The Wheel of Health
In the early 1900s our author was at a typical English public school. On the school playing fields and through local woods he would run, walk, or play with his classmates. In the sun, in the wind, even in the raw cold they would play games and sports, helped by the vigor of youth. As with many children this was a time of vitality and glowing health, unencumbered by disease or tiredness. The author then progressed to medical school and his experience of childhood zest was replaced with the experience of disease and ill health. All around him he saw gloomy people with various ailments. This portrait of malaise contrasted with the vigor he saw in his youth. He questioned why doctors were always presented with illness and not with people who were super healthy. It was a strange affair to be concerned only with disease and not with vibrant health. He put this to senior doctors, proposing that the teaching of medicine should be reversed with an renewed emphasis on studying the very healthiest people. Naturally, he was ridiculed. He put in for a government health grant to study health rather than disease. He wanted to known whether age-related illness was really necessary. Again he was rejected. It was at this time he came across reports of the Hunza people, then in northern India, now in Pakistan.
Nestled between the Hindu Kush and the Karakoram mountain ranges, with the edge of the Himalayas pushing down from the north-east, is the Hunza valley. The valley stretches for seven miles at an elevation of 7,000 ft. For much of their history the Hunza people have been isolated, forming their own agricultural society. Steep garden terraces climb the valley populated by crops, animals, and a raft of fruit trees. In the first decades of the twentieth century the British settled the nearby hill station of Gilgit, from where British doctors explored the Hunza valley and noted the health of the Hunza people.
The Hunza are broad shouldered, fit, and cheerful. They have remarkable health throughout their life and are famed for their energy in old age. It is said that they have as much vigor after the age of forty as they did as a child. This liveliness gives the Hunza remarkable endurance. The British saw that they were superb mountaineers, much better than the famed Sherpa of Nepal, able to walk 60 miles across some of the toughest peaks in the world just to take care of a business transaction. Hunza messengers routinely travelled 280 miles by foot in just seven days, over the same mountains, at times walking across narrow wooden planks hammered into the side of a ridge. If a horse was stolen they would pursue it barefoot in drenching rain for up to two days. Exhaustion was unknown to them. As well as being better hillmen than the Sherpa, they were better fighters than the Pathans and Sikhs—two ethnic groups known for their military skill. They trained by lifting and tossing heavy objects, swinging formidable Indian clubs, wrestling, jumping, and running. These strength and high-intensity exercises complemented their walking and long- distance endurance marches, giving them complete physical fitness. From these activities they gained broad shoulders, a full chest, narrow waists, a nonexistent belly, and iron legs that could carry them for days. Their shoulders were not rounded forward, nor did their posture stoop from sitting all day. This physical culture was the first key to their health; the second was their diet.
Very early on, British doctors saw that the mother and her health was an important part of Hunza culture. It was the mother who passed on vitality to the newborn child. Throughout human history it is the mother who has passed on her good gut bacteria to her children. This has been by vaginal birth, by breast-feeding, by touch, and eventually by diet. This transmission of good gut bacteria has altered in recent times. Mothers who now give birth are often from a generation who were treated with antibiotics from an early age. This, coupled with the prevalence of junk food over the last thirty years, and the rise of antibacterial products, has decimated good gut bacteria, leaving many women with little to pass on to their children. The increase in Caesarean section births and a lack of long- term breast-feeding only compounds the problem. In contrast, British colonial doctors commented upon the remarkable and buoyant gut health of the Hunza.
The Hunza gut bacteria were amply fed by their food. The Hunza are a neolithic people, meaning they grow and eat their own organic grains and crops. They are not paleographic, and their robust health poses a challenge to those who advocate a grain-free paleo diet for all people. Their staple was an ancient wheat grain, coarsely ground by hand, which preserved the oil and nutrients of the wheat. This was supplemented with barley and millet. They ate fermented and nonfermented dairy products. Yogurt was seldom made, but buttermilk rich in lactic acid bacteria was often drunk. Milk, ghee, and cheese from goat were taken liberally. In 2015 it was shown yet again that fermented dairy reduces cardiovascular disease risk, takes down inflammation, improves mental health, and removes depression and anxiety. Emerging evidence indicates that the effect of fermented dairy upon health is greater than pharmaceutical drugs.
The next most important part of the Hunza diet was an abundance of vegetables and fruits at every meal. Mulberries and the famed Hunza apricot being frequently eaten. President Eisenhower’s cardiologist, with a degree of hyperbole, claimed that the Hunza could eat 3,000 apricots in one sitting. Typically these organic vegetables were not washed, and remained coated with some soil, which in turn acted as a probiotic, further enhancing Hunza gut health. Pulses, lentils, and legumes were then added to this repast. As different types of pulses, vegetables, dairy, fruit, and grains were eaten, the variety of the Hunza diet further helped their gut bacteria. This food was taken twice a day after several hours of hard work. Breakfast was seldom eaten.
