Going back in time, and what is moderation anyway?

Comments on my post reviewing “Refuse to Regain,” has gotten me thinking on the subject of nutritional history and anthropology and the  notion of moderation.

I’ve always defined moderation as “the least restrictive method that yields the intended results.”

I’ve used that exact definition for the last 20 years.  I even used it when I taught basic nutrition in community college childhood development classes.

So what is the least restrictive method that is effective?

Ah, if only there were a single correct answer to that question.  It certainly would save us all a whole lot of grief and trouble.

I think one effective strategy is to try to recreate in our lives a bit of the past.  We weren’t always the fattest nation (only getting fatter).

To a certain degree, I think most weight loss does follow the model of time-travel.  Some of us may only have to go back a few years – when there were just few fewer labor-saving devices, people got just a little more sleep, and people ate out just a little less.

But how far do you have to go back?  Five years; 10; 50; 100; 500; 2000; 5000; 10,000; 15,000 years?

As Barbara Berkely says in her book Refuse to Regain (I believe quoting another source, because I heard it long before her book came out) that if all of human existence were to be considered one day – we’ve only been eating modern foods (like grains and dairy) for about 6 minutes.

When humans switched from hunting/gathering to farming – average height fell dramatically and new or rare diseases became common in the fossil record (diseases such as tooth decay and arthritis).  As farming techniques advanced, those diseases become even more common).

But who wants to eat a “caveman diet,” even if it were proven to be the “best” diet for humans?  150 grams of fiber instead of 20 or even the 35 (which is sometimes seen as extreme advice).

There are few hunter-gatherer societies left in the world.  Not many, but a few.  Barbara Berkely references a study of New Guinea or Australian aboriginal tribesmen (born into the hunter-gathering tribes) living a modern lifestlye and suffering modern lifestyle diseases.  All the subjects had some modern illness diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure.  They were asked to return to their tribal culture for a period of time (it wasn’t terribly long, but I don’t remember if it was 6 weeks or 6 months)- and their health improved dramatically.

Does that mean that we can’t get healthier unless we live like triable peoples have for millions of years.

I don’t think so.  But I do think that “time travel backwards” is a concept that almost anyone could follow with success.  Someone with 10 lbs to lose, or someone who is at a healthy weight but has some risk factors may only have to go back to 1980, whereas someone with allergies, insulin resistance, hypothyroidism, thin tooth enamel, autoimmune joint and connective tissue disease, arthritis and morbid obesity (like myself) may need to go back to the Stone Age.

Even as I’m more and more intrigued by primitive diets, I know that I cannot replicate an ancient diet in much detail.  I cannot and will not go back 15,000 years.

I could start from either end (modern foods working backward or stoneage working forward) or I could start in the middle.  It doesn’t matter.  It’s my strong belief that moderation will be whichever point allows me to reach a healthy state (in weight and symptoms).

When will I end up?  1965?  1800?  20,000 BC

I don’t know yet, but I do know that 2010 is killing a lot of us.  If we don’t make some retro-style changes 2050 will be worse.

Ultimately, we can’t ever truly replicate any year.  I am not going to eat insects, so whatever humans have gained gained from eating insects I’ll have to replicate in a modified “modern” way.  Some ancestor diets recommend low-fat dairy (not a paleolithic food, but if you can digest it, it’s more palatable than eating bugs).

I’m not going to go into the wilderness and chase a deer (or let a bear chase me), but I am going to swim and walk and bicycle.

It’s not about replicating the past, it’s about recreating the results.  For the most part, eating more foods that ancestor’s would recognize and the further back the better. 

I think it boils down to making changes that are “older” in spirit, using some fairly easy basic principles.

Higher fiber is better than lower fiber (we’ve bred the fiber out of foods). 

Lower sugar is better than higher sugar (because we’ve bred sugar into our foods).

More omega 3 fats 

Less high fat dairy and other “concentrated” foods (dried fruits have more in common with candy than with fruit). 

Eating fewer processed carbohydrates.

If you have autoimmune disease, consider the possibility that you may have to “go back” further than someone without AI conditions.

Ultimately, it can all be reduced to “moderation,” if you define moderation as “the least restrictive method that is effective in achieving the results you want.”











