Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Roots and Branches

What are the diseases of civilization? Measles? Whooping cough? AIDS?

No--you can get all of those diseases without being civilized!

The diseases of civilization are conditions that appear in indigenous populations within about 20 years of significant contact with Western culture. They include dental caries, ulcers, gallstones, appendicitis, diverticulitis, constipation, obesity, asthma, varicose veins, diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, stroke and cancer. Early twentieth century missionaries from Albert Schweitzer in Africa to Samuel Hutton in Labrador noticed that prior to Western contact, these populations experienced such diseases rarely if at all. However, as decades passed and the local people began to adopt Western culture, inevitably Western diseases would gradually appear and eventually become prevalent.

Western civilization brought modern medicine and good public health practices. Why should it also bring poor health? It is possible that an increase in smoking, a decrease in physical activity, high fat consumption and resultant obesity explain why local populations became progressively less healthy over time. However, another explanation is that arriving Westerners brought with them foods that would not spoil over long ocean voyages. White flour, white rice and sugar do not provide much in the way of vitamins and minerals, but they keep well, are fairly cheap, contain necessary calories, and taste very good. They are also rich in easily digestible carbohydrates.

(Illustration inspired by Dave Hatch of Green Bay, Wisconsin)

Look at the tree above. In the branches are many of the diseases of Western civilization. Conventional wisdom says that obesity is at the root of the tree, and that obesity results from too much food and too little exercise. In the tree above, however, we see refined carbohydrates as the root cause. Too much carbohydrate leads to too much insulin release and too much insulin leads to a host of symptoms which eventually manifest themselves as the diseases of civilization. What is the root cause of these diseases--obesity or an excessive intake of carbohydrates? A lot depends on which answer is the correct one.

1 comment:

darwinstable said...

GREAT POST!! I get so sick of hearing body weight = energy in - energy out. Such a simple idea. It is definitely refined carbohydrates. It is so obvious when you consider these diseases only show up once western foods arrive.