Is eating bad for me? Getting healthy by eliminating modern foods

11 November, 2008

I suffer from rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis, and had another flare-up today, probably due to a green capsicum I ate last night as an experiment. But these days I’m generally paranoid about food – given that humans can be allergic to just about anything, am I allergic to rice, or to ginger, to substances that are supposed to be nonallergenic and helpful? There’s not doubt food does affect my condition, but I don’t really have the patience to spend months going through elimination diets.

Of course, I’ve been trying to eat better, purer foods, but it’s so hard to avoid the easy, tasty short-cuts: pad a meal with grain-based food, pick up a “lite” yoghurt for a snack, and a tin of stew when I feel it’s too late to make dinner from scratch. And which “pure” foods can I really eat, given I seem to react to so many things?

The broadest solution is the “cave man” or hunter-gatherer diet. Think about it: humans (homo sapiens) have been around for perhaps 300,000 years, but we’ve been eating bread for only 10,000 years. And when we say “we”, we’re talking about tribes in the Middle East. What about humans in the British Isles (where my ancestors are from), who, after being isolated in the Basque area during the last Ice Age, migrated northward and were then isolated in Cornwall and Ireland by the rising sea – when did they start eating bread? “Rye and barley were the chief bread grains in Britain until about AD 1700“, i.e. not wheat. Barley was introduced to Britain about 5000 years ago*. Rye might have been introduced by the Romans, which would put its introduction around 2000 years ago.

What about milk drinking? When did the inhabitants of the British Isles begin herding milk-giving animals like cows (the predominant milk-giver), goats and sheep? Cattle herding seems to have existed in Britain since the Neolithic period, which for Britain begins about 7000 years ago.

Of other foods:

The native fruits of the British Isles, and which, till the thirteenth or fourteenth century, must have been the only sorts known to the common people, are the following: small purple plums, sloes, wild currants, brambles, raspberries, wood strawberries, cranberries, blackberries, red-berries, heather-berries, elder-berries, roan-berries, haws, holly-berries, hips, hazel-nuts, acorns, and beech-mast. The wild apple or crab, and wild cherry, though now naturalised, would probably not be found wild, or be very rare in the early times of which we now speak. The native roots and leaves would be earth-nut, and any other roots not remarkably acrid and bitter; and chenopodium, sorrel, dock, and such leaves as are naturally rather succulent and mild in flavour. … The more delicate fruits and legumes, introduced by the Romans, would, in all probability, be lost after their retirement from the island… It may in general be asserted, that most of our best varieties of fruits, particularly apples and pears, were brought into the island by ecclesiastics [12th-15th centuries] … “It was not,” says Hume, “till the end of the reign of Henry VIII that any salads, carrots, turnips, or other edible roots, were produced in England.”
[An Encyclopaedia of Gardening, p.283 – JC Loudon]

My ancestors were not wealthy, and possibly never even ate an orange until the 19th century.

The American vegetables, which now so dominate our diet, were only available to Europeans after 1492, which means we’ve had 500 years at most to adapt to them. The obvious examples are: potatoes, tomatoes, peppers of various sorts, maize (sweet corn), chocolate, coffee, avocados, but also include blueberries, strawberries, cashews, peanuts, papaya, squashes (inc. pumpkin), tobacco and vanilla. (The peppers have been promoted as an “alternative” therapy for arthritis, but their therapeutic value derives from deadening nerve endings when rubbed into the skin – they are a mere palliative, and when ingested may actually cause joint inflammation.)

Native Americans have had about the same adaptation period with these as the British have had with the previously-mentioned foods, as the first humans came to the Americas from 14- to 20,000 years ago. Australian aborigines, having been largely isolated for at least 40,000 years, have possibly the least period of acclimatisation to the new foods of Europe and America, which may partly account for their chronic health difficulties. Of course, if wheat only became the dominant grain in Britain around 1700 AD, then British settlers and Australian aborigines have actually had about the same time period of exposure to wheat bread.

Overall, we can see that, while Homo Sapiens has existed for hundreds of thousands of years, a British native would only have had about 10,000 years (at the very most) to adapt to the foods which are the dominant diet today, and in many cases the period would have been considerably shorter. It cannot be coincidence that it is the “new” foods which are the most health adverse: wheat, soy, dairy, capsicum, et al. (I should also mention that when I say that Britons didn’t have time to adapt, what I actually mean is that there was probably insufficient time for natural selection to substantially reduce the reproduction of those most vulnerable to adverse effects, which would mean a stronger resistance to adverse effects in the surviving gene pool.)

Cutting these foods from the diet is a great psychological hurdle, as I can tell you from personal experience. Our food culture is so pervasive that nudism seem comparatively acceptable next to giving up the delicious staple foods which seem universal. Avoiding grain products has been especially difficult for me, as my father was involved in the bread and cereals industry throughout his career – rejecting bread feels like rejecting my father, and I feel I’ve already hurt him enough, in various ways (not to say he hasn’t had a strongly adverse affect on my life, but that’s a blog for another day).

