[o]ur classic risk factors for heart attack and stroke, such as high blood pressure, are not universal,” and suggested that a variety of factors including “greater exposure to pathogens, active lifestyle, high fertility, and traditional diet” might be the reason for the Tsimane’s relative freedom from chronic Western diseases.
When our conversation drifted to the subject of Western diseases, Ann mentioned that even in Western countries, diabetes, heart disease and obesity are relatively new phenomena. “Until recently, getting enough calories was the problem,” she said. “If you look at turn-of-the-century grave sites in London, you won’t find any obese people.” While I intellectually understand this, it’s hard for me to imagine a world in which the terms “fast food,” “fast casual,” “fine dining” and “buffet” don’t exist. Our problem isn’t finding food—it’s avoiding it. We have to actively limit our caloric intake, and even then we still have to go to the gym to burn off the excess. Ann’s travels have shown her a very different world, however, one in which food actively avoids or even attacks you. “They work so hard getting their food,” she said. “They live very active lives, and when they stop being active and move into settlements, they begin to experience all sorts of metabolic disorders.”
© Matthieu Paley/National Geographic
Wande and her husband, Mokoa, set out to find food. She uses a blade- tipped stick to dig tubers, a staple food especially in the rainy season. He brings an ax to extract honeycomb from tree trunks and a bow and arrows for hunting and defense. (Tanzania)
With globalization and the rapid expansion of the middle class in countries such as China and India, worldwide rates of Western diseases are set to explode, but it is also worth noting that there is a growing pushback, as well. In her article, Ann acknowledges the Paleo diet as one response to the perceived disconnect between our bodies and our environment. When we talked about Paleo, she applauded the focus on whole, unprocessed foods—but she also had reservations. “I think it’s fabulous that it’s encouraging people to eat fruits, vegetables and nuts,” she said. “But I’m concerned about the amount of meat.” She noted that her experiences visiting modern hunter-gatherers did not confirm the “50 percent of calories from meat” claim found in Loren Cordain’s “The Paleo Diet.” She was also skeptical of the demonization of grains, noting that there is archaeological evidence suggesting grains were a part of the human diet long before the advent of the Agricultural Revolution and the Neolithic age.
It is a common misconception that all practitioners of the Paleo diet are unrepentant carnivores, piling meat upon meat upon meat. The reality, however, is much more nuanced than that. I have heard the phrase “more vegetables than a vegetarian” used by many Paleo dieters to describe the fact that plants make up a far greater percentage of their daily food intake than animals. In fact, the “Paleo Pyramid” found on the Paleo Magazine website lists “vegetables” before “meat and fish” as the foundation of a good Paleo diet. Even some grain consumption, typically in the form of white rice (à la “The Perfect Health Diet”) or the occasional corn tortilla (Mark Sisson recently addressed this on his Mark’s Daily Apple blog) has become an accepted practice by many Paleos.
As Ann discovered, there is no “one true Paleo diet,” and it is precisely because of our ability to adapt, either through our genes, technology or microbiome, that we are able to eat so many different things and live in so many different places. “We are all looking for the best, most healthy diet in this world of processed food,” she said, and I agree.
Hunter-Gatherers, Forager-Horticulturalists Demonstrate Minimal Hypertension and Lower Risk of Heart Disease: http://www.ia.ucsb.edu/pa/display.aspx?pkey=2727
All images from the September issue of National Geographic magazine.
CARTA Symposium on The Evolution of Human Nutrition: http://carta.anthropogeny.org/events/the-evolution-of-human-nutrition
Paleo Pyramid: https://paleomagazine.com/paleo-diet/