Youth and Traditional Foods: Our Questions, Your Questions

*This work is cross-posted at Nutrition By Tradition.

Hai and I began talking about nutrition and health about a year ago at these bi-annual student sustainability convergences in California. Our paths initially crossed while both of us were studying at the University of California Irvine beginning in 2008 and applying ourselves in student sustainability networks.  This past summer, we both hit bottom in health, finding ourselves malnourished and unstable.  My friend Hai was diagnosed with Celiac disease, a hyperthyroid, and malnourishment, while I was suffering from unabated anxiety and a mild eating disorder.

Researching and applying traditional foodways and foods has been a major component to our healing.  Part of our research has left us with questions to explore:

What is the connection between modern disease and traditional foods?  And the connections between traditional foodways, optimal human health, and sustainable food systems?  What connections are there between food science and food culture?

What should we be eating for optimal human health?  How do we sustain our food system, assuming that we’re all eating differently, omnivores unlike vegetarians unlike vegans?

How do young people today reclaim the traditional foodways and foods that have nourished humans since our existence?

These are our questions thus far.  As two young folk seeking a shift in today’s paradigm toward solutions for diet-related illness, we’re beginning a journey of exploration and reflection.

This space will be used not only to educate, share recipes, and narrate experiences.  We want to go deeper than that.  Our questions are many, and this is an attempt to answer them.  We campaign, advocate with, and are seeking fellow youth to heal and nourish themselves and our food system by learning about and preserving traditional foods and foodways.  We are creating a manifesto of sorts, believing that optimal human health and nutrition are not isolated by individual micro- and macro-nutrients, particular behaviors and exercises, and independent scientific reviews.  We will move forward by looking back, syncing modern food science with food culture.

Might we propose, advocating Nutrition by Tradition.

Hai and I converged in Santa Cruz one month ago for the 4th annual “Strengthening the Roots” Real Food Challenge West Coast Summit.  It was the largest gathering since it began, bringing students, youth, and community members throughout California to explore food systems, justice, and advocacy.  We facilitated a workshop on traditional foods to a room of 50 at a 30-person capacity.  Needless to say, we felt overwhelmed and overjoyed.  Here’s the synopsis:

Youth Reclaiming Traditional Foodways: An Exploration and Exercise on Optimal Human Nutrition

What are our traditional foodways – the foods, techniques, and principles – that our ancestors have used for optimal human nutrition?  How do these foodways connect to our modern interpretation of “sustainable food” and “food justice”?  Renourishing our bodies, our Earth, and each other with traditional foods is an oftentimes underestimated solution to our broken food system.  Learn about the principles of traditional diets discovered by leading paleontologists, scientists, and researchers of modern times.  Explore your own dietary nutrition with those of our ancestors in an interactive and thought-provoking environment.

EAT what makes you happy.
Our workshop consisted of sharing traditional foods that we grew up with, raising questions we had about the current state of nutrition, exploring evolutionary nutrition through an interactive rope exercise, documenting and analyzing personal food diets, and contrasting personal diets to the current USDA food pyramid and nutritional guidelines.  Much learning was had: the roles and distinctions between different dietary fats, the role of government subsidies, and the presence of human disease with the onset of particular foods (grains, legumes, processed and refined foods) and events (agriculture and the domestication of plants and animals).  Time was limited so we set others to ask lingering questions.  Here’s our attempt at answering them:
“C” is me and “H” is Hai.

More info on subsidies and how our cultural views on food are shaped.

H: On a general note, a good portion of the food produced in America are subsidized by the government through the Farm Bill, a $90 billion per year food tax and main vehicle for food and farming policy appropriated every five to seven years.  The Farm Bill subsidizes nutrition assistance programs (food stamps, WIC, etc.), commodity programs, conservation efforts, crop insurance, health education, and in the last few appropriations, alternatives food systems like local food infrastructure, beginning farming and ranching training, and diversified specialty crop production.  It is advised to check out Understanding the Farm Bill on Facebook and Food Fight: A Citizen’s Guide to the Farm Bill.

