Case Study: Homocysteine, B12, and folate

Homocysteine is an amino acid that occurs in the body as an intermediate in the metabolism of methionine and cysteine. Folic acid is a vitamin of the B complex, found especially in leafy green vegetables, liver and kidney. (Both these definitions are from the New Oxford American Dictionary on my MacBook.) Folic acid is B9, and folate is a salt of folic acid, but the two names are used interchangeably.

Homocysteine is normally broken down and recycled so that it doesn’t accumulate. This relies on sufficient amounts of vitamins B12, B6 and B9 being available to facilitate this process. Homocysteine, abbreviated Hcy, is a highly inflammatory substance associated with much higher risks of cardiovascular events. Research (AHJ 2004) has shown that rHcy causes endothelial dysfunction and damage, accelerates thrombin formation, inhibits native thrombolysis, promotes lipid peroxidation through free radicle formation and induces vascular smooth muscle proliferation and monocyte chemotaxis. 

Naturally, we should strive to keep Hcy levels in our blood as low as possible. There is no healthy minimum for it. In other words, the lower the better. And conversely, the higher its concentration, the worse off you are in terms of the potential for damage to the arteries and cardiovascular events. For a detailed look at Hcy in relation to vascular disease, read this article by Dr Neville Wilson, (thanks Ivor Cummins).

Last week I explained something about Hcy, B12, and folate to my son who was getting ready to go back to university for his second year (studying Philosophy and Modern History at St-Andrews). Afterwards, I thought it would be useful to share this with you, and I started working on this post.

This story is drawn from my own personal history. It is a case study with me as the primary subject using data I have collected from regular blood tests over these last seven years. However, I also use data from both my mother’s and my son’s blood test results that happen to be critical for understanding my own blood test results. Below, I describe the whole story and analysis of the data in detail. If you are not interested in the details, the punchline is this:

If your homocysteine levels are high, you should supplement with B12 and fully active folate in order to ensure the body has what it needs to process it. Some people lack the enzyme needed to activate the folic acid we get from food. This prevents the body from breaking down homocysteine that consequently accumulates in the blood.  This is a genetically transmitted trait, which I think I have inherited and transmitted to my son. Because of it, we must supplement with activated folate to ensure breakdown of Hcy.

The first time I read about Hcy was many years in Anthony Colpo’s book The Great Cholesterol ConThe subject was discussed towards the end of the book in a short chapter, but I was left with a strong impression. Colpo emphasized that Hcy—unlike cholesterol—was a good predictor for heart disease. And it wasn’t just good: it was one of the best. But this wasn’t the only reason it made such an impression on me.

I read Colpo’s book after reading Uffe Ranvnskov’s Fat and Cholesterol are Good for You, and Malcom Kendrik’s The Great Cholesterol Con, both of which were about fat, cholesterol and heart disease, but neither of which discussed homocysteine. Then I read Gary Taubes’s Good Calories, Bad Calories, and again, Hcy wasn’t given the share of attention it seemed to deserve based on Colpo’s comments. If you’re new here, or if you need a refresher, you should read But what about cholesterol and At the heart of heart disease.

The first time I got my Hcy levels checked was on August 27 in 2012. The result was 18.3 micromol per litre. On the results, the reference range was 5 to 15; moderately elevated was 15 to 30; and elevated was indicated as anything greater than 30 micromol per litre. Beside the middle range, it was written vitamin deficiency in parentheses. But it wasn’t written what vitamin deficiency would cause elevated Hcy. The doctor from whom I had requested the test didn’t know either. (As you might have experienced for yourself, most MDs don’t really know much when it comes to blood test results.)

I had already started supplementing with B12 by that time. Most of us, as vegetarians, quickly and usually angrily dismiss nutritional advice or warnings of potential problems from deficiencies that non-vegetarians love to offer when they find out we don’t eat meat. We usually interpret these as justifications of their feelings of guilt for not being vegetarians themselves. At least I know I did when I was vegetarian. Although most people who do give their unsolicited advice are rarely knowledgeable in the subject matter, I now know that I was dead wrong about my quick dismissal of several things in relation to dangerous deficiencies that come about when we eliminate meat and animal products from our diet. Vitamin B12 is surely the best example.

It was after reading this article on B12 by Mercola that I came to realize how disastrous were the consequences of living with low levels of B12, and in my case, how disastrous were the consequences of having been vegetarian for 20 years. I started supplementing right away, and got my first B12 blood test a few months later in 2010 on September 8. The result was 271 pg/ml. According to the lab who did the test, this was within range. But I knew it wasn’t. I knew this was much too low, and that I desperately needed to correct this as fast as possible, stop and hopefully reverse the neurological degradation associated with my long-standing B12 deficiency.

In that article was also underlined the connection between low B12 and high Hcy levels. It read: Cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases have a common risk factor – increased homocysteine levels in blood. Studies show insufficient amounts of folic acid and vitamin B12 can elevate your homocysteine levels, potentially increasing your risk for heart disease and stroke. So, of course I was worried. I was also angry at myself for having been so stupid and stubborn all these years… these 20 long years. But at least I now knew what I had to do: I needed to boost B12 levels and keep them high.

And I did. Look at how my B12 levels evolved over 7 years:

ts_b12

Blood B12 levels measured over seven years since September 2010.

 

Does seeing this make you wonder how the Hcy levels evolved? My expectation was that Hcy would drop as B12 rose. With some time delay of course, but still: as B12 levels increased, homocysteine concentration would decrease. Here is what happened:

ts_hcy

Blood homocysteine levels measured over five years since August 2012.

Not so obvious to interpret, right?

Let’s look at all the tests in which both B12 and Hcy were measured, and plot them one against the other. It’s called a correlation plot, and this is what we find:

hcy_vs_b12

Homocysteine plotted against B12. Data point numbe labels show chronological order of tests.

So, there clearly is an inverse relationship between levels of Hcy and B12. There is no doubt in this. But at least for me, it’s not very tight. The correlation coefficient and the uncertainty on it quantify this relationship.

The coefficient can have any value between -1.0 and 1.0: a value of 1.0 signifies perfect correlation; a value of -1.0 signified perfect anti-correlation; and a value of 0 signifies that there is no correlation at all. The uncertainty on the coefficient quantifies how well the coefficient is determined from the data points, and therefore how loosely or tightly they are spread around the overall trend in the data set.

A coefficient of -0.66, as we found, tells us that there is indeed an anti-correlation in the relationship between Hcy and B12 concentrations. The uncertainty of 0.22 tells us that the correlation is not so tight. And when we look at two time series above, we see that although B12  has been above 600 pg/ml since 2014, Hcy levels remained more or less flat until the end of 2016.

