Weston Price was an American dentist who traveled around the world, camera and film in hand, in the late 1920s and early 1930s. An entire chapter in my latest book, Healthy At 100, is devoted to his work.
Price specifically sought out native peoples who were still eating their native foods. He asked about their dietary habits, then examined and took photographs of their teeth. At the same time, he undertook similar studies and took similar photos of people from the same cultures who had become exposed to Western foods, and who had begun to substitute foods like white flour, white sugar, marmalade and canned goods for their native diets.
The differences, as shown in Price's 1939 book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, were startling. Time and again, Price found that those people who were still eating their native diets had very few if any dental caries (decay or crumbling of teeth), and appeared to be in radiant health, while their counterparts who were now eating refined and processed foods from the West were exhibiting massive tooth decay and malformation of their dental arches, and were suffering from a growing cascade of illness and dysfunction. Price came to believe that dental decay was caused primarily by nutritional deficiencies, and that the same conditions that promote tooth decay also promote disease elsewhere in the body.
Price photographed the teeth and dental arches of the people he encountered. He found that as long as these people consumed their native diet, their mouths and jaws developed so that they never experienced crowded teeth, overbites, underbites, or tooth decay. When their wisdom teeth came in, they always had plenty of room. But as his photographs poignantly showed, once they left the wisdom of their native foods for "civilized" foods the results were ruinous. Now all kinds of dental problems that had been previously unknown became rampant.
And it wasn't just dental problems Price found that as people shifted to refined foods, birth defects increased, and people became more susceptible both to infection and to chronic disease. As people ate ever more refined and devitalized foods, he said, they and their offspring became increasingly weaker and more prone to all kinds of illnesses.
Today, Price's work has attracted a loyal and devoted following among those who rebel against processed foods and who seek a way of life more in tune with nature's laws. Some of his more ardent followers say his accomplishments are more important than those of Charles Darwin, Linus Pauling, or Jonas Salk, and that he was a greater genius than Albert Einstein. Others say his was the most important health research of all time.
Some of the most zealous of his followers now run an organization called the Weston A. Price Foundation. A book by the foundation's president, Sally Fallon, with the appealing title of Nourishing Traditions, has been a best-seller.
No doubt the foundation is doing good in awakening some people to the dangers of processed foods, but speaking as someone who has great respect for the work of Weston A. Price, I am sorry to say that to my eyes, the foundation that carries Price's name today is unfortunately exaggerating what was unbalanced in his work, and abandoning much of what was good.
For one thing, the foundation exudes an attitude of "you're either with us or you're against us" that is reminiscent of the dark side of cults. Those authors and researchers who the foundation disagrees with are caustically mocked. If these authors happen to subscribe to the findings of modern nutritional science, they are mocked and condemned for being "politically correct." Reputable scientists who dare suggest that saturated fat contributes to heart disease are denounced for being "as pc as pc can be--and totally ignorant."
Regrettably, those currently running the Weston A. Price Foundation seem to be oblivious to the spirit of compassion which motivated the work of the man under whose name they act. Sadly, they are not just intolerant of people who eat or think differently than the way they advocate; they frequently demean and condemn those with whom they disagree. There is a nastiness, a mean-spiritedness, to their activities that is not worthy of the man in whose footsteps they presume to follow.
(My thorough response to their specific accusations against soy foods can be seen in my latest book -- No Happy Cows: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Food Revolution.)
For another example, Price discovered many native cultures that were extremely healthy while eating lacto-vegetarian or pisco-vegan diets. Describing one lacto-vegetarian people, for example, he called them, "The most physically perfect people in northern India... the people are very tall and are free of tooth decay." Yet the foundation that operates under his name is strikingly hostile to vegetarians. Sally Fallon, the foundation's president, denounces vegetarianism as "a kind of spiritual pride that seeks ...to shirk the earthly duties for which the physical body is created." She further insults vegetarians by saying they frequently suffer from zinc deficiency, but think it is spiritual enlightenment.
In 1934, Price wrote a moving letter to his nieces and nephews, instructing them in the diet he hoped they would eat. "The basic foods should be the entire grains such as whole wheat, rye or oats, whole wheat and rye breads, wheat and oat cereals, oat-cake, dairy products, including milk and cheese, which should be used liberally, and marine foods." Yet the Weston A. Price Foundation aggressively promotes the consumption of beef, pork and other high-fat meats, while condemning people who base their diets on whole grains.
One last example of the discrepancy between Price's actual work and those who today purport to represent it: Price never once mentioned the word "cholesterol," yet the foundation presuming to forward his work has declared war on the idea that high cholesterol levels are associated with higher rates of heart disease. "The truth is that cholesterol is your best friend," they write. "There is no greater risk of heart disease at cholesterol levels of 300 than 180." They might as well say there is no greater risk of lung cancer for heavy smokers, or that the Earth is flat.
I regret to say that those running the Weston A. Price Foundation today seem to have their own agenda. They are proponents of the philosophy that in order to be healthy, people must eat large amounts of saturated fat from animal products. They insist that only with the regular consumption of lard, butter and other full-fat dairy products, and beef, can people derive the nutrients they need to be healthy.
Toward that end, the Foundation has widely publicized an article written by a former member of the Foundation's Board of Directors, Stephen Byrnes, titled "The Myths of Vegetarianism."
The article is harshly critical of vegetarian diets, and concludes with an "About the Author" section which states: "Stephen Byrnes... enjoys robust health on a diet that includes butter, cream, eggs, meat, whole milk, dairy products and offal." In fact, Stephen Byrnes suffered a fatal stroke in June, 2004. According to reports of his death, he had yet to reach his 40th birthday.
John Robbins is the author of Healthy At 100, The Food Revolution, Diet For A New America, and many other bestsellers. He can be reached through the website healthyat100.org