Weston Price, Women's Work, and Unschooling the Art of Human Health - Fascinating Articles this Week

January 29, 2011

“Cooking is not seen as a universal skill of self-sufficiency and adulthood... We are surprised when someone doesn't know how to drive a car, but we are not at all surprised when someone doesn't know how to cook. Large corporations are more than happy to keep us in this state of helplessness. It creates a huge market for factory-processed products and fast food.”

--Jessica Prentice, “Full Moon Feast”


The other day, Maya reminded me of something that Evan's been saying for years. Evan is much more eloquent than I, but basically: as unschoolers, it's easy to define our values and our identities by the Things That We Don't Do--we _don't_ support compulsory education, for instance; we _don't_ believe in forcing our kids to do things like diagram sentences when they'd rather be watching butterflies migrate; we _don't_ place a higher value judgment on algebra than carpentry.

That's all important stuff, Evan says...and yet, much more importantly: who ARE we? What IS important in our lives? What DO we want to do?

With something like Evan's words ringing in my ears, I am, after a year and a half of perusing excerpts and fascinating snippets, reading Weston A. Price's actual book: “Nutrition and Physical Degeneration.” When Price wrote this, way back in the early twentieth century, he was attempting to do nothing less than establish a working understanding of the causal factors relating to the overall physical/emotional health of the human species.

These are things I _want_ to know about...

Price spent many years traveling the world, documenting the incredible health of remote tribes living traditional lifestyles, and the ways in which their health degenerated (within a single generation, in many cases), when these very same people began to eat “Western” foods rather than their traditional diets. None of the traditional diets he studied matched the others exactly in terms of specific foods, but all of them shared several characteristics (high in natural fats, relatively much lower in grains and carbohydrates, and no modern processed foods--only traditional food processing techniques were used).

The genius of Weston Price is that he was able to avoid specialization in his attempts to see patterns in human behavior and health. He started his research as a dentist, trying to understand the true causes of tooth decay (since obviously our ancestors did not own toothbrushes with rounded nylon bristles, nor did they all die at age five before developing any holes in their teeth).

But here's where his resemblance to many modern medical researchers ends. Instead of trying to understand tooth decay by studying people whose teeth were falling out of their heads, or spending his life looking at decaying teeth under a microscope, he realized that he needed to study populations where there _wasn't any tooth decay at all._

This is such a simple concept! To understand health, you need to study health. And I'm fairly unclear about why it's taken me so long to think in these terms, whether I'm considering dentistry or anxiety or autism or hyperactivity or depression or hormonal issues or diabetes or or or... I do clearly remember, years ago, when we were interviewing the woman who ended up attending our homebirth with Ben. A midwife, Nancy said, knows how to assist a woman in labor because she has attended many, many _healthy births._ A good midwife is familiar with health because she is used to it, and so she expects health and helps the laboring woman to expect this healthy normalcy, too. A midwife like Nancy is the cornerstone of a healthy positive feedback loop surrounding the events of the day. When anything starts looking unhealthy, a midwife should spot it quickly, because at that point the labor no longer looks normal anymore.

You might think: what's the difference between the midwife's approach and the way an OBGYN might, for example, employ fetal monitoring, and extensive tests and high-tech equipment, to determine when a woman might “need” drugs, or is showing signs of a problematic labor or need for a Cesarian? The difference really is subtle, and subject to personal opinion. And please--if you had a fantastic birth with an OB attending, then all power to you! I am very happy to hear it. But even the act of using such seemingly-simple interventions as electronic fetal monitoring drastically influences the ways that a laboring woman may experience her labor, not to mention how it increases the odds of her having a chaotic, exhausting, dis-empowering, drugged or Cesarian birth. It's my observation that Modern Medicine often creates a negative feedback loop whereby the expectation of abnormality leads to a higher number of interventions and unhealthy procedures (“just in case”), which then creates a new expectation of normality based on fear, and a very incomplete sense of what normal is or can be.