Our cultural views on food are shaped in a variety of psychological levels.  The term “agriculture” stems from the Greek origin of agri meaning “field” and the Latin origin of culture meaning the “growing of” or “cultivation”.  Thus, agriculture is the cultivation or growing of fields.  As mentioned in the workshop, the domestication of plants and animals occurred starting only 10,000 years ago in contrast to the millions of years of human existence.  Our cultural views on food are shaped by geography, what’s available in the locality and season, and/or other human institutional frameworks (religion, politics, economics, etc.).  Ironically, organized culture and industrial civilization began during the onset of agriculture.  This onset saw the beginnings of human dis-ease and chronic illness.

From the perspective of traditional foods, there are no native cultures that I know of in which its “government” had high stakes in subsidizing the people’s foods.  Traditional cultures emphasized the passing down of food knowledge generation after generation through oral and written history.

What are different cultures’ takes on health? How do different cultures view health?

C: To get an idea of different cultures’ takes on health, you can refer to a branch of medical anthropology that studies traditional medical systems called ethnomedicine. Think of traditional medicines in two groups: those that have been written down (as in Ayurveda of India and Chinese Medicine) and those that have been transmitted orally.

My experience is primarily with Ayurveda, so I’ll speak a little bit about it. Ayurveda comes from the Sanskrit words ayur (“longevity”) and veda (“knowledge”) to mean “the complete knowledge for long life.” In the Ayurvedic view, everyone has an individual mind-body type based on their physiology, genes, and psychological makeup. This mind-body type is manifested in three bodily forces, or doshas: vata, pitta, or kapha. Interestingly, most people have both a predominant dosha and a secondary dosha. For example, my constitution is vata-pitta.

You’re probably wondering, how are the doshas different from one another?

Well, vata comes from the Sanskrit word for “to move.” It is the air dosha, the energy of movement in the body, and has the qualities of dry, cold, light, subtle, and erratic. It is said to govern the other doshas because, in fact, it represents the nervous system. If you’re a vata, you’re likely to be short or very tall, thin, sensitive to cold, have difficulty gaining weight, vivacious, talkative, and restless. Vatas are often keen on adventure, and shy away from routine. When in balance, vatas have much creative energy. When out of balance, vatas tend to be gassy, have irregular digestion, anxiety, depression, loneliness, fear, and insecurity.

Pitta, on the other hand, is the fire dosha, and represents the energy of transformation. It is responsible for digestion and the ability to see, both visually and cognitively. It has the qualities of hot, sharp, oily, and light. Pittas are typically sensitive to heat, of medium stature and build. When balanced, they have strong digestion, a bright complexion, intellectual acumen, and wit. When out of balance, pittas tend to exhibit hot, bitter emotions like anger, resentment, and jealousy.

Finally, we have Kapha dosha. Kapha is the primarily earth and water, and is thus responsible for bodily growth, structure and lubrication. The qualities of kapha are slow, stable, soft, moist, and dull. Kapha types tend to gain weight easily, have full, round, and thick features, have wide shoulders, be short, and are the least likely to go out of balance of the 3 doshas. The main tissues of kapha are the muscle, lymph, and bone, as they are responsible for the body’s structure and lubrication. Kapha types, when in balance, tend to be relaxed and not easily disturbed.

Personally, I went severely out of mental and physical balance last summer. Then, I discovered Ayurveda, and was slowly able to correct my imbalance through diligent dietary, mental, and lifestyle changes. Now, combining principles of Ayurveda with traditional diets, I’ve developed a lifestyle and diet that are leading me to exuberant health.  (Thanks, India!)

For more information on Ayurveda, click here to check out this introductory article and others at the California College of Ayurveda website.
H: Different cultures view health in different ways.  What has been principle to all traditional cultures’ health include living in alignment the land and natural ecosystem, optimizing nutrition through nutrient-density, consuming animals in some form (poultry, game, sea animals, insects, etc.), and preparing foods for greater bio-availability through soaking, fermenting, curing, and/or marinating.