If the resolution to avoid recently introduced foods is taken, which foods remain permitted?

Well, first we also have to consider the issue of meat. If the cow and other large milk producers are recent arrivals in Britain (see above), that means their meat is a recent addition too. Certainly, red meat has been associated with arthritis, although I don’t know if any definite conclusion has been reached. (Bear in mind also that “red meat” these days means factory-produced beef, fat saturated and containing antibiotics and growth hormones.) Smaller animals would have been known, however (voles, badgers, rats?).

Birds would have been a staple, and their eggs, when available. Ducks and other migrators would have been known, but only seasonal. Chickens were domesticated about 5000 years ago; it’s unknown when they came to Britain, but it would have been after that date. Pigs are not native to Britain and were domesticated 5-7000 years ago. Rabbits are now ubiquitous in the world, and I’m not sure where they originated. Apparently the Phoenicians discovered the European rabbit in Spain 3000 years ago. We may probably place them in the <10,000 year period of the modern foods explosion.

Seafood was part of the diet of ancient Britons. Fish, of course, are ubiquitous, more or less. Unfortunately, eating fish is a dangerous occupation these days, due to risk of mercury poisoning, especially with the larger fish. This American report says canned tuna shouldn’t be eaten more than once a month. How this isn’t a great international controversy is beyond me, but it is further proof, if any were needed, of our imminent doom through the stupidity of our leaders. Molluscs were also prominent, e.g. periwinkles (winkles), cockles, oysters, scallops, mussels, whelks. Seaweeds were also eaten. There were crabs and lobsters, and presumably, further up river, people also ate slimy things like frogs and eels. Again, most of these animals are contaminated in various ways these days, so it seems that organic, isolated farming is the only way to get natural, clean food. This is naturally a lot more expensive than the factory system, and it may in the long run be cheaper, if not more convenient, to raise your own meat.

As for vegetables, it seems a lot of plants from the old diet have been crowded out of production by the more popular vegetables. Where would you buy earth-nut, chenopodium, or dock leaves?

Sorrel, at least, survives as a little-known herb, but it contains oxalic acid, which is reportedly counterindicated for rheumatoid arthritis sufferers. This substance is also prominent in rhubarb, black pepper, parsley, poppy seed, spinach, chard, beets, cocoa and chocolate, most nuts, most berries, and beans (inc. soy); also wheat, citrus peel, carrot, celery, eggplant, leeks, olives, peppers, potatoes, zucchini, “summer squash”(?), tomatoes, tea, dark beer, yoghurt, et bloody cetera. Oxalic acid is also produced by metabolising vitamin C, which is pretty fucking depressing. According to this diet advice, you can eat “bottled beer” (?!?), cola, milk, wine, milk, cheese, butter, avocados, bananas, grapes, melons, nectarines, papaya, mangoes, “canned peaches” and “canned pears” (but not the real things for some reason), every kind of meat except liver and sardines, barley, corn (maize?), rice, pasta, cabbage, cauliflower (but not broccoli?), chives (but not onions?), cucumber, mushrooms, peas, radishes, basil, oregano, and white pepper. Since some of these things are contra-indicated for arthritis, I’m not sure what to make of this list. Maybe it would be healthiest to eat nothing at all? Since, despite the counterindication, I haven’t read of any effect of oxalic acid that would worsen rheumatoid arthritis (which is not caused or worsened by calcium deficiency, nor by oxalate crystals), I think this advice may safely be junked as trendy pseudoscience.

So, the rheumatoid arthritis-safe diet:

*Meat: some chicken, small fish and molluscs.
*Vegetables: avoid American vegetables (potatoes, tomatoes, peppers), limiting to green leafy vegetables and roots. The general rule should be: if you can’t eat it raw, don’t eat it at all.
*Fruit: European berries (i.e. not blueberries; not sure about strawberries), apples, pears, cherries, plums, hazel nuts. Avoid nuts in general, chocolate, coffee, vanilla. No citrus fruits.
*Condiments: salt is fine (hooray!), as are oregano, basil, and other European leafy herbs. Not sure about ginger. No soy sauce.
*Sweets: avoid chocolate, coffee, vanilla, (see Fruit, above).
*No dairy.
*No grains (wheat, rice, oats?)
*Avoid chemical additives.
*Eggs are fine in moderation.

Oats are a soft grain that may be edible raw, so they may be an occasional exception to the no-grain rule. I remain unsure about maize (though I’ve seen it contraindicated), pumpkins, squashes (I do find zucchini skin irritating, but that could be a bio-engineering thing, same as they did to celery), and tropical soft fruit (bananas, mangoes, papaya, avocado). Grateful for any feedback on this.

Link: More stuff about bad food.

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