Dr. Thomas Cowan describes a typical American concerned about her health: She eats a low-fat diet, mostly or entirely vegetarian, rich in fiber, and takes multivitamins. She works out, runs and meditates.
But Cowan says she might have more energy, greater freedom from the nagging effects of aging and more robust health if she consumed fats from animals raised on pasture, augmented her diet with "superfoods" instead of synthetic vitamins and started belly dancing or practicing yoga.
This unconventional wisdom is a sample of the teaching that Cowan, a California physician, will share at a health conference in Durham later this month.
With two other speakers, Cowan seeks to debunk myths and outline a plan he calls "The Fourfold Path to Healing," the title of his book on the same subject.
Cowan's co-author, Sally Fallon, also headlines the conference. Fallon heads the Weston A. Price Foundation, a D.C. nonprofit focused on promoting and maintaining access to traditional foods, including lacto-fermented vegetables (the original "pickling"); grains and seeds that have been soaked and dried to eliminate anti-nutrients; and pasture-raised animal foods, including raw milk.
Price was a dentist who wondered why each generation of his clients had worse teeth than the previous one. Beginning in the 1930s, he traveled to isolated parts of the globe to observe the health of populations who still ate the traditional foods of their ancestors. He discovered that health began to decline rapidly in the first generation to adopt Westernized foods, primarily refined flours and sugars. Of the nearly dozen indigenous tribes he observed in robust health, the common thread was the consumption of animal fat.
Price's seminal work, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, documents the overall health, ease of conceiving and delivering vigorous children, mental stability and tranquility of these native peoples.
Cowan recognizes the idea of consuming animal fat for health is a controversial one, especially in a culture that reveres vegetarianism and veganism and treats cholesterol as if it were enemy No. 1, instead of a building block of our cells.
"We think that there is a right way to move, and a right way to eat," Cowan says. "We think, for example, that vegan diets are not the right way to eat. Name me a group of people who did that for generations. Nobody ate vegan diets."
Cowan says these aren't his ideas. "The Seminole Indians figured it out," he says.
Nutrition is one focus of the conference; the other two are healing through movement and holistic medicine.
The third speaker, Jaimen McMillan, founded the Spacial Dynamics Institute, which studies the expression of emotion in the way we move, with an emphasis on improving our ability to heal.
Before coming to Durham, the trio toured together in California, Vancouver and Michigan.
Cowan says the conference sprang from a conversation he and Fallon had years ago, when Fallon pointed out that Cowan has a fundamentally different thought process than most physicians.
"In conventional medicine, you get an illness, and then you get sick," Cowan said. "Sally was the first person who said [to me] that it is actually the other way around."
Take arthritis, Cowan says.
"You don't have a disease, you are just deteriorating. Then you go to the doctor, and he says you have osteoarthritis. They are not treating you deteriorating; they are treating osteoarthritis as an inflammatory disease," he says.
"If you nourished yourself and made yourself stronger and fitter, you would feel better. You really don't have osteoarthritis, that's just what it is called when you get weak and quote-unquote 'old.'"
Doctors these days, Cowan says, have a tendency to blame most ailments on genetics. "That is such an unscientific cop-out," he says. "You just deteriorate."
But the good news, Cowan says, is that there is a myriad of dietary, movement and therapeutic ways to thwart or even reverse the deterioration we've been told is inevitable.
Diet is one component. Fallon makes the case that eating good bacteria, so-called probiotic foods, is as important as consuming vitamin C.
"You simply cannot be healthful in the long run without eating probiotic food," Cowan says. "You can try it; it just doesn't work. No culture has done it."
Fallon describes the conference as aimed at people seeking "a new way of looking at things, practical advice, stuff they can do right away."
"Be prepared to be surprised and empowered," she says.
The Fourfold Path to Healing conference will be held in Durham Feb. 29-March 2 at the Durham Marriott and Civic Center. To register, visit www.fourfoldhealing.com/conference.htm or call 240-379-7072.