For more information, check out Healing and the Mind with Bill Moyers (Western and Eastern medicine contrasts), Essentials of Global Health, and Hungry Planet: What the World Eats.

I want to know more about the study done on cats.

H: Dr. Francis Pottenger was motivated by the work of Dr. Weston A. Price, an Ohioan dentist who studied dentition among isolated, native cultures throughout the world in the 1930’s and 40’s and the effects of diet on dental and overall health.  Dr. Pottenger applied Dr. Price’s observational studies on diet’s influence on fertility and physical generation through the scientific method.  Dr. Pottenger studied 900 cats in three different groups in three generations, isolating their diets.  In one group, cats were fed a 100% raw diet of milk and meat.  Another group ate 2/3 of their diet raw and 1/3 cooked.  The last group ate 2/3 of their diet cooked and 1/3 raw.  The group of cats fed a 100% raw diet showed no signs of physical deformities or infertility.  The group eating 1/3 of their diet raw became emotionally and physically degraded, much more than the group of cats eating a 100% raw diet.  This group of cats had a difficult time giving birth to the consequent second and third generations.  More about the study here (video) and here (book).  Similar patterns occurred in Dr. Price’s studies of human nutrition on physical formation and fertility.

Why does our system subsidize the things we don’t want (i.e. corn, processed foods)?

H: In one word: money.  Please see the question above about subsidies.

Will you share your film idea and research =)  ?

C: Last Fall, I approached my colleague Alfredo Tigerino with the idea of learning about traditional foodways, nutrition, and disease by doing a literature review of these subjects. So, he and I approached Professor Michael Montoya in UC Irvine’s Anthropology Department. Dr. Montoya convinced us that it would be more useful if we created a film series themed on real food, and so we put together a team of four students to do so.

It’s been a challenging, time-consuming project, yet so rewarding. We’ve finished two videos, with two remaining. It’s exciting because the positions we’re advocating for are unpopular among our generation; i.e., meat, dairy, and eggs are not unhealthful if they come from pastured, organically-raised animals. These foods are somewhat mal-nutritious if they come from animals who’ve eaten inappropriate diets, been pumped with hormones and antibiotics, and been raised in inhumane, unsanitary conditions. The animal products will be of completely different quality in each situation. Thus, one of our arguments is that food quality is critical to our health.

Our videos are themed on the following: a history of traditional and industrial foods; Fats; Sugars; and How to Think about Nutrition. So far we’ve completed the first three. Here’s a link to our first one. Please feel free to subscribe to our Channel, and stay tuned for more videos very soon! Please enjoy, and send your constructive criticisms. We welcome them!

Is it realistic to hope to shift federal subsidies away from staple crop production towards incentives to increase more nutrient-dense food production?

C: I think it’s entirely realistic. The peoples of this country are already creating the food system they want to see, and it’s local. It’s organic. It’s humane. And it builds community. If we continue, and we will, federal subsidies won’t matter much anymore, because we’ll be growing staple crops in our own communities. Essentially, we have the power to deflate the government – to bust the industrial food trust. But as much as that’s probably a good idea, we still want to leverage our government’s buying power to invest in local, sustainable food systems. Already the United States Working Group on the Food Crisis, the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), Slow Money, Food Democracy Now!, Real Food Challenge, Weston A. Price Foundation, and other organizations are building nationwide momentum – expressed primarily through alternative food system mechanisms like farmers markets – to shift federal incentives to more sound places (like small-scale farmers). The “good food” movement is truly grassroots, which makes it all the more exciting and powerful.

To answer your question more directly, I think it’s but a matter of time before the industrial system buckles as we divest from it.
H: Not only is it realistic to hope that we will shift from federal subsidies of commodity crops to more nutrient-dense food production, it is happening right now.  In the last Farm Bill, new programs sprouted to fruition, including training for beginning farmers and ranches, community food project grants, farmers market promotion, and specialty crop grants.  You can see a list about new additions supporting such a vision here.  While it’s a small percentage of total farm and food taxes in the Farm Bill, there is certainly hope.  In the last appropriations round, $16.3 million were given to California for specialty crop development.  Discussions and challenges underway in California include animal processing, linking CalFresh (EBT/government nutrition assistance) with healthy food access, and social justice.

