Sunday, March 05, 2006

When Christian and Nutritional Myths Coincide

Things like this just make me crazy. A quote from The Maker's Diet, by Jordan S. Rubin.
History reveals that the healthiest people in the world were generally the most primitive people as well! Our ancestors rarely died from the diet-and lifestyle-related illnesses that kill most modern people before their time, mainly because they ate more healthfully and had more active lifestyles. (p. 32)

I don't know anything about the value of Rubin's subsequent advise on diet. And I'm not going to find out either, because this is so amazingly stupid that I won't trust a single thing I read from this point forward.

They died young. Their "lifestyle" consisted of brutal labor and frequent malnutrition. Before 1700, life expectancies were in the 30's worldwide. As recently as 1900, the life expectancy in America was 46 -- and that was the highest in the world. Certainly the many deaths in childhood, and the many deaths in childbirth cut down the average, but do the math. A life expectancy of 35 means way less than half are living to age 70.

The biblical span is mentioned as "threescore years and ten." We should not interpret that as usual, but as "the most you could reasonably hope for." The few who lived to be 80 were considered unusually blessed with long life. The myth that our ancestors, once they had survived childhood diseases, frequently lived lives of health into their 80's and 90's is simply false. Some few lived long. Visit an old cemetery once in awhile, willya?

In this book we have the nutritional myth of the benefits of the primitive lifestyle intersecting with the Christian myth that scriptural statements about food are based on our current idolatry of worshipping our own bodies. I have deep suspiciousness of the unconscious equivalence of the concepts of natural, healthful, and holy. In our current age, these are a far more dangerous heresy, because they draw us into self-centeredness and the life of the world than their opposite sins. (Yes, it is possible to err on the other side, but there isn't much spiritual danger to that in our current era.)

Update: Welcome to visitors from Dr. Sanity and Dr. Helen, two of the sites on my daily to-visit list. If you browse here, you will find that I favor short post on uh, a variety of topics.


Wacky Hermit said...

I won't dispute your views about the diet itself, because I don't think a Luddite fad diet is worth much of anything. But I do have something to say about the life-expectancy thing. I've done a lot of genealogical research on my ancestors from the Azores Islands of Portugal, and it is actually true of them that if they survived childhood, they frequently lived to be at least 65, often 70 or even 80. These were not generally noblemen or aristocrats, but farmers, seamen, etc. What drags down their average life expectancy so far (at least for this population) is the sheer infant mortality numbers.

You want to "do the math"? (a phrase which usually means "I'm about to bludgeon you over the head with something I want you to believe is true without verification on your part") Let's do some math. A typical couple in my ancestry might have eight children, four of whom lived past childhood. If the parents and each of their four children lived to be 80 and the four children died at age 1, then the average life expectancy in that family would be 48.4. If the adults only lived to 65, we're looking at an average life expectancy of only 39.4. You can easily bring down a life expectancy average with a high infant mortality rate.

And of course, you'd have to factor in the children of the "Roda". In the Azores they had a system for dealing with unwanted children. They were placed in a sort of revolving door called a "Roda" (wheel) and taken inside, baptized, and kept until wet nurses could be found for them at public expense. Wet nurses were not always immediately available, and sometimes there wasn't enough money in the city budget for enough wet nurses, so infants that had been exposed to the elements with no clothing but a ragged blanket could starve for days, sometimes two weeks or more, waiting to be placed in a foster home. At any rate, the vast majority of these children died before reaching the age of 1, even those who were placed with a wet nurse. And these were not insignificantly small numbers of children, either. If you go through the baptism records, at their most frequent I'd estimate about one in four children baptized was one of these poor abandoned infants. Some parishes kept their baptisms registered in a separate book because of the sheer numbers of them.

jw said...

and another Genealogist:

Infant mortality is one of the reasons for a low average life extectancy. City dwellers being another. In the 3,400 some odd people in my geno database, most were farmers, moderately long-lifed and moderately successful: Some were city dwellers and they died early, way early compared to the farmers. The average life expectancy for my database is 64. If I were to remove the city dwellers and people who died as children the life expectancy would go well over 70.

For instance, my mother's, mother's, mother's, father died at 48. He was a laborer in a glass works. He was sick constantly after age 30. I can be fairly sure he was poisened by the chemicals used to make glass.

On the other hand, my father's, father's, father's, father died at age 81 not 5 miles from were I sit. He farmed all his life. There was always enough food for his family, even when they moved the 200 miles from Fort Erie to here, which was a nasty and major enterprise.

The stats are confusing because there was a lot of life-expectancy variability between rural farmers, town people and city dwellers.

Also, the quality of the local doctor made a massive difference. Today doctor quality is not as important as it once was and so is often forgotten as a cause of better than average numbers for town dwellers and close-to-town farmers.

There are other variables.

At the oldest end of my database (1520) war being an important variable as is religious intolerance. Also important was the risk of coming to North America. One ship (1724) with 112 passengers had only 3 make it here alive. More commonly though, most people made it until the big booms of the early 1800's when passenger life expectancy went way down for 60 or so years.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

"The math" was -- If life expectancy surviving childbirth was 70, but overall life expectancy is 35, then half the children must be dying at birth.