My initial interpretation was that because I had been B12 deficient for basically 20 years, correcting that long-standing deficiency, and repairing the damage caused by it to the body and in particular to the nervous system, required maintaining consistently high levels of B12 for a long time, allowing the body the time needed to repair itself: two decades of B12 deficiency could obviously not be corrected in a few months. Maybe it was only after these 7 years of intensive B12 supplementation that the positive results were beginning to manifest themselves in this way.

And by intensive, I mean pretty serious. I started taking oral supplements of 2000 mcg per day; then transitioned to patches which are more effective because the B12 is absorbed directly through the skin without having to go through the digestive system; and finally moved on in early 2015 to monthly intramuscular injections of 5000 mcg of methycobalamin. Nevertheless, Hcy remained pretty much the same, even after months of injections. What was going on? Why wasn’t Hcy dropping?

Maybe you are thinking that there might be another way we could use to check how much influence B12 levels have on Hcy? Well, I have something I think is quite remarkable to share with you.

At the very end of July 2014, I brought my mother to a specialized blood analysis clinic, and ordered the complete set of tests listed on my essential blood test reference sheet. The results came back a few days later: her B12 was at 292 pg/ml; her folic acid was at 11.6 ng/ml; and her Hcy was at 30.5 micromol/l. She was 82 and, just for the record, it was the first time in her life that her B12 and Hcy levels had been measured in a blood test.

I immediately got a friend of hers and ex-nurse to give her methylcobalamin injections a couple of times a week. Five weeks later in early September we repeated the test for homocysteine. The result was 9.5!

My 82 year old mother’s homocysteine levels went from 30.5 to 9.5 micromol/l in 5 weeks following 10 injections of 1 mg doses of methylcobalamin B12.

She was out of the red. At least on that front. Hcy of 9.5 micromol/l is still moderately elevated when we consider that we would ideally have none. But 30.5 was dangerously high. This, to my mind, is strongly indicative of the crucial importance and immediate effect of vitamin B12 on homocysteine metabolism.

It wasn’t a tightly controlled experiment where everything was kept the same except the one variable under investigation, which in this case would have been the B12 injections. It wasn’t, because my mother did also at the same time adopt a new dietary regimen, following an alkalizing, very low carb, low protein, high fat, intermittent fasting cleansing protocol I had designed for her, that also included quite a number of other supplements. All were food supplements: vitamins A-D-K2, niacinamide, co-enzyme Q10 as ubiquinol, phospholipids as sunflower lecithin, omega-3s as krill oil, turmeric extract, tulsi extract, chlorella and spirulina, magnesium, zinc, iodine, etc.

Certainly it is true that everything influences everything else, but there’s no question in my mind that as far as homocysteine was concerned, the most important element in this protocol was the intramuscular injection of methylcobalamin approximately every three days. There is also no question that achieving such a drop in Hcy levels at such an advanced age and in so little time is nothing short of amazing.

The point of my retelling of this was to present direct evidence of the strength of the relationship between B12 levels and Hcy concentration. I think it does. Obviously, you are to draw your own conclusions.

Coming back to my case, in the fall of 2013 I stumbled upon The Complete Blood Test Blueprint in which Joseph Williams, a knowledgeable, experienced, and kind MD, was interviewed by Kevin Gianni, the host of Renegade Health, in a series of interviews that covered a large number of blood tests in great detail. I learned a lot things listening to Dr Williams. Admittedly, I was disappointed by the lipid panel discussion, and in particular by the discussion of cholesterol and lipoproteins. But putting this aside, I was generally very impressed.

Dr Williams talked about B12 deficiency at length, but I was already well versed in the subject by that time. I had recently read the book Could it be B12?, made detailed notes of it, and then posted for you B12: your life depends on it. Dr Williams also talked about Hcy. In that discussion was mention of the fact that in addition to B12 (cobalamin), B6 (pyridoxine) and particularly B9 (folic acid) were also essential for breaking down Hcy. I didn’t really think much of it, simply because my diet was and always had been rich in leafy greens, which naturally ensured a high intake of folic acid.

A few years and several blood tests later, I listened to the interviews again. And this time, something caught my attention in the part on homocysteine that hadn’t the first time: it was mentioned, in passing towards the end of the discussion, that some genetically predisposed people lacked the enzymes needed to activate folic acid; and that these people therefore needed to supplement with the already active form of B9 called tetrahydrofolic acid.

It caught my attention because by that time I had several measurements of Hcy that, even with my continued and even intensified B12 supplementation, were not showing evidence of going down. Remember: I started injections in early 2015. But there was something else that made this comment stand out for me: my son’s recent blood test results.

In July 2016 I brought my son to get a complete blood test that comprised all the markers I usually test for, together with all the major hormones, in order to have a baseline for him in his prime. It is certainly true that we can talk about optimal levels for each of the hormones we know and can test for. But our own personal ideal hormonal profile is unique to us. And the best time to get a baseline is when we are 18 years old: full grown adults at our youngest.

Laurent’s B12 was 578 pg/ml, his folic acid was 23 ng/ml, and his Hcy was 10.9 micromol/l. At 18, having had no major health issues, no accidents or serious diseases, a remarkably healthful fresh, green, organic, low carb, high fat diet of unprocessed whole foods for most of his life, I thought that this slightly elevated Hcy could be due to one of three things: either his body was still B12 deficient and just slowly building up its B12 stores, even though the three of us had all started with supplementation and patches at the same time; he was one of these people Dr Williams had made reference to who lacked the enzyme to activate folate, and therefore couldn’t effectively break down Hcy; or both.

I immediately ordered activated folate for us, and we started taking it in August 2016. If you take a look at the second plot that shows my Hcy levels as a function of time, you can see that it was just around 18 micromol/l at the end of July. And half a year later, towards the end of 2016, my Hcy level was the lowest it had ever been. Obviously, I was very happy to see this major improvement in achieving a drop in Hcy, something I had been trying to do for so many years. Therefore, also obviously, I continued taking activated folate. As you can see from the next two data points in 2017, Hcy was measured at 10 and then 8 micromol/l. We haven’t made another blood test to check Laurent’s levels. We’ll do that around Christmas at the end of this year when he comes back for the holidays.

Can we see how strong the relation between folate and Hcy actually is? We can plot the measurements we have one against the other like we did above for B12 and Hcy. What we find is this:

hcy_vs_folate

Homocysteine plotted against folate. Data point number labels show chronological order of tests. Arrows mark upper limits.

The relationship is very clear and linear. But I have to admit that I have cheated your eye a little bit. The measurements of folic acid are capped at 24: any value above that is simply reported as greater than 24. This was the case in tests (4), (8), (9), and (10). I show this with little arrows pointing towards higher values. Because the last three measurements were so close together in time, for the sake of clarity in the plot, I placed them at 25, 26 and 27, inversely proportional to the Hcy level. This is why they appear to follow the line. Otherwise, they would be at on the left edge of the arrows, one on top of the other, aligned with point (4), all at 24 on the x-axis. Note that I also plotted my son’s results (labelled as such), adding a data point at (23, 11).

