One of my viewers, “Unnatural Vegan” (UV) discussed my video What made the Ancient Egyptians Fat and Sick? on their channel. UV’s response video gained quite a bit of interest, amassing over 60,000 views, so I thought I would comment on it. She gets into a lot of topics that are quite interesting for me, so it’s been fun writing this response and rehashing old videos where I covered these before.
“Do your own research!”
I addressed this video a while back in a kind of lazy way, almost as lazily as saying “Do your own research!” (I referred everyone to look at Dr. Michael Eades’ talk on the subject)
I was having a chat with a friend recently and he was asking me how to deal with the fact that there are so many people pushing one view that goes against another, but they both have sound logic and cite scientific studies. So when people say Do your own research! it’s a cop out in my opinion.
My rule of thumb is: pay attention who is willing to dig the deepest and welcome the most nuance. For example, who is asking and answering the most why-s, what-s, where did that idea come from-s. (And of course relies less on things like ad hominem logic or emoting, as in “As evidence of the incredulous nature of this point, observe my flabbergasted expression.“) Unfortunately, the most thorough argument doesn’t always make the most compelling argument.
So, people who say “Do your own research” either (a) don’t understand the topic well enough to actually explain it themselves, (b) they lack enough correctness to sufficiently explain themselves, or (c) they’re too lazy. (However, they would prefer to spin themselves as “busy.”)
Like in my case, when I wrote this post, I wasn’t being “lazy” by redirecting people to Michael Eades talk instead of explaining how stable isotopes work, I was too “busy!”
If you are one of the few people who watched my video, watched the “debunking” of my video and then went a step further and are now here reading the debunking of the debunking, then I applaud you.
1. (00:00) Squiggly Lines
The video opens with Unnatural Vegan being flabbergasted that I would draw squiggly lines on a graph. Worry not, these squiggly lines in my video were not used to draw conclusions and were only for comic effect. Had I said something like “As this squiggly line indicates…[yada yada] …proving my point that…” –this indeed would be concerning.
I’m not sure which of my arguments this squiggly would bolster.
Anyone who watches my channel will know I’m not trying to be PBS Frontline. I use things like Simpsons clips to make the video entertaining …they’re not there to support my claims.
At this point I would like to point out that Unnatural Vegan provides absolutely no evidence that my video directly resulted in her brain being broken, nor does she discuss the nature of the brain injury (not even distinguishing between skull fracture or neural tissue damage) , making this claim even more difficult to verify.
2. (1:07-5:45) – Ancient Egyptian Diet
The statement from my video that she is addressing is “Egyptians with their bread based diet were essentially following the 1991 USDA food pyramid.“
I presented a study titled Diet of ancient Egyptians inferred from stable isotope analysis which explains that analysis of the hair of Ancient Egyptians indicated they surely got less than 50% of their protein from animals, but more likely around only 19 to 29% of their protein was from animals.
Quote from the paper: “This proportion is similar to that of 32% observed in present-day ovo-lacto-vegetarians and lower than the average of 64% of present-day omnivores.”
Then of course a common reasoning for why we found heart disease in ancient Egyptian mummies is: Mummies had heart disease because they were the ones who could afford to be mummified and therefore could afford to eat loads of animal foods and give themselves heart disease.
To address this, I reference another stable isotope analysis study that says “A rather surprising observation is the lack of differences between isotopic composition of remains of different social classes…”
In response to this study, Unnatural Vegan says around 2:47 that “there’s not a big difference between beef fed on grains and grains themselves …a peasant who’s eating mostly grain and consuming smaller amounts of different meats like meats that royalty aren’t eating could look very similar in terms of nitrogen ratio compared to a pharaoh who’s eating almost exclusively beef. As explained in the study he references.”
(1) No, this is not explained in the study. The study doesn’t say anything along the lines of ‘there is little difference between a bread scarfing peasant and a beef gorging Pharaoh.’ In fact, it would be quite odd if this study said you can’t use stable isotopes to understand the amount of plant versus animal foods in the diet …considering one of the aims of the study was “to determine the amount of plant versus animal food in the diet.”
Yes, there will be a different between the beef and what the cow was eating. The Nitrogen-15 and Carbon-13 content will be different for the cow and what the cow ate. As explained in a study titled Stable Isotope Ratios as Biomarkers for Health Research the Carbon 13 in the animal will be 1% higher than the animal’s food, and the Nitrogen 15 will be 3 to 4% higher than the animal’s food.
To my point, here’s a figure from the study showing a clear difference between vegans and omnivores. (The triangles on the top right are for inuit who we’d expect their data to lie there as they eat a lot of marine food.)
