What was the most surprising thing you discovered while researching traditional diets?
My biggest “aha moment” was realizing that there are many ways to eat a healthy diet. Everyone—from vegetable lovers to “meat hounds”—can find a nourishing traditional diet that matches their taste buds.Other surprises: In Okinawa, a Japanese island widely known for its people’s longevity and low rates of breast and prostate cancer, fish certainly is part of their healthy diet, but pork is a favorite food. Iceland is notable for unusually low rates of depression and this may be thanks to a diet abundant in omega-3-rich foods, such as fish, wild berries and grass-fed lamb.
Were there certain foods common to every diet you reviewed?
Yes. Here are three dietary themes that really impressed me: the inclusion of fermented foods, such as yogurt, sauerkraut and natto (steamed, fermented and mashed soybeans), an emphasis on whole grains and legumes, and treating meat as a precious commodity—using it sparingly, more as a seasoning than as a hunk of protein in the middle of the plate.
What’s next for you?
I am thinking of spending some time on a farm. I am fascinated by the parallels between our health system and our food system and, more specifically, between family doctors and family farmers. Both are key players in complex organizations, which are there to nurture us, but are badly in need of reform. Interestingly, I believe that agriculture is already experiencing a renaissance while medicine is still flailing. As a doctor, I’m wondering what valuable lessons I can learn from my local farmers that can be translated into better health care and even reform of our medical system.