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Were Diets Really Better In The 1800's?
The pages and posts on this site have focused their attention on the diet and lifestyle of the average American (and a few Europeans) in the 19th century, specifically about 160 years ago. Of course a little conflict called the Civil War had a lot of influence during that period, but it didn't change the way most people farmed and ate; except for those poor souls whose farms were burnt and destroyed.
Why go back in time 160 years
So the question you might ask is "Why go back in time 160 years when we have a plethora of new and effective diets that go back 2 Million years?" That would be, of course, the paleolithic diet and all its derivatives.
Well, there are a couple of reasons.
We don't really know as much about the paleolithic as we think we know. Although there is a lot of archaeological information about the paleolithic period, bones and stone tools and stuff like that, and the technology of testing isotopes to figure out what they ate is really cool, it still paints a dim and faded picture of what really was happening way back then. No offense to those diligent scientists working hard to figure it out, but like most science it begs more questions than it answers.
Check out our review of the paleolithic diet here for more information on the subject. The archaeological site at Gobekli Tepe might have something to say about the paleolithic.
You just don't need to go that far back. The primary value of a paleolithic diet is that it avoids the highly processed foods that we find in the grocery today. You can get that same value by just going back 160 years or so. They didn't even have white flour till about 1870. The paleolithic diet is also very restrictive on grains, legumes, and other things it thinks are toxic or anti-nutritional, but that isn't a settled science and is very much in debate. Here is an article buy a guy who thinks the whole idea is rubbish. ( The facts on which this idea is based are rubbish.)
We Have Adapted
The idea that we evolved over 2 million years and then suddenly everything changed faster than we can adapt since 10,000 years ago is compelling, but incomplete. We have adapted, genetically and otherwise. The adaptation to lactose tolerance is but one example of that.
What we have not adapted to is putting hormones and antibiotics in our food supply. Our meats have traces of these chemicals and traces can also be found in some water supplies. The plants we eat are sprayed with all sorts of insecticides and even their genetics are modified so the plants can make their own insecticides. That isn't something we will adapt to; with one exception.
A Scary Thought
What if those insecticide making genes get into our bodies and are picked up by our cells, or by our gut flora, and we adapt to start making our own insecticides inside our bodies. That's a scary thought. How will we deal with that, other than just getting sick?
The Wonder Material Plastic
Possibly the greatest industrial marvel of the 20th century is plastic. We now live in a plastic world. I'm typing on plastic keys, sitting on a plastic chair, wearing plastic soled shoes, and all of that is wonderful. What isn't wonderful is when plastic touches our food.
Most people have seen the sign on plastic water bottles that say "BPA FREE". But what does that mean? BPA (Bisphenol A) is a starter material used in making polycarbonate plastics. There is always some left over in the finished plastic and if comes in contact with food the BPA can leech into the food.
BPA has been shown to have hormonal (estrogenic) effects that can harm the human body, especially children. So the chemical companies switched to another chemical called BPS (Bisphenol S).
Now here is where the story gets strange and shows just how broken our regulatory system really is. BPA which had been tested and shown to be harmful was switched out with BPS which was tested and shown to be safe? Uhh, No! BPS wasn't tested and shown to be safe. BPS wasn't tested AT ALL. But since regulations allow untested chemicals to be used in plastics that are made to store food it was considered OK. Now that is just plain ******* ridiculous. Here is an article describing the problem with BPA free plastics. ( BPA free plastic containers may be just as hazardous. )
My point of this rant is to show, again, that 160 years ago these kinds of problems hadn't been invented yet. The 19th century was very far from perfect, something we will go into in future episodes of this blog. But it was a far better place than the toxic mess we live in today.