Saturday, May 5, 2012

Nature vs Culture: The Primal Diet

Dear Old Dad (DOD) has recently switched from the paleo-diet to the primal diet, both designed to return eating habits to those human beings evolved for over long periods time (namely protein and plant matter), as opposed to eating habits humans have developed since adopting farming a relatively short time ago (namely grains and dairy). The idea is to eat plenty of lean protein, good fats, lots of vegetables, and some fruit in order to maintain even blood glucose, insulin, and energy levels. Recently, I got to try a primal-approved meal when I was home over a long weekend for an academic conference and crashing at My Awesome Parents' (MAP) place. We had a relaxed Sunday afternoon, visited Grammy, and fired up the grill for some salmon with a sweet glaze. Next to the tossed green salad are roasted vegetables (onions, peppers, yams, potatoes) slathered in olive oil, balsamic vinaigrette, and rosemary, which made the house smell *divine* while baking. (I'm such a sucker for rosemary. And basil. :-)

Before I left for the airport DOD provisioned me with some snack mix. Instead of marshmallows, M&Ms, or chocolate chips (high glycemic index and load), or even peanuts (bad fats), the mix has good fats plus a little kick of carbohydrates:

pumpkin seeds
sunflower seeds
chopped almonds
almond flour
chopped dried date
chopped dried mango

The almond flour has a curious texture and impacts a delicious nuttiness to this snack.

Debates about nature versus culture, evolution versus civilization, go back at least to the time period I am studying, the early twentieth century. Both scientific and ethnological studies supported a wide range of dietary practices. For instance, famous American nutritional scientist E.V. McCollum, who discovered vitamins A and D, among other things, wrote in his 1957 A History of Nutrition, "The fact that the human population in contrasting parts of the world, while subsisting on diets of different kinds, experienced approximately the same health standards was largely responsible for the belief of physiologists as late as the year 1900 that it did not matter much what kind of food people ate so long as the diet supplied enough protein and available energy." (1) The Inuit were a particular fascination to Westerners, especially after the discovery of vitamins, since their diet consisted almost exclusively of meat and blubber, with next to no plant matter.

In one respect, the mainstream medical position was fairly hands-off: as long as individuals consumed a varied diet, they were likely to get everything their bodies needed. But what they meant by that was a "mixed diet" containing plant foods AND animal products. Vegetarianism and veganism were suspect, especially in Germany, where a famous "school" of nutrition and metabolism in Munich had developed (incorrectly) high recommendations for daily protein intake (118g for an adult man doing moderately strenuous work; today the USDA recommends 45-70g depending on age, sex, and pregnancy). They gave all sorts of reasons that eating meat is "natural." Animal proteins are more complete than plant proteins, they said. Or, human beings' digestive tracts aren't long enough to get sufficient calories from a plant-only diet. Some played the "culture card": eating meat is a sign of civilization and/or racial superiority.

Meanwhile, alternative nutritionists tended to be more...paranoid may be too strong a word. They believed very strongly, let us say, that health begins with what we put into our bodies, namely food and drink. The "schools" I cover in my dissertation were located outside Dresden and taught the importance of low- or no-meat diets as well as temperance from drugs like tobacco and alcohol. One developed an elaborate theory of acid-base balance in which eating (too much) animal protein introduces excess acid (from amino acids) into the body; the acidity disturbs nervous among other functions. A better source of the small amount of protein needed on a day-to-day basis was potatoes, said one, since these possess excess bases. Furthermore, boiling vegetables caused their minerals to leach out, so veggies should be eaten raw or steamed, or the boiling liquid reused in soups, to prevent the loss of the valuable "nutrient salts" [sic: water-soluble vitamins]. A predecessor to that vegetarian champion was a physician who insisted on the danger of consuming too much water or other beverages, as this would dilute bodily fluids and prevent the normal workings of cells.

These were (quasi)scientific reasons to eat less meat. Alternative nutritionists often touted their own personal experiences with low- or no-meat diets, or organized sports competitions to prove their abilities over meat-eaters.  Others pointed to the rise in chronic diseases of the cardiovascular system, obesity, and "nervous degeneration" as "diseases of civilization" and proof against Western culture and for a "return to nature." There were also moral arguments against the cruelty of keeping and killing animals: no civilized society would condone such a thing. Either way, in both cases, proponents could call on nature (experimental laboratory science, evolutionary theory, individual and collective observations) and/or culture (the argument about "civilization") to buttress their preferred diet.

Advocates of the paleo diet and primal diets claim, "The Paleo Diet, the world’s healthiest diet, is based on the simple understanding that the best human diet is the one to which we are best genetically adapted." They rely upon much of the same science as those earlier "alternatives," including acid-base balance, but they holds up lean protein as the primary nutrient, not culprit (think: caveman diet). They also expect eating fewer grains and bad fats will reduce common disorders in Western Civilization such as acne, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. (Disclaimer: I am not researching these diets and do not have a financial interest in them.)

One of things I'm interested in with my dissertation research is how ideas of sameness and difference, individual and collective moved between medical and cultural discourses. Should everyone eat the same things? CAN everyone eat the same things? What about the possibility that humans have all evolved to some common point, after which certain variations must be tolerated? (Actually, these variations tend to intolerances: milk, fruit, legumes, grains. If an individual can tolerate dairy, why not eat it?) Finally, what say should anyone have over anyone else's diet, anyway? There's a tricky interplay here between expertise and authority. The early twentieth century saw a number of experiments  in Europe with different forms of collectivism--from war economies to socialism to fascism--all of which claimed to have some kind of power over individuals' diets for the good of the collective. How much was too much?

I am tackling such questions right now in my research and brainstorming for chapter 2 of my dissertation, on how German experiences during World War I influenced both scientific and political discourses. I will pay special attention to rations for the sick, the qualities of digestibility versus satiety, hunger edema, and the very question of the homogenization of a population through rationing. Check back over the summer for more recipes and ruminations.


  1. I've often wondered, do these people who adhere to the primal/paleo diet eat insects? It would seem that in a primitive society the BULK of protein intake would be from insects or worms/grubs instead of birds and stuff. I realize that's not what your post is about at all, but I still wonder. Many insects (caterpillars come to mind) contain protein and fats, are plentiful, easy to catch, and are fine to eat raw. Grubs are basically shrimp that live in the dirt.

  2. I believe the answer is "no"--for cultural reasons--but that is an interesting question, because I read once that the reason Hindu Indians didn't have so many nutritional problems before colonialism brought higher standards of hygiene was that they used to (inadvertently) consume insects with their vegetarian diet.

  3. If you're interested in the medical side of the Paleo Diet: .


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