A different set of solutions, potentially (to me) infinitely better, might emerge as soon as one tries to understand these questions: why are something like 34% of American women currently birthing their babies via Cesarian section? Why do women so often resort to taking powerful drugs during labor (all of which may have side effects), and report unsatisfactory and dis-empowering birth experiences? And: What does a healthy labor look like?

I'm saying all this because I think that the way our culture practices the most ancient act of childbirth is a reflection of how we generally deal with most aspects of human health, including so-called mental health. Many of the treatments we use to address our health problems don't even seem related to the potential _cause_ of the symptoms in the first place. Just as there are patterns of healthy birth, there are patterns of healthy Everything Else--but it's often hard to find good examples, or even remember that they exist.

And that's just what Weston Price discovered, even back in the 1940s. There weren't many (any??) healthy populations living in industrialized countries. It wasn't until he found people who were isolated from Modern Diets and Lifestyles that he found groups who had _extremely_ low (or non-existent) rates of tooth decay and jaw malformation. He couldn't help but notice that they also lacked other “diseases of affluence,” such as diabetes, “emotional backwardness” in children, so-called delinquency, hypertension, random “heart events,” overweight, mood disorders, cancers, learning and anxiety disorders, respiratory issues, autoimmune illness, hypoglycemia, hormonal problems, infertility, gastrointestinal disorders...

Even those of us who run in Hippie, unschooly circles, visiting alternative healers and eating good foods, can't escape the signs of ill-health all around us. The laundry list of “chronic diseases” gets longer and longer, until it's hard to actually believe that these illnesses are not simply random acts of God. It can be easy to blame our increasingly toxic world, full of synthetic compounds that just never used to be in our water and air and food supply--and leave it at that.

But I think that if we _don't_ accept ill-health in all its manifestations as an inevitable symptom of the modern human condition (even while we try to reverse the atrocity of modern industrial pollution, etc.)...then we just might be able figure out what to do about it, at least on an individual level. I keep saying this, repeating myself each time I find a new reason why this is true. Even with modern stress, and modern toxins, I am convinced that there are ways to midwife our own health and the health of our communities, to change this paradigm of abnormal-seeming-normal.

Right now, I see no better option than to learn as much as we can about healthy food, since food is the number one source of nourishment and/or toxins which enter our body, and we actually have some control over what we eat. So: I want to know about the lifestyle choices made by groups of people who didn't die from one of these dad-blamed chronic diseases, but instead died mainly from death.

I think it's necessary to study examples of healthy populations because as I personally know, individual case studies, while helpful in any number of situations, can't give you certain data that you might need if, for example, you want to upgrade your own diet/lifestyle but have no traditional mythology to inform you, no Elder to guide your way, and, quite honestly, have no idea where to even start. It can be impossible to find helpful patterns of health when examining individuals. Is someone healthy because of (or in spite of) regular jogging, vegetarianism, a high-animal-protein diet, a macrobiotic diet, Ayurveda, a really great chiropractor, transcendental meditation, yoga, veganism, Atkins dieting, spending at least twenty minutes outdoors each day at 1:15pm, or eating only grapefruits?? We all know that there are outliers in every culture, exceptions to every rule, people who can eat fast food every day for 85 years without keeling over, and people who enjoy good health despite very many possibly outlandish, possibly practical, but definitely not strictly causal reasons. There is no way that I know to establish even potentially causal patterns without studying larger groups of people adhering to the grapefruit diet or whatever.

So. What the hell to do?? This befuddlement is the challenge facing an Average Modern Human With Choices, who just wants to do what ancient humans did without ever reading a single self-help book. The simple question is: how can we support reasonable health and happiness in ourselves and our communities as we eat, drink, find shelter, and, in general, pass on our genetic material to the next generation?

This question is the one Price sought to answer. In his quest, he studied healthy humans, wrote down what they ate, watched them, and photographed them both before _and_ after some of them went to join Modern Civilization out there in the rapidly industrializing world.

