Can We Learn About How To Be Healthy From Our Ancestors?

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Can We Learn About How To Be Healthy From Our Ancestors

In this article we’re going back, way back, in time to see if we can gain some information to help us in our weight loss journey.

It’s no secret that obesity and its affects on a vast majority of people in the US (and around the world) are, and have been, a huge deal for the past several decades.  Presidents and the first ladies have declared national awareness days, more diet plans are available now than ever and yet the scene hasn’t changed.   The obesity rates have tripled in the U.S over the past 50 years.  Based on these results, I’d say we must do something different, right?  So where do go from here?  We go back, way back.

Back to our ancestors, not grandma & grandpa, way back…thousands of years, to the time when people foraged for foods and hunted and fished for food.  These groups of people are referred to as hunter-gatherers.  These groups did not have the convenience of heading to the local grocery store or fast-food restaurant to get a quick bite.  They basically lived day to day moving over several hundred square miles throughout the year gathering what was available.  Now I know that this is not exactly possible these days BUT we can still learn a few things from them.  In fact, we don’t have to rely on books or scrolls written by these people, there are roughly 10 million hunter-gatherers still present today!!  AND lucky for us, a professor from Duke University (Herman Pontzer) has been studying these groups all around the world for the past decade!!  I’m going to paraphrase his work here in this article and must give him the credit.

Hunter-gatherers (then & now) are among the healthiest people on Earth. There are certain mechanisms behind hunter-gatherer’s good health, including food intake, physical activity, AND STRESS LEVELS. I believe we have a lot to learn from hunter-gatherers about what constitutes a healthy lifestyle, what to eat, how to move and avoid dis-ease.

The basic hunter-gatherer groups, like the one in northeast Tanzania (East Africa) called Hadza, spend their days walking several kilometers, climbing trees, and digging for root vegetables & hunting or fishing for protein sources. Their diet consists of various meats, vegetables, and fruits, as well as honey.

These groups tend to maintain the same healthy weight, body mass index and walking speed throughout their entire adult lives. They commonly live into their 80s, with very little to no cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure or diabetes.  The opposite is true for most Americans today.

I am sure I am not surprising anyone that eating reasonable portions of healthy, wholesome foods and exercise regularly, like the Hadza, will enjoy better health than those who overeat, consume processed foods, and lead a sedentary lifestyle. But one of Mr. Pontzer’s central research questions was whether hunter-gatherers burn more calories than their inactive counterparts in industrialized societies.   This, I bet, you’ll be surprised to read!

What he and his colleagues found was so surprising that they initially thought they’d made a mistake: despite their extraordinarily active lifestyle, the Hadza expend the same amount of energy as their Western counterparts.   WHAT!? This was not a fluke thing.  The same was true of other hunter-gatherers around the world, for the Tsimane, a group of forager-farmers in Bolivia, and the Shuar, a group of forager-horticulturalists in Ecuador, all spent the same amount.

Here’s what Mr. Ponzer said! – “Your body finds different ways to spend the calories when you’re less active…exercise is really important because it changes the way your body spends calories, not because it changes how many overall calories you spend.”  – You must read this at least 2 more times to get it.  As we increase our physical activity, he says, our bodies work to keep total energy expenditure at a set point. For example, the calories we burn while exercising can help decrease the amount of energy our body expends on inflammation.

This made total sense to me.  I have written & told many of you about my weight loss journey.  I was in private practice for 25 years.  I used to track my steps and I would walk nearly 3 miles a day on a regular basis.  But my weight kept increasing.  Calories in versus calories out to lose weight is not the answer.

Exercise provides a host of health benefits, such as lowering the risk of cardiovascular diseases and relieving stress, weight loss isn’t one of them—contrary to popular belief.

Look at this – from a professor at Duke -“Exercise is one of the least effective tools for weight loss,” says Mr. Pontzer. “We have to start thinking about diet and exercise as two different tools for two different jobs. Focus on your diet to control your weight. Focus on exercise to do everything else: heart health, cancer reduction, healthy aging.”   We have been saying this for several years at IHC.

Mr. Ponzer and his team examined the diets of 260 traditional populations, and they found that the distribution of plant-based versus animal-based food consumption was all over the map. He points to a few common elements across hunter-gatherer diets that could serve us all well, such as a high fiber. The Hadza, for example, typically take in approximately 100 grams of fiber per day, about five times more than an American adult usually gets. Fiber contributes to strong microbiome health, helps us avoid blood sugar spikes and makes us feel full.

This natural diet and physical activity clearly contribute to the enviable health of groups like hunter-gatherers, but Mr. Pontzer thinks something else is also at play: a lifestyle that fosters positive mental health. “They don’t worry about their careers or ending up poor, and they spend their days outdoors with friends and family they’ve known their whole lives,” he says. “Those factors are generally associated with feeling happy, and happiness plays a major role in overall health. I think their mental health would be a great new angle to explore; I’d like to know how it all works together.”

I am excited to hear what Mr. Ponzer finds out about this and will be sure to update you in future articles.


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