My path to nutrition began with plants.
Plants provide food and medicine and if I ever wanted to live off the land, I needed to learn everything there is to know about them. The original plan to become a forest ranger or ecologist.
Once enrolled in Plant Science, I soon developed a strong interest in the field of ethnobotany – the study of plant use by humans. My first paper investigated the use of medicinal plants to treat gout by Eastern Indigenous Canadians.
Chronic metabolic disorders like gout, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension are rare in populations who follow a traditional diet and way of life. But their prevalence quickly rise as they start eating Western foods like sugar, white flour, and vegetable oils. I set out to investigate if certain traditional medicines could protect against the development of chronic disease.
Tibetan Highlanders fascinated me because they thrived in an environment that is relatively hostile to human survival. Life at such high altitudes precluded agronomy and favoured pastoralism. Consequently, their diet was poor in vegetables and fruits, and high in salt, saturated fats, and cholesterol. Any Western doctor would immediately label this as a heart attack waiting to happen. Yet, heart disease is virtually absent among Tibetans. It was, what I believed at the time, a dietary paradox
Up until then I had always followed a typical North American diet. I ate whole grain cereals, whole wheat bread, whole wheat pasta, fruit juice, granola bars, and low-fat versions of everything. I basically followed the guidelines set by Canada’s Food Guide, our national dietary recommendations. But when I had travelled to the Himalayas to analyze Tibetan traditional medicines, I ate similar the locals: I drank butter tea, ate copious amounts of yak cheese, goat and lamb, along with barley and potatoes. In very little time, I noticed differences in my health. Asthma, constipation and a padded layer of body fat plagued me for most of my life, and these disappeared with my dietary transition. Clearly, there was no paradox. This diet was a perfectly normal diet for a perfectly healthy human.
The leap from studying medicinal plants to studying human nutrition made sense. Beyond supplying nutrients, foods contained compounds that affected our mood, our behaviour, and our health.
I now set out to investigate if certain traditional foods can protect against the development of chronic disease.
My studies took me Papua New Guinea, an island off the northern coast of Australia. Rapid Westernization had caused a precipitous rise in obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. A biological analysis of several traditional Melanesian foods showed some ability to protect blood vessels from oxidation and inflammation. The conclusion however, was obvious: those who ate traditional foods avoided developing metabolic diseases.
Nutrition is an important health determinant, but it is a very complex one; one that only makes sense in the context of evolution and adaptation. To fix our health problems, we need to use a functional approach that addresses sleep, stress, hormone balance, gut flora, sun exposure, physical activity, social interactions, and psychology. In essence, the more we stray off the path of our genetic or ancestral alignment, the more we feel sick and fall ill.
From the Canadian tundra to the barren Himalayas to the Melanesian jungles, generations of humans have successfully exploited their environments to find the perfect combination of foods, the perfect way to prepare them, the perfect way to eat them, and the perfect way to preserve them. My education, field research and travel experience have formed the foundation of my approach to health: a holistic and functional approach that is evidence-based and evolutionarily framed.
Let me share this approach with you, invite me along your journey to optimal health, and together we’ll find the best path to get there.