What can we conclude from this investigation? Well, it isn’t totally clear cut and straight forward. I admit. But let’s review the facts:

For me:

  • I was 38 years old at the time of my first B12 test.
  • My B12 levels were low for 20 years: 270 pg/ml when first tested after few months of supplementation.
  • My Hcy levels were high at 18 micromol/l about two years after starting B12 supplementation.
  • B12 is necessary to break down Hcy.
  • It took me 3 years of oral and patch B12 supplementation to reach 600 pg/ml.
  • In early 2015 I started monthly B12 injections.
  • Only after almost 2 years of injections did my Hcy levels drop below 10 micromol/l.
  • But this precipitous drop in Hcy was concurrent with the start of supplementation with activated folate.

For my mother:

  • She was 82 years old at the time of her first B12 test.
  • Her Hcy levels were very high at 30 micromol/l.
  • Her B12 levels were low for who knows how long: 292 pg/ml when first tested.
  • She received approximately 10 injections of 1 mg in five weeks.
  • Her homocysteine levels dropped from 30 to 9.5 micromol/l.

For my son:

  • He was 18 years old at the time of his first B12 test.
  • His homocysteine levels were moderately high at 11 micromol/l.
  • His B12 levels were 578 pg/ml.

In addition to this, we have the plots above that show inverse relationships both between Hcy and B12, and between Hcy and folic acid. From this, there are at least three very clear conclusions we can draw:

  1. Low levels of B12 are associated with high levels of homocysteine,
  2. Higher levels of b12 are associated with lower levels of homocysteine, and
  3. Raising B12 levels leads to a decrease in homocysteine concentration.

At this stage and with the data we currently have, going further is more speculative. But here is what I think:

  1. I am one of these people that lacks the enzymes to activate folic acid.
  2. I might have inherited this trait from my mother or from my dad (considering how well she responded to intensive B12 therapy), and it was probably transmitted to my son.
  3. I was B12 deficient, and correcting this deficiency didn’t lower my Hcy levels.
  4. It was only when I started taking activated folate supplements that Hcy levels dropped quickly and significantly.

The reason I think this comes from two lines of reasoning. The first is that, as I just mentioned, it is only when I started taking activated folate that my Hcy levels dropped below 10 for the first time in seven years since the start of B12 supplementation.

The second is that even though both my mother and I were definitely B12 deficient, both probably for a long time, and that this would necessarily have led to an accumulation of Hcy in the blood that would have been greater in her case than in mine due to her age; my son was only 18 years old, and could not have been B12 deficient, at least not for almost 10 years. Nevertheless his Hcy levels were moderately elevated.

This is what I told him the other day. It took me only 5 minutes to tell him; it has taken me a lot longer to write this post. But I think the details are important if we are to understand things well. And by this I mean know what we understand, and know what we do not understand; know what conclusions we can make, and know what is hypothesis or speculation.

It’s not possible to be sure at this stage. We need more data and more experiments. But it’s not easy to gather such data, just because it takes a long time and strong commitments to be consistent with a supplementation programme over months and often years. If you have similar data and are willing to share, I would be happy to take a look at them.

Data like these trace and reveal so much about what’s happening inside our body, below the skin, far deeper than our eyes can see. But we can only begin to understand these measurements and the processes that drive their evolution by spending the time to look at them in detail. This is what we did here together. I hope you found it interesting.

Do you know what are your blood levels of homocysteine, B12, and folate? If not, you better get that checked out.

 

Energetics of survival

You wake up, open your eyes. You are surrounded by lush green forest in all directions. There are lots of bees and bumble bees, butterflies and dragonflies, all of them buzzing around the wild flowers and flowering bushes, collecting pollen, sucking nectar, and eating small bugs. There are also birds of all kinds; of kinds and colours you have never seen. Some are flying, frenzied, up and down and all around, some are singing loudly and proudly, some are sitting on branches, watching you, seemingly in just as much amazement to see you there, as you are feeling looking out onto this amazing scene. You have no idea where you are, but you know it’s green, vibrant, and full of life, you know it’s a beautiful place, a wonderful place. Never in your life had you imagined a place like this could still exist in the world.

sentinelIsland

What happened is that you were brought to and dropped off on this island, untouched by people or technology, while you were asleep, after having been sedated in order not to wake up during the trip. You don’t know why, and you don’t know who did this. Fortunately, and you don’t know this yet, but there are no predators on the island. Not only that, but the weather is perfect in that it never gets too hot or too cold, too dry or too wet, and there are enough food resources for you to live on, even if you have to work to find and get what you need to stay strong and healthy. Since you are alone, you don’t have to provide for, or protect anybody other than yourself. What is your first concern?

Most probably, finding a place where you can rest and sleep, sheltered from wind and rain, and safeguarded from possible dangers or annoyances that could prevent you from getting a restful sleep. You might eventually build yourself a more permanent house, but for now you need to find a suitable cave-like place, get some branches to close the face of it, and some tall grasses and leaves to make the ground soft enough to sleep on. You get to it.

You find a place, find plenty of branches and tall grasses, get your shelter organised. And although this was as easy as you could have hoped for, it has taken you half a day, and it is now early afternoon. What’s your main concern now? Food, of course: you’re hungry! You set off in search of things to eat. You walk half an hour or so, and the first thing you find is a little patch of what looks like wild spinach. So, you pick and eat a couple of small bunches of it. It’s not bad: it tastes just like spinach, even if the leaves are smaller, and a little tougher than you’re used to. However, they’re just green leaves: you’ve had enough of them, but you’re still just as hungry as you were.

You keep walking, looking all around for edible things. Another half an hour later, or thereabouts, you notice a small bush with barely visible blueberries scattered sparsely on it. You walk up to it, and start picking and eating. You’re lucky that it’s summer. The berries are good, but they are tiny, and so sour; you had no idea wild blueberries were so small, and this sour. After about 15 minutes of carefully picking through bush, you’ve eaten the three handfuls of blueberries that were on it. But guess what: you’re still really hungry. Maybe a little less than when you set off about an hour ago, but hardly at all. Think about it: a couple of bunches of small spinach leaves, and a few handfuls of wild blueberries. That’s not much. So, you set off again.

