What makes a healthy traditional diet?

Author: FITivate_B | Published date: December 13, 2022 | Category: Nutrition
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Traditional diets

The only diets that have stood the test of time are traditional diets, which humans have followed for thousands of years. Even though such diets may not have as long a history as the hunter-gatherer diet that lasted millions of years, it is worth nothing that human societies suffered minimal health problems on traditional diets.

Most traditional diets have carbohydrates as the main food. This suited our ancestors who led physically active lives (as farmers) but those who are less active today should reduce their carbohydrate intake accordingly. Apart from this, traditional diets have many good features that we would do well to adopt.

The key components of healthy traditional diets include:

  • Fresh, seasonal foods: Dishes and cooking styles varied with the seasons - summer vegetables and fruits were eaten during summer, winter foods were eaten during winter. This may seem like the obvious thing to do. But today, the same foods are eaten throughout the year. The same foods are also eaten everywhere in the world. People in temperate countries are eating tropical foods while those in the tropics are eating foods from cold climates. This is not natural. Nor is the food always fresh.
  • Whole plants: Traditionally, people were generally poor and they took care not to waste food. This meant eating as much of plant and animal foods as possible. For example, root vegetables like carrot and white radish were eaten with their leaves. Today, the leaves are discarded. The skin of root vegetables and fruits were also left intact. This retains both flavour and nutrition. Today, unless you eat organic foods, it may be wiser to remove the skins, as they tend to be loaded with toxic pesticides.
  • Whole animals: Almost every part of the animal was eaten, including the flesh, organs, skin and sometimes even the tendons and bones. Organ meats were highly valued and we know today that they contain much more nutrition than the flesh. Great effort went into removing the offensive smell of organs like stomachs and intestines, so that they could be eaten. Cartilage or "soft bone" (in the ears, nose, joints and some ribs was eaten while large bones went into making stews and broths, which drew out their nutrients.

Among the different animal parts..

  • Liver is exceptionally rich in nutrients, including vitamin A and cholesterol (which is not harmful, but essential for health);
  • Egg, like liver, is similarly nutrient-packed;
  • Brain is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, phospholipids, and cholesterol - all of which are important brain foods;
  • Heart is rich in Co-enzyme Q10, which helps to maintain a healthy cardiovascular system;
  • Tendons and bones are rich in glucosamine and glycosaminoglycan, two compounds that can alleviate joint pain;
  • Marrow is rich in blood-forming ingredients like iron.

Finally, the whole animal includes its fat. Meat must be eaten with fat because fat is needed for the metabolism of protein. The advice to "eat chicken breast without the skin" is bad advice. All traditional societies use animal fat like lard, butter, ghee, duck fat and goose fat as the main cooking fat. They did this for thousands of years and did not suffer from heart disease, which is a relatively new disease that appeared in the last century.

  • Whole fish: Many traditional societies eat whole small fish like anchovies and white bait. Yet some varieties of bigger fish, like mackerel, can also be eaten almost whole. The Chinese would steam these fishes whole - inclusive of the guts and stomach contents - and eat everything! Sometimes, fish is cooked for many hours until the scales and bones soften and can be eaten, providing a good source of calcium.

Fish liver is particularly important today as an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins A and D3. Omega-3 fats are also abundant in fish belly, which is the most oily - and arguably most delicious - part of the fish, as well as in fish skin.

This content is adapted, with permission, from Book 1 of 2 : The Wonders of Nutrition by Dr Ang Poon Liat. MBBS, M.MED (PAED), MRCP (UK PAED), FAMS, MD.



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