By Amy Ahlberg, "Eat Like your Ancestors,"May/June 2009
Soon after Daphne Miller, M.D., began practicing medicine in San Francisco, she realized that so many of her patients' woes—heart disease, diabetes, cancer—could be traced back to a poor diet. But she often wondered: what foods could prevent these diseases? Then while working as a medical volunteer in the Amazon, she realized why Angela, one of her patients back in California, felt better every time she returned from visiting her tiny home village. "In Brazil, Angela's meals focused on local ingredients—plantains, beans, free-range chickens, fresh-caught fish and fruit," says Miller. She was eating a diet that had helped villagers keep modern diseases at bay for centuries. "These meals were different from the processed foods that she ate in San Francisco." The epiphany prompted Miller to spend the next two years studying eating habits common to indigenous communities with low rates of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer and depression. She compiled her findings in The Jungle Effect: A Doctor Discovers the Healthiest Diets from Around the World (Collins), out in paperback this June. We recently caught up with Dr. Miller, a family physician and associate professor at the University of California, San Francisco.[pagebreak]
A: 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.
A: 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.
A: 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.