Many people might fear that Price's next leap was one of racial bias (eugenics) or the act of fatalistically blaming a child's problems on his upbringing or his genetics. People often assume that Price's research shows how Modern Man is already and inextricably doomed. But in fact, Price adamantly and continually refutes these fears: “My investigations have revealed that these same divergencies from normal are reproduced in all these various racial stocks while the blood is still pure. Indeed, these even develop in those children of the family that are born after the parents adopted the modern nutrition.”

“...The forces involved in heredity have in general been deemed to be so powerful as to be able to resist all impacts and changes in the environment. These data [in the following pages] will indicate that much that we have interpreted as being due to heredity is really the result of intercepted heredity. While great emphasis has been placed on the influence of the environment on the character of the individual, the body pattern has generally been supposed to require a great number of impacts of a similar nature to alter the design. The brain has been assumed to be similarly well organized in most individuals except that incidents in the life of the individual such as disappointments, fright, etc., are largely responsible for disturbed behavior. Normal brain functioning has not been thought of as being as biologic as digestion. The data provided in the succeeding chapters indicate that associated with disturbances in the development of the bones of the head, disturbances may at the same time occur in the development of the brain. Such structural defects usually are not hereditary factors even though they appear in other members of the family or parents. They are products of the environment rather than hereditary units transmitted from the ancestry.

“It will be easy for the reader to be prejudiced since many of the applications suggested are not orthodox. I suggest that conclusions be deferred until the new approach has been used to survey the physical and mental status of the reader's own family, of his brothers and sisters, of associated families, and finally, of the mass of people met in business and on the street. Almost everyone who studies the matter will be surprised that such clear-cut evidence of a decline in modern reproductive efficiency could be all about us and not have been previously noted and reviewed.”

I hadn't realized that Price made so many observations of a wide-ranging variety--concerning everything from juvenile delinquency, to the generally declining IQ of children (increase in “dullness”), to the fact that a modern society with ever-growing and ever imperative sickness-care will eventually implode.

I had intended to include only a few excerpts from Price's book in this Articles update, as a sort of teaser. But I found so many fascinating bits that instead, I recommend that you read the whole book, which can be found online for free, here: http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0200251h.html# .

One word of warning: it's incredibly easy to get depressed, when you look at the photographs Price took of native peoples and their incredibly gorgeous bone structure, jaws, and teeth. Viewing these (especially the gorgeous Aborigine woman with more teeth in half her smile than I have in my head) sent me into a two-day tailspin. BUT: there are two issues that Price studied. One is the Structure of a person's body, which is largely determined by at least several generations of nutritional and lifestyle choices over which a person has almost no control. You can feel free to get depressed by this. BUT THEN, there is the matter of function, the ways that the body can function (or not) in its most optimal state, even despite less-than-perfect structure. No, I can't re-grow my jaw and teeth and pelvis. But I _can_ decide how to nourish my imperfect body, right here and now, and this nourishment has the potential to affect the most basic emotions that I feel and express, not to mention my long-term health and that of my children.

So with these thoughts, I am plunging into Weston Price, and at this moment I am throwing away as much pre-existing dogma as I can (to make room for more!). I am so fascinated at the rare chance to, in a second-hand-sort of way, get to examine the lifestyles of Healthy People...



“Imagine if a persistent, toxic chemical was being added to all sorts of products you use everyday: soap, toothpaste, cosmetics, shaving cream, even toys and underwear. Imagine being told that it was put there to keep you safe from disease, when in reality it could end up making you sicker by contributing to antibiotic resistance. Imagine your food was being grown in fertilizer contaminated with this chemical, and that government tests found it in 75% of Americans. Finally, imagine you had an opportunity to do something about it...”



When I get a chance I want to try some of these lacto fermented condiments ideas.



“Six months of breastmilk alone is too long and could harm babies, scientists now say.”

I used to think that articles like this were written by dumb jackasses who were paid off by formula companies. Anything talking about the cons of breastfeeding _must_ be politically motivated...

Not that I'm a conspiracy theorist or anything, but I still think that this is often the case.