What are some pros and cons of the Paleo diet?

C: Some may consider the higher cost of the food as a con, but I think it’s the opposite. When you purchase high-quality food, especially animal products from animals who have been raised and killed properly, then you’re investing not only in your health, but in the health of the food system.

That said, some Paleo advocates argue against the use of starch. The bottom line is, however, that you must find out what food combination works best for you. If you simply can’t afford to buy enough quality meat, eggs, fish, and fat to satisfy your caloric needs, or if you’re simply very active, don’t be afraid to eat starch. I alternate between basmati rice (which I digest better than brown rice) and potatoes, mainly. They sustain me. I don’t have to worry about the white rice because (1) I don’t eat it to excess, and (2) my metabolism is fully-functional. That said, remember to experiment with different whole food starches to find out which you prefer. As a final note, it’s probably best to avoid white flour and white bread, save for on occasion.
H: One suggestion to learn more about the Paleo diet include Paleohacks.  I’m open to share my continuously-evolving bundle of blogs and internet websites about the Paleo and Primal community.

For me, pros include increased energy levels and strength, deeper-quality sleep, optimal digestion, a heightened awareness about food quality, increased sensitivity to bodily changes with digesting certain foods, balanced blood panels and hormone levels, deeper appreciation for ancestral health and foodways, connections with an emerging and awakening community, re-connecting with my Vietnamese cultural foods, challenging me to explore new areas of study (anthropology, science, biology, epidemiology, chemistry, immunology), learning how to prepare animal foods, and respecting the ecology and stewards of the San Francisco bay area.

I’d rather look at “cons” as issues of further insight.  One such issue is food cross-contamination.

How do we ensure the passage of knowledge around traditional foodways so that they’re not lost to the industrialization and standardization of the food system?

C: I think Weston A. Price answers this best with his last words: “You teach, you teach, you teach!”
H: On a personal level, we need to learn and apply the knowledge about traditional foods.  On a societal level, we need to educate and advocate with others.

How does the diet of our ancestors reflect their health, compared to ours today?

H: There are many health indicators that one can use to reflect ancestral and present-day health.  Of the most striking are the differences in micro- and macro-nutrients and quality and quantity of fat, protein, and carbohydrate consumption.  For further discussions, check out a discussion on differences on macro-nutrients.

What are some specific foods we can eat to ward off diseases like cancer?

C: Specifically, do not underestimate the power of fermented foods. Humans have always eaten them, and for good reason: they came in handy during periods of food shortage. More importantly for us modern humans, fermented foods are high in two critical nutrients: (1) probiotic bacterial cultures, and (2) vitamin K2. To fortify your immune system and bolster digestion, it’s important to eat foods that contain probiotics. Such foods are fermented: yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, cortido, shrimp paste, sourdough bread, and stinky tofu are just several examples. Every culture has fermented foods, however, so ask your family for some suggestions!

Another terrific food for immunity (and thus cancer prevention) is bone broth. They’re super-easy to make: just take the leftover bones from any animal – whether poultry, pig, cow, fish, or rodent – and boil the bones for an hour or more. Then, turn off the heat, and you’ve got yourself a delicious stock for future soups that’s high in many minerals. Who needs a multivitamin when you can just take some bone broth every day?

To prevent cancer, you’re on the right track if you eat lots of seafood. Seafood is high in selenium, zinc, iron, and perhaps most importantly, omega-3 fatty acids. If you’d like some validation from the past about the crucial part seafood plays in the diet, consider this: Dr. Weston A. Price found that almost all of the populations he studied who consumed traditional diets valued fish and seafood. Even those peoples who lived in the highlands or mountains traveled long distances to acquire seafood.

There’s a vital caveat here, however. Not all seafood is safe to eat. Centuries of industrial pollution have contaminated the oceans, wreaking all sorts of havoc by poisoning species. So in general, the larger the marine animal, the more toxins it has accumulated; this is especially true for fish.

