A couple of days ago, I received a very nice email from one of the editors of WordPress, informing me that my post about Jamie Oliver was going to be featured on their front page. As a result, my post generated a lot of comments and other feedback.
I think that merits a follow-up post to further discuss some of the issues.
THE OPIATE FOR THE MASSES
It must be understood that food is a religion for everyone. In the “West”, chefs are the new priests. All of us (lay people) consume food, but only a master chef has the ability to bring out the divinity in our meals.
Gordon Ramsey and Nigella Lawson are high priests in this religion, but Jamie Oliver is an evangelical missionary. Jamie Oliver doesn’t just proclaim (the usual) transubstantiation of ordinary ingredients into a sacred dish, he’s out there thumping the pulpit, boasting to the world about how he is saving lives (souls).
And yet, as I showed with readily-available statistics, people in countries like Moldova (where I live) die from the same diseases as they do in countries where they partake in sin(ful foods). Even the World Health Organization (PDF) will confirm that you have a 3 in 5 chance of dying from these same illnesses (primarily heart problems, stroke and cancer) no matter where you live in the world – and no matter what you eat.
Like all fallen sinners, we want to be castigated by the arch priests. Deep down, we want to believe that eating fast food will sicken and ultimately kill us because we want to be forgiven if we repent of our wicked ways. And that’s why nobody wants to believe a renegade Martin Luther when he easily demonstrates that the orthodox dogma is wrong.
As my original post pointed out, Jamie Oliver’s first sin is his boast that he’s saving lives when he’s clearly not. His second sin is his hypocrisy. While preaching against the evils of processed food, he is simultaneously pocketing a healthy profit by selling processed food. It’s a bit like finding out that Billy Graham is a major stockholder in Jim Beam.
So why are people, even benighted souls who have never once tasted fast food or industrialized food, still dying from the same diseases as those fat slobs that indulge in the wickedness of McDonald’s and Tesco?
To answer that question, you need to understand why George Washington’s children drank beer for breakfast.
WATER FOR MY HORSES, BEER FOR MY CHILDREN
Even though every single article on this blog is somehow connected to Romania and Romanian culture, I’ve written about the Puritans in America three separate times. In this post, I discussed one of my all-time favorite historical texts, which includes the cargo manifest of the Mayflower.
As all good Americans know, in the early 1600s, a group of hardcore Christian believers sailed for the British Colonies in North America in order to start a new life. The lengthy passage across the Atlantic meant that they had to bring a lot of food and drink with them, which William Bradford helpfully committed to writing.
My original post was about what the Puritans were eating but now have a look at what they brought to drink. All of it was alcohol. There was no fruit juice, no milk, no soda (pop) and no water. It was beer, schnapps, gin, brandy and whisky (to use the modern names).
There were approximately 100 passengers on board the Mayflower, including at least 8 young children, and the voyage to America lasted approximately two months. During that entire trip, all of the children, and all of the women, and all of the men, were drinking nothing but alcohol.
This wasn’t unusual. The Puritans, who were so strict that they banned Christmas, were giving their children alcohol to drink every single day, even when they were safely ashore in America. Likewise, the “Founding Fathers”, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, also made sure that everyone in their family, including their children, drank plenty of alcohol. In fact, it’s safe to say that both the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution were all signed by people who had been drinking.
That’s not a slur on those folks. Everyone from Cotton Mather to Paul Revere regularly drank alcohol as a necessity. The concept of not drinking alcohol was so rare that Ben Franklin noted it in his autobiography, describing a period of his life when he was a young man working in a print shop:
I drank only water; the other workmen, near fifty in number, were great guzzlers of beer. On occasion, I carried up and down stairs a large form of types in each hand, when others carried but one in both hands. They wondered to see, from this and several instances, that the Water-American, as they called me, was stronger than themselves, who drank strong beer!
Despite his coworkers teasing him for being a “Water American”, Benjamin Franklin later developed a fondness for good wine, as he also writes about in his memoirs.
These American pioneers were not unusual. All Europeans, for centuries, had been consuming a similar diet. With the exception of milk (mostly for small children) and “milk” made from almonds, almost all of the liquids that medieval people drank were alcoholic. Indeed, almost all the peoples of the world, way back to the Ancient Egyptians and Sumerians, likewise drank almost nothing but alcohol.
The reason for this is because hygiene, as we know it today, was not understood until the end of the 19th century. Microscopic organisms exist in water, even water that’s uncontaminated by modern pollutants. Every year, even now, even in the United States, people get sick with ailments such as giardiasis by drinking water from “pure” mountain streams in wilderness areas.
Alcohol is one of history’s oldest antibiotics (usually called a “disinfectant” these days). I think just about everyone reading this has had alcohol applied to an external cut precisely for this reason. Boiling water will also kill (most) microorganisms, but that takes a lot of fuel. It’s much easier to make alcohol with it.
Medieval peasant or 17th century Puritan or Egyptian pharoah, there was no way to know when water was safe to drink. But even the dirtiest water, teeming with harmful microorganisms, is rendered safely inert if you turn it into beer (or hard liquor).