At this point astute listeners will have noticed a glaring omission. Unlike the modern Pakistani diet, chicken and meat were hardly eaten. The Hunza only ate meat once every three weeks. Even the Punjabis of the nineteenth century ate meat just once every ten days. This paucity of meat, coupled with regular dairy food, supplied enough vitamin B12 to keep their homocysteine levels down. People from the Indian sub-continent are at risk for high homocysteine, which is at least as important as cholesterol as a marker for cardiovascular disease. The Hunza ate just the right amount of meat to keep homocysteine levels low. The only other time meat was eaten was at festivals and celebrations. At these joyous social occasions whole sheep or goats were slow cooked for twelve hours then eaten in rowdy company. It must be remembered that feasting occasionally is as much a part of traditional culture as fasting.
Joy and happiness among the Hunza was not confined to feasts and festivals. They never complained. Never uttered a murmur about life’s problems. They were famous for their lack of anger and quarrels. Emotional stress and anger induces heart disease. There is no doubt about this. The Hunza were cheerful and good humored, fearless and industrious, hard-working and not feckless. In this, in their diet, and in their physical culture they bear remarkable similarities to other robust peoples. The Highlanders of Scotland, the centenarians of the Caucasus, the Cretans, all share similar diets and a tough physical culture. In all these cultures, close family relationships and hospitality towards guests are revered. Old people are treated with dignity and remain part of family and community life. There is ritual, and there is feasting and fasting. The question is, what do the soft city-dwellers of an industrial civilization do?
For people hailing from the north of the Indian sub-continent a return to the diet of the Hunza is not difficult. The traditional diet of the rural Punjab is very similar. All the foods mentioned are easily available. They are also some of the cheapest and most nourishing of foods. They help gut bacteria to grow, reduce inflammation, lower homocysteine and cholesterol, and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. These foods are also anti-angiogenic: they stop cancers from forming. Therefore, a wide variety of vegetables, pulses, lentils, legumes, fruits, and quality dairy products should be eaten.
There are three things that stand out: namely, wheat, meat, and Bangladeshis. In our times wheat and gluten are controversial. It is true that in some people gluten produces an autoimmune response, while others are sensitive to gluten. Yet in many traditional cultures, including the Punjab, wheat was a fundamental part of the diet, and people thrived on it. There are some important distinctions to make. The first is that the wheat was an ancient whole grain that was coarsely ground by hand. It was not white refined flour. This hand-grown grain was then made into a traditional flat bread. It was not a modern, illegitimate loaf of bread. Also in our times, meat is over eaten. It features on the table most days, and its effects on physique, health, and upon the faces and in the eyes of regular meat eaters are often plain to see. Meat should be eaten, but ideally no more than once a week, or even less. This reduced meat eating means that people can buy high-quality, well-reared meat. In northern India rice- loving Bangladeshis are a special case. For centuries Bangladeshis have thrived on rice. They likely have high numbers of the AMY1 gene, which helps them to metabolize starch. It doesn’t make sense for Bangladeshis to substitute wheat for rice. Similar analogies can be made with other populations. The grain of the Arab heartlands was wheat and barley. For northern Europeans it was oats, barley, and latterly rye. For south and central Americans it was corn. All these neolithic peoples thrived and developed civilizations on the back of their grains.
These peoples had a strong physical culture. Walking, running, ownership of moving and lifting one’s body, or carrying and throwing heavy objects all featured. In our times, exercise and cultivating a physical culture is vital. Walk frequently, stand often, sit little. Swing kettlebells, lift and manipulate your body through body-weight exercises. Elevate your heart rate for extended periods five times a week. Then add to this diet and physical culture a vibrant family and social life. Honor, accommodate, and feed guests. Feast occasionally at festivals with friends, and make your spouse your best friend.
Following these principles has beneficial effects across species and cultures. Rats that are fed the Hunza and traditional Punjabi diet become disease free. When fed a modern, industrial diet they grow badly, live unhappily with other rats, and attack the weak. Attributes found throughout late capitalist society. When the Danish adopted a Hunza-like diet due to a navel blockade in World War II there was a remarkable lowering of the death rate, with the lowest mortality rate ever recorded in a European country. Our author writes that the Danish became “Hunzarised,” or perhaps we could say “Punjabified.” And this is the aim: to once again become fit, full of verve, and to have a robust mental health. To free oneself from whining and complaint, to endure hardship with a smile, to have a real-world social and family life away from iPhones, and to return to the traditional principles of northern India. In short, to become Punjabified once more.