5 Responses to “Going back in time, and what is moderation anyway?”

  1. Screaming Fat Girl Says:

    I’ve never defined moderation, but it’s an interesting question. I tend to believe moderation is relative, and therefore subjective. If you’re capable of drinking 6 cans of beer without getting drunk, that may seem “moderate”, but if you get hammered after 2, that may seem excessive.

    People have the ability to know what is “too much” for themselves, and often go beyond what is “enough”. I do believe that is our nature because it used to assist in survival. If you came across a fruit tree, you ate and carried as much as possible before moving on and that served our survival. The main problem with modern living is that ready access to food forces us to learn how to act against our nature, and moderation is against our nature. Of course, many things are against our nature and we learn how to do them. Men learn not to mate with every available seemingly fertile female. People learn to resist fight or flight responses in scary or stressful situations. We just have to be socialized or taught how.

    I strongly believe that many cultures which do not have the obesity issues that America does teach moderation more effectively, though they don’t do it overtly or intentionally. I also believe that American culture, being consumerist, is all about promoting excess because it brings the most profit. It profits companies for people to be fat on two sides of the economic equation – sell them more to consume and get fat on, then make them hate themselves so they will then consume products to not be fat. We are conditioned to indulge, and to overdo it in the U.S. This is part of what happens when corporations and private interests are given free reign without any sort of restriction. We say this is freedom, but what it really is is a license to encourage destructive behavior at the expensive of public health interests. Other countries (and I know this because I live in a foreign country now) don’t allow corporate interests to trample public health interests.


  2. Don Wiss Says:

    You list a bunch of the diseases of civilization and state they those people may have to go back all 10,000 years in their diet choice. But one of the reasons to adopt the paleo lifestyle is to avoid these disorders. I’d prefer not to get them in the first place.

    Here’s a basic explanation which also list the many variations on it:

  3. kaplods Says:

    Awesome point. And I think I’ve been “too moderate” in my openess to oposing viewpoints.

    There’s a great deal of evidence that optimal health at any size is essentially paleo (when you examine the diets of the uber-healthy, they’re either paleo- or minimally neo- and almost exclusively non-industrial.

    Uber-healthy people, as a rule do not include fast food and other processed foods frequently or regularly. In fact, their diets tend to be rather “extreme” by most standards.

    As I read more and more of the research, I expected to find more dissention (and I even went looking for it) from the experts. There are a lot of scientists dissenting – but it’s not on the healthfulness of the diet, but rather on the practicality of it (primarily palatability – even when we’re not talking bug-eating, just giving up bread).

    That’s really sad. We know it’s optimally healthy, but we can’t say so, because people aren’t interested in making that many changes to their diet?

    Another argument against it has been, essentially that people don’t “need” to be “that” healthy? That is you can be in “reasonably good health, with only a few minor problems like osteoarthritis and tooth decay” (if we stay healthy until we’re 60, and live an extended life-span why should we care if we lose our teeth and are in pain when we’re old – it’s “normal” for old people to be toothless and grumpy from pain).

    Moderation often is thinly disguised mediocrity. “Good enough is good enough.”

    But is it really good enough. Do parents want to give their children a mediocre diet or an optimal one? Optimal you say? Really? Even if the kids may not “like” some of the food? Even if all their peers are eating out of garbage cans, shouldn’t they be allowed to also so they fit in? Even if mom and dad are eating out of the same garbage can, certainly it’s alright then, right?

    I use the garbage can as a metaphore. The fact is eating paleo foods out of the garbage can would probably be safer than eating a modern diet.

    There’s a strong link between grains, sugar and autoimmune disease. It’s not just correlational. Successful dietary therapy has shown that grain-free diets can reverse and prevent autoimmune disease. Autoimmune disease has SKYROCKETED since the advent of processed foods. As we eat more and more grains and sugar than ever before, autoimmune disease (once a rare “specialty” field of medicine) has become more and more common in younger and younger people.

    “Moderation” would have us include these foods until there are signs of problems, then cut back?

    I think I was temporarily insane when I suggested that.

    Eating “modern foods” is a bit like a grandscale russian roulette, except that there are millions of bullets and it takes a lot more than one shot to kill you or make you ill, and you don’t know how many times you’ve been shot because you may not feel any of the hits.

