Amish Paradox

The Amish are another example of a dietary ‘paradox’ that only seems paradoxical because of dietary confusion in nutrition science and official guidelines. When we look closely at what people actually eat, many populations that are the healthiest have diets that supposedly aren’t healthy, such as lots of meat and animal fat. There are so many exceptions that they look more like the rule (Blue Zones Dietary Myth).

Besides a few genetic disorders, the Amish are a healthy population (Wikipedia, Health among the Amish). They have low incidence of allergies, asthma, etc. Some of that could be partly explained through the hygiene hypothesis (Sara G. Miller, Why Amish Kids Get Less Asthma: It’s the Cows). Amish children are exposed to more variety of animals, plants, and microbes that help to develop and strengthen their immune systems. This exposure theory has been proposed for centuries, as it was easily observable in comparing rural and urban populations. Raw milk might be an additional protective factor (Kerry Grens, Amish farm kids remarkably immune to allergies: study). Whatever the cause, the Amish are healthier than even comparable populations such as North Dakota Hutterites and Swiss farmers.

This health advantage begins young. They have low rates of Cesarean sections and few birth complications (Fox News, Amish offers clues to lowering US C-section rate). Despite lack of prenatal care, their infant mortality rate is about the same as the general population. Vaginal births, by the way, are known to contribute to positive health outcomes. On top of that, Amish mothers do extended breasteeding and that breast milk certainly is nutritious, considering diet of Amish mother’s is nutrient-dense. This early good health then extends into old age (Jeffrey Kluger, Amish People Stay Healthy in Old Age. Here’s Their Secret). They have lower rates of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia (Jimmy Holder & Andrew C. Warren, Prevalence of Alzheimer’s Disease and Apolipoprotein E Allele Frequencies in the Old Order Amish). This might relate to lower rates of environmental toxins, food additives, etc, although it surely involves more than that. Considering their low incidence of allergy and asthma, that indicates there would be less inflammation and autoimmune conditions. And that would offer neurocognitive protection against mental illness (Eric Haseltine, Amish Asthma Rates Offer Clues to Preventing Mental Illness). Related to this, suicide is far less common (Donald B. Kraybill et al, Suicide Patterns in a Religious Subculture, the Old Order Amish).

Another intriguing example of health is that the Amish get fewer cavities, even as they eat a fair amount of sugar while few floss or brush regularly (Jan Ziegler, Amish People Avoid Cavities Despite Poor Dental Habits). Weston A. Price already figured that one out. Most traditional people don’t have dental care and, nonetheless, having healthy teeth. It’s because of the fat-soluble vitamins that are necessary for maintaining tooth enamel and promoting remineralization. The dessert foods certainly don’t help the Amish, that is for sure. Still, though hunter-gatherers, for example, eating more sugary foods (honey, tropical fruit, etc) show worse dental health, they don’t have as many cavities as seen among high-carb modern Westerners. High nutrition can only go so far, but it sure does help.

Along with far less obesity and diabetes, the low cardiovascular disease also stands out because the Amish do have high cholesterol, but recent research shows that mainstream understanding is wrong, as cholesterol is one of the most important factors of health (Robert DuBroff, A Reappraisal of the Lipid Hypothesis; & Anahad O’Connor, Supplements and Diets for Heart Health Show Limited Proof of Benefit). Yet because their cholesterol is high, mainstream doctors and officials are trying to get the Amish on statins (Cindy Stauffer, Why are Amish more at risk of having high cholesterol?). It is sheer idiocy. Cholesterol is not the cause of cardiovascular disease and, as most current studies demonstrate, statins don’t decrease overall mortality. In fact, reducing cholesterol can be severely harmful, such as causing neurocognitive problems since the brain is dependent on cholesterol. For cardiovascular health, what we need to be looking for is inflammation markers, insulin resistance, and metabolic syndrome, along with overconsumption of omega-6 fatty acids and deficiencies in the fat-soluble vitamins.

Cancer rates among the Amish further demonstrate how mainstream advice has failed us. In one study, researchers “found that Amish dietary patterns do not meet most of the diet and cancer prevention guidelines published by American Institute for Cancer Research and others (9). Most cancer prevention guidelines emphasize minimizing calorically dense foods, eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables (at least 5 servings per day), avoiding salt-preserved foods, and limiting alcohol consumption. With the exception of limiting alcohol intake, our data suggest that the Amish do not meet these guidelines” (Gebra B. Cuyun Carter et al, Dietary Intake, Food Processing, and Cooking Methods Among Amish and Non-Amish Adults Living in Ohio Appalachia: Relevance to Nutritional Risk Factors for Cancer). Yet the researchers couldn’t believe their own evidence and still concluded that the Amish “could benefit from dietary changes.”

It didn’t occur to the researchers that the cancer prevention guidelines could be wrong, instead of the traditional foods that humans have been eating for hundreds of thousands of years. Not only do the Amish have few processed foods and hence not as much propionate, glutamate, etc (The Agricultural Mind) but also they have an emphasis on animal foods (Food in Every Country, United States Amish and Pennsylvania Dutch). Traditionally for the Amish, animal foods were the center of their diet. They typically eat meat with every meal and eggs year round, they are known for their quality raw milk and cheese (full fat), and even the carbs they eat are cooked in lard or some other animal fat. Interestingly, the Amish eat fewer vegetables than the non-Amish. Maybe they are healthy because of this, rather than in spite of it.

The Amish have much higher energy intake and 4.3% higher saturated fat intake. Because they eat mostly what they grow in gardens and on pasture, they would be getting much more nutrient-dense foods, including omega-3s and fat-soluble vitamins. Interestingly, they have nothing against GMOs and pesticides (Andrew Porterfield, Amish use GMOs, pesticides yet cancer rates remain very low), but there simple living probably would still keep their toxin exposure low. Even though they like their pies and such, their diet overall is low in starchy carbs and sugar, and the pie crusts would be cooked with lard from pasture-raised animals with its fat-soluble vitamins. Plus, I suspect they are more likely to be eating fruits and vegetables that comes from traditional cultivars that fewer people have problems with.

Also, because refrigerators and freezers are rare, their food preparation and storage is likewise traditional: slow-rising of breads, long-soaking of beans, and cooking of garden plants fresh from the garden; canning, pickling, and fermenting; et cetera. Look at Weston A. Price’s work from the early 1900s (Malnourished Americans; & Health From Generation To Generation). He found that populations following traditional diets, including rural Europeans, were far healthier and had low rates of infectious diseases, despite lack of healthcare and, of course, lack of vaccinations. Among the Amish, there may be some infectious diseases that could be prevented if there was a more consistent practice of vaccination (Melissa Jenco, Study: Low vaccination rate in Amish children linked to hospitalization), although exposure to outsiders might be the greatest infectious risk. The research on vaccinations overall is mixed and the conclusions not always clear (Dr. Kendrick On Vaccines). Even if their mortalities from infectious diseases might be higher, as is the case with hunter-gatherers, their health otherwise is far greater. When infectious deaths along with accidental deaths are controlled for, hunter-gatherers live about the same age as modern Westerners. The same is probably true of the Amish.

It’s hard to compare the Amish with other Blue Zones because places like Okinawa and Sardiniania don’t have the same kind of isolated farming communities. The Blue Zones are different from each other in many ways, but for our purposes here their shared feature is how so many of them are dietary paradoxes in contradicting conventional thought and official guidelines. They do so many things that are claimed to be unhealthy and yet their health is far above average. Once we let go of false dietary beliefs, the paradox disappears.

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