How do you get around that?

Bookmark and print out the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sustainable Seafood Guide. Purchase and eat only the seafood listed under the “Best choices” category, or even better, under the “Super Green List”. The Super Green fish are not only harvested well, they’re also high in those essential omega-3 fatty acids.

If you’re someone who doesn’t eat fish or seafood, you can still do the following (1) eat sea vegetables regularly, and (2) use only sea salt. Both of these marine foods are rich with important trace minerals that they’ve soaked up from the ocean brine. But remember, moderation is important, especially with pungent, rich foods like sea vegetables (too much of them will cause imbalance).

H: Our bodies are a homeostasis of energy: cell membranes and blood taking and receiving nutrients, organs working to nourish and discard, and free radicals and antioxidants in a push and pull effect with each other on an on-going basis.  Cancer is the formation and proliferation of abnormal cells in the body.  These abnormal cells, on evolutionary, scientific, and environmental perspectives, feed on processed foods, sugars, and refined carbohydrates that turn into bodily fat.  From a genetic perspective, these cells and bacteria may pass onto further generations.  Recession of cancer involves a dualistic approach: cease the feeding of abnormal bacteria and nourishing the body’s immune system response to ward them off.

Is it wrong to eat what our ancestors didn’t? Seriously? Why? What is the science and research to back up [traditional diets]?

C: I don’t think it’s wrong to eat what our ancestors didn’t. For example, my ancestors probably ate heaps of sour cream, sausage, potatoes, and meat, but if I move to Brazil and eat rice, beans, fried cassava, meat, coconut, and seafood (foods my ancestors didn’t) it probably wouldn’t affect me all that much.

When we say it’s smart to eat what our ancestors did, we essentially mean it’s wise to follow traditional diets: that is, eat a variety of minimally-processed, seasonal/local whole foods. It doesn’t really matter from which culture your diet draws from, but you’ll have to be mindful if you’re allergic to dairy or wheat if you intend to follow European foodways.

The science and research that supports traditional foodways is extensive. It began with a bang back in the early 1900s with the work of dentist Dr. Weston A. Price’s Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. It continued with the works of Drs. Staffan Lindeberg (Food and Western Disease), Trowell & Burkett (Western Diseases: Their Emergence and Prevention), Edward Mellanby (Nutrition and Disease), Mark Cohen (Health and the Rise of Civilization), and Anthony Colpo (The Great Cholesterol Con). Studies to date that show traditional foodways’ protective effects (in synergy with lifestyles that are sun-filled, low-stress, social, and active, also important for well-being) include:

The cultures I’ve listed consume everything from goose liver to coconut milk, eating high-fat, no-carb diets to relatively low-fat, high-starch diets. These cultures are sometimes part-hunter gatherer, part-agricultural (i.e., the Kuna Indians) or fully agricultural (like the French). In each case, chronic disease is either nonexistent (at undetectable levels) or reasonably low compared to similar countries (as in the case of France). What matters, I feel, is not the macronutrient composition of the diet (that is, the composition of protein, fat, and carb) so much as it is the quality of the diet.

Asking the following questions about a culture gets at the question of dietary “quality:” Do they raise their land animals well? Do they eat organ meats? How much refined sugar do they consume? Do they eat pesticide-laden produce or organic, local produce? But you also have to consider the following lifestyle factors, because health is not solely a function of diet: Do they get enough sunlight, or do they block avoid the sun like the plague because their authorities say it’s bad for them? Is the stress they experience chronic (like in modern, industrialized countries) or brief and intense (like traditional, non-industrial populations) on average?

H: If we’re asking about eating foods for continued survival, then no, it’s not necessarily wrong to eat what our ancestors didn’t.  If we’re asking about eating foods for optimal human health and nutrition, then we need to re-evaluate what we’re eating, especially if this question negates the observation that upon the introduction of food domestication, trade, and displaced foods of modern commerce, human civilizations began degrading in health.  If there is something right about eating abundance amounts of processed foods, sugars, and nutrient-depleted drug- and chemical-resistant foods, then we wouldn’t see modern-day cases of obesity, cancer, and diet-related disease.  I see those modern-day cases.  I don’t think it’s right.

