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Our Ancestors Didn’t Know Better, That’s Why They’re Dead

If you spend enough time researching nutritional advice on the internet, you will learn that processed grains are bad, dairy is bad, meat is bad, cooked vegetables are bad, corn is bad, soy is bad and vegetables that are acidic are bad (although no one actually agrees specifically which vegetables are acidic when consumed).

For every ailment, there is a diet-based “solution.” You have to eliminate meat, and dairy, and fruit, and grains and fats and pretty soon you are eating cabbage soup, wondering why you are doing this.

Then there are the counter-indications. Eat meat, but only grass-fed, free-range, hormone and anti-biotic free. Eat organic fruits and vegetables. Eat whole grains. Essentially: Eat this diet that I am telling you about and oh, also buy my book.

These diet advisors tend to make the same argument – we used to only eat X, so if you eat X now, you will be healthy and skinny like our ancestors were. We never ate grains 10,000 years ago, so you shouldn’t eat grains now, and you will be healthy and skinny. We almost never ate meat, and now we eat too much, so to be healthy and skinny, you must not eat meat.

I’m here to tell you that all of this is bull honkey. 10,000 years? That’s a long time to be eating something for it to be terrible for us. And if we’re going to measure the nutritional value of our food by how long we have been eating it, then we should immediately stop eating tomatoes, potatoes, corn, and peppers, among many others, because we have only been eating those for *gasp* 500 years! Well, by “we” I mean everyone who is not descendent from native American cultures, particularly those of South America. They ate that stuff for way longer.

I know, I know, tomatoes did not originate in Italy, it’s horrific, but we can move past it.

Basically, before 1492, the majority of the world was eating a pretty localized diet, and starving as a result. Grains, like rice and wheat, were staples, but they were not ideal in feeding large amounts of people. Then, thanks to our buddy Chris Columbus, the world started to share crops, and now no one really remembers what came from where. Clearly our bodies adapted pretty well to eating potatoes and tomatoes and peppers. Let’s not get me started on corn. Let’s just say, it’s easy to plant, easy to grow, and will feed lots of people, which is probably the only reason it’s around today. It’s not even remotely as nutritious as the potato, but I digress.

Furthermore, the other argument about ancestral eating really irritates me. “Our ancestors were thin, muscular, self-sustaining folks, which must mean their diet is superior to ours.” Of course our ancestors were thin, they were starving half the time. They also had to farm all of their own food, or scavenge for it. Poverty and thinness used to go hand in hand, now it is poverty and obesity. ¬†Why? Because we have plenty of cheap food with almost no nutritional value that is readily available to anyone. These processed foods are also stuffed with corn by-products. Yes, corn is nutritionally worthless, but it’s been filling the bellies of the poor for hundreds of years. Moving on.

But what about all of the terrible diseases – diabetes, heart disease, cancer – that are killing hundreds of thousdands of people each year, and are “clearly” related to processed grains and sugar and meat? Think about it this way – we used to die really young. If you were 50, you were ancient. Some people made it longer than that, but for a very long time, no one lived long enough to have to worry about some of those diseases. Also, it’s not that they didn’t exist, it’s mostly that no one knew what they were. It wasn’t clear why dad had died suddenly. Or why mom fell asleep and never woke up. We weren’t healthier – we were just more ignorant and died more immediately of diseases we can now cure altogether or manage for decades.

As for cancer, it has always been around. Before meat became the enemy. Before cars. Before processed grains and low-fat food and anti-oxidants become everyday words in our vernacular. Cancer is us, mutated, evil, and bent on destruction. It can happen to someone who eats only vegetables, or someone who eats only sugar and fat. There are a few guarantees – like smoking- that cause cancer for sure. But the majority of causes are a result of living.

It’s true, living leads to death. Will being a vegan or gluten-free make us live longer? Will it make our quality of life better? My guess is no, unless you are allergic to gluten or animal products.