If we know that half the children are not dying at birth -- that some are living to be 5 or 10 or 20, then the "expected" lifespan of those surviving childhood must be less than 70.

All this to show that it is not merely infant mortality that is bringing the life expectancy numbers down to 35. Other types of "younger than 70" deaths must be occurring. That was just the off-the cuff 70/2=35, therefore 70 is too high.

We also keep the family tree and do occasional research, so I am aware of that perspective. But the genealogy is by definition the study of those who lived to reproduce, and is not a representative sample of a population. They lived to age 16. They are healthier, richer, and more attractive than the other adults.

If this healthier population is living on average to age 64 (at a guess), then they are still dying long before most "21st C lifestyle" issues threaten to kill us. We call 64 a bit premature, and whisper at the wake about the deceased's smoking or weight. (Even if they are fat smokers, though, we don't whisper this when they die at 85 -- it doesn't fit the template)

Anonymous said...

1) This reminds me of all the oooohing and aaaaaahing over all those Third World peasants and their trendy "caloric-restricted vegan diet". THIRD-WORLD PEASANTS EAT CALORIC-RESTRICTED VEGAN BECAUSE THEY'RE DIRT POOR!

2) Re "baptizing" weird fad diets a la Maker's Diet: There is this end-of-the-world kook named Salem Kirban (worst Christian writer of all time -- shudder shudder), who for a while was plugging a "Godly Diet". This "God-Ordained" diet was of bread -- nothing except bread -- and you had to measure and weigh everything you shit down to the gram. Everything. You could tell the diet was working because your eyes would shine with the Holy Spirit. (I am NOT making this up; the father of the friend who described it to me fell for this Godly diet.)

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I remember Kirban from when I was first a Christian in the 70's. He had numerous books about "Why the earth won't last another 10 years." I recall he also believed that Rock and Roll being allowed in the churches was a sign of the end.

Jerub-Baal said...

Of course, he is right on one thing..."Our ancestors rarely died from the diet-and lifestyle-related illnesses that kill most modern people before their time." Those that died of anything other than old age died of TB, rubella, the pox, dysentery, cholera, the flu, scarlet fever, yellow fever, various fevers, endless list of things we rarely see in our comfortable western life. Accidents that would be no more than a nuisance now could have been life ending (just before my oldest was born, my mother-in-law took a fall in the snow, and had a nasty leg break, both bones in one lower leg, with the breaks being shatters close to the joint. Even 100 years ago that could have left her crippled) Then of course, there was famine, war and pestilence bringing their fourth horseman, death. We've gotten so used to health, that we now view age as a disease. The fact is we all die, we rarely know when, it is often unexpected, and many live long lives with no apparent 'reason' for their health. Anyone who is truly worried about being killed by their diet should spend serious time with people who have no food. Maybe generosity for the needy will prompt them to do without that others may have enough for a day.

Anonymous said...

Re AVI on Kirban:

In the Seventies, he wasn't the only "Why the world won't last another 10 years" type going around -- I got my head messed up pretty thoroughly by The Gospel According to Hal Lindsay.

Kirban is most infamous for his End Times Novel 666, so awful it can only be described as "The Eye of Argon" of Christian fiction. (Even by the standards of Christian end-of-the-world fiction, it is horrible.)

The depressing part is 666 is still in print and selling, whereas the contemporary Carol Balizet's superior Seven Last Years is out of print and forgotten.

reader_iam said...

I'm married to a vegetarian, was raised by someone who--while never fanatical or religious about it--was ahead of her time in terms of "health" food, fiber, etc. etc., and I am a versatile and knowledgeable cook myself.

That said, I'm deeply skeptical, and even jaded, about knee-jerk worship at the "natural" or "all-natural" altar. When people spout off trendy cant about some diet or some particular thing being "natural" (and with a tone that implies this is automatically better and superior morally and/or ethically), I say:

"Hemlock is natural. Fugu (blow fish) is natural. Dog-poo in my yard is natural. And therefore ... ???"

Jerub-Baal said...

A couple of additional comments (from the second posting)

One thing to remember folks is that your genealogical research encompasses a time after some of the most profound changes in agricultural technology. Simple things like three-field crop rotation and deep furrowing plows (both of which started being introduced in the 13th or 14th centuries) made vast differences in agricultural output. In Biblical times, the times posited for this supposed "Maker's Diet", almost all tilling was done by hand, and crop yields would have been much smaller than those of your grandfather's or great-grandfather's farms. Even those rich enough to afford ox drawn plows would have not been remotely able to match the level of tillage of an average European farmer of the 17th century. An ox (even with a proper modern steel plow) can only till about 2/3rd of the acreage of a horse drawn plow during an equal span of time. Also, the number and variety of crops were very small (I liked to know how accurate Mr. Rubin's list of crops is to the historic record, uh-no, strike that, I don't really care) and especially lacking in protein crops.

So, to recap, during Biblical times people could grow fewer crops, with far less yield per acre, on far fewer acres. This is a much more marginal farming life than what we commonly think of today. Even the most technologically adverse Mennonite farmer of today could out produce these Biblical age farmers by a factor of 20 to 1, or more.