(2) What the study does say, as she shows on screen at 3:13, is: “This does not necessarily mean that no dietary differences existed between the very poor classes and wealthy people but, if they existed, they are not detectable by isotopic analyses.”
This sounds like the authors are being good scientists and admitting it’s possible their methods or samples may not have been perfect. They’re saying it’s possible that there are differences undetectable by isotope analysis, not that isotope analysis is not useful for understanding diet. As explained in the introduction of the study, one point of the study was to understand “whether diets could be related to social classes.” If they knew for certain that you couldn’t determine the difference between a grain eating peasant and a beef eating pharaoh with stable isotope analysis, why would they conduct the study?
In any case, for now, let’s go with the point that Unnatural Vegan is making: Stable isotope analysis is not perfect. Let’s look elsewhere to see if there’s evidence for my claim that “Egyptians with their bread based diet were essentially following the 1991 USDA food pyramid.”
The Worn down Teeth of the Egyptians
First, let’s take a look at Ancient Egyptian Teeth. In an article in a 1972 issue of the Journal of Egyptian Archeology, F. Filce Leek was trying to get to the bottom of a puzzling observation on ancient Egyptian skulls: They had terrible teeth. However, it wasn’t necessarily that they all had cavities, but that their teeth were terribly worn down. Even to the point that some people had already worn their teeth down to the dental pulp by early adulthood.
In fact, a study of 4800 ancient Egyptian teeth found that 90% of them had evidence of tooth wear.
Leek wrote that since bread was such a staple in the ancient Egyptian diet, they would start investigating there. Here he cites a paragraph from the book Food in Egypt that says “The most important food of the Egyptians was bread… …The fondness of Egyptians for bread was so well known that they were nicknamed ‘artophagoi’ , or ‘eaters of bread’; it was the food par excellence, and the word was and has remained synonymous with food in this country.”
Leek wrote: “Several pieces of bread were found by Howard Carter during his excavation of the tomb of Tut’ankhamūn(King Tut), placed there for sustenance of the resurrected King.” Carter even found a model of a hand-mill for grinding grain in the tomb.
Since bread was so important to apparently all classes of people in ancient Egypt, maybe the bread itself would hold some clues to what was happening to the Egyptians’ teeth. Since they had actual samples of ancient bread, they conducted a radiological examination of the bread and found clear “presence of inorganic particles in many of the specimens.” They found bits of minerals in the bread. More specifically, sand.
“The principle source, quite understandably, is from contamination with wind-blown desert sand.” Leek explained that the grain and resulting bread could be contaminated with sand at essentially every stage of the bread making process. He wrote that numerous statements from ancient papyri support this claim, with a typical one being ‘… I will repay in the month of Pauni of the present third year, in wheat that is new, pure, unadulterated, free from earth and barley and sifted.’
Leek wrote: “It became quite evident that the abrasive particles found in these samples of bread would more than account for all the attrition to be seen in ancient Egyptian skulls, so much so that further investigation was clearly unwarranted.”
Long story short: Bread was a huge staple of the ancient Egyptian diet, and Egyptians ate so much of this sandy bread that it ground their teeth down.
Dr. Michael Eade’s talk titled ‘Paleopathology and the Origins of the Low-carb Diet’ is what lead me to this concept and Leek’s paper I just discussed above, as well as some of the concepts discussed in my video that Unnatural Vegan went on to respond to. Dr. Eade’s talk is really intriguing and he’s a great presenter – I recommend giving it a watch. In the talk, Eades was explaining that the bread makers would attempt to sift as much sand out of their bread as possible, but were never entirely successful. What made me laugh was when he said: “There were even ads back then saying buy Joe’s bread, it has less sand.”
Too Poor to afford Cavities
So one of the points regarding heart disease found in Egyptian mummies goes something like ‘Only the rich could afford to eat meat and saturated fats, and because only the rich could afford to go through the mummification process, what we’re seeing is a bunch of rich people who gorged on saturated fat and meat and got heart disease because of it.’
Case in point: an article from livescience.com writes of an Egyptian princess in her 40s who suffered from heart disease: “Ahmose-Meryet-Amon likely lived a more active life and ate a healthier diet than the average American today. She would have eaten lots of vegetables, fruit, wheat and barley, along with some lean meat. That makes it difficult to understand how two of her three main heart arteries were blocked.”
From the lens of the ol’ 1991 “eat low fat and high carb to save your heart” advice, indeed this would be difficult to understand. She’s following the food pyramid, …yet had heart disease.
So… they reason: “It’s possible that, as a royal, Ahmose-Meryet-Amon ate more meat, butter and cheese than the average Egyptian.”
