Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Diseases of Civilization

I enjoyed this essay by Kevin Patterson in Maisonneuve, which lends support to Paleo/Primal approaches to nutrition, and also echoes points raised in Gary Taubes' "Good Calories, Bad Calories." (Taubes, by the way, has a new book out next month -- "Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It" -- his long-awaited follow-up for laymen that focuses less on the science of metabolic pathways and more on practical approaches to weight maintenance.)

The gist of Taubes' argument, which Patterson reinforces: Pre-agricultural societies -- even those that subsisted primarily on dietary fat -- didn't develop diseases of metabolic derangement like diabetes, obesity and cancer until they were introduced to all the crap (read: sugar, refined carbohydrates, etc.) offered by Western civilization.
[W]e talked about diabetes among the Pacific Islanders. I told him that the world’s highest prevalence was in Nauru, west of Samoa. Essentially one huge guano deposit, the island has been strip-mined until every vestige of the traditional fishing and taro economy vanished beneath seacans full of Spam, pornography, beer and television sets. Fifty percent of adults have frank diabetes. Among the oldest, an incredible 78 percent. This in a people who, prior to World War II, were lithe fishermen and farmers among whom the disease was unknown. Rule number one: don’t sell your island out from underneath your own feet.
The same process is underway across the Pacific, where the most acculturated islands have the highest rates of obesity, metabolic syndrome and diabetes. In 2001 I worked in Saipan, which is American soil in the Northern Marianas. The indigenous Chamorro, numbering just over sixty-two thousand, were in an awful state. The dialysis population, all of whose kidneys had failed due to diabetes, was growing at 18 percent per year—doubling every three and half years. The miracle of compound interest would have half the population on dialysis within a generation or two. (The other half, presumably, would find thriving careers as nephrologists.) 
These are the same people Spaniards described as swimming through the ocean like seals to meet their ships, climbing aboard glistening and smiling. Here, and in narratives by other European Pacific explorers, we see a people defined by their incredible capacity for movement—in this instance, through the sea.
Not anymore.

(Image: Melissa Gruntkosky)