There is growing research supporting traditional foods.  It is our hope that research interests shift from supporting industrial agriculture to questions about nutrient-values and health outcomes from diversified stewardship of the land.  A good start at looking at the science and research into traditional diets and evolutionary health is with Staffan Lindeberg.

How feasible is it to recover traditional food systems in this day and age?

C: I think that it’s entirely feasible. If we can convince people – especially youth – of nutritional facts based on sound science, not nutritional farces based on political conniving, then the common sense inherent in most of us will win out, and people will come to understand the importance of both wholesome, real animal and plant foods in the diet. When we’ve completed such an educational milestone in this country, we can finally put an end to the maelstrom of health schizophrenia and cultural oppression that produces eating disorders, fad diets, and general mayhem. It is our hope that someday soon, United Statesans will be able to enjoy all types of foods regardless of fat content and based on their taste (the signifier of what their individual bodies need). What we will have eliminated, hopefully, are the problematic foods of industrial civilization: trans fats, preservatives, food additives, poorly-processed wheat and industrial seed / heavily polyunsaturated oils. In this nutritional wonderland (which is definitely plausible), those of us who enjoy white bread and sugar would still eat white bread and sugar, but we’d eat these foods mindfully and in as wholesome contexts as possible.

Such a food landscape is not possible, however, until we succeed at re-educating this country, not just about nutrition, but about food literacy in general. Think about this statement: our country is food illiterate!
H: I believe it’s important to note that there are humans all over world today who still keep to their traditional food systems.  If they do, we can.  It is the systematic challenges we must be aware of: displacement of such systems by modern commerce and the introduction of corporate interests touting convenience and greater health.  If it’s anything, we’re recovering the knowledge and application of traditional foodways to ensure optimal human strength and survival.

What traditional practices do you do? Why?

C: I make my own bone broths. I clarify my own butter. I grate my own potatoes when making hash browns. I cook the majority of my meals. I eat full-fat dairy only (and lots of it at that). I buy organic meats. I eat fish with creamy foods, as cultures have done. I eat fruit and vegetables every day. I eat with family and friends. I purchase food directly from farmers. I make mashed potatoes like my Mom does. I use her dressing for my salads. I drink chamomile tea to calm myself down, and peppermint tea (my favorite!) to aid digestion. I drink mango lassis (an Indian yogurt drink) to aid digestion and please my palette. I soak my lentils for 24 hours in warm water with 10 mL of lemon juice. Doing so mildly ferments the legume, making it more digestible. It cooks faster, too. I also prepare my lentils according to traditional recipes, mainly from India.

Traditional food practices I want to explore: preserving my own food (especially meats, sour cream, nightshade plants & kimchi); growing my own food, especially small-scale livestock; using plants medicinally.
H: The traditional foodways that I apply in my everyday are rooted in two ways, (1) in my upbringing as a child of Vietnamese parents and (2) traditional methods that I learn and adapt from other people outside of the Vietnamese culture.  I will share with you a few food dishes, its ingredients, how its prepared, and why I prepare them in certain ways.

The first dish that comes to mind is phở.  It is one of the most flavorful, simple, and delectable dishes I learned to make growing up, continue to create, and will pass on to future generations.  Quite simply, it’s animal bones, usually beef, ox, or chicken, simmered in water as long as desired with lime juice, ginger, onion, fennel star anise, cardamon, cinnamon, cloves, and coriander.  The longer the broth is simmered, the more minerals are excreted from the bones.  The lime juice, a vinegar, helps leach more calcium and other minerals out of the bones.  The more minerals are excreted, the more delicious.  Poached with rice noodles and animal protein (beef, chicken, organ meats, and/or seafood), phở is garnished with basil, sprouted mung beans, lime juice, chili peppers, charred onion, and fermented garlic and black beans.