In my video, I suggested evidence points to the mummies who got heart disease eating a high carb diet. Well, if we’re not too confident in stable isotopes, maybe we can look at the teeth. So the question becomes: Did the rich people who could afford the embalming process have worn teeth as well?
Well, as already discussed above, Leek’s study of 4800 ancient Egyptian teeth found that 90% of them had evidence of tooth wear. But let’s look at another source, this paper titled Dental status of three Egyptian mummies.
The first mummy they looked was the “best model of the embalming techniques.” (I wonder how much he paid for that.) As for teeth wear: “All teeth had marked wear of the incisal edges and occlusal surfaces. This finding is commonly encountered in Egyptian mummies …and most likely results from wear to the enamel due to chewing hard foods… or to the presence in flour of siliceous residues from grinding stones.”
They even wrote that the the pulp of the incisors rotted either from trauma to the incisor or “intense incisal wear.” Sounds like people who could afford to be mummified were eating a lot of sandy bread.
Here’s an interesting bit regarding Mummy #2: “An uncommon finding, indicative of the subject’s relative wealth, was the presence of dental caries(cavities) on the distal aspect of tooth #15 and the mesial aspect of tooth#16, with pulp cavity involvement, most probably a result of the availability of sweet and starchy foods for the wealthier classes.”
I don’t think you’ll find anyone saying meat and animal fat cause cavities… but it’s been understood since at least 1949 (image to the left) that most agree carbs, and especially sugar, will give you cavities.
So, if royalty had more cavities than the commoners, wouldn’t that mean they ate even more carbs than the commoners?
Cavities do seem to have been prevalent with the rich in ancient Egypt. As explained in Dentists, Dentistry and Dental Diseases in Ancient Egypt, around 2,100 years ago, a young wealthy man from Thebes dying from a sinus infection caused by a mouthful of cavities and other tooth ailments.
That same paper explains how royal mummies’ teeth were so bad that they had to have had brass and wood carved artificial ones.
A 2016 article from the The Times of Israel discusses a 2,200 year old mummified priest going on display in Jerusalem. The author writes that “He still has most of his teeth, but suffered from cavities and receding gums, as well as osteoporosis. Like people nowadays, he indulged in too many carbs and spent too much time indoors.“
Another paper 2015 paper says this isn’t rare: “caries decay of the teeth of Egyptian aristocrats is a frequent observation, effect of a copious consumption of processed carbohydrates.”
Comparing individuals from the periods Old Kingdom(OK)(2686〜2181 BC) and Ptolemaic(PP)(305〜30 BC), this paper from 2014 says: “The observed higher frequency of carious lesions in the PP sample could indicate that the individuals’ diet was richer in sugars and starches, the source of the latter being bread and cereals.
Now you being the astute reader, are saying ‘I see where you’re going with this, but did these Ptolemaic mummies even have heart disease?’ The answer would be “Yes.” Not just the Ptolemaic mummies either. A 2011 paper specifically looking at mummies from different time periods says: “Definite or probable atherosclerosis was present in mummies who lived during virtually every era of ancient Egypt represented in this study, a time span of >2,000 years. Conclusions: Atherosclerosis is commonplace in mummified ancient Egyptians.“
Not just Bad Teeth, Bad bones
So, we’ve got decent evidence that mummies who had heart disease also ate a bunch of carbs. Remember that earlier point Unnatural Vegan wanted to refute, that the poor and the rich were both eating high carb diets? Here’s another quote from the 2014 paper:
“…only marginal differences in the prevalence rates of porotic hyperostosis observed between the OK élite population and PP lower status individuals from Saqqara-West could suggest that there were no major differences in the diet consumed by different social classes, or that foods of animal origin consumed predominantly by the wealthier in the Old Kingdom became more available to the commoners in the Ptolemaic Period.”
So what’s porotic hyperostosis?
Essentially, it’s a pathology that affects the skull and causes the bone to become spongy or porous. The reason the authors from that earlier study are discussing this as an indicator of animal food intake is because porotic hyperostosis is a sign of anemia, which is typically due to an iron deficient diet.
Iron deficiency being the cause is widely accepted, although non-diet factors like infectious diseases and blood loss are suspected to play a role. Megaloblastic anemia is also thought to be a cause, and this is caused by a deficiency in vitamin B12 (which Egyptians would need to have gotten from animal products) or folate (comes from liver, meat or leafy greens). 
If the rich are experiencing as much porotic hyperostosis as the poor, this would suggest that the rich are not eating all that much meat. This 2015 study looking at a Royal Cemetery complex in upper Egypt found that 77% of those in the Royal tomb had some level of porosis. Considering the most bioavailable form of iron – heme iron, which comes from meat, they shouldn’t be experiencing iron deficiency if they had been eating gobs of meat.
