A recent article in National Geographic examined the eating habits of the world’s last hunter-gatherers. Influenced by the rise of the “paleo diet,” the author sought to explore what that diet actually might have looked like and whether or not “modern man” ought to adopt it. The first thing that struck me was just how much the different diets varied. The Inuit people get over 90% of their calories from fish, whales, and seals (that’s not just a lot of meat, it’s a lot of incredibly fatty meat). The Tsimane of Bolivia eat copious amounts of fruit supplemented by bush meat. The Hadza of Tanzania eat what we might call a “balanced diet” of bush meat, fruit, nuts, starchy tubers, and lots of honey. Some groups get all their protein from fish, others from insects. The variety is staggering. Apparently, we humans have an amazing ability to adapt to our surroundings (surprise!). No matter the diet, all of these groups experience lower levels of obesity, cardiovascular disease, and other ailments that afflict modern westerners.
Several of my friends who eat “paleo” posted this article in defense of their diet. “See! This is exactly what we’re saying!” I found this a bit puzzling given the amount of variety the article described. I also found it puzzling because the article actually mentions the recent evolution of different groups to adapt to their diets, something most paleo supporters deny is possible. Most of us are already aware of the development of lactose tolerance in adults; something not seen in those people groups who haven’t traditionally drunk much milk. But there’s also new evidence that people groups who eat more starchy foods actually have more copies of a gene that allows them to extract the sugars from those foods. What this means is that very recently (evolutionarily speaking) humans have evolved to eat new foods. This is, I think, rather damning to those who claim we cannot have evolved in the past 10,000 years or so to accommodate an agrarian lifestyle. I want to be clear that I’m not a strong critic of paleo diets. But I am very interested in the question of “what should we eat?”
This recent Nat Geo article looked mostly at hunter/gatherer cultures but I think it’s helpful to combine this perspective with what we know about other groups who have low incidences of diabetes, heart disease, and other “Western diseases.” A few years ago, Nat Geo had another article about diet but, in this case, it was the diets of communities with exceptionally high numbers of centenarians (people who live to be 100). “What is it,” the article asked, “that helps these people live such long and healthy lives?” The groups live very different lives (this article isn’t online now but if you search “nat geo centenarians” you can find some bootleg copies). One community is in Sardinia, another in Okinawa, and another is actually made up of Seventh-Day Adventists in California. The Sardinians are shepherds who eat lots of cheese, plenty of fresh vegetables, whole grain bread, and drink red wine by the bottle. The Okinawans also eat lots of vegetables including sweet potatoes as a staple. They eat meat only occasionally. The Seventh-Day Adventists are vegetarians who follow strict dietary guidelines and eat lots of nuts, legumes, fruit, and whole grains. The article concluded that the only dietary similarity among these groups was that they all ate a mostly plant-based diet.
So, if we look at the diets of hunter/gatherers alongside the centenarians, can we see a secret to longevity and health? The solution can’t be “eat more meat” since many groups don’t eat any. But neither can the answer be “don’t eat any meat” because plenty of the groups eat lots of it, including very fatty meat. The problem can’t be grains, alcohol, or dairy since the Sardinians consume copious quantities of those. Cutting out legumes won’t fix things. Neither will nixing fat, fruit, carbs, or whatever else finds its way to the popular diet chopping block.
Well then, is there any commonality? The only thing all the groups have in common is that they cook their own food. No fast food, nothing processed. In fact, aside from the Adventists, all of the groups actually grow or gather most of their own food. This practice of culinary (or grocery) skill also points to a deeper lifestyle difference between these groups and the average American. The centenarian article in National Geographic examined this as well and concluded that the long-lived communities actually shared several traits; strong family bonds, community support, physical activity, and social involvement. These same lifestyle attributes are also present in most hunter/gatherer communities.
This means that when we look at the Tsimane of Bolivia, we shouldn’t just notice that they eat more meat and fruit and less grain. We should notice that they also spend a lot of time hunting their game and gathering the fruit. We should notice these activities are done together as a family and a community. We should notice the strong bonds of community and a sense of cultural identity. The same is true of the other groups these studies examined. The Okinawans eat more vegetables than the average American. But they also work hard growing those vegetables themselves and they do so in strong communities of dedicated friends and healthy families. The Sardinians may eat plenty of cheese, bread, and red wine but they also lead active lives in close knit communities. They’re committed to their faith and live with a sense of purpose.
When we look at our contemporary health problems here in the West, we’re quick to focus narrowly on diet. And it’s certainly true that the average American today eats very differently than the average American did a century or two ago. But there are even more dramatic changes to the way we live. We’re no longer members of close-knit and active communities made up of strong families committed to each other and a common cause. We’re isolated individuals leading sedentary lives both at work and at home. We also consume massive amounts of entertainment and spend very little time with our families and communities. But these things aren’t easy to measure scientifically and the solutions are even harder to implement. It’d be great if the solution to all our health woes was simply “Eat this one special food” or “Throw away your cheese.” But, it appears the problem is not just WHAT we eat but HOW we get the food and WHO we eat it with.
So, what do we do? Well, that’s kind of tricky. It’s easy to answer the question, “how can I lose weight?” But that it’s much harder to answer, “how can I live a long and healthy life?” Looking at these people groups, here’s our best guess:
1. Cook as much of your own food as you can using the least processed ingredients possible. You’d probably be better off growing everything yourself but that isn’t a possibility for most of us. You should probably stick with mostly vegetables but there’s a lot of room for variation here.
2. Don’t listen to anyone who tries to demonize a certain kind of food. Plenty of groups thrive on fatty meat, others on grains, others on vegan diets, others on dairy. New research is confirming what should have been common sense; there isn’t a single ideal diet and different people groups have adapted to different foods. If you know a certain food doesn’t agree with you, by all means, go with your gut (pun intended) and don’t eat it! But remember that not everyone has a digestive system like yours so don’t try to force anyone to follow you and don’t be led astray by bad food logic.
3. Spend more time with your family and community. A lot more time. Like, most of it. Again, this isn’t a possibility for most people but you should still try to be intentional with family and friends. Cook together, work on projects together, talk and connect as much as possible.
4. Be active (which is different from exercising). Sitting down all day is really bad for you. Even if you get up a few times a week to “exercise vigorously.” Apparently, our best bet is just an active lifestyle. Not lifting weights all day but moving around, gardening, working with our hands, picking up children, chasing animals.
Often, we ignore the dramatic influence food can have on our health. So it’s positive that more of us are looking at healthy people groups and asking, “Well what are THEY eating?” But it’s important to remember, when it comes to health, how we live may be just as important as what we eat.
Interestingly enough, a cookbook Haley and I wrote happens to be a part of a healthy living ebook bundle that’s available until Sept. 15th. I don’t think any of the ebooks explain how to hunt small game. But there’s lots of other good stuff. Here it is: