and dried, seasonal vegetables (sometimes fermented in cold climates) and stored grain. My sister verified this as well after working on organic farms in New Zealand for six months. This is simply how many small diversified farms work because butchering doesn’t happen every day and the supply is limited. Also, refrigerators and freezers are a relatively new invention for meat, which meant it traditionally had to be consumed or dried immediately.
Forks Over Knives
I often get asked about the documentary Forks Over Knives, a documentary giving evidence for a plant-based diet, and that the consumption of animal products is to blame for numerous health disorders. According to the movie “In World War II, the Germans occupied Norway. Among the first things they did was confiscate all the livestock and farm animals to provide supplies for their own troops. So the Norwegians were forced to eat mainly plant-based foods.” During this time, mortality dropped from 30 to 24 deaths per 10,000.
While the movie will have you believe it had to do with a plant-based diet, fish intake actually went up 200%, while sugar and margarine plummeted. In the U.S., we saw a period of heart disease skyrocketing from 1920-1960. The consumption of animal fats declined, but the consumption of hydrogenated and industrially processed vegetable oils increased dramatically.
In Norway, closer inspection from the Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 1947. Volume 5, issue 4, found that dairy consumption went up during this time, not down. While meat intake did go down during this time, the average Norwegian man was eating 3/4 of a pound of fish per day. A paper titled Food rationing during World War two: a special case of sustainable consumption? found that Norwegians relied on herring, potatoes, wild greens, wild berries, and wild mushrooms – other words – close to a coastal hunter-gatherer diet that explained their improved health, not a plant-based diet.
Depending on what literature you have read, you will find that meat and dairy are either the cause of disease and a plant-based diet should be practiced, or that meat and dairy prevents disease and grains are the cause. What we do know is that when we switched to the Neolithic era of agriculture, diseases became rampant, and not just from sanitation practices. Over time, these practices were perfected and many ingenious creations occurred through fermentation like sourdough bread, yogurt, kefir, beer, kombucha, kvass, sauerkraut, and kimchi.
Meat, Plant and Dairy Consumption of Traditional Agricultural Societies
The default diet I experienced on farms was also one of the patterns with many of the agricultural societies in Nutrition and Physical Degeneration and The Blue Zones: Nine Lessons For Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest. The exception being those who lived by the sea. The following examples for agricultural societies are from observational literature, and unfortunately, in my opinion, do not always tell the whole story. If I could fly to all of these places and spend a year recording all of the meals, habits, and health I would. This could obviously be an exhaustive list, but I wanted to highlight five from past and present research.
Hunza Health Secrets for Long Life and Happiness
Hunzakuts eat mainly grain (including wheat, barley, buckwheat and small grains like millet); leafy green salads with apricot kernel oil and grape vinegar and other raw vegetables, potatoes and other root vegetables, peas and beans, chickpeas and other pulses, fresh raw milk, buttermilk, cheese and yogurt (mainly from goat or yak), clarified butter and cheese, fruit, chiefly apricots and mulberries, fresh and sun-dried, meat on rare occasions, and wine made from grapes.
In regards to meat “livestock is not abundant because animals such as cows, sheep, and goats must be fed, and the food is scarce as pastor land is limited. Therefore, meat is scarce, too, and is served only at some special occasions, usually during holidays and weddings.” During early spring when supplies were low, there would be famine, with long periods of fasting.
Another Look at the Hunza Diet: Not Shangri La
According to John Clark, author of Hunza, Lost Kingdom of the Himalayas who lived with the Hunzas for 20 months: “I wish to express my regrets to those travelers whose impressions have been contradicted by my experience. On my first trip through Hunza, I acquired almost all the misconceptions they did: The Healthy Hunzas, the Democratic Court, The Land Where There Are No Poor, and the rest—and only long-continued living in Hunza revealed the actual situations. I take no pleasure in either debunking or confirming a statement, but it has been necessary clearly to state the truth as I experienced it.”
