T here is a common assumption in the twenty-first century that "natural" food is a prophylactic against obesity as well as illness. The French food writer Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin could write as late as 1825 that "obesity is never found either among savages or in those classes of society, which must work in order to eat or which do not eat except to exist." But he provided a caveat, "savages will eat gluttonously and drink themselves insensible when ever they have a chance to" (Brillat-Savarin 1999: 239 and 241). This is very much in line with Immanuel Kant's view of "savages" and alcohol use in his lectures on anthropology first held in 1772-3 and published by a student in 1831 (Kant 1831: 299). Obesity, therefore, could be an illness of natural man as well as of civilization when the boundaries of power were transgressed. Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland (1762-1836), one of the first modern medical commentators on dieting, recognized this when he commented "a certain degree of cultivation is physically necessary for man, and promotes duration of life. The wild savage does not live so long as man in a state of civilization" (Hufeland 1797: 1, 169).
This notion is also reflected in the memoirs of Georg Forster (1754-94) who accompanied Captain James Cook (1728-79) around the world in the 1770s. In 1773, Cook and Forster found themselves in Tahiti, an island that they saw as the perfect natural society. Food abounded, and one did not have to work for it. Therefore, gluttony was impossible, as only in a society of inadequacy did the passion for food arise. Fat men were impossible in Tahiti. Except, Forster reports walking along the shore he saw a "very fat man, who seemed to be the chief of the district" being fed by a "woman who sat near him, crammed down his throat by handfuls the remains of a large baked fish, and several breadfruits, which he swallowed with a voracious appetite." His face was the "picture of phlegmatic insensibility, and seemed to witness that all his thoughts centred in the care of his paunch." Forster is shocked because he had assumed that obesity of this nature was impossible in a world with "a certain frugal equality in their way of living, and whose hours of enjoyment were justly proportioned to those of labour and rest." However, here was the proof that obesity and society were not linked, for Forster found a "luxurious individual spending his life in the most sluggish inactivity, and without one benefit to society, like the privileged parasites of more civilized climates, fattening on the superfluous produce of the soil, of which he robbed the labouring multitude" (Forster 2000: 1, 164-5). This contradiction caused much consternation.
The belief in the inherent absence of obesity among "natural man" still echoes in Edwin James's 1819 statement that the Missouri Indian is symmetrical and active, and in stature, equal, if not somewhat superior, to the ordinary European standard; tall men are numerous. The active occupations of war and hunting, together perhaps with the occasional privations, to which they are subjected, prevents that unsightly obesity, so often a concomitant of civilization, indolence, and serenity of mental temperament.
But this is true only of men. John Wyeth observed in 1832 that among the tribes of the Northwest "the persons of the men generally are rather symmetrical; their stature is low, with light sinewy limbs, and remarkably small delicate hands. The women are usually more rotund, and, in some instances, even approach obesity" (Wyeth 1905: 307). Among "natural peoples" it is shocking to imagine a fat man then as now.
The counterpart to "natural man" in the thought of the time was the scholar. Thus there are regimens of dieting for intellectuals. In 1825, the American Chandler Robbins suggested that the "evils usually incident to sedentary and studious habits" were the result of poor diet (Robbins 1825: 56-7). Yet, the author also noted that what was an appropriate diet for one, did not always work for others (Robbins 1825: 58). The key was variety, temperature (cool was better than hot, such as food eaten in nature), frequency (three meals a day, one "liberal" and two "slight"), the avoidance of exercise (after a meal one should rest) and "chewing long and leisurely": "masticate, denticate, chump, grind, and swallow." This later becomes gospel by the end of the nineteenth century, but it is, in the end, one thing that "maintains vigour of the mind and the body, temperance becomes the parent of all other virtues," unlike what reportedly happens in the idyllic world of "natural man" (Robbins 1825: 57). In 1836, William Newnham observed in London that "overstimulation of the brain" caused "the general health to suffer" (Newnham 1836: 3). What results is torpor, and the cure is dieting. Mastication is vital, but the diet must be "simple: animal food under dressed, roast in preference to boil'd; let vegetables be very much dressed, and bread very much baked; sauces, made dishes, and pastry to be avoided, or taken very sparingly" (Robbins i825: 31-2). Water should be taken, rather than wine. Indeed, the cure for the scholar is the diet of "natural man."
In 1939, a Cleveland dentist named Weston Price (1870-1948) self-published Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, which argued that isolated cultures showed no tooth decay and less arthritis, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease than people living in urbanized, industrialized nations (Price i939: 5). This seemed to make some sense at the time given the politics of food faddism, except that Price, as with all of the earliest advocates of "natural man," also sees such societies as better, purer, and more moral than more developed societies, which show "character changes" and are in a state of "moral deterioration" (Price 1939: 353). The communities, including dairy farmers in Switzerland's Loetschental Valley, the Aborigines of Australia, the "Gaelics" in the Outer and Inner Hebrides, Maoris in New Zealand, and native peoples in ancient and modern Peru, as well as the Melanesians and Polynesians (remember Foster) were so varied and had such radically different food cultures that Price focused on the absence of processed foods, such as refined sugar and flour and hydrogenated oils. His goal is a "nutritional program for race regeneration" in which deficient foods for the urban dweller are the equivalent of inadequate nutrition among the "native."
The result of the poor nutrition among the "natives" is the encroachment of civilization (Price 1939: 498). For him (and his views on nutrition at least have lasted) "natural man" is healthy because s/he eats "natural" foods, a claim belied by the complex reality of such cultures, as observers in the eighteenth century could well have shown him. Indeed, his example comes from "the high Alps of Switzerland" where he found "an excellent state of physical development and health in adults and children living in the high valleys." This state of health persists in spite of the inroads of "refined cereals, a high intake of sweets, canned goods, sweetened fruits, chocolate; and a greatly reduced use of dairy products" among the urban Swiss (Price 1939: 43). His explanation for the innate "healthiness" of those Swiss "isolated" from the spread of modern, manufactured and, therefore, corrupting foods is the consumption of "rye . . . the only cereal that developed well for human food" (Price 1939: 509). He took a piece of the rye bread and had it analyzed, finding that "it was rich in minerals and vitamins."
A hundred years before, he would have found the valleys full of "cretins" with the stigmata of degeneration, the goiter, clearly present, as B.A. Morel (1809-73), who coined the term "degeneration" based on these cases in 1857, saw it (Morel 1857). All would be suffering from severe mental retardation—caused by the absence of iodine. Or they would have been simply gone "mad" from eating rye grain covered with ergot, a poisonous fungus. Swiss public-health officials intervened over the subsequent fifty years; they turned the verdant valleys of the Alps into Price's edenic landscape, where only healthy food is consumed. Even "natural man" needs civilization.
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