By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
In 12 years, the book, corrected in a second edition, has sold 310,000 copies (see sidebar). That is 30,000 more than the paperback version of Rachael Ray's "30 Minute Meals" and 50,000 more than Ina Garten's "The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook," according to Nielsen BookScan.
"I'm as amazed as anyone," Fallon says. She credits its success to the fact that the book's rules "tell people they can do what their body naturally wants to. All of the other rules require willpower, and willpower doesn't work."
Fallon appears to be living proof of the benefits of the "Nourishing Traditions" diet. Her typical day's food intake is about 2,300 calories and includes eggs, with extra yolks, or oatmeal with at least three tablespoons of butter for breakfast; soup with cheese or pâté for lunch; and meat or organ meat for dinner with lots of vegetables. And though Fallon is far from model thin, she has a healthy, farm-fed look. She says she hasn't gotten sick in 10 years and long ago overcame allergies and digestive problems that dogged her in her 20s.
A food regimen that endorses creamy soups and pork chops has its appeal; witness the sweeping success of the Atkins diet. But what has made "Nourishing Traditions" a word-of-mouth success is its combination of common-sense advice and the science to back it up. The foundation's quarterly journal, Wise Traditions: Farming and the Healing Arts, offers a similar mix. The summer 2008 issues include articles on the history of mercury in medicine and how to best prepare grass-fed beef.
"You have to demonstrate the science for the skeptics," says Planck, who says she faced similar challenges with her book advocating unprocessed foods.
Some independent studies, such as the ones charted in Gary Taubes's recent book, "Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control and Disease," do support the premise that saturated fat isn't the enemy. But not everyone agrees with the foundation's claims. Joel Fuhrman, doctor and author of "Eat for Health," which advocates a nutrient-dense diet with limited animal products, calls it "unconscionable" to advocate a diet high in saturated fat, especially for children. He also alleges that the evidence Fallon and Enig use to support their claims is based on antiquated studies with poor observations.
"The worst people can say about us is that we use older studies," Fallon says. "Would you jump off a building because the law of gravity was discovered 300 years ago? This is good science."Raw Milk Advocacy
Fallon runs the foundation ( http://www.westonaprice.org) from a bungalow in Washington's Palisades neighborhood. Initially, Fallon wanted to focus the $1 million annual budget on education and research. But her message has filtered into the mainstream: Journalist Michael Pollan spent several pages of his recent bestseller, "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto," outlining Price's research. Fallon has since been forced to put more resources into advocacy of such foods as raw milk.
One of the cornerstones of the diet, raw milk is sold legally in 28 states; several others permit it to be sold as pet milk or allow people to buy cow shares, an agreement in which a customer buys a percentage of the cow and its milk. (Raw milk cannot be sold legally in Maryland and the District and can be purchased only through a cow share in Virginia.) The foundation also has established a farm-to-consumer legal defense fund that offers, among other things, a 24-hour hotline for legal advice about how to bring unprocessed products to market. "If you teach people what to eat, they have to be able to get it," Fallon says.
That's how Bowie resident Liz Reitzig got involved. In 2004, at the suggestion of a relative, she decided to give raw milk to her 2-year-old daughter, who was suffering from digestive problems. Because the sale of raw milk was illegal where she lived, she bought into a cow share. Within weeks after switching her daughter's milk intake from organic to raw, Reitzig says, the problems disappeared. In 2006, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene announced a change in regulations that prohibited cow shares. Reitzig retreated to serving organic milk, and health problems emerged for several family members.
"This is about our rights," Reitzig told 37 people who attended a recent Saturday evening meeting in Great Falls sponsored by foundation members. "I'm nine months pregnant, and I can go anywhere and buy a pack of cigarettes and a case of beer. But I can't get raw milk, this food that has nourished us for thousands of years."
Reitzig's libertarian streak seemed to appeal to her audience: a mix of liberals, conservatives and several nutritionists who had come to learn more about the Price philosophy.
"As consumers, we don't know what we're eating," said Luisa Burke, a 40-year-old Oak Hill resident. A self-described conservative, Burke emptied her pantry of processed foods and switched to organic produce several years ago when nothing could cure her son's chronic sinus infections. Burke has not switched to raw milk, in part because of the hassle of obtaining it. But she is considering it: "This is everybody's problem. We need to look at why so many kids are diagnosed with autism and so many kids are obese."
Burke's friend, 44-year-old Michelle Steindl, said the idea of traditional, unprocessed foods also resonated with her progressive upbringing. She began giving her daughter raw milk several years ago to help with digestive problems and now goes through several gallons per week. "This is not a liberal or conservative thing anymore," she said. "Everyone can come together around healthy food."
That is Fallon's hope. "I know we're still small, but we've grown because people are searching for answers," she says. "And there are millions more people out there searching for answers."