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Return to Your Roots

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Is your body genetically programmed to thrive on foods which were prevalent in the diet of your ancestors? If your forbears lived in northern Europe, should you build your diet around fish and dairy? If you're of Asian desc.

Is your body genetically programmed to thrive on foods which were prevalent in the diet of your ancestors? If your forbears lived in northern Europe, should you build your diet around fish and dairy? If you're of Asian descent, should you shun milk products and eat more rice and soy foods?

Research has shown that traditional diets around the world protect ethnic folk from the major killer diseases-cancer and atherosclerosis which have become rampant in the industrialized world. Should we, therefore, track down our genetic lineage and adopt the diet of our great-grandparents? Would this help to prevent allergies and food intolerances?

While the idea holds appeal, many Canadians could find themselves in conflict if their paternal and maternal ancestors had different ethnic origins. If your grandmother was from southern Italy and your grandfather from northern China, what foods should you put on the dinner table, especially if your spouse brings yet another set of genes to the mix?

I'm convinced that the health benefits of different ancestral diets are largely found in their commonalities:

  • natural whole foods which are locally and seasonally available;

  • foods that are high in enzymes, either because they are fresh and raw or because they have been naturally preserved through fermentation, and;

  • natural, unrefined fats such as butter, flax oil, olive oil and coconut oil.

Inuit Raw Food

The traditional Inuit diet makes for an interesting case study. The Inuit traditionally lived mostly on fatty animal foods, including different species of marine animals, fish and fish roe and few vegetables or fruits. They had virtually no heart disease. Why?

The traditional Inuit diet consisted largely of raw foods. Much of the Inuit's meats, including organ meats, were eaten fresh and raw or frozen but never cooked. As unappetizing as eating raw meat may seem to the western palate, it was the Inuit's way of ensuring that he ingested an adequate supply of enzymes to help him digest his food. He even stored his meat in such a way that it would undergo autolysis, a process which partially predigests the meat and preserves it at the same time. Predigested foods are high in enzymes and are easily assimilated.

So what to do if your ancestral heritage is Inuit and you now live in Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver? Should you eat raw meat and forego vegetables and fruit? Hardly. The consumption of store-bought raw meat is simply not safe and autolyzed meat is not readily available. You need also consider that you live in a different climate and environment. You are likely to be less physically active than your ancestors, even if you exercise regularly. This means that you should eat fewer acid-forming foods such as meat and more alkaline-forming foods such as fruits and vegetables, which also supply plenty of enzymes when eaten raw. In addition, you can incorporate into your diet foods which offer benefits similar to those found in the traditional Inuit diet.

Traditionally Fermented Foods

Lactic-acid fermented foods, for instance, are partially predigested through enzyme action. Yogurt, kefir and buttermilk are lactic-acid fermented dairy foods which have traditionally been consumed by ethnic groups known for their extraordinary sturdiness and longevity. Although mandatory pasteurization and homogenization have robbed us of the benefits of enzyme-rich raw milk and dairy products, we can still enjoy cultured milk products in which enzyme action is restored. People of different ethnic backgrounds who are unable to digest regular milk find that fermented milks give them no such problems.

The health benefits of natural fermentation are also known in traditional Asian cuisine, where cultured soy products such as miso, tempeh and natto are popular. Many vegetables can be lactic-acid fermented, including cabbage (the sauerkraut of northern and eastern Europe), carrots, radishes, cucumbers, tomatoes and beets. Traditionally, sauerkraut is prepared by shredding and mashing the veggies to squeeze out the juice, mixing the pulp and juice with salt and water, then packing everything tightly in a Mason jar and allowing it to stand at room temperature for several days. The naturally present lactic-acid bacteria then initiate the fermentation process, converting the sugars and starches into lactic acid, which helps to restore a healthy bowel flora and destroys putrefactive bacteria in the intestines. Commercially prepared lactic-acid fermented vegetables are available in many natural food stores. Be sure to buy an unpasteurized product.

Unless specific intolerances are present, these foods are nourishing and health-giving for people of all ethnic backgrounds.

Soaking and Sprouting

Many traditional diets also rely on soaking, sprouting and sour-leavening to make foods more nutritious and easier to digest. These practices help to break down the phytates in grains and seeds, which otherwise interfere with the absorption of minerals in the body. Sprouting also multiplies the vitamin content of plant foods.

What traditional diets lack is refined flour and sugar, overcooked foods devoid of enzymes, pasteurized milk and cheese and processed, hydrogenated vegetable oils.

The point I am making is this: when our digestive system revolts and we find that we cannot tolerate certain grains or dairy, it is not necessarily because these foods were absent from our great-grandparents' diet. Rather, it is the modern, processed versions of these foods which are indigestible and cause illness.

Whatever our ancestral lineage, we can all benefit if we put the enzyme-rich, unrefined whole foods of traditional diets back into daily menus now!

Why These Diets Work

The late Dr Weston A. Price, a Cleveland dentist who travelled the world in the early 1900s in search of the healthiest ethnic diets, concluded from his research that it was largely the abundance of the fat-soluble vitamins A and D in native diets that determined the overall nutritional status and health of the natives. Price found that ethnic groups who changed their diet from native food to imported modern foods then suffered rampant tooth decay, which led to other health problems (toothache was the only cause of suicide among natives of Fiji, for example). The new generation whose parents adopted processed foods had crowded teeth and changes in the shape of the face and dental arches. He documented his findings in the book, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration.

Also in the last century, physician Dr Edward Howell, the author of Enzyme Nutrition, spent many years researching the health benefits of enzyme-rich raw foods in ethnic diets and human nutrition. He concluded that enzymes in a natural foods diet are the vital link in the digestion and assimilation of foods and in preventing chronic degenerative disease and premature death. Lipase, the enzyme necessary for fat digestion, is abundantly available in unpasteurized dairy products and is important for the proper assimilation of vitamins A and D from these foods.

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