This is a post I’ve been weighing up in my mind for a while now, and I’m writing it even though I realise it seems to go against convictions and ideas about nutrition I’ve had in the past, it’s controversial, and may fly in the face of many readers’ beliefs. Please, I do not mean to offend, and I honestly encourage debate and questions on this topic. I am new to these ideas myself.
Basically, I’ve been learning about the benefits of including animal products in our diets, how and why they were a part of ancient cultural diets, and also why there is such a negative stigma associated with full fat animal products, real dairy, saturated fats, etc. Many of you who read this blog will probably cringe and disagree, but my own thoughts on veganism (or diets very low in natural animal products) are taking turn and slowly evolving. More and more, studying nutritional medicine and hearing the personal stories of those around me, plus taking the time to truly notice my own body’s response to a mostly plant-based diet, I’ve started to have to question my views. (I don’t mean to vilify the vegan diet, however I am beginning to notice the benefits and history of the inclusion of animal foods from a nutritional standpoint). Once, I did think that a high raw vegan diet was optimal, but I’m veering off this course. When I read The China Study, I rushed to eliminate animal products from my diet as much as possible. Since then, I feel like I have a better grasp on both sides of the story, as I’ve been looking into studies that break down the arguments for veganism put forward by Dr T. Colin Campbell in this book. I highly recommend checking out the responses of both Chris Masterjohn and Denise Minger if you’d like to learn more. I’m also hearing more of people not doing so well on a purely vegan diet, talk of which I’d dismissed in the past. People feeling low, exhausted and like they are missing something. One lecturer who I particularly admire, voiced frustration about treating vegans, when she would love to prescribe them a diet with just a little animal product, thinking it might give their health the boost they are looking for. There is of course no ‘perfect’ diet that suits us all, we do not all have identical nutritional needs, and what might work well for one individual may not be right for the next.
I cannot state strongly enough that if people choose to avoid animal products for ethical reasons, then I completely and utterly support that. Myself, I will not support the consumption of mistreated, misfed and misused animals and animal products. Sadly, these ethically sub-standard practices dominate our animal food supply these days, however I applaud the handful of producers and farmers who go out of their way to provide animal food products that can be called cruelty-free, sustainably managed and locally produced.
The discovery of the work of Dr. Weston A. Price has been somewhat of a lightbulb moment for me. He was an American dentist who devoted years of his life to traveling to remote and isolated parts of the earth where the inhabitants had no contact with ‘civilization’ and therefore no contact yet with Western dietary ideas. Price was in a unique situation, more than sixty years ago, where he was able to observe both the Western, ‘civilized’ diet (although of course not at the extremes it has reached today with processed foods, fast foods and the like) and by contrast, those traditional diets preserved by cultural and geographic isolation. Price traveled to Swiss villages, Scottish islands, all over Europe, Canada and America. He even investigated the diets of far flung Eskimos, Aborigines in Australia, Maoris in New Zealand, Peruvian and Amazonian Indians and tribesmen in Africa. Suffice to say, he observed many, many vastly contrasting traditional diets worldwide. The photographic and written notes he took documented ancient tribes in prime physical health and the almost complete absence of lifestyle diseases in these far flung pockets of the world.
He noted that those populations who, when invaded by Western dietary cultures, shunned their traditional foods in favour of processed grains, refined sugars, canned foods, pasteurized milk and devitalized fats and oil, experienced a rapid decline in health. In these people, Price observed dramatic tooth decay, degenerative illnesses, infections, deformities of bone structure (particularly overcrowding of the teeth and narrowing of the face) and reduced immunity to disease. And these deteriorative signs of health were only manifested in the offspring of these peoples. Obviously, these changes had little to do with race, and everything to do with the effects of a devitalized, modern commercial diet.
Of course, the diets of all these healthy ‘primitives’ were vastly different to each other before each coming into contact with Western ‘civilization’. The Swiss had thrived on rich, unpasteurized cheese, butter and cream, dense rye bread, bone broths and few vegetables. Eskimos did similarly well on large amounts of fish, marine animas, seal oil and blubber. In Australia, Africa and the Amazon, hunter-gatherers flourished on game, organ meats, tubers, vegetables and fruits available to them. Price discovered that the traditional diets of these cultures had one thing in common: they included whole, natural foods – meat with fat, organ meats, blood, whole, raw milk products, fish, insects, whole grains, tubers, vegetable and fruits – not modern foods of convenience synthesized with chemicals and concocted from white sugar, refined flour and rancid oils.