Two hours later, you are famished, and you’re still walking around looking for food. You notice a little tree that looks like it might have something on its branches. You get closer, and you’re so happy when you realise that they are hazelnuts. There’s quite a lot, even if the tree is still quite small. Unfortunately, most of them are green. In any case, you start picking all the ones that look ripe, or at least ripe enough to be picked. You’re really happy to have stumbled upon that valuable find. You manage to collect about twenty five of them that are either ready or just about to be. You find a good stone for the purpose, and carefully break the shell of each hazelnut, one by one, cautious not to crush the nut inside. You end up with lovely, freshly shelled hazelnuts from which you peel the soft skin to reveal the soft milky white nut underneath. There are enough of them to fill your cupped hands held together. You eat them, enjoying every bite, every moment of chewing, every moment of swallowing. Even if you consciously made yourself eat them slowly and mindfully, the pleasure lasted just under a quarter of an hour. Nonetheless, for the first time today, you feel your hunger and appetite have been appeased.

It is now quite late in the afternoon, and you are feeling tired from a whole day’s walking and looking for things to eat, but you are now really thirsty: you haven’t drank in almost a day. You head back to your shelter, and about half way there, stop at a spring you noticed while walking past it in the morning. You drink to quench your thirst: probably more than a litre of the cold, fresh spring water. That feels so good. Now you feel totally full: full of hazelnuts and water. You are totally ready for bed, exhausted after such a tiring day. It’s not even 20:00 but you are bushed. You go back to the cave, and settle in for the night.

The next morning you get up, and immediately, based on yesterday’s experience, realise that your main concern is to find and get enough food to feel nourished. You figure that the easiest way is to try to catch some fish. At least if you get even just one, that will be enough for the day. You need more than leaves and berries, and that the hazelnuts will need more time to ripen. You walk to the coast. That takes you about an hour. You construct a very simple underwater trap a few meters in from the shoreline, by placing stones in a circular fashion that creates a kind of rounded wall with an opening on one side, in a way that the fish will be able to swim in, but will not be able to continue on their way out to the other side, and will thus get stuck in the shallow underwater pool. That way, you will be able to either grab the fish with your hands directly and throw it out onto the shore, or be able to harpoon it with a sharp-ended pole you would have made. Either way, your hope is that at least one fish of good enough size will get stuck in your trap. You set that up and walk off to continue scouting out the island for other food and water springs.

It’s a beautifully sunny day, and you are thoroughly enjoying walking slowly, looking around, exploring the island, discovering the landscape. A couple of hours later, you find a little valley along which runs a small stream. As you walk along the bank, a few minutes later, you come across a patch of blackberry bushes. That’s fantastic! It’s not yet peak season, but there are already a some ripe ones on the south-facing side of the thorny bushes. You haven’t had any breakfast, obviously, since you didn’t have anything you could eat, and so, you eat all the berries you can find that are ripe enough to be picked. After nearly an hour of delicately and carefully looking and picking while trying to not get all scratched up by the thorns sticking out everywhere in all directions from the long and skinny branches of the blackberry bushes, you have eaten a few handful of berries, but your arms and legs are nevertheless itchy from all the small scratches you did get; it’s just impossible not to get scratched picking blackberries. And although you’ve barely eaten the equivalent of a large bowlful of blackberries, and although you feel a barely noticeable difference in the feeling of your empty stomach, you’ve had enough of this precarious and thorny picking. You decide to go back to check on your fish trap.

You beam-line to the place you set up the trap, and make it back in a little over an hour. You are so excited when you see that there is a large fish swimming in circles in the shallow pool of your trap that you can hardly contain your excitement, but you need to be very careful with your manoeuvres to not let it slip out and swim away. You grab the harpoon you made and left on the shoreline, go up to it very slowly to avoid making waves in the shallow waters, circling around from the north side to make sure you don’t cast a shadow on the water over the trap, and with great care and attention, holding your breath both from the excitement of actually catching the fish, and the anxiety of failing to do so, you bring down the harpoon and spear the fish solidly right on the end of the sharpened stick. Fantastic! Brilliant! You never imagined how amazing and empowering it would feel: you’ve never before had to catch a fish or anything else in order to feed yourself.

You make a fire, grill the fish, and finally eat it with immense pleasure and satisfaction. You feel great, really great: totally full and totally content. It’s now late in the afternoon, but you’re ready to sleep. So, you go back to the cave, and sleep on a full stomach, calm and at ease, a wonderfully restful sleep.

When you wake up the next morning, you’re surprised by the fact that you don’t feel hungry. You’re really thirsty, but you’re not hungry. You haven’t felt like this in days. You get up, walk to the closest water spring, and drink. You drink probably the equivalent of a litre and a half, and you feel totally full. You set off and spend the day walking around, exploring and getting more familiar with the island. It’s not until the afternoon that you start to feel hungry again. So, you just go back to the beach where your trap is. You walk up to it, and man! Holy cow! There are three fishes in it! Being even more cautious then you were yesterday, you manage to catch two. The third one escapes, but this is really good anyway: you have two fish instead of just one.

Again today, like you did yesterday, you make a fire and grill the fish. But you only grill one of them to eat today. The other one, you wrap in a large banana type leaf, and place in the hot ashes on the side of the fire. You grill your fish to perfection, and eat it with as much joy and satisfaction as you did yesterday, taking your time, eating all the little bits of flesh and skin, sucking clean every fish bone. It’s so good! A couple of hours have passed now, since you started grilling, and the second fish wrapped in the leaf has now been steamed in its own moisture, making it easy for you to separate all the edible parts. Putting these aside on a small wooden platter you’ve made by weaving together thin branches, leaving enough space between them to allow air to flow through. After that you make a little structure that you can place over the fire, and on which you can set the ventilated weaved branch plate with the fish, letting it sit there, a foot or so above the ashes, making sure to maintain the coals hot, and putting dried leaves and pine needles to make smoke.

This is a slow process, and you want to dry the fish, not just smoke it lightly, because you want to be able to keep it without it spoiling. You end up doing this all afternoon and well into the night. Eventually, you fall asleep on the beach, next to the smouldering fire, and by the time morning comes, the fish is dried: you can keep it, and it won’t go bad. You’re exhausted. You hardly slept all night. You take the smoke-dried fish with you back to the cave, and go to sleep for a few hours.

When you wake up, it’s already mid afternoon. As the day before, you go drink, and then go back to the fish trap to assess the catch, but today there is nothing: not a single fish. Well, no problem, you think, there’s the smoke-dried fish back at the cave that you can have for supper. You decide to make a detour and hike back to the blackberry patch on your way back. It’s going to take some time, but you already have your plan for supper, so you enjoy the one hour walk to the valley with the blackberries. You pick and eat berries for a while, maybe a little under an hour, and then make your way back home to the cave. You take out your smoked fish, but eat only half of it. You never know if there’s going to be a catch tomorrow, and your don’t want to be left without having anything to eat for dinner the next day. Anyway, half the fish is enough to make you feel full and satisfied from your meal. You go to sleep.

