As the growing body of research continues to support the idea that healthy nutrition is rooted in evolutionary biology, we spend a lot of time contemplating our Paleolithic roots and how they influence our food choices. Few people realize, though, that we don't have to look to the distant past to get a better understanding of our forebears' lifestyle. There are still societies- like the !Kung population of Africa- that live in ways similar to our ancestors. These hunter-gatherer societies give us the unique opportunity to see how the effects of eating a diet full of whole, non-processed, low glycemic foods compares to effects that arise when indulging in a Western lifestyle, which is comparably high glycemic and loaded with processed products.
What is a Hunter-Gatherer diet like?
Modern hunter-gatherer diets, like those of our ancestors, tend to be loaded with whole, unprocessed foods that are high in protein and fats, while low in carbohydrates. Western diets, in comparison, tend to be brimming with high glycemic, additive packed, sugar loaded, processed foods- many of which we aren't actually equipped to digest if not for their heavily refined nature.
How does the typical Western diet measure up?
On average, hunter-gatherers are healthier and fitter than Westerners, despite the fact that Western societies often derisively label hunter-gatherers as "less modern". They have healthier cholesterol levels, lower blood pressures, and leaner body compositions. They also age better. Aging Westerners grapple with dangerous health changes like hypertension, obesity, diabetes, and chronic illnesses, while elderly hunter-gatherers typically don't. Cancers are also remarkably rare in hunter-gatherer societies.
Are these differences attributable to diet?
Unfortunately, uncovering an exact cause and effect relationship between the health and diet of hunter-gatherers is challenging, but- even after investigating possible confounding variables like average lifespan- researchers believe that diet plays a significant role in hunter-gatherers' remarkable health. It's believed that these health benefits are derived from a more diverse gut microbiome, which hunter-gatherer populations seem to sustain through their unique diets.
More convincing anecdotes and research in support of this premise surface every day. One particularly poignant example is from July 2017, when CNN's Tim Spector traveled to Tanzania to spend a few days with the Hadza, a hunter-gatherer community that represents one of the oldest lineages of humankind; he wanted to see firsthand how living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle for a short period of time might affect the health of his gut. He had his gut microbiome tested before and after his three day adventure. He reports his findings:
"The results showed clear differences between my starting sample and after three days of my forager diet. The good news was my gut microbal diversity increased a stunning 20%, including some totally novel African microbes, such as those of the phylum Synergistetes.
The bad news was, after a few days, my gut microbes had virtually returned to where they were before the trip. But we had learnt something important. However good your diet and gut health, it is not nearly as good as our ancestors'. Everyone should make the effort to improve their gut health by re-wilding their diet and lifestyle. "
What does this mean for us Modern Cavemen?
Your quest to eat clean is worth all the effort. Choosing a lifestyle that's full of whole, unprocessed, low glycemic foods keeps us healthy and living longer. To learn more about the pitfalls of eating a high glycemic diet, check out our article, The #1 Secret to Health, Longevity, and the Ideal Body.