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Food is so much more than fuel. It is not just calories. It is even more than a combination of nutrients. It is more than an arrangement of tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, spicy, tangy umami in different proportions. It is more than medicine. It is more than the building blocks of our tissues. It is all of these things, yes. It is memory. It is love. It is connection to our culture.
In the 1930s, an American dentist and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Weston A. Price, traveled the world to study and take pictures of teeth. This was before travel was easy. He encountered people from all races and all climates. His documentation of their journey and findings can be found in the book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, and is one of the most valuable nutrition studies ever done. It can not be done today because there are so few peoples left that eat their traditional diets without heavy supplementation of what Price calls the “displacing foods of industry” (sugar, flour, vegetable oil, and other processed foods).
What do teeth and nutrition have to do with each other? This is not obvious to us in our modern paradigm. We are trained that dental health is a question of hygiene: if we brush regularly, we will have healthy teeth. In actuality, our teeth are some of the best indicators of whole body health. The teeth are bones, after all and the mouth is the beginning of our alimentary tract. When the body starts to become deficient in certain minerals or digestion is impaired, the mouth environment changes and the body will borrow minerals from the teeth to shuttle to other tissues where needed. Bones serve many purposes in the body, one of which is as a storehouse for nutrients.
Price discovered that when people were eating their traditional diets, their teeth were strong and healthy, with no need for extraction because of rotting or space. Their faces were broad, with wide noses and strong jaws with large palates and well formed skulls with plenty of room for their brains. This robustness worked its way down the entire body. Straight, strong backs, broad shoulders, well balanced muscles, and powerful feet. In addition, there were no complaints of mental disturbances, either. Depression was generally unheard of. Intelligence was high. Laughter came easily.
When people turned to eating the displacing foods, the teeth began to rot and weight was gained. General humor was not as good. Then, things became even more interesting. The children of those who no longer ate traditionally exhibited changes in structure. Their teeth started to crowd as the jaw narrowed, not allowing enough room for all of the teeth to grow in straight. Noses got finer, less wide. Mental retardation or other illnesses became more numerous as the skull became less roomy for the brain. Body deformities were more frequent, with turned in feet, hunched shoulders and greater general fragility. The actual structure of the body lost its integrity.
What we eat is important…very, very, very important.
It is infinitely more than putting together a puzzle using the pieces of fat, protein and carbohydrates. When we eat traditionally, in touch with our great-grandmother’s culture, these things completely cease to matter. Great-grandma probably had no idea what those things were. She didn’t have to. Generations of those that came before ate in the ways that time and location had made possible.
Haitians, particularly that rather hardy and also denigrated class the “peasant” have beautiful teeth. Strong, white and clear of stains, they flash as vibrant advertisements of health. The more removed from the capital and habits of the upper classes, the healthier in general they are. It is not access to imported food stuffs that ensures health but rather the lack of access. It is not a matter of hygiene and access to dentists, either. Hygiene is the use of charcoal ash as cleaning agent every few days or so with minimal to no access to dentistry. The “peasant” when looked at through an eye free of cultural prejudice is strong with wide jaws, well formed muscles, and exemplary structure. Compared to city dwellers or others who have access to packaged foods made mostly of sugar and flour, the differences move into sharper focus.
The width, breadth and depth of the traditional diet’s impact on the body are hard to overstate. Haitian culture being what it is, it is also very difficult to accept that the healthiest among us are healthiest because they embody something that most Haitians hope to move away from, both in education and location. Diet is not everything, of course. It is a lot, though. Fortunately, we can duplicate a traditional way of eating nearly anywhere. I’ll explain how in part two.
Photo credit: Jean Cyril Pressoir