In this series, we will look at the basics of metabolism and discuss the very well-known science around obesity. Many of the diseases that bedevil humanity flow from obesity, including cancer and Type 2 diabetes, and so understanding metabolism and the causes of obesity is ground zero in the fight for a long life and good health.
After 1492, many of the European powers, in the form of hundreds of thousands of Europeans, came out of Europe and began to establish colonies around the world. The Spanish were clearly dominating in the first wave and the Spanish crown established a Spanish presence all over the Western Hemisphere. In every case, the presence of a people with a wildly different dietary pattern changed the eating pattern of the conquered people.
The same pattern happened where the British landed, except the British were quite different than the Spanish in certain ways. The Spanish were more likely to send priests to conquered territory, while the British were more likely to establish a British civil service which included doctors. Those doctors left behind powerful testimony to the health outcomes for subject people. No matter if it was India, or Africa, or Asia, the doctors of the British civil service reported similar phenomenon. After a few years, they observed, diseases and bad medical outcomes that were unknown in the native people, but that were well known in Europe, would emerge.
Albert Scheitzer was a doctor who, while not a British civil servant, reports on what he saw in Africa . He wrote, “On my arrival in Gabon, I was astonished to encounter no cases of cancer . . . . I cannot, of course, say positively that there was no cancer at all, but, like other frontier doctors, I can only say that if any cases existed they must have been quite rare.”
Over the years, both American and British doctors reported similar outcomes once native people had been subjected to a more Westernized, or ‘civilized’ diet. Cancers, obesity, appendix issues, and a host of other previously unseen disorders appeared regardless of where on earth these native peoples lived. It happened in Alaska and Fiji. It happened with the Native Americans who were forced on to reservations in the United States. It happened in India under the Raj of the British. One American statistician for a US insurance company, Frederick Hoffman wrote “Quite the contrary, the negative evidence is convincing that in the opinion of qualified medical observes cancer is exceptionally rare among primitive people.” Rare until their diet came to resemble their conquerors.
Gary Taubes has collected several instances of doctors describing the decline in health in native people all over the world in his book Good Calories, Bad Calories. The same doctors also noted the change in diet that preceded the decline in health. Fundamentally, the cause was the introduction of refined flour to these poplations that previously had a low carbohydrate diet since they did not typically eat a lot of grains and they didn’t eat any refined or processed food since nothing was processed beyond basic cooking.
There were more than one disruption to the native food supply, but regardless of where on earth the disruption occupied, the primary food ingredient that was new to the native was flour. The ‘miller’ was a job in Europe that took wheat grain and made flour out of it with a millstone. Milling was known around the world but with the introduction of industrialization to the process, the supply of flour radically increased, and it was often produced in a way to make it last longer before going rancid or spoiling. With refined flour come bread and a host of other foodstuffs. More than any another thing, this dietary change fed the natives but ended their native diet that was often based on fishing, hunting, or some other type of native agriculture. Flour is cheap, it travels well, and if the goal is to keep the natives still and out of the way while industrialization carries forward, its perfect for keeping the peace. These cheap and easy carbohydrates were very useful; everyone likes cake.
The civilized food spiked the native insulin response, which limited their lives.