People love to write into the nutritionist who “changed their life.” One man lost 30 pounds in a few months, and is now full of life and vigor after cutting out grains. Well, if you read carefully, his new diet also reduced his calorie count (grains pack a pretty big calorie punch). If you were 30 pounds over weight, and lost it, you would feel great. That would be 30 pounds you were no longer carrying around. Plus, these diets almost always include exercise, which increases energy, helps sleep, and improves mood.

I assure you, I am ranting with a purpose.

Everyone is different. We all process food differently, and different foods make us feel different ways. I know that sugar is not my friend. Dairy and I have a strained relationship. Fat, veggies, meat and I are super duper best friends. I know this because I pay attention to how I feel after I eat. I have kept a food journal. I have taken the time to see what my body needs. And now my food decisions are easy. But that doesn’t mean I won’t occasionally eat the things that may make me feel crappy or are not nutritionally ideal. I mean, corn is a useless grain, but I love me some chips and salsa now and again.

The point is that no one has the answer for everyone. We are such a mix of cultures and food histories that saying in general, eat this, not that, is useless. The Irish once survived on potatoes and milk – a surprisingly nutritious combination. More nutritious than a fast-food hamburger. They did it because humans are resilitent, and they will eat almost anything in the face of starvation, and our bodies will figure it out. Our bodies are figuring it out, in fact, no matter what you eat. They will figure out it even if you don’t eat anything at all.

So all I get from the books on diets claiming to have the answer to preventing cancer or solving whatever ails you is that they’re just taking what works for them, and describing it in unnecessary detail. No one will sell a book by telling you, well, you’re just going to have to take the time and energy to figure out what foods make you feel good, and even then, there isn’t any guarantee it will do any good.

Because in essence, everyone is a little bit right – all food causes some type of issue – tomatoes cause inflammation, grains are hard to digest, alcohol is a neurotoxin. So what’s an omnivore to do? My initial response was, well, they’re asking us not to eat. Which sounds ridiculous, until you read the research on fasting. Not eating, something humans have had to do for thousands of years, can actually be good for you.

I’m out of time here, but next week (on Wednesday this time, I promise), I will go into the arguments for not eating and it’s health benefits. You read that correctly. Till next time.


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March of the Deathless Disease

Cancer is immortal.

I’m not saying this for dramatic effect. Somewhere in a lab, there is a cluster of cancer cells that has survived decades after its original host has died. They will keep dividing. It might be easier for them to do inside a body, but apparently, location is irrelevant.

This isn’t to say that cancer cannot be destroyed. It can. But it can also return, again and again, each time with a new vengeance. But why?

We all want to know because cancer is one of our greatest medical challenges. It is not a foreign disease, an interloper that stomps around our bodies causing havoc. Cancer is us, broken.

You see, each of us receive 23 chromosomes from each parent, for a total of 46. They hold our genetic code. Our DNA. And they copy themselves, over and over and over again as we grow, age and eventually decline into death. You can probably imagine that copying and recopying the same genetic structure can sometimes go awry. If you had to copy a complicated sentence billions of times, your handwriting would suffer, your spacing might change, or you might miss a letter or write the wrong one. This is what happens to chromosomes. We call these copying mistakes “mutations” because they give rise to new genes that express new traits.

However, mutation is not only caused by random copying errors. It can be instigated by outside factors. The factors we are concerned with are carcinogens, or rather, agents that cause oncogenes (genes that take part in cancer growth) to mutate, creating active cancer cells. Some well-known carcinogens are smoking, HPV, and asbestos.

(Yes, smoking does cause cancer. We’ve known this since the fifties. Anyone who thinks differently is in deep denial.)

Anyway, smoking, HPV and asbestos are carcinogenic for different reasons. Smoking infiltrates your lungs and throat, activating certain genes that can set off all types of cancers. HPV is a virus that mutates healthy cells. While asbestos itself does not induce mutation, it lodges in the lungs, causing chronic inflammation, which is what leads to the mutation of oncogenes.