These native, natural foods of each race were found to contain at least four times the minerals and water soluble vitamins as the American diet of his day (no doubt this would be ever more vastly different by comparison to today’s supermarket ‘foodstuffs’ and the depletion of the soils in which our whole foods are grown). Furthermore, the way in which these foods were prepared varied greatly to the standard American way of cooking (and this was before modern ‘fast food’ really took off). Traditional, healthy people based their diets around processes such as soaking, fermenting, sprouting and souring.
Here’s the kicker in regards to animal products: when Price analyzed the fat soluble vitamins he found that these traditional ‘uncivilized’ healthy native groups contained at least ten times more vitamin A and vitamin D than the American diet of his day. These vitamins are found only in animal fats – pure butter, lard, egg yolks, fish oils, organ meats, fish eggs and shellfish – food we widely shun today in favour of low fat, processed alternatives. Price documented these fat-soluble vitamins as catalysts upon which the assimilation and absorption of all other nutrients depended – protein, minerals ad vitamins. Without the dietary factors found in animal fats, all the other nutrients largely go to waste in the body.
When humans are taken off their natural, cultural diets they experience de-evolution in terms of their overall health, immunity to disease, state of happiness and physical strength. Look at studies performed on groups of cats fed mainly raw milk and raw meats, compared to groups fed diets that included higher amounts of cooked meat and pasteurized milk (note, this is not to say that humans should exist entirely on raw foods, the point being made is that these animals were forced to stray from their natural diet). Or the state of cattle fattened up in mainstream agriculture on an unnatural diet of soy, grains and corn, which is a huge problem prevalent in our meat industry today. These animals encounter the same decline in health, becoming plagued with parasites, experiencing weakened bones and ligaments, difficult pregnancies, and a wide variety of diseases and physical deformities (and of course then having to be pumped with antibiotics and other drugs to keep up with the ill effects of these ailments).
The meats and animal products derived from these creatures consequently are greatly lacking in nutritional value, which of course is passed on to us when we consume these substances. (We are not just what we eat, but what we eat eats as well, which is something well worth thinking about).
More and more, the findings of Weston Price, while ignored at the time, are being profoundly proven to be correct. Natural animal fats are not something to condemn. We now know that Vitamin A is essential for the cultivation of healthy babies, protecting them against birth defects and aiding in growth and development. Vitamin A is also necessary for immune health and proper gland functions. The precursors to vitamin A, carotenes in plant foods, cannot be convered to true vitamin A by infants and children. Instead, scientists have now shown that this nutrient must be supplied by animal fats. Diabetics and people with thyroid conditions similarly cannot convert carotenes to the fat-soluble form of vitamin A, instead these individual are told to beware animal fats. Sadly, the low-fat obsession in all its craziness prevails!
After years of veganism, a good friend told me of the energy and new vitality she discovered via the addition of raw milk, cultured butters, high quality beef and raw egg yolks to her diet. She has retained her love for an abundance of raw vegetable juices and plant foods, yet without these nutrient dense, high quality animal fats she felt like she was not thriving. Heather of Sweetly Raw wrote an inspiring and honest post about coming to terms with ending her 13-year long affair with veganism and her personal struggle with this. Debbie Young of Grass Fed Momma recounts a similar journey off the path of veganism and has likewise embraced high-quality animal products. (for more converts, see here, here and here).
I too have felt like I was missing some key dietary ingredient(s?), and experienced a lack of energy and depleted mood while I was near exclusively consuming plant foods, believing that this would lead to optimal health. I noticed whilst away in New Zealand how wonderful I felt when I relaxed the rules a little, enjoying plenty of oily fish, pure cream, biodynamic eggs, fresh shellfish and organic yoghurt, along with the usual abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables. I cannot tell you how much more energized I felt, and the only thing I really tweaked in my diet was the addition of plenty of high quality animal proteins and fats. I feel truly satiated eating this way, in a way I was not experiencing before, and these foods have not weighed heavily on my digestion system like I imagined they might. Quite the opposite, actually.
