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Nutrition Past and Future

TPNS 26: Weston Price

Primitive Nutrition 26:
Weston Price


Before there were any Paleo diet books there was this book.  Practically everyone arguing for eating more animal products online has been influenced by it.

This is the author, Weston Price.  He was a highly respected dentist who believed that health, dental and otherwise, was being compromised as the world adopted industrialized foods.  To make his case that these foods were harmful, he traveled the world to visit isolated cultures left outside the new food economy.  Wherever he went, he drew a contrast between the vigorous health of those consuming their traditional diets, and their ethnic counterparts consuming modern foods, or at least foods that seemed modern in the thirties.  It's a very interesting book and he was a very admirable man.  He visited hunter gathers and pastoralists, took pictures of them, and described their cultures for posterity, always with great respect and admiration.  He was ahead of his time in both his acceptance of the importance of nutrition and in his liberal views of race and culture.  Unfortunately, like others who try to use the hunter gatherers as models for nutrition, his premise confined him to people living on marginal lands who had no choice but to eat animal products, thereby skewing his conclusions about diet.

Weston Price's book should be seen now in some historical context.  Industrialized food production got off to a rough start.  Upton Sinclair's vivid expose of the appalling conditions in the meat-packing industry in The Jungle eventually lead to the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906-1907.  Read, or try to read, that book and you will see that in the days before regulations and inspectors, quality nutrition was nowhere on the list of priorities for some in the food industry.

The Jungle was set in Chicago.  These photos of South Chicago from those days should make clear times were quite different then.

Harvey Wiley, the first head of what is now called the US Food and Drug Administration, brought attention to the use of toxic non-food additives in the food supply around the same time.  Bread could contain sawdust, spices could be stretched with clay, and coffee contained ground acorns.  His work lead to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.  We should not think that pure food laws lead immediately to pure foods in the marketplace.  Food toxicology would not be a well-developed science until many decades later.  Enforcement of the food laws was lacking.  There were few real regulatory standards.  We should understand that industrialized food in those days could be far, far worse than ours is today.

It was not until 1938, the year before Price's Nutrition and Physical Degeneration was published, that the United States had even begun regulating poisonous residues in foods.  It was not until 1954 that the United States established procedures for determining acceptable thresholds for pesticides in foods.  I am only describing the regulatory history of the United States.  Can you imagine how much further behind the US these countries Price visited were back then in the area of consumer protection?

So when Weston Price attributes dental and other health problems to modernized foods, he is likely talking about the worst of the worst modernized foods in the diets of predominately poor people.  I am not here to categorically defend industrialized food, of course, but the patterns he observed seem to be of somewhat limited value to us today.

These pictures and the neatly binary choices they suggest enable people to oversimplify food issues and feel good about it by calling it "wisdom," one of the most overused weasel words in the primitive nutrition world.  Price's work is interesting and we are lucky to have these snapshots of these old traditions, but this is not science.  Alternative explanations are not offered.  Subject samples are small and non-random.  Price clearly selected the people he photographed to support a thesis he had constructed before he collected his data.  This is all fine, but it shouldn't be seen as great science today.

I selected a few quotes from this book to give you an idea of his temperament and the times in which he wrote.  He was opposed to the idea of the incompatibility of racial bloods, as he put it.  He was convinced of the nutritional superiority of whole grains.  He was interested in the quality of soil used to grow crops. This was a very thoughtful and progressive man.

Price died in 1948.  The organization that bears his name was founded fifty-one years later by  Sally Fallon...

along with Mary Enig.  They are both cholesterol and saturated fat apologists.

Together they have written a book promoting saturated fats as a weight loss aid and another that seems to argue that contemporary diet recommendations are the products of politically correct organizations that want to control you.  Suggesting that the scientists who are actually responsible for improving public health are instead agents of repression is a common ploy among fad diet peddlers.  They are not above such cynical techniques to get you to trust them instead of respected scientists and doctors.

Have a look at the way Sally Fallon thinks you should eat.  Her example daily menu is 70% fat, and those fats come from high-cholesterol, high-saturated fat sources such as egg yolks, cream, butter, bacon, and cheese.  Clearly, this is a very fringe group with a lot of bad information on their web site.  I'm not going to try to thoroughly examine all that is there, but let's take a moment to look at just a few examples of their helpful advice.

