Traditional Diets in Perspective

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The appeal of following a traditional diet is undeniably romantic. I've often perused the pictures in Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, overwhelmed with a deep sense of longing to return to a life more grounded, more whole, more in touch with my roots.

In his book, Price describes hardy children wading gleefully through streams on a cold morning, sturdy grandmothers hauling fresh fish from the sea for their grandchildren, quaint little towns so idyllic that a dentist or jailhouse was considered completely unnecessary. These were happy and healthy people. Their smiles were wide, their hearts merry. They worked hard, slept well and lived a full life.

And somehow, in reading these stories and seeing these pictures, we begin to believe that if we drink enough raw milk, if we devour enough salmon roe, if we take enough fermented cod liver oil... that somehow we will transport ourselves to a time and place where teeth are perfectly straight, bodies are robust, and somehow--somehow--all our health troubles will disappear.

We feel in our hearts that if we follow a traditional diet as closely as we can, then we will achieve unfathomable health.

Reality is not so romantic. Traditional food can be expensive and difficult to source. Sometimes it feels like this perfect diet (and perfect health) is always just out of our reach.

And then we begin to wonder: which traditional diet do we follow? The Swiss in Loetschental Valley ate one way. The Masai in Africa ate another. Then there are the Inuit, the Peruvians, the Pacific islanders. Some experts claim one of these diets is better than another. Others say just the opposite. Who is right and who is wrong? What started as a nostalgic pursuit of the ideal diet suddenly becomes confusing and complicated.

Keeping Traditional Diets in Perspective

I began writing this post this morning because of a controversial post written by Matt Stone this week. While I don't agree with everything Matt said, there are some points worth considering.

The idea that traditional diets are not infallible is something I've been mulling over for some time, but I didn't quite know how to put my thoughts into words. But since the topic is out there for discussion, I thought I would put in my two cents--or at least what I've come up with so far. My ideas are far from concrete, but I still think this is a subject worth discussing. And I look forward to hearing what you think as well.

The #1 Problem with Following a Traditional Diet

My answer is not going to be what you've read before. Most traditional food enthusiasts will say the number one problem with following a traditional diet is that no one is doing it right.

Most say, "You're not eating enough xyz (input traditional food here: raw butter, cod liver oil, liver, oysters, bone marrow, etc.)."

Or they will say, "You're eating too much xyz (input common scapegoats here: carbs, grains, dairy, nuts, etc.)."

The idea is all too familiar to me: you're not trying hard enough! If only you were more strict, more passionate, more consistent... then all your health issues would melt away.

You know what this sounds like to me? Dogma. 

I heard it years ago when I was following conventional wisdom--if only you cut out more fat from your diet and did even more cardio, you would be healthier and thinner than ever!

Yeah, like that didn't totally backfire.

And I'm sure you've heard it from other camps as well. If only you eliminated all animals foods from your diet... if only you stopped eating all cooked food... if only you never ate sugar again... if only... if only...

I hate to break it to you: we don't live in a perfect world. There is no perfect diet. There is no amazing magical formula for eating that will heal all your woes, give you boundless energy, and ensure a long and happy life. 

You can learn what works for you, you can do your best, but that's it. There are no guarantees. Not in this life.

And here is the number one problem with trying to follow a traditional diet: it's not that you're not trying hard enough. It's that you're trying way too hard.

Balancing Traditional Food with a Modern Life

Don't get me wrong: I love real food. I love butter and raw milk and all that good stuff. I'm very grateful that a few years ago, a dear friend of mine recommended that I read a book called Nourishing Traditions. It's a book that changed my life and the way I think about food. Real food is a gift. But if you approach it with the wrong attitude, it can also be a curse.

And this is where balance comes in. There's nothing wrong with being passionate about real food. There's nothing wrong with going to a local farm to pick up fresh milk or grass-fed beef. In fact, these things can add a new dimension of experiences to your life. 

But you have to know where to draw the line. You have to be able to realize whether something is adding to your life or detracting from it. This will be different for everyone. What's exciting and adventurous for you may feel exhausting and overwhelming for someone else. And vice versa.

Stressing out over eating a traditional diet is no way to live. I don't think I'm exaggerating in the least when I say that stress is just as damaging as SAD, if not more so. And trying to achieve some kind of transcendent level of health is going to have you chasing your tail, always aiming for something that's just out of your reach.

Do what you can. Do what works for you. Keep what adds to your life and ditch whatever detracts from it. And if someone tells you that you're not doing enough, then ignore them. It's not their call.

This post is part of Real Food Wednesday and Fight Back Friday.

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