When you wake up in the morning, you don’t get up right away. You lie back, and reflect on the last few days. You’ve been on the island for just three days, and in this short period of time you have understood, without having had to think about it even for even a second, the energetics of survival. You have understood, first of all, that there is no way at all that anyone living in the wild could survive for an extended time on plant foods alone. Second, you have understood that the value of foods, in terms of energetics, is measured in the amount of calories, and of the feeling of satiety or fullness they provide. Therefore, the richer in fat and protein the food, the more valuable it is: animals and animal foods come first; fat and protein-rich plant foods like nuts and oily seeds (sunflower, sesame) come second; and all other foods like berries, greens, and other edible fruits and vegetables come third. It’s plain and simple, and there’s no way around these two basic conclusions.

In addition to that, it strikes you that the circumstances in which you have landed—a place with a perfect climate, with no predators, at the best time of the year for finding and harvesting plant foods, and with an amazingly easy access to enough fish to feed yourself—really couldn’t be any better. They must have been far worse for almost every individual in all of our ancestral lineages, no matter where they might have been on the globe.

And now, considering that every human being on the planet today is a descendant of a tribe of homo sapiens that, it is believed, lived on the south western coast of Africa, ate mostly crustaceans and fish, developed larger and more versatile brains (almost surely due to their diet), and were the first ones to develop advanced language skills, which gave them a greatly increased power of communication, conceptualisation, and abstraction. Considering that it is these people that, beginning between 100 and 70 thousand years ago, started migrating northward and eastward first through and then out of Africa, reaching Polynesia and Australia around 50 thousand years ago, Europe and Asia most likely in several waves between 70 and 35 thousand years ago, their descents eventually reaching North America 12 to 13 thousand years ago, near the end of the last ice age. And considering that this last ice age lasted 100 millennia—that’s one hundred thousand years—during which every hominid on the globe, other than those living in equatorial regions, and this includes all homo sapiens and all neanderthals, must have had to live almost exclusively on animals and animal-derived foods, not just for a while, but several tens of thousands of years.

Can this even be imagined from the perspective of someone who lives approximately 80 years, but who keeps in memory a sense of time that spans much less than that? Your parents were born around 20-30 years before you. Their parents were born 20-30 years before them. Your great grand-parents, another 20-30 years before that. And do you know anything about your great grand-parents, other than possibly having seen a few pictures and heard a few anecdotes about them told by your parents or grand-parents? And this is just a period of time spanning 60 to 90 years. Think of what this means: not one hundred, not two or three hundred, not five hundred, not even one thousand years, but ten, twenty, thirty, fifty thousand years eating basically only animals, without ever knowing what it’s like to eat anything else, a whole lifelong, generation after generation, hundreds of generations after hundreds of generations.

What do you think this implies for us now? What does it say about both the essential and most important macro and micro nutrients our bodies and brains need? What our bodies and brains, these incredibly complex living systems, refined over millennia upon millennia in every aspect of their coarsest physical and mechanical, and their most subtle biochemical, hormonal and neurological functions, actually need to function properly? What does it say about what we, as human beings, have evolved over these vast periods of time being dependent upon to be healthy, survive and reproduce?

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In light of evolution

Every animal in the Natural World is bound to live according to its own nature. This is dictated by 550 million years of evolution since the emergence of complex organisms including the very first ancestor of all animals on the planet today. To live according to its own nature means to live in its natural habitat, to eat what it has evolved to eat, to grow, mature, reproduce, age and die according to the way in which every detail of every aspect of its life has been defined and refined by the environment and living conditions of its ancestors over hundreds, thousands, millions of years.

As conditions change, natural selection ensures adaptation. On this question, there are only two possibilities: adapt and evolve or perish and disappear from existence. And this is not a matter of choice or of willingness: it is a biological adaptation that takes place on its own without the conscious intervention of the organism subject to the process.

In the Natural World, through the entire history of life on Earth, it has been thus. It has been thus for the very first living microorganisms, for the very first photosynthetic cyanobacteria, for the first eukaryotes and the first multicellular organisms, for all algae, fungi and plants, and for all animals. It has also been true for humans, for the human animal, the human chordate, the human mammal, the human primate. True, until very recently.

This is what I understood on that day when I watched, shocked and amazed, that female sheep swallow up her own placental tissues dripping with blood almost immediately after she had given birth to that helpless lamb that was lying unmoving in the shade of a large oak tree.

The earliest dates for which we have evidence that people settled in relatively large settlements and sustained themselves by cultivating cereal grains and tending to herds of domesticated animals is about 10 to 12 thousand years ago. Before that, all human populations throughout Africa, Asia and Europe were seasonal nomads that followed the animals on which they relied for food, clothing and tools.

An exception to this might be the south Pacific (Melanesia and Polynesia), lands that were settled some 50-60 thousand years ago, but that, unfortunately for those settlers, had little food resources: no large seeded grasses, no easily domesticable animals, and very few fruit-bearing trees or edible wild vegetables. They found a starchy tuber that could be eaten after some processing to remove the toxins it contains. So, this is what they survived on, and this is primarily what they still survive on today.

Needless to say that even with the intake of minimal amounts of protein from some animal sources, and today they have domesticated pigs, these people–all the different clans and tribes that evolved in that part of the world–have always been extremely restricted in their evolution by the need to devote so much time to their most essential requirement for surviving longer than a few weeks or months. Moreover, can anyone be surprised by the fact that this is the part of the world where cannibalism has always been practiced and still is practiced to this day?

If you were starved of protein, not just for a few days, a few months or even a few years, but for your entire lifetime, generation after generation, of course you would eat your dead rivals and enemies. There’s no question or doubt about it. It would be a waste not to. Not only that, but you would also certainly go out of your way to find and make rivals and enemies in order to maximise your meat base. No question or doubt about that either. Naturally, this is what we see there: hundreds of small tribes sharing the scarce natural resources in this inhospitable land by intense rivalry and continuous warring. You would do the same. I know I would. You can be sure of that.

The fundamental difference between humans and all other animals is that they are bound–forced by natural selection–to eat only what they have evolved eating. Humans are not only able to disregard this biological framework to which we really are in fact bound as all other animals are, but to actually eat and live in ways that are completely contrary to what is prescribed to them, to us, by our evolutionary history and by natural selection. This is true whether the constraints are imposed upon us by our environment, climate, geography and available resources, or defined by the beliefs that shape our worldview.

The former is the dominant in most of the world, but the latter is definitely pervasive in industrialised countries where, for practical purposes, there are no constraints on the availability of foods at any time during the year or any moment during the course of one’s whole life, really. And this is what we are addressing here: not the scarcity of food and the restrictions on dietary regimens in those struggling to get enough food for themselves and their dependents, but the effects on our health of restrictions we place on our own diet based on beliefs.

