tribal diet

You may not walk like an Egyptian, but you might want to eat like a Tsimane.

A study published today in The Lancet says the forager-horticulturist tribe in South America has the lowest reported levels of vascular aging of any population on Earth.

Besides the healthy heart conditions, these indigenous people of the Bolivian Amazon region also have low blood pressure, low cholesterol, and low blood glucose.

The researchers attributed these healthy qualities to the tribe’s high level of physical activity and its plant-based diet.

They concluded that the lack of this type of activity and diet in developed countries such as the United States should be added to the risks associated with heart problems.

“The loss of subsistence diets and lifestyles could be classed as a new risk factor for vascular aging and we believe that components of this way of life could benefit contemporary sedentary populations,” said Hillard Kaplan, PhD, senior author and anthropology professor at the University of New Mexico, in a press statement.

Katie Ferraro, a registered dietitian and assistant clinical professor at the University of San Diego and University of California, agrees with the assessment.

“We could certainly move in their direction,” Ferraro told Healthline. “We could look to them as models.”

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What researchers discovered

The researchers visited 85 Tsimane villages in 2014 and 2015.

They took CT scans of the hearts of 705 village residents between the ages of 40 and 94.

They checked for hardening of the coronary arteries as well as the villagers’ height, weight, blood pressure, heart rate, cholesterol, blood glucose, and inflammation.

They discovered that 85 percent of Tsimane people had no risk of heart disease. That included two-thirds of the villagers who were 75 years or older.

Another 13 percent of the tribe members had a low risk, while 3 percent had moderate or high risk.

A similar study of 6,814 people in the United States ages 45 to 84 showed that only 14 percent had no risk of heart disease. About 50 percent had a moderate or high risk. Another third had a low risk.

The Tsimane population also had low heart rates and healthy levels of blood pressure, glucose, and cholesterol.

This was despite the fact that about half of villagers did show elevated levels of inflammation.

“The inflammation common to the Tsimane was not associated with increased risk of heart disease and may instead be the result of high rates of infections,” said Dr. Randall Thompson, cardiologist at Saint Luke's Mid America Heart Institute.

Heart disease risk
Tsimane population
• 85 percent no risk
• 13 percent low risk
• 3 percent moderate or high risk
U.S. population
• 14 percent no risk
• 36 percent low risk
• 50 percent moderate or high risk

The researchers credited the villagers’ plant-based diet and physical activity level for their health.

They noted that the Tsimane people spend only 10 percent of their waking hours being inactive. That compares with a 54 percent inactivity level in people in industrialized nations.

The researchers said hunting, fishing, gathering, and farming keep the men working six to seven hours a day, and the women working four to six hours a day.

They also noted the Tismane people’s plant-rich diet, which is 72 percent carbohydrates, includes nonprocessed foods such as rice, corn, nuts, and fruits. Their diet is about 14 percent protein, coming from animal meat.

Smoking is also rare in these villages.

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How Americans can adapt

Ferraro said the activity level and the carbohydrate-rich diet were the two factors that stood out in the study.

She noted high-carb diets are generally considered unhealthy in the United States, but that’s because Americans tend to get their carbohydrates from processed foods.

“The villagers are eating the right carbohydrates,” said Ferraro, who teaches a cultural foods class at San Diego State University. “They’re a prescription for heart disease prevention.”

Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD, a licensed, registered dietitian who is a wellness manager at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, agreed with that assessment.

Tsimane people’s lifestyle
• diet: 72 percent carbohydrates
• activity level: 90 percent of waking hours

“It shows that having a high-carb diet is not as bad as people think with the key point that their carbs were also loaded with fiber, something the body cannot digest,” Kirkpatrick told Healthline. “I've always recommended a ‘back to the basics’ approach to diet and this clearly shows the upside to that.”

Both dietitians also pointed to the high activity level as another key.

“I think the physical activity factor here is huge,” said Kirkpatrick, “and for sure corresponds to the new studies showing that inactivity is as risky to health as obesity.”

Both acknowledge that Americans aren’t going to move to a tent in a national park and try to hunt game.

However, they said there are ways people in modern societies can incorporate parts of the Tsimane lifestyle.

[The villagers] are a prescription for heart disease prevention.
Katie Ferraro, registered dietitian

One is to significantly reduce the amount of processed foods in the diet.

The mantra of fresh vegetables, fruits, and nuts is applicable here.

The other is to lead a more active lifestyle, even for people who have desk jobs where they are sitting most of the workday.

Ferraro said it’s a good habit to get up every hour from your desk and be active for 5 to 7 minutes. You can even set a timer to remind you.

That practice will add 45 minutes to an hour of exercise to your day.

“Make movement part of your daily routine,” she said.

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