These are two environmental factors that go about cancer-causing in two ways, and a virus. Scientists have been trying to locate carcinogens and their corresponding oncogenes for decades now, and we’re still hundreds of thousands of chemicals behind. What is known, however, is that several mutations have to build up in order to get cancer moving.

Some people are born with mutations, something that is called genetic predisposition. Other people acquire mutations throughout their lives. The mutations stack up in either case, culminating in cancer. The sad fact is, if you live long enough, you will get cancer. Currently, the rate is at 1 in 4 people, and a large part of those numbers have to do with the prevalence of smoking.

Generally, two types of oncogenes are involved in the proliferation of cancer. The first is like the gas pedal on a car. It signals for cells to divide, and when they are done, it quiets and goes back to sleep. Another is the breaks, it tells cells when it’s time to stop dividing. When mutations occur in the “gas pedal” gene and the “brake” gene is eliminated, cancer has no reason to stop. It will divide into infinity, if it can.

That is the break within ourselves that doctors then try to fix, working to eliminate those rogue cells and genes that live to divide. There are now targeted therapies for certain genes that have allowed some cancers to be kept under control. But there is something about cancer that most people don’t realize.

Cancer is smart. It is adaptable, changeable and merciless. It has serious Darwinian tendencies. If you are lucky enough to get a stupid cancer, you will walk away with your life. However, some cancers mutate and re-mutate in order to escape treatment and continue dividing. Our current knowledge is not great enough to beat them. As Siddhartha Mukherjee explains in “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer”, we are always finding new treatments for cancer’s new tactics. (Btw, a lot of what I am writing here, I learned from that book)

So what can we do to stop cancer? I’m not exactly sure. Of course, you can get your yearly Pap smear, make sure your dentist checks for oral cancer, stay away from anything that is burnt or burning, and limit your intake of alcohol, but even then, there is no guarantee.

You see, because cancer is us, just wild and uncontrolled, it often feeds off the same nutrients we need, others we just enjoy. Some cancers thrive on folic acid. The stuff found in prenatals, avocados, and many other foods. So does that mean that if you eat lots of avocado, you are feeding that particular cancer? Then there’s alcohol. Certain breast cancers LOVE estrogen. It is their food. When you drink alcohol, your body’s ability to metabolize it slows down, and therefore, there is more estrogen in your body for the cancer to feed on.

But how do you know, before you are diagnosed, if you have the breast cancer that loves estrogen or the one that doesn’t care a lick for it? Or if your particular cancer loves folic acid? The fact is, we don’t know. The research done on diet and cancer is paltry. There are millions of untested chemicals in our personal care and cleaning products that could be carcinogens. The plastic we so love to use is literally crawling with things that can potentially cause our chromosomes to mutate. Even if you follow the antioxidant, smoke-free, natural life style, it doesn’t mean you are safe from cancer. Your genes could mutate anyway. Randomly. And then your cancer could be the wily kind, that changes and adapts to spread far and wide. Sure, it could also be timid and easily destroyed, but in the end, it seems to me all like a lot of luck.

Not eating processed food is most likely a safe bet because who knows what those additives do. But it’s also impossible to know if your cancer is not the kind that cares what you eat. You’re better off eating healthy to keep your ticker strong, as heart disease is still the number one killer in America. Eating to stave off cancer may not make any difference at all because it’s the type of cancer that matters, and you won’t know until you have it, and even then, you might not know how to stop it nutritionally.

Unfortunately, with cancer, there are no easy answers. A sort of gamble we all have to take.

Unless you smoke, then cancer is not a chance, but a guarantee if you keep smoking. It depends on your body, your mutations, and the cancer that you ultimately get.

This may all be depressing, but I look at it as a type of liberation. Take the precautions you can, but don’t worry about what you can’t control. Instead of stressing about the cancer you or someone you love will get, or has, or might get again, enjoy the life you have. Because if cancer has it’s way, it will take over that life. Either through death or treatment.

Cancer’s one clear message is that we are not immortal, and fighting the inevitable will eventually lead to failure.

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