This fundamental difference is well illustrated by the fact that large carnivore like jaguars, panthers, tigers and lions eat meat exclusively. They never think about it, they don’t consider what they feel like having for supper, they don’t sometimes go grazing a little grass or other plants here and there: they always only eat meat, and have been for millions of years. Consequently, these large felines have only sharp teeth without any flat ones for grinding fibres, they have a shorter and simpler digestive tract that measures about 7 metres (compared to about 10 metres for humans), their proportionally larger stomachs secrete such strong concentrations of hydrochloric acid that the pH inside it after meals drops to values around 1 (compared to  around 2-3 for humans), the lowest (most acidic) on the logarithmic pH scale, and their livers have much greater capacity (about 10 times the one we have) to concentrate uric acid out of the bloodstream and excrete it in the urine.

Cows, bisons, buffalos; sheep, goats, lamas, alpacas; horses, ponies, donkeys, mules and so many other animals eat a diet that consists of basically only grass and grass seeds, have completely different adaptations: they have large thickly enamelled flat teeth for grinding over and over again, and for hours on end throughout the day, those tough cellulose structures of the plant that lock in the nutrition they need to extract, they have extra long digestive systems, some of them with several stomach-like sacs along the way, that actually allows the chewed up grasses to travel back and forth a number of times to maximise the extraction of nutrients, and they have a purely alkaline digestive system, secreting no hydrochloric acid at all, simply because this is what is most suitable and necessary for the optimal digestion and absorption of the sugars, minerals and vitamins present in the grass they live on.

These are just a few examples of evolutionary adaptations to a diet of only meat seen in obligate carnivores like large felines or in herbivore grazers, but they are most appropriate because they pertain to the digestive system on which is built every other system and on which our health and survival depends most directly.

Like feline carnivores, herbivores do not think about what they will eat for their next meal, what they feel like having for breakfast or for lunch. They always eat the same things, grasses and other little leafy plants, and in the late summer, fall and winter, the seeds of the grasses and other plants that have dried and gone to seed. How much of each depends on where they live and how the climate is. It never depends on their thoughts and feeling about what they should eat. And if we were to offer the lion or the tiger something other than fresh meat, a nice big bowl of freshly cut grass or grass seeds like oat kernels, for example, they wouldn’t touch it because for them, it is not food. If we were to offer a cow or a horse a big juicy steak from a gazelle or antilope they would in exactly the same way not even look at it or sniff it because for them, this is not food.

All animals eat only the foods that they have evolved to eat in order to live healthy for the right amount of time to allow them to reproduce and raise their offspring to the point where the offspring can themselves do the same for the next generation. For millions of years this process takes place and refines every detail of the unique characteristics of their bodies, of their physiologies and their biochemistries, of their physical aptitudes and their psychological makeup. Animals do not comprehend this: they know it in their natures, they know it in their instincts, they know it in their very bones.

We, humans, have the ability to comprehend this, at least when it is taught or explained to us, but because we think, we analyse, we believe, we rationalise, we justify and we convince ourselves and others of basically anything we want using more or less clever logic, more or less sound analyses and rationalisations, and, in the end, more or less convincing arguments and justifications. And we excel at this. We excel at it remarkably.

What comes of it? We end up eating and drinking whatever we believe we can or whatever we believe we should, whatever the reason or lack of reason. We eat bread and jam every morning because this is what we’ve always done, because this is what our parents always did, because this is what everyone around us has always done, and because it tastes so good. We eat at McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell or Pizza Hut at lunch because it’s fast, convenient, and also because it tastes so damn good. We feed ourselves and our kids pasta with jarred tomato sauce for supper because it’s the easiest meal we can make, everyone loves it, and it leaves us with a feeling of being full and satisfied. We eat only plant foods. We eat only animal foods. We eat only raw foods. We eat only brown rice. We eat only salad. We eat no fat. We eat mostly fat. We eat no carbs. We eat mostly carbs. We eat in this way or in that fashion. We eat in all sorts of ways for all sorts of reasons and we somehow never ask ourselves what has this body evolved to eat: what we should eat.

In this respect, the situation between humans and all other animals is, at this stage, radically different. So different it couldn’t be more different: animals instinctively eat only what they have evolved eating and therefore evolved to eat; we eat only what we feel like eating or what we think or believe we should. We have lost our food instincts and overrun them with beliefs. We do not care to ask ourselves what our evolutionary history, that of our species as well as that of our personal ancestry, tells us about what we have evolved eating, and we trust the word of food “scientists” that tell us preposterous things such as eating egg yolks and animal fats causes heart disease, or that eating large sweet fruits and whole grains is good for us, or that we should drink milk to have strong bones, or that a big brain like ours needs lots of sugar. All preposterous. All mistaken. All unfounded. But we believe. And we listen. For decades on end before the weight of evidence begins to turn the light around. All the while getting fatter and sicker eating inappropriately for our constitution.

There are at least two ways by which we can approach the problem of trying to figure out what our long past ancestors would have eaten and preferred eating through the millennia given the constraints imposed upon them by the environment and climate: we can consider the archaeological evidence we have gathered, and combine that with as much as we have learned in the realm of evolutionary biology and physiology, trying to trace back the evolution of the different systems of the body, in particular the digestive system, coupled with the evolution of our brain; the other approach is to look at the energetics of survival and work our way through a series of deductions based on what we know and what we can learn from this process itself.

One of the important differences between our closest cousin, the modern chimpanzee, and ourselves is that a chimp eats mostly raw, fibrous plant foods (2/3 stems and leaves and 1/3 small fibrous fruit), and spends many hours each day chewing through these in order to feed itself. As a result, very strong jaws and thickly enamelled teeth together with a long digestive tract through which all these fibrous and nutrient-poor foods must pass as slowly as possible to extract as much as possible out of them. Naturally, this requires a specific kind, and well-developed intestinal flora. As is also natural to expect, and as is in fact the case, the intestinal flora of microorganisms upon which animals depend for proper digestion, and ultimately for survival, develops and adapts to the foods eaten that make their way through the intestines, on the long term, of course, but also on the short term.

What we see in the fossil record is that, following the Miocene that lasted for about 18 million years from 23 to 5 million years ago and that was dubbed the golden age of the apes because they flourished all over the world, there were, in different parts of the world, between 13 and 9 million years ago, several genera of hominoids (something between apes and hominids), and that the earliest members of our group lived at the end of the Miocene and beginning of the Pliocene between 7 and 4.5 million years ago. Molecular studies on DNA also suggest from a completely independent analysis (rate of DNA mutations) that our line must have branched off from the common ancestor we share with chimpanzees around 6-7 million years ago. So it is pretty clear that this is the time around which this separation of lineages must have occurred.

