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New research on hunter-gatherers has surprising implications for diet and exercise choices



The new year brings a new fitness resolution – and with that, a new diet mode. The YouGov 2017 survey found that 37% of Americans set New Year's resolutions including "eating[ing] healthy "; the same percentage promises to "exercise more." While diet and exercise resolutions may remain static, certain diet and exercise trends come and go; in the past two decades, Crossfit, Zumba, the Paleo diet, veganism, Atkin yoga, yoga, and Pilates experienced an increase and decrease in fitness standards.

It is difficult to separate noise from signals when it comes to determining what optimal health habits are. In a twist on most health research findings, a new study of modern and ancient hunter-gatherer groups shows there is no one optimal diet for human health. Conversely, there are many factors that play a role when determining how humans in the industrial world can live healthier lives.

"All of our species have evolved from hunter-gatherer communities," Herman Pontzer, lead author of the study and a professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University, explained to Salon. "We hunt and gather before we become, and if you want to understand how our physiology works, it's important to understand hunting and gathering and how it affects our body and health."

The study, published in the journal Obesity Reviews, looked at the lifestyles, diets, and physical activities of hundreds of modern hunter-gatherer groups whose societies are comparable to ancient societies.

The study notes that hunter-gatherer communities are important for public health professionals to learn because they can provide a better understanding of the roots of "disease of civilization," which is often considered explicitly related to diet. The study notes that obesity and metabolic diseases are rare among hunter-gatherer communities, both modern and old, and type 2 diabetes. The cause of death in hunter-gatherer communities is mostly from trauma, including accidents and violence, or acute infectious diseases. The percentage of deaths from non-communicable diseases, such as heart disease and cancer, is very low, but that does not mean because they eat better. All communities analyzed in this study had extraordinary health, but relied on various diets.

So, what makes a hunter-gatherer community healthy? Pontzer, who has spent time with the Hadza indigenous group in Tanzania, said it could be a mere amount of physical activity.

"If you live with hunter-gatherers, the thing that overwhelms you is how active they are," he told Salon. "You walk all day – you don't have the luxury of being lazy, and that really impresses me."

Popular fetishisation of pre-agricultural food tribes is a source of inspiration for the very popular Paleo diet, a dietary plan based on what might be consumed during the Paleolithic era. Pontzer said this diet is not the most "natural" diet for humans.

"Anyone who believes that there is a true natural human diet is wrong," he said. "Humans have been healthy through various diets. This varies greatly. "

Some similarities between the communities studied in the paper are that they all eat a mixture of meat, fish, and plants. Generally, they consume more fiber than the average American. When talking about carbohydrates, this community depends on vegetables and starchy plants, which maintain carbohydrate consumption does not cause an increase in blood sugar. That doesn't mean they don't eat sugar: Honey makes up most of the food for many hunter-gatherer groups, the researchers explained.

For example, among Hadza hunters, indigenous groups in Tanzania that depend on what some people call a millions of years diet, honey accounts for 15 to 20 percent of their food, the study said. The amount of calories consumed by Hadza is similar to the average American, but the variety of food is different because Hadza relies on a small selection of foods that do not include processed foods and engineering sugars.

According to this study, what you eat and how you exercise is related and it is important to lead a healthy life, but maybe not in a way that is understood by industrial society. As explained in this study, exercise can act as a way to regulate the energy released every day – energy that might be released by the body for inflammation if not used. This would contradict the theory that "industrial populations are vulnerable to metabolic diseases because they are less active and therefore spend fewer calories per day," as stated in this study.

"Exercise can also help regulate appetite, increase the balance between energy expenditure and intake, and exercise has been shown to help maintain weight loss," said the study. "The regulatory effects of exercise require further attention."

The researcher concluded the study by bringing attention to other parts of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that could have an impact on human health.

"Close friendship and family ties, low levels of social and economic inequality and much time spent outside the home are characteristic of hunter-gatherer populations and other small-scale communities," said the study. "This absence in modern society is associated with chronic social pressure and various non-communicable diseases, including metabolic diseases and obesity. When we seek to understand the evolutionary roots of modern disease, we must seek a more integrative and holistic understanding of lifestyle and health among hunter-gatherers today and in our shared past. "

This study goes to great lengths to not suggest that the industrial world must return to a hunter-gatherer diet. Pontzer says this is about finding elements that are lacking in our daily lives that work for hunter-gatherers.

"One lesson can stay on your feet and move as much as you can every day, pay attention to what you eat and stay away from foods that are engineered to never make you feel full, eat lots of fiber … it's all a good place to start," he said .

In other words, don't stress about counting Atkins points or walking exactly 10,000 steps a day. Broad stroke – rather than obsessive counting of calories, steps, and sugar – seems to be the key to health.


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