Anthropology and Nutrition: Understanding the role of anthropology in nutrition and vitalism

This article provides an insight to the role that anthropology plays in nutrition and vitalism, with tips to optimise your food and lifestyle choices.

With so many dietary persuasions all the way from vegan to carnivore, it’s hard to know what is best to eat as a population, and as an individual. The ‘diet cha-cha’ depends on who you are listening to, what works for them and how vulnerable you are in your wish to get healthy or lose weight.

But what if there was a better way? What if there was a guide or a set of guiding principles to create less vulnerability around the ‘diet cha-cha’?

To understand human nutrition, we must first understand human evolution. This article provides an insight to the role that anthropology plays in nutrition and vitalism, with practical tips so you can optimise your food and lifestyle choices to bring your body into harmony with ease.

Throughout my studies in anthropology, cultural anthropology and nutrition, I quickly realised the modern diet being promoted had nothing to do with what our history of eating looked like. Since then, and now with almost 43 years of experience, two major principles have stood out to me on how we can bridge this gap.


Principle 1: Tricking Our Body into Thinking it Lives in Anthropological Times

We do not have modern bodies; we have evolutionary bodies living in a modern world. So for our mind and body to be the best with health, energy and longevity, we must fake an evolutionary lifestyle and diet in order to satisfy the biochemistry and biological needs of our evolutionary body.

This includes but is not limited to actively seeking sunshine, sleep, movement, nature, connection, rest, relaxation, and of course real food from our evolutionary past.

Unfortunately, the modern world has led our evolutionary bodies toward ultra-processed foods, working at a desk, driving a car everywhere, being isolated, living in a city and away from nature, minimal rest, relaxation or movement time, fearful of the sunshine and unable to sleep. All of which is not conducive to our overall health and vitality.


What Did We Eat?

Anthropologically, humans have lived on a diversity of diets which have largely depended on how far they lived from the equator, and the altitude of their existence.

Daylight, temperatures, rainfall and food availability all played key roles in humans being able to live on different diets, with each diet being consistent to their environment. Being vegan would be best in hot climates nearer to the equator, being carnivore would be best for those living in extreme environments, and a more diverse diet of plants and animals would be better in a more temperate zone on the planet.

For instance, in extreme locations such as 14,000 feet above sea level, deserts and towards the poles, the human diet consisted of animals and animal produce. Examples of these that remain in existence today include the Kyrgyz of Pamir, the Innuits of Greenland, the Hadza of Tanzania and the Himba of Namibia.

Additionally, the closer to the equator the human lived allowed for a more plant-based diet including sweet tropic fruits, yams, coconuts and fish, or small game animals and rodents. Civilisations today that give us a peek into a more plant-based diet such as this include the Kitava, Dani and Lani of PNG.

Evidently, humans can live on a diversity of diets, all the way from 90% plant to 90% animal.

This equates to modern humans finding health by realising what is available to them seasonally in their part of the world. It’s not perfect but it is a great place to start. The problem we have in modern day society, is that the diversity of our own microbiome which helps us utilise plants in our diet has reduced. As a result, we find more and more people intolerant to parts of plants such as lectins, gluten, oxalates, salicylates, histamines, and other plant components. This is when we can be guided by specialists in diet and nutrition to improve the integrity of the gut and diversity of the microbiome which increases our ability to eat more plant foods.


Principle 2: The Philosophy of Vitalism for Food Choices

The second principle that has been a guiding light for me and how I choose food and health care is the philosophy of Vitalism. To understand Vitalism, it’s good to talk about the opposing philosophy of Mechanism. Mechanism is where we see the body and its parts separately and separate from the environment and surroundings. Mechanism is medicine today, and when it comes to emergencies, mechanism is king. However, when it comes to health, the philosophy of vitalism can be much more advantageous.

Vitalism considers that the body has an innate intelligence and by giving it the right ingredients and removing interference, it can be healthy. I take it one step further with food. Food has a symbiotic innate intelligence so that when we consume a food in its whole form, all the parts work together in the body for the innate intelligence of the body to shine through for health.

