“A book that represents a paradigm shift in how modern medicine is beginning to understand the link between diet and disease”
Professor Loren Cordain
I discovered this book in rather odd circumstances. Being a Melanesianist, I was searching for references in Papua New Guinea on sporting practice and, as you often do when at a loss, you scour the bibliography of any text that remotely resembles your thematic or regional topic. I came across reference to the Kitavan study, an investigation into the health of a small island population in the Trobriands, famous in anthropological circles as the so-called birthplace of modern fieldwork practices in the early 1900s.
Staffan Lindeberg, a Swedish physician and professor of family medicine at Lund University is one of the absolute leading authorities in the world of nutritional science, and has finally translated to English his original work in Swedish (2003 Maten och folksjukdomanar: ett evolutionsmedicinskt perspektiv, revised 2008). The new 2010 edition Food and Western Disease: Health and Nutrition from an Evolutionary Perspective is a lifelong journey of research in evolutionary medicine that ought to be read by anyone interested not only in medicine and nutrition, but also those who wonder how to optimize their health based on real evolutionary science. This is a life changer.
Lindeberg traces all the major diseases of modern civilization, giving each a chapter of its own and discussing how the Western diet is responsible for practically all diseases that afflict the human population. Each condition, including coronary heart disease, diabetes, obesity, hypertension, cancer, osteoporosis, insulin resistance and autoimmune disease to name but a few, is linked through scientific evidence to our nutritional practices. This is what many suspect, and the whole Paleo/Primal blogosphere is full of various takes on how to articulate this, often sensationalising the issue in order to gain a following. Not so with Lindeberg.
An incredible 2034 references are included in a 93 page bibliography, making this masterpiece an essential textbook for future research on disease and diet. His writing style is both sceptical and humble, without any elaborate or unnecessary hyperbole you´ll commonly find in less scientifically orientated works. Not to say that this is too daunting a read for the layman. I have no background in medicine apart from an old girlfriend who went to med school and snuck me into anatomy class one day to help dissect a sheep’s brain. But I still managed to read it with great interest and develop a thirst for more knowledge about this fascinating subject.
The Kitavan study showed that only 0.2% of the caloric intake of the population came from Western food, such as edible fats, dairy products, refined sugar, cereals and alcohol. Subsisting exclusively on root vegetables, tropical fruits, fish and coconuts (in other words extremely high saturated fat – lauric acid as opposed to palmitic acid in Western countries), the Kitavans did not suffer sudden cardiac death. In fact, the Kitavans showed little or no signs of common Western diseases, being at the time (1980s) almost totally isolated from the poisoning foodstuffs. More can be read on this fascinating study here.
From an evolutionary point of view, Lindeberg makes no claim to romanticize the ideal of the all-encompassing “original paleo diet” espoused in essentialized ways by many in the Paleo blog world. Our “ancestors”, as it were, were spread out over vast areas, occupied diverse environments, were subjected to drastic changes in available foodstuffs, and importantly, developed a metabolic and digestive system long before they became human-like and bipedal, some 6 million years ago. Some periods would have preferenced a more vegetarian-like diet says Lindeberg, and others would have been adapted to a high meat intake, ´neither position excludes the other…we may be adapted to any kind of food without necessarily being dependent on it for high reproductive success´(p. 30).
Early humans certainly ate the food that was available and provided the energy required to survive such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, insects, larvae, wild game meat, fish, shellfish and root vegetables. The relative proportions consumed of each of these however, is methodologically hard to determine and have been highly variable depending on habitat, yet Lindeberg reminds us that crucially
“The discussion about human´s ancient diets is often misdirected to a debate on meat verses plant foods. Thereby, the main point is missed: most of the calories in Western countries are provided by foods that were practically unavailable during human evolution” (p. 34).
Lindeberg sees very few risks with a Paleolithic diet, which he suggests consists of the following foods:
Lean meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, root vegetables, tap water and nuts
Vary your meals and allow for the odd compromise meal, but not if you suffer illness such as autoimmunity, bowel disorder, type 2 diabetes, myocardial infarction etc.
“The optimal human diet is more than just a diet of our ancestors; it appears to have the potential to prevent many of the common health problems of the West” p. 224
Overall, this is an amazing book. It isn´t cheap though, costing $80 at Amazon, but I managed to score a copy on loan at the library here. I will get a copy at some stage though. It is full of useful facts and reminders, and ought to be widely read.