There are two lines of structural changes used to evaluate and follow the evolution we are trying to trace from that oldest ancestor to the modern forms in our genus Homo: The first looks at changes that, in the structure of the skeleton, especially in the hips, legs and feet, but also in the shoulders, arms and hands, betray evidence for an upright walking posture and manual dexterity as opposed to structures consistent with knuckle walking and tree climbing; the second looks at changes in the upper spine, skull, jaws and teeth that also indicate upright posture (skull) and less ape-like features including smaller canines, smaller top and brow ridges, and a flatter and taller face and forehead. Both lines of evolutionary changes lead to the following scenario as the most likely.

Currently, the best contenders for the title of our last common ancestor with the chimp are Sahelanthropus tchadensis (dated at 6-7 million years), Orrorin tugenensis (dated at 6 million years), and Ardipithecus (kaddaba at 5.8-5.2 and ramidus at 4.5-4.3 millions years). All of these fossil species, no matter how little evidence there actually is in some cases, show strong evidence for evolutionary adaptations to upright walking based on the shape of the hip bone or femur or feet or skull. Teeth and skulls also show smaller canines and larger and thicker molars both of which indicate that they ate tougher more fibrous foods like leaves, stems and roots.

As is very clearly illustrated in the figure below, from the oldest australopithecines (africanus), the trend towards larger, flatter and even more thickly enamelled teeth, wider and stronger jaw bones, and thicker skulls with powerful top ridges and sideways flaring cheekbones all constructed to sustain the pressure generated while chewing, continues to later species and peaks in Paranthropus Boisei, believed to be the last of the australopithecines, and probably the most robust of the toughest fibre-chewers ever. But while the trend towards narrower hips, longer femurs, thicker heel bones and higher foot arches, all needed to increase mechanical efficiency in upright locomotion, continues to be evident in the later species, we see a reversal in the trend towards better fibre-chewers, in the shrinking of teeth and jaws, the disappearance of the top ridge and flaring cheekbones, and the decrease in brow ridge in the fossils of Homo habilis and in the very well preserved 1.6 million year old Turkana or Nariokotome Boy, the best specimen we have of our ancestral species Homo ergaster.

hominidEvolution-skullsAndJaws-3stages

This is most naturally and sensibly interpreted as the adaptation from a chimp-like diet based primarily on fruit and other plant foods with the rare feasting on animal flesh from  group hunts of thought to be important mostly in establishing a clear social order in their hierarchical structure, in the oldest australopiths; to a change in diet towards tougher and more fibrous and naturally less desirable leaves and stems, fallback foods, as they are called, that were available to them after migration out of the depths of the forest and into the dry savannah; and to eventually the shift towards more fibre-less animal foods, rich in calories from fats and protein, only a very small amount of which was necessary for survival in comparison to the amount of fibrous and nutrient-poor plant foods.

The implications are clear and also obvious: 1) More fibrous nutritionally-poor plant foods led to adaptations for chewing them but also for processing them internally and must have been associated with a longer much more herbivore-like digestive tract and system. 2) More nutritionally-rich fibre-less animal foods led to the loss of the need for large teeth, powerful jaws and thick skulls, and also must have led to a shrinking of the digestive tract and evolution of digestive adaptations needed to process animal protein and fat, which would include the need for hydrochloric acid in the the stomach to breakdown protein, and bile from the liver to emulsify fats, as well as a new bacterial flora which would have also been entirely different depending on the diet. And 3) the more animal foods were eaten, the more the brain grew in volume, both in absolute terms and relative to body size.

These are the most important conclusions from this exploration of our earliest evolutionary history as a species, which also very closely tie-in with our reflections about what we choose to eat and the reasons we invoke or construct in justifying these choices to ourselves and others, because it shows us as plainly and straight-forwardly as is possible to imagine, that in order to live healthy and thrive throughout our life over its natural lifespan, we are bound to eat what our ancestors have evolved eating in exactly the same way as all other animals are, and that this is dictated by our anatomy, physiology and biochemistry, independently of what we think and of what we believe.

In the next part, we will explore the question of energetics and food selection, what a hominid would naturally do–what you and what I would do–when faced with the need to seek out food for its own survival, and come back to my own story in more practical terms. And if you are interested in reading more about the topics we touched upon in this article, I recommend Ian Tattersall’s Masters of the Planet, Daniel Lieberman’s The Story of the Human Body, Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee, and Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Human Kind. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species is truly remarkable in scope, in detail, in depth and in foresight. Even if it doesn’t relate specifically to the details of the evolution of our genus Homo, it is the foundation of the broadest context in which we as intelligent and literate being understand evolution of all species everywhere since the emergence of life on this planet.

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Amazing and shocking

I saw something both amazing and shocking. In barely a few seconds my understanding of nature and my view of the world changed. What I saw on that afternoon, warm and sunny, in late spring, riding up a long hill on my mountain bike, out of a small river valley to a plateau, going home from work, was curled up quietly on the ground in the shade of a large Spanish oak tree and covered in blood. It was a newborn lamb.

newbornlambwithmom

I was so moved, I stopped on the other side of the path a good distance from the baby and its mother, and watched. Within a few seconds I noticed that the mom had a bunch of bloody tissues hanging from her behind, dragging on the ground, and that she was so seemingly bothered by it that it was consuming all of her attention. The little lamb was lying still, and I couldn’t tell how well it was, because even though it was breathing, it wasn’t moving. But the mother was busy dealing with what was surely hanging placental tissues.

What she did at that point is what shocked me: she ate the placenta and all the bloody tissues that were hanging from her. She swallowed it all up in less than a minute. That was hard for me to process. Sheep are vegetarian animals, herbivores just like goats, cows and horses: they just eat grass, bark, small fresh branches and things of this kind. I was shocked by the sight of it, but also by the clashing of my understanding of what it means for an animal to be herbivore and yet eat all this fleshy tissue and blood. How could it be? What did it mean? But what else could she have done?

The immediate realisation was obvious: all animals giving birth to babies, across the natural kingdom, whether herbivores or not, and maybe even especially herbivores, must do the same when their babies are born: they must clean everything up, and this includes eating all leftover tissues, and licking themselves and the babies clean to leave everything as traceless as possible to avoid alerting any other animals, most importantly predators, who tend to be carnivores with an exquisitely refined sense of smell, particularly for fresh blood and flesh.

What an incredible experience. This surely would not have seemed so amazing or incredible to most people a century ago, but to the eyes of a city-born, city-raised, city-living, city-dweller like me, it was amazing and it was incredible. The images from the scene I had witnessed by accident and by chance kept coming back to the forefront of my attention again and again for several weeks afterwards. Naturally, every time I rode by there to and from work, but also somewhat randomly at different times during the day, both at work and at home. It was for me an experience that revealed something profound about the natural order of things. And this triggered a cascade of small realisations about a whole bunch of things I had read over the years that highlighted connections between them and in relation to what we are, as humans, and what we need to be strong and healthy. This is what I want to share here, but will do so in a few parts.