Wait, wait. We’re “doing our own research,” remember? What if these bone defects are caused by blood loss from schistosomiasis and hookworm, as suggested in the above 2015 study? Well, shouldn’t we expect eating plenty of meat to ameliorate that? I think most people are familiar with the fact that if you need to recoup blood, you should eat some meat. The university of Utah “prescribes”beef liver for women after blood loss during childbirth. In a 2019 study looking at Inuit and levels of Caribou consumption, it explains that blood loss is a possible to contributor to inuit anemia, and more than half of those in the study were affected with H. Pylori (also understood to contribute to anemia). Unsurprisingly, those eating the most caribou experienced the least anemia.
So what’s left? Since Ancient Egyptians weren’t instagramming their food we can’t say exactly what they ate. We can’t say for certain that they didn’t eat tons of cheese and butter.
So, in an agricultural society that led to even to the rich experiencing bone porosis from anemia, in a diet dominated by enough bread to grind their teeth down, and enough starchy/sweet carbs to riddle their mouths with enough cavities, was it some saturated fat rich cheese and butter that caused their health issues?
Did I miss something?
(This ends the discussion of Unnatural Vegan’s video. The rest of it was basically justifying that yes saturated fat is bad and meat is bad – topics I’ve covered before so I’ll leave that.)
To be honest, I do think I sacrificed some nuance for the sake of the watchability of the video. Dr. Paul Saladino discussed this on his podcast – See here from 42:35.
He says: “I do not believe carbohydrates cause metabolic dysfunction and diabetes. …I believe it’s a long process initially sparked with seed oils in the diet.”
I think this is a good a point. In the video I should have clarified that “benign” carbohydrates by themselves (that is, just glucose) probably won’t cause diabetes. (For example in my Fructose video I paint Glucose as relatively benign compared to Fructose, based on Dr. Robert Lustig’s work.)
Dr. Saladino specifically points to seed oils being the problem (as he explains, Egyptians did have seed oils in that time.) I would agree, and add that excessive fructose or perhaps excessive gluten could also be factors in diet causing diabetes. The Egyptians would have had access to all three. See the following videos for more. (Dr. Knobbe’s presentation is highly recommended.)
Saladino also says that it’s more likely nutrient deficiencies leading to dental issues rather than simply the addition of carbs in the diet. Particularly the lack of fat soluble vitamins being the source of dental issues.
This is indeed well established in Weston Price’s Nutrition and Physical degeneration – highly recommended for anyone interested in the origins of modern diseases. (On that note, another avenue to explore is whether a lack of choline could have helped Egyptians get their diabetes.)
Only one thing from my personal experience is that: Both my brother and I have found that when we get back into carbs, we get tooth pain and our gums get sensitive, even though we get plenty of fat soluble vitamins in our diet. I realize anecdotes are a very low form of evidence (even though I have a whole two anecdotes), but this has been a point of curiosity for me.
I agree with Dr. Saladino that there’s more to the story.
So, is my video bunk because I don’t understand how stable isotope analysis works? No.
Was it actually the saturated fat and butter that caused the Ancient Egyptians health problems? Highly unlikely.
[Pardon the lazy citation format. All numbers above are hyperlinked to the source research]
1 – Diet of ancient Egyptians inferred from stable isotope systematics
2 – An isotopic palaeoenvironmental study of human skeletal remains from the Nile Valley
3 – Stable Isotope Ratios as Biomarkers for Health Research
4 – Teeth and Bread in Ancient Egypt
5 – Dental Health and Disease in Ancient Egypt
6 – Dental status of three Egyptian mummies
7 – Dentists, Dentistry and Dental Diseases in Ancient Egypt
8 – A study of social stratification and physical health in an ancient Egyptian population of Saqqara.
9 – Atherosclerosis in Ancient Egyptian Mummies: The Horus Study
10 – Tutankhamun’s Dentition: The Pharaoh and his Teeth
11 – Variation in porotic hyperostosis in the Royal Cemetery complex at Abydos, Upper Egypt: a social interpretation
12 – The causes of porotic hyperostosis and cribra orbitalia: a reappraisal of the iron-deficiency-anemia hypothesis
14 – Megaloblastic Anemia
15 – After Blood Loss During Childbirth
16 – Helicobacter pylori and iron deficiency anemia: guilty as charged?
17 – Potential impact of restricted caribou (Rangifer tarandus) consumption on anemia prevalence among Inuit adults in northern Canada
18 – Choline, Its Potential Role in Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease, and the Case for Human and Bacterial Genes