According to the author:
Late in May, the flocks move up to summer pasture land at 12,000 to 15,000 feet, with a few men and boys from each community to herd. The herders gather the flocks into stone-walled corrals every night, where they milk both sheep and goats, and churn butter. They consume all the buttermilk, cottage cheese, and fresh milk they want, which is excellent for them but does not improve the vitamin- and mineral-deficient diet of the majority of villagers. Each family owns so few animals that they can butcher but one or two a year, which they do at Tumushuling time in December. As one sheep lasts a family about a week, this means that the average Hunza gets meat for one or two weeks per year. Since visitors always come in the summertime, this also explains the ridiculous tale that Hunzas are vegetarians by preference. One of the stories is true—they certainly eat the whole sheep! Brains, lungs, heart, tripe, everything but hide, windpipe, and genitalia! They clean a bone to a polish that would put a western dog to shame, and in conclusion, they always crack the bones and suck the marrow. As their diet is deficient in oils and vitamin D, all Hunzas have soft teeth, and fully half of them have the barrel chests and rheumatic knees of sub-clinical rickets.
So if the dairy is excellent for them but does not improve the vitamin and mineral deficient diet of the majority of the villagers, wouldn’t it stand that more meat and less grains would improve their health? And much like the Neolithic farmers who had plenty of sun and were still vitamin D deficient, we see the Hunzas with the same affliction. The observation has been made that skin color became lighter as humans moved out of Africa and into northern latitudes to optimize vitamin D production. But there is a problem with this climate theory; why did the Inuits maintain their darker tone? The reason is theorized to be because northern Europeans switched vitamin D rich organ meats and fish for low-fat vitamin D deficient grain, while the Inuit maintained a vitamin D rich fish-based diet without grains.
Nutrition and Physical Degeneration
For nearly 10 years, Weston Price and his wife traveled to hundreds of cities and 14 countries in search of the secret to healthy, isolated populations and recorded it in Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. He observed perfect dental arches, minimal tooth decay, high immunity to tuberculosis and overall excellent health in those groups of people who ate their indigenous foods. He found when these people were introduced to white flour, white sugar, refined vegetable oils and canned goods, signs of degeneration quickly became quite evident. Dental caries, deformed jaw structures, crooked teeth, arthritis and a low immunity to tuberculosis became rampant amongst them.
How many people go to the dentist for cavities, braces and root canals, and assume that’s normal? Our teeth should be straight and cavity free, and that’s from our diet. Nutrition and Physical Degeneration is a fascinating read and is the inspiration for the non-profit Weston A. Price Foundation. The non-profit has been extremely influential in spreading the word about grass-fed beef, pastured eggs, raw milk, fermenting vegetables, bone broth and making Kombucha.
While I agree with the majority of their research, the meat dominant stance doesn’t exactly line up with Weston Price’s research. For example, in his letter to his nieces and nephews, he states “the basic foods should be entire grains such as whole wheat, rye or oats, whole wheat and rye bread, wheat and oat cereals, oat-cakes, dairy products including milk and cheese, which should be used liberally, and marine foods.” As you can see, there is no mention of meat and is very grain heavy. Perhaps they saw the value in his research, but the error in part of his analysis. Let’s look at a few of the cultures studied.
The Isolated Swiss
The nutrition of the people of the Loetschental Valley, particularly of the growing boys and girls, consists largely of a slice of whole rye bread and a piece of summer-made cheese (as large as the slice of bread) where are eaten with fresh milk of goats or cows. Meat is eaten about once a week.
The people of Visperterminen own land on the lower part of the mountain and maintain the vineyards that supply wine for the country. The vineyards afforded them the additional nutrition of wine and of fruit minerals and vitamins which the two groups studied at Loetschental did not have. Here the nutrition also consisted of rye, almost exclusively as the cereal; of dairy products; of meat about once a week; and also some potatoes. Limited green foods were eaten during the summer. The general custom is to have a sheep dressed and distributed to a group of families, thus providing each family with a ration of meat for one day a week, usually Sunday. The bones and scraps were utilized for making soups to be served during the week.
The children have goat’s milk in the summer when the cows are away in the higher pastures near the snow line. I have been unable to locate any other research on the traditional people of the Loetschental Valley which has now become a resort for tourists. It is one of the few I have seen that appears to be the outlier of what appears to be a dairy and grain dominated diet without the negative health effects. The only conclusion I can reach is that the raw dairy and bone broth (which would also extend protein) is extraordinarily high in vitamins and minerals and prevents deficiency, and there is no wheat in their diet. And which cheese is considered to have one of the highest contents of vitamin D? Swiss.