The wise people at the Weston Price Foundation want you to be scared of soy.  They argue that soy phytoestrogens damage your endocrine system.

"Phyto", meaning "plant," estrogens are represented as active hormones-mimickers  in the human body.  Soy infant formula is said to be similar to birth control pills.  We should feel relieved that no such nasty molecules exist in dairy.

It seems to me that their focus on the phyto-estrogens in soy is a case of people living in glass houses throwing stones.  Soy does not contain mammalian estrogens.  But the raw milk the Weston Price Foundation wants you to drink does.

These estrogens have been shown to be absorbed and active in humans.

These estrogens are suspects in some human cancers.

It is not unreasonable to suspect estrogens in some cancers.  Anti-cancer drugs called aromatase inhibitors are effective because they reduce estrogen levels.

Cow's milk has been demonstrated to affect our endocrine systems, lowering testosterone secretion in men.  Milk hormones may also contribute to the  early sexual maturation of children.

Animal protein in general, which is of course found in milk, has been suspected up accelerating menarche in girls.

Milk is also linked to acne in boys.

These investigators were not surprised that soy milk did not have the mammalian estrogen metabolites that cow's milk does.

Soy phytoestrogens, on the other hand, do not behave like estrogens in the body, even when it would be advantageous if they did.

Soy does not affect the reproductive hormones of men, but it does seem to reduce prostate cancer risk.

Soy also seems to improve blood flow and improve the health of the lining of our arteries.

Soy phytoestrogens may even prevent new body fat from forming.

The Weston Price Foundation is rather irksome to vegetarians and vegans, who are targeted by their site.  Chris Masterjohn is one of their contributors.  Apparently he failed spectacularly at veganism, which he says caused him a litany of problems, from cavities to anxiety.

Naturally, he is now an anti-vegan ideologue along with the others at the Foundation, who have apparently been chasing after a mysterious indispensable nutrient called the X-factor for a while.  This special nutrient can only be found in animal foods, of course.

Their anti-vegan stance explains their hysteria over soy, as soymilk is an obvious alternative to cow's milk.  This opposition to veganism has lead them to produce some rather odd nutritional advice.

Here's an example of that from Masterjohn's rundown of alleged vegan deficiencies.  Vitamin A is not usually identified as a uniquely difficult nutrient for vegans to obtain from diet.  Masterjohn is using the primitive nutrition standard to say otherwise, pointing out the massive intakes of vitamin A by Greenland Inuit.  He cites an article for this that I guess he doesn't expect anyone to read. In that reference, these very same Eskimos had very poor status of vitamin C, folate and calcium.  The authors themselves describe their intakes of iron, vitamin D, and yes, vitamin A, as borderline toxic.  They also had serious heavy metal and environmental toxin burdens.  Is this supposed to be an improvement on a vegan diet?  Toxic leves of vitamin A?  What a strange argument!

The March of Dimes doesn't mess around with vitamin A.  They know the preformed vitamin A in animal foods is not regulated well by the body.  On the other hand, plant-based retinoids are converted to vitamin A in the body and are very safe to consume in large amounts.  The March of Dimes is concerned about vitamin A because excess preformed vitamin A can cause birth defects.  They specifically recommend against eating liver during pregnancy for this reason.  Liver is a favorite food for the Weston Price people and the primitive nutrition believers in general.

Pause the video if you'd like to read a good explanation of the issues with vitamin A and diet by Andrew Weil.

Liver is extremely high in copper as well.  Copper, like iron, is a trace mineral that can cause problems in excess.  Here you see that dietary copper, when accompanied by the saturated fats in animal foods, is associated with with cognitive decline.

I found this interesting study from 1958.  Even though the Alaskan Eskimos they studied ate a lot of preformed vitamin A, they were often deficient for it in their blood levels.  Go figure.

In any case, vegetarians usually do fine with vitamin A.

It must be said that he Weston Price Foundation is especially interested in promoting raw milk, which has unique safety risks.  I won't get into that particular subject here.  It is covered very well elsewhere online, especially at the Real Raw Milk Facts web site.

The first of the supposedly wise cultures that the Weston Price foundation and the Paleo people like to talk about are the Eskimos. If you think they were models of health on nothing but meat and fat, think again.

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