The history of the dish is perplex. It is a fusion of Asian (Vietnamese and Chinese with the rice) and French (animal protein) cuisines.  Phở connects refugees of the Vietnamese diaspora during and after the Vietnam War to culture.  It is a staple in my diet, my family’s diets, and most people of Vietnamese identity.  The dish is especially pleasurable during the cooler seasons.  It’s one of the best immune boosters come winter time.  Due to my current state of health, I have a hard time digesting grains, legumes, and nightshades.  Thus, I omit the rice noodles, bean sprouts, peppers, and fermented black beans.  Regardless, phở is still one of my favorite foods.  It’s a reminder of the beauty of Vietnamese food, all in one bowl.
I prepare lots of fermented foods: pickled carrots and daikons with lime juice and/or salt, pickled fish, radish, and cabbage.  Fermentation of foods extends its life through colder seasons, increases its bio-availability of nutrients (for example, pickling fish and using its liquid increases Vitamins A and D), and increases digestibility.  It is rare to find my family in Vietnam eating raw root vegetables, like carrots.  It is usually cooked down in a soup or pickled.

I marinate animal foods in salt, pepper, and a vinegar like lemon or lime juice before cooking, unless I eat it raw.  Like with pickled foods, doing so helps make the nutrients in meats and seafood more bio-available and digestible.  I prefer to use animal and tropical fats like lard, tallow, duck, chicken, ghee, and coconut oil for their stable chemical structures and taste.

When I start to feel a bit under the weather, I fast from solid foods and drink liquids in two forms: (1) a broth made out of animal bones and vegetables and (2) an herbal tea.  I remember my mom would prepare two large pots when someone in the house came down with an illness.  One pot, the “broth”, would include beef or chicken bones simmering with vegetables and herbs.  Another pot, the “tea”, would have simmering hot water and much more pungent herbs and mushrooms.  The person with the illness would drink the broth from the first pot throughout the day.  With the second pot at intervals throughout the day, the person would place their face over the pot while holding a blanket over their head.  The broth helps nourish the body with much-needed proteins, fats, enzymes, nutrients, and minerals.  The “tea” helps cleanse and detoxify the body, helping to re-cooperate the respiratory and nervous systems.  Solids like meat proteins and vegetables cooked into the broth are then added as the person with the illness begins feeling better.

How do we integrate reductionist nutrition with holistic nutrition?

C: Reductionism is a way of understanding the whole by looking at its parts.  I feel that this approach doesn’t work well when taken as the only approach, because it tends to overlook the ways that different parts of a system interact. Dr. Larry Malerba, author of the book Green Medicine, argues that “when taken as the only approach, the end result [of reductionist science] is a fragmented array of body parts, bits and pieces of scientific data and specialized fields of medicine, all of which are increasingly dissociated from one another.” He asserts that our system sorely needs a vector that “can put all the pieces back together again,” and that so-called “green practicioners” are.  So, I think this question might be better phrased as, “How do we integrate Western scientific medicine with the holistic traditions of other cultures?”

Happily, this is already happening. A new branch of medicine is emerging known as integrative medicine (IM), also arguably called green medicine. It combines conventional reductionist European methods with more holistic alternative approaches (such as Ayurveda, Acupuncture, Chi therapy, etc.). This way, useful techniques from both mix to create a formidable approach to health-care that emphasizes first prevention of diseases by strengthening the body’s ability to heal itself, and secondly the treatment of symptoms if/when disease emerges.

H: I’m uncertain that reductionist nutrition should be integrated with holistic nutrition.  I think studying certain vitamins, nutrients, and enzymes in relation to disease and/or optimal health is interesting.  Holistic nutrition embodies a synergy between such vitamins, nutrients, and enzymes in foods and how our bodies integrate such nourishment into our continued existence.  If we simply isolate and reduce nutrition to such, we may lose the whole picture and how all the systems are inter-relating and affecting each other.  Holistic nutrition is a major part of what some physicians today call functional, or systems, medicine.