The Isolated Gaelics
The basic foods of the islanders are fish and oat products with a little barley. Oat grain is the one cereal which develops fairly readily, and it provides porridge and oatcakes which many homes are eaten in some form regularly with each meal. The fishing about the Outer Hebrides is especially favorable, including lobsters, crabs, oysters, and clams. An important and highly relished part of the diet has been baked cod’s head stuffed with chopped cod’s liver and oatmeal. Fish eggs and organs were also highly cherished.
The women were found fishing and working from six in the morning to ten at night. There is no meat mentioned, however, I’m not convinced this was always the case and believe there must have been livestock at times.I will note that like the Swiss, there is no wheat in their diet and oats may be guilty today by grain association.
The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest
The Blue Zones shows the lifestyle and dietary habits of the world’s longest-lived people in Sardinia, Italy; Loma Linda, California; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Okinawa, Japan and Ikaria, Greece. It’s a very enjoyable read for anyone and does a really impressive job of showing the well-rounded patterns of purpose, community and relationships with health.
The classic Sardinian diet consists of whole-grain bread, goat’s milk, red wine, beans, garden vegetables, fruits, and, in some parts of the island, mastic oil. They traditionally eat pecorino cheese made from grass-fed sheep, and meat is largely reserved for Sundays and special occasions. There is interesting information on the medicinal qualities of their goat’s milk due to certain plants the goats consume in Sardinia. Personal farms and gardens are a mainstay of many Sardinians, with many older men still walking the steep hills with their sheep for 6 miles.
Sardinia has a history of 1,000 centenarians, the longest-lived in Italy and possibly the world. For some reason, there is no mention of how much fish they eat, which being in the Mediterranean seems like a major oversight but appears to be due to their location in the mountains. What the author didn’t mention in the synopsis was that pork, lamb, and goat are the main meat, and they like lard, lot’s of it. It does seem to be confirmed that they eat meat once to twice a week by multiple sources.
According to Sarah Wilson who visited Sardinia with National Geographic, “the longevity phenomena seems to have come to an abrupt halt, even reversed. It’s almost like as soon as money came to the island (which it did about 50 years ago) the locals went from famine to feast, taking on the health consequences that come with abundance. Young Sardinians are incredibly overweight. And Sardinia has one of the highest incidences of celiac disease, I’m guessing from eating so much bread and pasta where the gluten content has shifted due to the more processed wheat strains available today.”
I have included Okinawa because they are constantly highlighted for some of the best health as a population on the planet, and it doesn’t appear that their diet has changed for thousands of years. Although, I’ve seen conflicting evidence of just how much meat and fish Okinawans eat. The Blue Zones claim older Okinawans have eaten a plant-based diet most of their lives, consisting of stir-fry vegetables, sweet potatoes, goya, mugwort, turmeric, ginger and pork for infrequent ceremonial occasions and taken only in small amounts. First, there is no mention of grain which is false. Second, I haven’t read any evidence showing that pork is only consumed for ceremonial occasions.
An article from the Weston Price Foundation claims that “the main meat of the diet is pork, and not the lean cuts only. Okinawan cuisine, according to gerontologist Kazuhiko Taira, “is very healthy and very, very greasy,” in a 1996 article that appeared in Health Magazine. And the whole pig is eaten-everything from “tails to nails.
While it’s certainly true that Okinawans regularly eat some soy, the evidence indicates they also enjoy a lot of fish and pork in their diet. And the primarily monounsaturated fat those centenarians ate over the course of their long lives was not canola oil but good old-fashioned lard. Yes, lard is primarily monounsaturated fat.” The Okinawa Factor claims “Okinawan elders eat an average of seven servings of vegetables and fruit, seven servings of grain and two servings of soy products. They consume omega-3-rich fish several times a week and minimal dairy products and meat (amounting to 1 ounce of pork or poultry a day). Who is telling the truth? That’s what I’d like to know.
From the Paleolithic period, through the agricultural age and into the modern age, there is something we can learn from every time period. What is relevant today for many of us living in urban environments is how we can protect ourselves from a chemical world that hasn’t ever existed in the history of the Earth. Our challenge now it to reduce chemical exposure by choosing organic and grass-fed methods, using safe cleaners and personal care products in our house, keeping mold out, and filtering our water systems. With these healthy practices, we can achieve optimal health in challenging times with varying percentages of plant and animal foods.