However, I no longer believe the things that many people used to tell me when I was pregnant: “Oh, don't worry! Just eat pretty well, and the baby will get what he needs. No need to be a dietary vigilante or anything...” Actually, dietary vigilantism just might be what we need these days. Because when you think about it, it makes no sense that breastmilk could magically be the perfect food for babies unless mamas are eating the perfect foods for mamas. And mamas are a definite subset of a largely industrial population that is now facing a hugely declining average state of health (see above). What if it's true, that the average mama does NOT have breastmilk that is nutrient-dense enough to be a baby's exclusive nutritional source??

I am not being paid off by the formula companies (may they rot in hell), and I try not to be a jackass. I'm just saying: there are more than two possible interpretations of the data.

Since a statistically insignificant number of women in the industrialized world breastfeed exclusively until their babies are six months old, it is slightly strange that researchers would focus much attention on the topic of Warning Moms of the Dangers. The more serious challenges would seem to be A. help women to nurse their babies in the first place, and B. help them understand the important of eating a super-nutrient-dense diet before conception, during pregnancy and lactation, and beyond.

Advising moms to introduce solid foods when their babies are four months old seems like a “solution” that sidesteps the understanding of the problem in the first place.



In about six months, I will report back whether this gum-cleaning technique is effective at reversing minor gum disease, or whether the brushes are a total scam and waste of money...

Stay tuned!



“New Jersey's Governor Proposes Separate Schools for Children With Autism.”

Whether or not you agree with Governor Christie's motives, it's impossible not to notice the glaring fact: autism is at epidemic levels, and it's obviously not possible to “mainstream” the current number of autistic kids into public school classrooms.

“...The New York Times reports that the number of students who have been identified as autistic in New Jersey has grown rapidly over the last few years. In 2006, a total of 8,490 students had been identified. This number has risen to 13,358 in 2010. In response to these growing numbers, districts have been encouraged to develop autism programs designed to meet the needs of these students. In fact, the Corzine administration awarded $15 million worth of grants to 55 school districts in 2007 in order to assist with either establishing or expanding existing programs. Clearly, Christie’s proposal would reverse these state efforts...”


Churyl came across this intriguing article in a UK newspaper:


I don't agree with every point, but the facts about fruit-and-veggie consumption are definitely intriguing:

“...You might assume our five-a-day ­fixation is based on firm evidence. But you’d be wrong.

“It started as a marketing campaign dreamt up by around 20 fruit and veg ­companies and the U.S. National Cancer Institute at a meeting in California in 1991. And it’s been remarkably successful.

“People in 25 countries, across three continents, have been urged to eat more greens, and have done so in their millions, believing it was good for them.

“No doubt it was set up with the best intentions - to improve the health of the nation and reduce the incidence of cancer. But there was no evidence that it was doing us any good at all...”


Discussing the concept of food preparation and spiritual fulfillment; from “Full Moon Feast,” by Jessica Prentice:

“...Why have cooking and so many other food-processing tasks been women's work in so many parts of the world? What makes certain word women's work and other work men's work? Some people postulate that these definitions grew out of innate physical or psychological factors such as men's physical strength and women's nurturing nature. In 1970 anthropological scholar Judith K. Brown wrote a brief paper called “A Note on the Division of Labor by Sex” in which she puts forth a theory that makes much more sense. In traditional, subsistence-based societies, women are most likely to participate in those activities most compatible with simultaneous child care responsibilities. Because women bear and breast-feed children, the majority of child care responsibilities usually falls to them. As Brown puts it:

'Nowhere in the world is the rearing of children primarily the responsibility of men, and in only a few societies are women exempted from participation in subsistence activities. If the economic role of women is to be maximized, their responsibilities in childcare must be reduced or the economic activity must be such that it can be carried out concurrently with childcare.'

“Brown goes on to outline four characteristics that distinguish economic activities compatible with child care: First, they do not oblige the participant to range very far from home. Second, the tasks are relatively repetitive and do not require rapt concentration. Third, the work is not dangerous and does not unduly endanger the life of the child. And fourth, the work can be performed despite interruptions and is easily resumed afterward.

