Present day North America, unfortunately, is a hot spot for a variety of diseases – no need to depress you with names you know too well. Luckily, there are places in the world that can teach us how to reverse such sickly trends, as they are disease “cold spots.” Enter Africa: cold spot for colon cancer, with only 1 case in 100,000 (1). African Americans are affected at 60 in 100,000 (1), with Caucasian Americans not far behind at about 50 in 100,000 (2). This is a disease of the West, affecting all ethnicities, ironically though hitting the people of African descent the hardest (3).
Dr. Daphne Miller examines the link between traditional foods and disease protection in her book, The Jungle Effect. Miller presents the findings of Irish surgeon Dr. Denis Burkitt, stationed for a decade at a hospital in rural Uganda in the late 40’s (4). Burkitt noticed that he rarely treated a patient for bowel disease, as was so common in the West. After seeing Africans fall ill upon adoption of processed foods, it seemed obvious that the protection lay not in the genes, but in traditional African bounty.
Miller groups colon-friendly African foods into The Five F’s, they are as follows:
Traditional African communities consumed high-fibre whole starches, such as sorghum, millet, teff, corn, plantain, and brown rice. Miller proposes that insoluble fibre from grains acts like a scouring pad thoroughly cleansing intestines. She also suggests eating fibre containing foods such as beans, avocado, greens, okra, sweet potato and peanuts.
Miller found that traditionally prepared items such as cultured sour milk, pickled foods, fermented corn, manioc and millet, even home brewed beer, are rich sources of probiotics lending to good digestion.
Africans utilize a variety of high nutrient foraged foods, such as wild greens and bitter leaf. The B vitamin folate in these foods is said to block reproduction within cancer cells.
Africans often eat high levels of omega-3 fats from fish, wild game, greens, nuts and seeds. Miller also discovered that antioxidant rich peanut and palm fruit oils are used sparingly. Traditional cooking methods rarely call for deep frying – being costly, wasteful, and nutritionally damaging.
Miller noticed that animal products were rare among locals. When meat was eaten, it was whatever wild game happened to be caught in the bush: porcupine, boar, antelope, boa constrictor, bush monkey, etc. Chicken, goat, and fish were also traditionally eaten. These meats are usually enjoyed in moderation, often as a flavouring agent in vegetable-grain stew. Miller equates less flesh consumption with less cancer – though she says it may be the processing and preparation that damages health rather than quantity. Preserved products like hot dogs and cold cuts often contain unhealthy chemicals. While high temperature barbecuing and grilling produce cancer causing compounds in meat.
Despite these observations, Miller also makes note of a study done surrounding South African fisherman. These men had exceptionally low rates of colon cancer, yet lead seemingly unhealthy lifestyles: they smoked, ate salty foods, and consumed very little fibre. However, they did eat large quantities of fish. Researchers agreed, the concentration of omega-3 fat from the fish offered strong protection from colon cancer and other diseases.
Though Miller offers great insight into traditional African living, hers is just one story of many in Africa. Throughout history, various primitive groups have thrived across the continent. Living in different African locales, meant that tribes didn’t always have access to the same foods.
In 1935, an Ontario born Canadian dentist, Weston A. Price, journeyed to Africa to survey nutrition. He was interested in analyzing dietary habits of traditional Africans compared to those who had been modernized. He studied 30 tribes throughout eastern and central Africa. Price saw that natives eating traditional natural foods had beautifully formed dental arches, with straight teeth and very little decay. At least 6 of the tribes had not a single cavity. One doctor in a Kenyan hospital assured Price that he had not witnessed one case of appendicitis, gall bladder trouble, cystitis or duodenal ulcer in primitive peoples (5 p.130). Where members of the tribes had adopted European foods (white flour, sugar, jams, etc.) tooth decay and other modern degenerative processes developed; malaria, dysentery, and tick-borne diseases. Drastic changes were noticed within families where parents had begun working in cities after having had their first child. The first born, having come to term by parents eating traditional foods, had superior dental formation, as well as overall strength and facial proportion. The second born children, having been exposed to processed foods in utero, had smaller dental arches with severe crowding. Many second children were shorter and weaker. It seemed that the protection came via diet, not genetics. (Maybe if we cut out white flour and sugar, we’d save ourselves thousands in orthodontics!)
Price discovered immense variation in diet across tribes. Of those with the best oral health, foods consumed were often of animal origin: milk, blood, meat, and fish, much of it raw. Liver and other organs were especially important. There were varying levels of fruits and vegetables included. Some tribes also ate cereals and sweet potatoes with little to no sign of cavities. The tallest groups – with women averaging 6 feet, men 7 feet – consumed the most animal products (5 p.135). Other foods eaten among tribes included bananas, beans, millet, and corn (just as Miller had discovered). Though there was variation in physical form and strength, overall Price admired the superb physiques and wisdom of primitive Africans.
Of importance here, I think, is that the tribes consuming high quantities of meat and dairy, still maintained good health, perhaps even more so than others. From Prices findings, it seems that quality not quantity may be the true issue. The animal source foods African tribes consume would surely be free roaming, happy animals, living in their natural environment. The fat in these free range, grass fed animals, is higher in beneficial omega-3 essential fat (6 p 50). High quality animal products are also a source of fat soluble vitamins and minerals (5). In 2007, The American Society for Nutrition published a paper examining colon cancer, noting that both African Americans and Caucasian Americans consumed more meat than Africans, and that African Americans consumed more red meat out of all groups (1). It seems reasonable to jump to the juicy conclusion that meat causes cancer, especially red meat. Maybe it does…it probably has, but these studies seem to ignore food quality. The average American colon cancer sufferer is likely not serving up a fresh caught wild animal for dinner. Probably then, that animal is not laden with nutritious cancer-fighting omega-3 fat. I also recently noticed that in the much lauded The China Study, where the author correlates animal protein with disease, there is no mention of quality (7). The nutrients in a factory farmed egg, fully loaded with hormones, pesticides and devoid of omega-3, is a completely different food from a consciously farmed free range egg. Additionally, raw grass-fed dairy is light-years healthier than pasteurized grain-fed dairy. In order to classify all animal protein as a damaging food source, perhaps we need to fully examine the effects of different types of animal protein (including cooking styles). We could be defaming a very important part of the human diet.
Many North Americans may not feel they have ready access to the beautiful traditional foods of African tribe’s people. Nevertheless, going by the above advice, it would be in our best interest to make natural food a priority. Perhaps we can start with sweet potatoes! I’ll take that Rx any day. Thank-you Africa.
Here is a tasty recipe for Sweet Potato Polenta Pie that includes many of the foods mentioned in this article. Enjoy!