Being vegetarian is kind of like being a human herbivore but not quite. Being a vegan is certainly closer to it, but even that doesn’t correspond to it completely. One would have to be a raw food vegan to be as close as a human can be to a herbivore. There are millions of vegetarians around the globe, especially highly concentrated in traditionally non-meat-eating places like India. There are also plenty of vegans, but a lot less. And there are raw foodists, some of which eat animal products and meat, and some that don’t. There are fruitarians that restrict their food to only fruit, typically eating mostly sweet fruit (as opposed to low-sugar, fatty fruit like avocados and coconuts). On the other end of the spectrum, there are also people who eat only animal flesh, or only red meat, or only fish, and we can be sure that there is a wide range of diets that are more or less restrictive and more or less extreme, all based on various ideas, beliefs, but also intolerances or pragmatic considerations of necessity and circumstances.

The reasons for which we adopt various diets, restricted to different degrees, are without a doubt even more varied than the diets themselves. I chose to stop eating meat for the first time when I was in high school at the age of 16, and remained vegetarian for over 20 years, with a few rare exceptions (like for example while travelling in Iran and not being able to find for periods of days anything other than white rice, baked tomatoes and kebab). Not only did I not eat meat, but I also rarely ate eggs and butter for at least the first 10 years, because, as we all “know” and so many continue to believe from years of brain washing and misinformation, these high-fat, high-cholesterol foods are dangerous for our health. This is false, of course, but whatever.

Hence, I ate as many vegetarians do: lots of sweet fruit, hearty breads and muffins, and some nuts or seeds during the day, and typically pasta or rice with vegetables at night, always keeping fat low and carbs high, but also, unfortunately, protein very low. I sometimes made lentils, kidney or lima beans on weekends. I believed—I was convinced, of course—that I couldn’t have done better for my health. I kept that up through most of high school and all of university.

After my first degree, which for me lasted five years, and after a year of travelling from Europe to Nepal overland, with much increased awareness of environmental issues, I came home and joined several food groups promoting local, sustainable, organic farming on small scales and seasonal eating in accord with regional climate, and learned about the “health benefits” and “virtues” of whole grains and cold pressed polyunsaturated vegetable oils. This is what became the essence of my diet: whole grains and beans, whole grain sourdough breads, plenty of cold pressed vegetable oils, farm vegetables, both cooked and in salads, unrestricted amounts of fruit, and some cheese, butter and eggs, everything from local farmers. Living in Ottawa with its super hot and humid summers and its frigidly cold and snowy winters, for most of the year vegetables were mostly roots, tubers and squashes (potatoes, carrots, beets, turnips, cabbage and squashes in all possible colours and forms), and fruit were basically apples and pears.

I had read such convincing literature on the health benefits and therefore importance of unrefined polyunsaturated vegetable oils from sunflower and safflower, pumpkin, sesame and grape seed, hemp and flax seeds, all cold pressed and organic, of course, that I poured them liberally over all salads, grains, beens and breads. Now I was really convinced that this was the best I could do for my health. And convinced as I was of the excellent quality of all these foods, which was indeed excellent, but also convinced of their amazing health benefits, expositions and explanations of which were found in practically every health book, magazine and radio or TV health shows, how could I not wholeheartedly adopt this way of eating recommended by all these “experts” as the most healthful, seemingly based on scientific evidence and solid reasoning, and not also teach those around me by example and through explicit recommendations?

This was to define my diet, and, from the spring of 1997, our diet with my wife who had also been a long time vegetarian. When our son was born in late 1998 we even more enthusiastically embraced this way to feed ourselves and our baby. He was breastfed for a year and a half, exclusively for the first six months, and then gradually less, smoothly over the next year. Fortunately for him, his first food at 6 months of age was avocado, an excellent high fat, moderate protein, very low carb, raw and enzyme-rich fruit that would be nourishing and easy to digest and assimilate. That was a great choice suggested by our naturopath at the time. He gradually transitioned to eating basically what we did—whole grains, beans, veggies and cold pressed oils—only for him, they were blended into a puree.

Also fortunately for him and us, because some of our local farmers made fresh butter and cheese, and sold fresh eggs from freely roaming hens, we ate more of these foods. And, of course, they were delicious, nutritious and satisfying, but somehow I still felt that we were straying from the ideal diet that would be devoid of those high fat and high cholesterol animal foods. This is how we ate, and four more years passed before we moved to Paris.

In France, delighted to be living in a place with a food culture that greatly values fresh, locally grown and hand crafted foods, we continued another four years basically eating as we had done in Ottawa, but with more greens and leafy veggies throughout the year, and more fresh butter, cheese and eggs, still with just as much whole grains. A diet that, according to most natural health experts, aficionados and professionals, was ideal: a diet based on different kinds of whole grains (spelt, kamut, millet and quinoa which was our favourite) served with oil and soya sauce, and different kinds of whole grain breads (wheat, spelt, kamut and rye), toasted and crispy, sometimes dressed with crushed garlic, oil and salt, sometimes with tahini and feta cheese, sometimes with almond or peanut butter, all of these whole grains and breads always so incredibly delicious, and best of all, so we thought, excellently healthy and good for us. Once or twice a week we would buy warm, sometimes steaming, traditional sourdough baguette, super crunchy and crispy on the outside and super moist and chewy on the inside, that we would often have with butter, radishes and salt (and what a treat that was).

We always had with our evening meals large leafy green salads, or grated carrots and beets, or thinly sliced red or green cabbage, accompanied by fresh goat cheese. A couple of times a week we would have eggs. Every day we had fruit, always in accord with the season: cherries came first, then strawberries, then plums, then apricots and peaches, then melons and watermelons, then grapes, and finally apples and pears, which were also here in France our standard fruit during the winter. No refined or commercially made foods of any kind, everything local and organic, no junk food, no sweets, no sugar, unpasteurised honey sometimes, and desserts on very special occasions like birthdays or other celebrations.

Many would think that this was all pretty incredible, fantastically healthy, even. You, readers of this blog, surely know much better than to think that by now. But I think sharing the details of the realisations that were triggered by my witnessing of the birth of the baby lamb and the mother’s eating her own placental tissues, together with the details of this twenty year experience, with explanations of the effects and consequences that I have since understood to have been caused by this apparently excellent, whole, unprocessed food diet, some deficiencies with which I am still struggling to this day, might be of interest and useful for other people who are concerned about what they eat, and are possibly following any one of the large number of different diets promoted for their particular virtues and health benefits over other diets promoted by other people. We will begin this exploration in the next part.

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