How can we enact a cultural shift to make basic, simple, health[ful] foods affordable and culturally accepted?

C: The truest way to enact cultural shift is to raise awareness, to “conscientize” as the Brazilians say. To shift to a system where local, organic, fair, and humane (that is, real foods) are plentiful, we’ll need lots more food producers working, both farmers and ordinary citizens.

To galvanize the U.S. people to start growing food en masse, we must first educate. By sharing the story of our broken food system, and by weaving that story into a framework that critiques the economic system of this country, we can compel the people to raise their fists and demand a more robust food system that nourishes producers, consumers, communities, and the Earth.

H: Foods will become inherently more “affordable” when people wake up to the ideas that food has substantial effects to our lives and economic power toward healthy foods can dramatically shift supply and demand.  In the context of traditional foodways, foods will become inherently “culturally-accepted” in America when people begin understanding and respecting the food cultures that have kept their families, possibly two to three generations ago.

How much can we isolate the influence of diet on cultural/health differences?

H: While there are other environmental determinants of health including the quality of air we breathe, quality of water we drink, and emotional triggers we surround ourselves with that may differentiate our cultural and health differences, I believe diet proves to be a major factor in determining health contrasts among varying cultures and populations.  On the contrary, quality of diet, which affects quality of culture and health, is dependent on such indicators.  Good quality food comes from good quality soils, water, exposure to sunlight, plants, and animals.

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Colin Murphy is an undergraduate music student at the University of California, Irvine. Through their leadership in environmental and social justice organizations at UCI, Colin developed a passion for food sustainability, leading him to join the Real Food Challenge movement. Colin is particularly interested in the intersection of nutrition, human health, community development and sustainable food systems. Through their talents — especially writing, teaching, and musicality — Colin wishes to empower others in learning about traditional foodways, local economies, and the Earth.

Hai Vo is a young scholar seeking food and nutritional justice within his lifetime.  Hai currently organizes with the California Food and Justice Coalition and Live Real, an emerging organization offering a platform for young people to change their food system in policy and practice.  Having grown up in Orange County, California and studying social ecology and sustainable food systems at the University of California Irvine, Hai is a fervent food fermenter, avid agroecologist, and overzealous outdoors-person now living in the San Francisco bay area.

Colin, Hai, and fellow youth are exploring the connections between traditional foodways, optimal human nutrition, and sustainable food systems to advocate for Nutrition by Tradition.

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3 responses to “Youth and Traditional Foods: Our Questions, Your Questions

  1. Georgina Mason

    “What I ate yesterday”. all fine but what was in the veggie burger, essentially a processed food, unless home-made? Very easy to make from scratch(is there any other way, I ask?) No proper fruit and veg. And this in California! In the UK there’s a long running campaign to get everyone to eat “five a day”, that is five portions of fruit and veg of different colours every day. Most days in this family we eat at least eight portions. Think fresh fruit, dried, frozen.(I pick soft fruit eg raspberries, blackcurrants and freeze for use throughout the year)Green leafy veg, red veg, always something from the allium (onions, garlic, leek) family and anything else. A portion is not exact, I think about the equivalent of a palmful. Eat what’s REALLY in season (find out what this would be for your area), prepare to be a bit bored! It is not natural to be able to eat strawberries all year round for example!

    • Thanks for the feedback, Aunt Georgina. Just to let you know, I wasn’t diagnosed with Celiac or hyperthyroid; my friend Hai was.

      I agree that fruits and vegetables are important, but i also feel that, from my research and personal experience, animal foods are even more important to my health than fruits & veg. I now view fruits & veg more as condiments, or as foods that add variety, although in years past i used to think they were more important than meat. Now however, i notice that meat, seafood, dairy, eggs, and animal fats provide me with the optimal energy, fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals that my body really needs.

  2. It is most important to have access to freshly grown greens and veggies so the optimum amount of nutrients will be consumed for the maintenance and restoration of health. I learned this first hand as a worker at Alegria Fresh vertical hydroponic farm in Laguna Beach, CA.

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