I’ve been enjoying real, cultured butter, made from the milk of pastured, grass-grazing jersey cows. After a lifetime of shying away from this delicious treat, I was thrilled to learn that natural, real butterfat is rich in both vitamins A and D, conjugated linoleic acid (a powerful protectant against cancer), trace minerals, Vitamin K2 and glycospingolipids (which aid digestion). Saturated fats from these kinds of animal sources form a vital part of cell membranes in the human body, they protect the immune system and enhance the utilization of essential fatty acids. They are necessary for proper brain and nervous system functions and provide energy for the heart. Over half of the fat in the human brain is saturated fat. Mother’s milk, the perfect food for the developing infant, is not only rich in cholesterol, but also contains special enzymes that aid in the absorption of cholesterol from the intestinal tract. Cholesterol helps to repair weakened and damaged arteries (which flies in the face of cholesterol being spotlighted as a precursor to clogged arteries), it’s a powerful antioxidant, the precurser to bile salts (needed for fat digestion), and helps form adrenal hormones which help elevate our mood, enhance sexual function and protect us from stress.
In the case of increased risk of heart disease, the finger should not be pointed at cholesterol and saturated fats from traditional animal products (and I realize this statement will likely be rejected by some). These kinds of fats have been consumed by humans for thousands of years, and far and away pre-date heart disease. When saturated animal fats were spotlighted and widely rejected in recent history, did the incidence of this disease reduce? Certainly not. In fact, it only increased, and at a rapid rate as the trend favouring ‘low-fat’ commercial products grew. Butter consumption at the turn of the century was eighteen pounds (~8kg) per person per year, while vegetable oils were almost nonexistent, and cancer and heart disease were considered rare. Today, it hovers at just over four pounds (~2kg) per person per year with vegetable oil consumption higher than ever and the incidence of cancer and heart disease have reached endemic levels. Polyunsaturated vegetable oils are molecularly unstable and toxic to the body when heated, and the excessive consumption of these commercial oils is directly associated with increasing rates of cancer and heart disease, as well as hormone dysfunction and weight gain. Atherosclerosis, the buildup of hardened plaque in the artery walls, cannot be blamed on saturated fat or cholesterol, with very little of this plaque matter being cholesterol. Since 1994, it’s be widely known that almost three quarters of the fat in artery clogs is unsaturated, that is, not due to animal fats but vegetable oils. (Note, this does not mean traditional oils such as cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil, sesame, flax, coconut oil and the like. I refer instead to modern, commercial and particularly hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils – soy, corn, canola etc – that we consume so much of today). These commercial vegetable oils make up just one pillar of the three big nasties within with the Western diet, the other two being refined sweeteners/sugars, and white flour.
“The diet-heart hypothesis has been repeatedly shown to be wrong, and yet, for complicated reasons of pride, profit and prejudice, the hypothesis continues to be exploited by scientists, fund-raising enterprises, food companies and even governmental agencies. The public is being deceived by the greatest health scam of the century.” –George Mann, ScD, MD, Former Co-Director, The Framingham Study
I still don’t believe that huge quantities of animal products are necessary in any diet, and I do strongly feel that generally, we consume far too many poor-quality animal products as a part of the modern, Western diet. Animal products in general – meat, dairy and the like – are acidic in the body. However, I realize now that I placed too much emphasis on consuming almost exclusively alkaline foods. The human body boasts an effective buffer system, a dynamic equilibrium of weak carbonic acid and bicarbonate ions that work together to maintain an optimum blood pH. Acidosis is a grim condition (and probably all too common today due to the overconsumption of low-quality meats, pasteurized dairy and refined sugars and grains), however alkalosis is just as serious. Our diet must contain both alkaline and acid-forming foods, not just one or the other. A western diet is highly acidic, however the answer to this does not lie in the consumption of a purely alkaline diet as I might once have believed.
More than ever my own nutritional journey is proving to be a constantly evolving one, which is a good thing! As you all know, I’ve been a loud advocate of vegetable juices as a wonderful source of live enzymes, and fabulous for detoxing a heavily acidic body. Fresh, organic vegetable juices are brimming with wonderful nutrients, however they’re not the be all and end all when it comes to live enzymes, I’ve since discovered. Cultured, fermented natural foods play host to a wealth of beneficial bacteria, and far more live enzymes that your giant salad or green juice could possibly contain. Vegetables and fruits contain enzymes, yes. But not in the huge amounts I used to believe.