The beer that the Puritan children on the Mayflower were drinking might’ve been “small”, only 2-3% alcohol by volume, but that was enough to render it sterile.
THE BALLAD OF JOSEPH LISTER
We take it for granted today, but it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that doctors began to understand the concept of infection by micro-organism.
Prior to the pioneering work of Joseph Lister (and others), you were more likely to die in surgery from infection than from anything that the doctor (intentionally) did. That’s why more soldiers in the American Civil War died from their injuries than they did as a direct result of gunfire or bayonet charges.
As I’ve also written about before, washing your hands is easily the greatest life-saving thing that each of us do on a daily basis.
What’s important to understand is that throughout all of human history, infectious diseases killed more people than anything else. Plagues, poxes, syphilis, measles, infectious fevers (scarlet, yellow, et al), flu (influenza), “fluxes”, catarrh, tuberculosis and other infections killed over 90% of all the people who have ever died on the planet.
It was only in the 20th century, with a modern understanding of hygiene and micro-organisms, that history’s greatest killers have lost their position as the top causes of death in humans. That’s why few people today die of cholera, tuberculosis, smallpox or measles.
MELTING THE ICEBERG
Once humanity largely escaped the historical killers of infectious diseases, what’s left is the diseases that Jamie Oliver warns about: heart disease, stroke and cancer. It’s only now, when we understand how to contain and treat infectious diseases, that these other illnesses have risen to the forefront.
None of these diseases are new. Examinations of Egyptian mummies from five thousand years ago show that these non-communicable causes of death (primarily cancer, heart disease and stroke) were still prevalent.
Whether eating fast food and/or processed food from factories exacerbates these fatal illnesses is what experts debate, but there is no denying that they’ve always been around. It’s just that deaths from strokes and heart attacks were nearly insignificant throughout history when compared to the enormous carnage wrought by infectious diseases.
Likewise, what actually causes cancer, heart disease and stroke is also a highly contentious subject. All I can say for sure is what I pointed out in my original post, which is that people who never eat fast food or processed food are still highly likely to die from those same diseases.
OH SUGAR, SUGAR
All of the above being true, there are some significant differences between populations in countries (such as Moldova) where people don’t eat a lot of processed/fast food and in countries (such as America and Britain) where they do.
The first is obesity. I’m not convinced that obesity, in and of itself, is as unhealthy as a lot of people want to believe that it is.
Far more concerning is the level of diabetes in populations that eat a lot of fast/processed food, which is something that I deliberately glossed over in my original post in order not to muddy the issue.
Diabetes, once known as the “sugar sickness”, is a serious medical condition wherein the body fails to produce enough insulin. It is usually divided into two types.
Type 1 is considered “natural”, a genetic defect. It used to be called “juvenile” diabetes because it was usually diagnosed in early childhood. Type 2 is unequivocally the result of diet. It used to be called “adult onset” diabetes because it was diagnosed in (usually older) adults but now is becoming very prevalent in countries like America and Britain, including in young children.
Again, what causes Type 2 diabetes is highly contentious and a matter of debate amongst experts. I will, however, note a few facts.
The first is that Moldova, which has a very low rate of diabetes (especially in contrast to America and Britain), is a nation that consumes one hell of a lot of sugar. There are candy shops on every corner and one brand (Bucuria) is sold world-wide. People in Moldova love their cakes, their chocolates, their candies, halva and sweets of every kind. If eating a lot of sugar caused Type 2 diabetes, the disease would be rampant here.
Secondly, I will say that I’ve known people who have suffered from Type 2 diabetes for decades, people who have received the “benefit” of modern medicine, including dietary restrictions. I’ve also known people who have cured Type 2 diabetes in 30 days (and usually less) by disregarding modern medicine and instead following a different dietary course.
In other words, I’ve seen people with Type 2 diabetes take insulin shots and follow mainstream advice about what foods to eat and yet it’s done nothing more than “manage” their illness. Other people, following a different diet (and no insulin or pharmaceuticals), have cured themselves of Type 2 diabetes in a couple of weeks.
Saying that an alternative method is 100% effective in rapidly and permanently curing Type 2 diabetes puts me on the “fringe” so I will say no more here. But what all medical experts will agree on is that Type 2 diabetes is definitely related to diet.
Therefore, if there’s any light at the end of the tunnel for Jamie Oliver’s evangelism, it lies in the reduction of Type 2 diabetes. Considering what a painful, awful disease Type 2 diabetes is, and how it causes people to develop sores, suppurating wounds and blindness (to say nothing of having their limbs amputated), any reduction in the level of Type 2 diabetes is something I warmly welcome.
If you live like a medieval peasant or 17th century Puritan, you’re most likely to die from an infectious disease.
If you eat like a typical modern American or Brit, your chance of becoming obese and/or developing Type 2 diabetes is much higher than the historical norm.
But if you eat like a typical Moldovan or Indian or a Rwandan, and never touch fast food or eat processed foods, you’re still most likely to die of cancer, stroke or heart disease.