Always got room for pudding? Blame your hunter-gatherer ancestors

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Always got room for pudding? Blame your hunter-gatherer ancestors

Scientist work out why ancient cultures don't get fat - and the real reason will surprise you

Cape Town bureau chief


Hunter-gatherers in Tanzania have provided new evidence that there is no such thing as the ideal diet. However, there are some foods that should always be avoided.
The Hadza were studied by Herman Pontzer, from Duke University in the US, who said they consumed what was often described as “the oldest diet”.
On a typical day, they set out at dawn to hunt and forage, he said. Women collected berries and dug up tubers, while men hunted animals and collected honey, which accounted for at least 15% of the calories they consumed.
“On any given day in a Hadza camp, there is almost always honey, a little meat and tubers,” said Pontzer, adding community members ate a similar number of calories to Americans.
The key difference was that they did not eat “ultra-processed foods that combine large amounts of fat and simple carbohydrates”.
Pontzer said the lack of novelty and variety in hunter-gatherer diets may be part of the reason they did not overeat and become obese.
He told the New York Times there was evidence that people confronted with a greater variety of food choices took longer to feel satiated. “It’s the reason you always have room for dessert at a restaurant even when you’re full.
“Even though you’ve had a savoury meal and you can’t eat one more bite of steak, you’re still interested in the cheesecake because it’s sweet and that button hasn’t been worn out in your brain yet.”
Pontzer’s research, published in the journal Obesity Reviews, examines the diets, habits and physical activity of hundreds of modern hunter-gatherer groups and small-scale societies, all of which enjoy excellent metabolic health while consuming a wide range of diets.
Some get 80% of their calories from carbohydrates, while others eat mostly meat. But there were broad similarities: Almost all of them eat a mix of meat, fish and plants, consuming foods that are generally packed with nutrients;
They eat a lot more fibre than the average person on a Western diet;
Most of their carbohydrates come from vegetables and starchy plants with a low glycaemic index, meaning they do not lead to blood sugar spikes; and
The sugar they eat is mainly in the form of honey. The findings suggest there is no one “true” diet for humans, who “can be very healthy on a wide range of diets”, said Pontzer. “We know that because we see a wide range of diets in these very healthy populations.”
All hunter-gatherers were physically active, even though they ate no more calories than the average office worker, suggesting exercise was better at improving metabolic health than shedding weight, Pontzer said.
The communities studied were largely unaffected by heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes and cancer, obesity rates were low, and they had high levels of cardiorespiratory fitness, even in old age.
“Few of us would want to trade places with them. Their lives are still tough,” Pontzer told the New York Times. “But the things they get sick from are things we know how to deal with, and the things they don’t get sick from are the things we struggle to deal with.”
For the new study, Pontzer and his colleagues analysed data on hunter-gatherers from across the globe and looked at detailed dietary assessments of fossil and archaeological records to get a sense of what early humans ate.

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