The Great Divide
Wednesday, August 6, 2008
Eating healthy on the road can be tricky for Sally Fallon. But if the founder of the Washington nutrition nonprofit group Weston A. Price Foundation ever gets desperate, she can always hit a gas station for a bag of pork cracklings: "It's often the only real thing to eat," she says.
Fallon's definition of "real" is vastly different from what many Americans who consider themselves health-conscious might describe. She advocates butter on bread "so thick you can see teeth marks in it," plenty of meat and unpasteurized, or raw, milk.
Those are foods recommended by Price, a Cleveland dentist who traveled the world studying primitive diets. His 1939 book, "Nutrition and Physical Degeneration," concluded that a diet high in the vitamins found in animal fats and untouched by "modern" innovations such as refined flour, sugar and chemically preserved foods was the key to preventing chronic disease and tooth decay.
Such ideas have been considered heretical by modern American public health policy that promotes a low-fat, low-sodium diet. But increasing interest in sustainable, local foods, combined with industrial health scares such as the recent salmonella outbreak, has put the spotlight on the foundation's unorthodox ideas about healthful eating. Its membership is nearly 10,500 strong, and growing at a 10 percent clip each year. There are more than 350 U.S. chapters, plus international groups from Australia to Norway.
For years, these ideas were "as fringe as you could get, as politically incorrect as you could get," says Fallon, 60. "All of a sudden, people are listening."
That new audience is surprisingly broad. Some adherents are interested exclusively in nutrition. But more and more, the concept of returning to traditional foodways is pulling people in. New members include the expected "back to the land" types, for whom the foundation's message provides yet another reason to support small organic farms, and those who oppose the government's attempt to limit the availability of foods such as raw milk.
"This idea of real food crosses all demographics: red states, blue states, seculars, environmentalists, men, women and children," says Nina Planck, a Weston A. Price member and the author of "Real Food: What to Eat and Why." "What's gone wrong with farm policy is something conservatives and liberals can all agree on."
A Diet Rich in Vitamins
Fallon first stumbled on Price's work in the 1970s. It charted Price's visits to isolated populations, from the New Zealand Maori to Gaelic cultures in Scotland's Outer Hebrides, to discover the roots of dental decay that he found in his Cleveland practice. Price counted cavities, noted facial structures and collected food samples, which he brought home for nutrient analysis.
There was great variety in the diets: Some subsisted on meats, others on seafoods, grains, even insects. But in each group, Price found little or no evidence of chronic disease or tooth decay. He concluded that what those diets had in common were high levels of vitamins A and D and what he called "activator X," now believed to be vitamin K2. He determined that those important vitamins could be obtained only from animal foods, including seafood, organ meats, and butterfat and eggs from pastured animals. Price, who died in 1948, got some early attention for his work, but its message was largely forgotten during the pro-industry '50s and '60s.
Fallon found Price's ideas "life-changing" and altered her family's diet accordingly. She began to buy raw milk and added liver, where possible, to meals she cooked for her four children.
In 1989, Fallon began to think about spreading the gospel of Price. She did not have any formal nutrition training, so she recruited Mary Enig, a Washington nutritionist whose controversial work promotes saturated fats, to co-write a cookbook. It had two goals: to explain Price's findings and to provide a range of recipes for traditional foods such as chicken liver pâté, sauerkraut and sourdough breads that deliver the requisite fat and nutrients for good health. (Some of the book's recommendations, such as the importance of bone broths, are inspired by the work of California doctor Francis Pottenger, a contemporary of Price's.)
The result was "Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook That Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats." The first edition, released in 1996, was riddled with typos and errors. But it sold.