In Brown's view it is not ultimately skill or ability that is at issue as certain work comes to be considered women's work but rather a practical question for the society of how to maximize productivity. The kinds of work that would fit these characteristics may vary somewhat form culture to culture depending on their particular needs, but some activities are obviously better matches than others; spinning and weaving, gardening and gathering, making baskets and pottery, drawing water, doing bead work, dyeing cloth, herbal medicine making, sewing, knitting, cleaning, laundering, and many aspects of food preparation. Tasks that clearly don't fit include hunting, mining, metalsmithing, and heavy fieldwork requiring plows and beasts of burden.

Modern cooking shares only some of these characteristics. It does not require ranging far from home, though kitchens can be somewhat dangerous. But much traditional food processing was relatively repetitive and not in the least dangerous. Shelling beans, winnowing grain, pounding roots, grinding spices, churning butter, shucking corn, brewing beer, preserving fruits, plucking chickens; all are perfect examples of activities that fit all the above qualifications--tasks that are now, for the most part, accomplished commercially by modern machines. Consequently, some of the most beautiful rituals of women bonding in various cultures are the descendants of this legacy: four generations of Mexican women making tamales together at Christmastime, while next door an extended family of Polish women are making pierogi for their celebration.

It's no coincidence that women rebelled against cooking and their role in the kitchen in the middle part of the twentieth century. Two major changes were happening simultaneously. First, the extended family and village social structure had given way to the modern suburban model of a nuclear family living in relative isolation. Cooking became a solitary--rather than collective--activity. This stripped food preparation of one of its primary pleasures; being in community. Second, factory processing of food had become widespread. This had a number of effects. Most obviously, it made home food preparation and processing less necessary--a wife and mother no longer _had_ to spend six hours grinding grain. But even more significantly to my mind, canned, frozen, and packaged foods deprived cooking of all the things that make cooking so rewarding: the creativity, the skill and expertise it requires, the intimacy with the gifts of the Earth, the sense of power and fascination that comes with transforming these gifts into something new and wonderful, the sense of history and pride in carrying on a cultural tradition. All of these were important parts of the culinary traditions that women carried on throughout the world, and factory-processed foods stripped the midcentury kitchen of these considerable satisfactions.

In addition, the twentieth century saw an explosive increase in the use of written recipes. Traditionally, most people learned how to cook from their mothers or other members of their village. They learned by watching, participating, and verbal instruction. They learned by singing and chanting. Malidoma Some translates for us a song that was sung to an ancestral Dagara woman by a being from the spirit world called a _kontomble._ The song taught the woman--and all the subsequent Dagara women--how to make _dan_ the village's millet beer:

For three days and two nights
let the grain soak in water
under firm ground.
I'm saying it
But I'm not saying anything.
On the third day bring the wet grain
into air below the sky
and let it rest
below a blanket of green leaves
for another three days.
I'm saying it
But I'm not saying anything.
Then separate the grains
one from the other, slowly
and let the sun dry them, slowly.
I'm saying it
But I'm not saying anything.
Pound the dry grains
cook the meal for two days
and drain,
take the juice and additionally some ferment.
Let it mix and foam.
I'm saying it
But I'm not saying anything.
When the juice is under a white foaming blanket
enjoy the whole of it.
I said it
But I didn't say anything.

“...The crucial information about the process is conveyed in a memorable way, so there is no need to have a cookbook to look up the recipe--important in an oral culture. But the chant also keeps alive the knowledge that _dan_ is a gift, because the voice in the chant is the voice of the spirit who gives it. The chant creates a strong sense of tradition and connection to ancestors: The women who chant as they brew are chanting the same ancient words and tune as their foremothers did. The activity takes on greater meaning when we sense an unbroken line of connectedness back through the generations.”


Would love to hear what you think if you read any Weston Price this week, or hear about any other interesting topics of note...