Further still, consuming huge amounts of raw cruciferous vegetables, kale or broccoli for example, might not be ideal. While the nutritional profiles of these vegetables look wonderful on paper, we’ve got to take into account what our bodies can actually receive and absorb, nutritionally speaking, from these foods. I know from my own experience, that I cannot digest and properly assimilate large amounts of kale in my salads. To put it crudely, it comes out the same as it goes in. Plus, vegetables such as kale and broccoli, when taken into the body raw, actually hinder our nutrient absorption. This has been a huge revelation for me. Really, our digestive tract does not have the natural capacity to pass large amounts of hard to break down vegetable mulch, in the form of raw cruciferous or collard vegetables (cooked is another story). It is widely acknowledged that vegetables are of course an amazing source of vitamins and minerals. This is absolutely true! However, many of the vitamins and minerals found in vegetables cannot be absorbed without fat, and the plant protein in these foods cannot be assimilated without fat. The body needs an abundant supply of the fat-soluble vitamins and fat-soluble activators found only in animal fats to be able to make the most of what vegetables and other foods have to offer us nutritionally. For a vegetarian (I never have, and probably never will enjoy much meat in my diet), these can be found in raw dairy products and organic eggs. I will probably be howled down for this, by my general consensus at the moment is that for a vegan diet to be nutritionally viable, supplementation of these essential vitamins is necessary.
Choosing quality animal products is absolutely imperative. I would never advocate consuming mainstream meat products, for example, or conventional supermarket dairy. These products are highly toxic, near unrecognizable versions of traditional foods; homogenized, ultra-pasteurised milk bearing very little resemblance to traditional, fresh, raw milk, for example. Soy-fed chickens, and grain-fed beef, pumped with antibiotics and hormones, are biologically different species that do not compare to free-range grain-fed chickens and happy, healthy, grass-fed cows. If domestic animals are not fed green grass, vitamins A and K will largely missing from their fat, meat, butter and egg yolks. If these animals are raised in indoor factory farms or cages, vitamin D will be similarly missing from these foods.
Well! Sorry for the insanely long virtual essay, I hope I didn’t lose too many readers along the way. I’m still coming to grips with all these new ideas and how much I’ve had to question my own nutritional thoughts and conditioning. I have so much more to learn and to write about, but I’ll hold back for another day. I really urge you all to look in to the work of Dr Weston Price, as well as people like Sally Fallon Morell (author of Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats).
Oh and I just thought I’d put it in here, to conclude, a quick breakdown of the characteristics of Traditional Diets, according to Dr. Price:
– No refined or denatured foods or ingredients, such as refined sugar or high fructose corn syrup; white flour; canned foods; pasteurized, homogenized, skim or lowfat milk; refined or hydrogenated vegetable oils; protein powders; artificial vitamins; toxic additives and colourings.
– Some sort of animal foods. The whole animal is consumed – muscle meat, organs, bones and fats, with the organ meats and fats preferred.
– Contain at least four times the minerals and water-soluble vitamins, and TEN times the fat-soluble vitamins found in animal fats (vitamins A, D and K2) than the average American diet (note that this is based on the standard American diet over 60 years ago, the nutritional potency of which has degenerated rapidly since this time due to poor farming practices, depleted soils and the increased consumption of devitalized packaged and processed foods).
– Some cooked foods but also a portion of raw animal foods.
– A high content of food enzymes and beneficial bacteria from lacto-fermented vegetables, fruits, beverages, dairy products, meats and condiments.
– Seeds, grains and nuts are soaked, sprouted, fermented or naturally leavened to neutralize naturally occurring anti-nutrients such as enzyme inhibitors, tannins and phytic acid.
– Total fat content of traditional diets varies from 30 to 80 percent of calories but only about 4 percent of calories from polyunsaturated oils naturally occurring in grains, legumes, nuts, fish, animal fats and vegetables.
– Nearly equal amounts of omega-6 and omega-3 essential fatty acids (note, we consume a far greater proportion of omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids today, a topic I will cover in a later post)
– All traditional diets contain natural salt.
There’s a full list of dietary guidelines (what to eat, what not to eat), at the Weston A. Price Foundation website, which is an absolutely invaluable resource by the way, for anyone who would like to read up further on traditional diets and the proper consumption of whole foods and natural animal products. See this page in particular for reference.