Forget Paleo, Keto and Raw. Go home to grandma while she’s still around, and quick, transcribe all her traditional recipes. It turns out that your ancestral diet might be the best diet of all.
In this episode of The Line, the tai tais Wallace, Durand and Gibson interview Dr. Stephen Le, a bio-anthropologist and the author of “100 Million Years of Food: What Our Ancestors Ate And Why It Matters Today,” in which he makes the case for following one’s ancestral diet.
Get your subaltern take on the issues of the day, while you do your ironing or whatever.
Here’s an excerpt:
Stephen Le I think there’s a lot of reasons we should be looking at ancestral diet. So, growing up in Canada (I was born in raised in Ottawa, Canada, and both my parents are from Vietnam) in the morning, I’d have cold cereal with milk and toast, chicken and steak for dinner. I’d have a pretty bland sandwich for lunch, and on special occasions my mom would whip out special Vietnamese dishes. She was working all the time anyway…we rarely had vietnamese cuisine except for special occasions. For the most part I had the standard North American diet. And then in 2010 my mom passed away from breast cancer. Before she passed away she expressed regret. She said she had tried all her life to adhere to a nutritionally sound diet, but she was kind of bitter about that in the end. It got me thinking about what she should have done and what my family could do to decrease the chances of someone having cancer in the future.
Durand In your book you talk about your grandmother who lived a very long and healthy diet, yet stuck to a traditional diet.
Stephen Le She came over to Canada at an advanced age. She just stuck to what she had always eaten, and it was a very basic kind of diet, but she was happy with that. She lived until she was ninety two. I’ve wondered if there was a link between diet and longevity?
Gibson Yes, I recognize the pattern…We have the older generation who live very long lives because they eat a more traditional diet, whereas our parents’ generation seem to be eating more meat and different kinds of diets. That seems to have a great impact on our parents’ generation. I remember reading the President of Singapore saying that when he was a child, he had meat once a month. That seems to have been the norm in the past, and things are just changing now.
Stephen Le That kind of pattern where you have low amounts of meat in childhood and increased amounts of meat in later years, that’s probably optimal in increasing a person’s lifespan. We have evidence from different kind of sources for that. The idea is because you have a small amount of meat when you are young, that sets up the organism for a long life trajectory. It’s like giving a plant seed very little water. So the plant seed will remain dormant under those conditions, and the same thing with depriving a person of meat. It sets up the person for a life strategy where they live long. Conversely, when people are older and get frail, at that stage, having meat is a good idea. Unfortunately, we are doing opposite. Kids are healthy when they are young, but then they are more susceptible to chronic diseases later on in life. Then at that point, we try to cut back on the meat, but it makes us more frail when we’re older. So I think we’ve got it all backwards.
Gibson I had trouble with these two different states of healthiness you are describing. As a parent, you wonder what is the best strategy. It seems you are describing on one hand strength, height, robustness and possibly an early death in one scenario, vs. small, somewhat puny and long lived in the other scenario. I have two kids who are Asian and therefore a bit scrawny, and the only way I can see to make them grow is meat and milk, and you’re telling me I shouldn’t be doing this.
Stephen Le I had a similar situation with relatives who were on a vegetarian diet when they were young. As a result, one of them was the shortest in her class. Psychologically, there was a real impact. At the same time, it means that there is a lower risk of chronic disease in the future. Maybe when she’s older she’s going to be thanking her mother for it. And so I think that’s a difficult trade-off we all have to think about as parents. There’s no easy solution. But I do suggest in the book that in the long term, as a society, we should start revamping ideals of height—if we can bring that down, we are all better off.
Durand In your book, there are a lot of interesting ways in which you challenge popular wisdom about healthy eating. I want to talk a bit about salads. I spoke to an ayurvedic practitioner once who told me that salads are not that good for you, because it’s easier for the body to digest cooked vegetables…and in your book, you talk about vegetables and their place in a healthy diet, yes?
Stephen Le So I think this notion of a salad bar is probably going to disappear in a couple of decades. The idea that we are better off by eating a lot of colourful vegetables…if you showed a salad bar to our ancestors many years ago, they would have shivered at the thought of eating raw vegetables…they would say this is going to make me sick. The whole point of plants is that they are trying to protect themselves from being eaten, and so they produce a lot of toxins. Sometimes we can carry these ideals to the extreme. I mentioned in my book, this Indian doctor who used to make a juice out of bitter melon juice and eventually died from it. At a limited level of consumption, yes, you could lower your blood sugar levels, but at an extreme , it’s just very bitter toxins and our tongues can pick up on those toxins. If you use your rational mind to override your disgust at eating so much bitter melon, you can kill yourself. Our ancestors cooked all those vegetables and ate them sparingly. They would make them work as part of an entire cuisine. I think that’s a more reasonable way of approaching vegetables. But throwing them altogether, I get sick every time I do that. Now I look back, I was sucked into the same trap as everybody else.
Durand What about alcohol? You have some very interesting things to say about alcohol in your book.
Stephen Le Alcohol, according to the archeological evidence, was first produced in China, about nine thousand years ago. This seems to be a technique to preserve the caloric benefits of rice. Alcohol also has a lot of calories, but the problem is that also it makes you tipsy. Over time, the people who were exposed to alcohol first in central China, that population started developing genetic variants that made them very sick when they drank alcohol. As a result, they would have drank some alcohol but not too much. This genetic variant spread around the world along the path of alcohol. As alcohol spread from Asia into Europe, the genes for making people sick from drinking too much seemed to have spread as well.