Saturday, April 9, 2011

"Essential" Foods

We think of vitamin C, vitamin D, omega 3/6 fatty acids, vitamin B12, complete protein, and fats in general as "essential" (and there are others).  That is to say, we humans must have some of each of these nutrients to be healthy, but we don't make it ourselves (we make fat, but without eating fat, we get sick, so fats per se are essential), so we must eat something that has these things.

It strikes me that if paleo man survived all those many years without knowing that he/she needed "essential nutrients" but got them anyway, it must have been because these nutrients were in the foods that paleo folk always had access to.  Not coincidentally, I think, if you could get fish and a large herd animal from time to time, you could get all the essential nutrients listed above in adequate amounts.  It's likely that even a rabbit or squirrel would meet these nutritional requirements.  This is true as well of other apex predators such as lions, and omnivores such as bears - there are essential nutrients and they get them all from the food they eat and have always eaten.

Why does the modern version of nutrition focus so much on vitamin content of food?  Because these sciences were born and shaped around wide scale nutritional deficiencies that happened in conjunction with the disruption of traditional food cultures which were displaced by the availability of large quantities of cheap grains.  In short - when folks began to eat large quantities of grains, they got rickets (due to the anti-nutrient qualities of neolithic grains).  When they ate large a quantity of wheat flour and sugar with some meat but no organ meats (a Brit afloat with the Royal Navy, for example), they got scurvy due to vitamin C deficiency (whereas you can get all the C you need from a low sugar diet that includes a bit of liver).  When folks gained the inclination and leisure to avoid the sun, they became vitamin D deficient (rickets again).

The vegans say you can get B12 from dirt - and perhaps that's their pleasure.  I prefer a nice cut of steak to get my B12, but for some reason they get really indignant about that.  They also would probably point out that you can make some omega 3 fatty acids from alpha linolenic acid - but that's very a very inefficient way to make it (essential but inefficient?  That's unlike every other essential process in the human body) whereas we get long, branched chain omega 3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) in fish and grass fed animals in plenty of quantity and quality (and be not confused - plant sources of omega 3s provide short chain fatty acids that are inadequate for human needs).

As for protein, subsistence farming cultures learned how to get a complete protein by mixing two crops - beans and rice - or by adding a little bit of meat to an otherwise incomplete plant protein.  But the fact that animal proteins are complete, and plant proteins are not, is telling.

The early part of the 20th century was defined by nutrient shortages as traditional diets, which had evolved over years to be nutritionally adequate, were replaced by neolithic foods.  When the puny human mind began to get a grasp on what we had done, we began to think of vitamins as a treasure, when they are nothing more than what we always ate.  We "fortified" the processed, grain based foods, which did at least prevent crisis levels of malnutrition. Sadly, that led to the confused idea that the presence of vitamins was equivalent to "added value" when "fortification" was just a ham fisted attempt to compensate for the loss of generations of collected wisdom about how to eat in ways that allowed the expression of the naturally vibrant health built into our genome.  We now have to think of "essential" nutrients because most of our diets are so far removed from what our genome adapted to.  Embracing science and doctors and all things modern, the idea of nutrition wisdom coming from the "primitives" was dismissed by most.  It went so far that when you introduce the idea of "the paleolithic model" to most folks, they are surprised they've never heard of it or thought of it before.

By virtue of our relatively short gut, our teeth, and the sorts of nutrients that we recognize are "essential", it seems to me that the natural human diet included plenty of meat and fish, with vegetables and fruit consumed as available - and I note that it is nearly impossible for humans to consume adequate calories on a non-meat, non-animal fat diet, without the addition of corn/wheat and other neo foods.

If the sun coming up is a blessing, then also count it as a blessing if you like to eat meat.  I also count it as a blessing that grass farmed animals are the only sustainable form of farming in most places on the earth.  It should certainly be counted as a blessing that grass farming sequesters carbon and saves fossil fuels - assuming you care about that sort of thing. (minor edits 9 April 2011)

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