    How many twinkies can I have in a lifetime before developing diabetes? (Wait twinkies dont “cause” diabetes, but they’re finding that the insulin rollercoaster can wear out the pancreas causing diabetes – so a lifetime of sugar really can contribute to diabetes?) Ok splitting hairs here – sugar can contribute to the development of diabetes, but by itself does not cause diabetes. Doesn’t either suggest “don’t overdose on the sugar?”

    How much poison is “moderate” anyway?

  4. julie Says:

    Sardinians eat paleo? Okinawans eat paleo? I think it’s a bloody myth, this paleo stuff. There’s a world of difference between brown rice and cheetos, regardless of what grain-haters say. I’m super-healthy, no longer obese, or even overweight, super-low cholesterol, lots of stamina, and I EAT BREAD!

    BTW, this is the absolute first time that I’ve heard that humans were taller before agriculture. I don’t believe it, but will look into it.

    BTW, my dad is 75, hasn’t had a cavity since childhood. Has all his teeth. I’m 41, same way. Must be the sweets we eat before BRUSHING OUR TEETH!

  5. kaplods Says:

    I encourage you to research the post-agricultural fossil record on human height, as well as bone and dental health. I didn’t believe it either, and thought at best there’s be one or two studies suggesting it. Nope, there’s quite a lot of evidence that paleolithic humans were taller, stronger, leaner, had healthier bones and teeth, and lived longer (when death by accident and injury are taken out of the equation).

    As for grains. I don’t hate grains, I just think many people cannot digest them well. I love grains. I really love bread. Bread doesn’t love me. I experimented with bread, and must have repeated the same experiment dozens of times (hoping the results were coincidental flukes), hoping I was wrong.

    When my husband could tell when I’d eaten wheat by my complexion and how I walked (how badly I limped), I had to admit it was no fluke. Wheat really was aggravating my autoimmune issues.

    The best of the Paleo diets distinguish between modern food, neolithic foods, and paleo foods.

    Modern foods (cheetos, and all the other processed foods – primarily sugars and starches with little to no fiber).

    Neolithic foods (grains and milk)

    Paleolithic foods (pre-agrarian foods)

    They also do not suggest that all people are effected the same way by modern and neolithic foods. Different genetic makeups make some people more or less resistance to different diets. In general, they would argue that neolithic whole foods are far healthier than modern foods, but they still may pose a problem for some people. Again, I encourage you to read a couple of the paleo books, take their research lists – go to the original research. Then look for the research that is not cited by the paleodiets. Look for the refuting evidence.

    I did. I really expected to be persuaded against paleodiets. I’m still finding it hard to believe that I’ve found more pro-paleo than anti-paleo evidence. I’m not just surprised, I’m shocked – especially since I lectured against it when I taught developmental health and nutrition classes (in a well-ranked community college).

    I believe that some grains are harder to digest than others. I believe some people do better on grains than others. I do not believe that grains are the course of all evil – but some of the reasearch evidence is fairly compelling in regard to the link between grains (especially gluten grains) and autoimmune disease.

    I eat rice. I haven’t noticed the symptom flares with rice as much as with other grains, so I consider it reasonably safe for me in small portions.

    I’m currently trying quinoa. So far, so good. No weird rash, no pain flares. May work ok for me.

    Unfortunately, avoiding wheat in Anerica, is like avoiding air. On one hand, it has helped me avoid nearly all processed foods, because most contain wheat (and those that don’t contain wheat, contain corn – another frequent allergen), and on the other hand, it’s frustrating as hell for someone raised in a polish, german, italian home where life without bread is virtually unimanginable (and I haven’t yet found a wheatless bread yet that didn’t taste like crap).

    I was surprised to learn how most common allergens are neolithic foods, and was shocked to learn how few are paleolithic (Eggs being one of the few paleo foods that are a common allergen. I only learned recently that the very fact that eggs are a common allergen has been used to argue that eggs were not a frequent part of early humans’ diets).

    Suspecting a wheat allergy, I’ve tried to avoid other common allergens also, until I can “test” them by adding them to my diet one at a time, and in limited quantities until I’m sure.

    I have no doubt that you can find healthy people who eat grains. I have no doubt that you can find healthy people who do not. I’ve read many stories of folks who reversed their autoimmune diseases by adopting a more primitive lifestyle.

    I don’t believe there’s enough evidence to conclude that grains are bad choices for everyone, but there’s more than enough evidence (to my satisfaction) to suggest that reducing grain consumption can help people with certain autoimmune issues.

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