Vitalistic nutrition involves looking at the ingredients of the food, as opposed to mechanistic nutrition (also known as Nutritionism) which looks at the protein, fats, carbohydrates and nutritional panel of the food. In other words, vitalistic nutrition looks at the whole food, while mechanistic nutrition breaks the food down into separate components.


How Can Anthropology and Vitalism Work Together?

An example of how anthropology and vitalism work together can be seen in the case of butter. When butter was viewed as bad because it had 50% saturated fat, science was not looking at the whole picture where omega 3’s, butyrate, factor X and other amazing health-giving components were part of this ancient food that we have been eating since herding of animals began. Instead, mechanism stepped in to produce a completely plastic food called margarine, where science believed that polyunsaturated fats were the better fat, but to make it palatable and look like butter, ingredients were added including a bunch of numbers, colours, flavours and synthetic antioxidants.

Approaching this debate between butter and margarine with historical anthropological principles and vitalism, however, concludes butter to be the better food, which in hindsight and time has proven to be correct. We can apply these same principles toward the salt debate, the protein (flesh) debate and carbohydrates debate – all of which simmer and have opposing ideas throughout dietary circles.

Bringing an historical perspective and vitalistic approach to eating and lifestyle means we eat as cultures have eaten for eons, for thousands of generations, without the burden of chronic diseases we now see in children, adolescents, young adults, and the elderly. These principles have been my guiding light for 43 years and they have never steered me in the wrong direction when it comes to myself, my family, and my community. I am 62 with no chronic disease, no medications and I live a life where I watch the sun rise in the morning, swim in the ocean every day, remain active, spend time in my kitchen to nourish my family to hopefully as a collective community, help heal this nation.


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Top 10 Tips for Food and Lifestyle Choices

1. Eat a real food diet, cooked from scratch with quality ingredients, seasonally chosen from your local area.

2. Move every day, swimming, walking, resistance, and weight training. These don’t need to be formalised gym sessions - natural and incidental exercise, such as working outside in the garden or walking by the ocean are just as beneficial.

3. Watch the sunrise and get a good dose of sunshine throughout the day. Sunshine helps our circadian rhythms so we can sleep better, and melanin helps our bodies detox heavy metals.

4. Create a habit of getting to bed at least 2 to 3 hours before midnight. Creating space for energetic hygiene and rest is just as important as 'doing'.

5. Connect with family and friends, share meals and laughter often.

6. Make sure your water is filtered and dose up on non-refined salt. Aim to take 1/8th tsp of unrefined salt for every 500ml water you drink. This will help with overall hydration, muscle and nerve function.

7. If you must supplement your nutrients in a non-emergency situation, make sure your supplements are food based not made in a laboratory. For example, liver instead of isolated iron.

8. Spend time in nature. Our body collects magnesium from tree ferns, spore-biotics from soil and forest air and so much more. This is what our evolutionary body craves.

9. Ground your body by spending time with your bare feet on the earth, grass and or sand. There is an ion movement when we connect to mother earth.

10. Find a health care practitioner that gives you the responsibility of getting yourself well - this is where the real power comes in health and healing.

Using these principles of anthropology and vitalism we can go a long way into solving many problems that are otherwise treated mechanistically with drugs and laboratory supplements. So, if you’re looking to bring harmony and balance back into your life and body, start by listening to your body and integrating the above 10 changes into your food and lifestyle choices - it’s as simple as that.


Article written by: Cyndi O’Meara


About the Author:

Cyndi OMeara Image


Cyndi O’Meara is an internationally acclaimed nutritionist, best-selling author, international speaker, documentary creator and founder of The Nutrition Academy and Changing Habits.
Cyndi is a passionate, determined and knowledgeable speaker on health issues and uses her experience to help others improve their quality of life. Her qualifications include a Bachelor of Science degree majoring in Nutrition from Deakin University and the University of Colorado, as well as postgraduate studies in human anatomy, pathology and physiology, and diplomas in diagnosis and management of health issues.
Connect with Cyndi on Facebook & Instagram.


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