Tribal diets could be the key to good health, scientist finds

Could this be the solution to western health problems?

Rachel Hosie
Thursday 06 July 2017 12:43 BST

In recent years, more and more emphasis has been placed on gut health.

Fermentation is in, with kimchi, kefir and sauerkraut being heralded as new superfoods.

And now a scientist is suggesting that to significantly improve the diversity of our microbiomes, we need to “rewild” our gut bacteria and eat like hunter-gatherers.

Tim Spector, from King’s College London, spent three days living and eating with the Hadza community in Tanzania.

They are one of the world’s last surviving pre-agricultural societies, who live in the savannah in small groups.

The indigenous ethnic diet consists of fruit, vegetables and game and birds they’ve hunted.

According to scientists, the Hadza have the most diverse gut bacteria of anyone anywhere in the world.

“A more diverse microbiome is [inversely] associated with the risk of almost every western ailment,” Professor Spector told The Times. “It’s not so much the microbiome itself, it’s what it produces. All these microbes produce thousands of chemicals and metabolites.”

And this could be linked to the tribe’s good health - they noticeably lack many common western ailments including diabetes and asthma.

“The Hadza have the healthiest guts in the world in terms of diversity,” says Professor Spector. “They live as we would have done, in the same spot eating the same food.”

When he tried the Hadza way of living and eating, Professor Spector was pleasantly surprised both by the impact on his health and how bearable the experience was.

“I was a bit worried about being starving, but I was just amazed by how much food there was,” he said.

The diet was certainly different to a usual western one though.

Tubers, for example, feature significantly, but Professor Spector didn’t much care for them: “We dug them up and stuck them on the barbecue and they were a bit dull. Halfway between a turnip and celery. But they were fine.”

Meat-wise, porcupine was a key player: “Once you had taken the fur off and the quills it was pretty much like most barbecue meats.”

Baobab fruit is becoming increasingly popular amongst healthy foodies across the world - regularly sold as a powder - and it’s also a key part of the Hadza diet, which Spector found was crushed and filtered: “I wasn’t expecting to like it. But actually it ended up like a citrusy milkshake,” he says.

Puddings consisted of wild honey and berries, which was the highlight of the diet for Spector.

As a scientist interested in how gut flora affects health, Professor Spector takes a stool sample wherever he goes. He certainly noticed the difference after just three days eating like a Hadza.

“I’ve taken 50 samples or so in the past couple of years, and it doesn’t go up or down much,” he explained. “I went to India, and it didn’t change anything like this.”

He found that he’d gained 20 per cent more microbe types in three days - the average Hadza person has 40 per cent more than westerners.

“Perhaps this is where we were meant to be before we started losing them all. Is it this amazing combination that keeps the Hadza thin and in a better immune state?” Professor Spector asks.

Recreating the diet may be less easy in our own lives though.

“If I ate exactly those foods in north London for a couple of weeks would I still see the same result? Probably not,” Professor Spector says.

“The Hadza don’t use utensils, don’t sterilise anything, and everything is thrown on the fire, fur and all. That’s what we all used to do, what our bodies are pretty much designed for.”

He thinks that we’re too obsessed with hygiene and should be more relaxed about how we eat.

“It’s not just the food, it’s the outdoor, non-sterile lifestyle,” he adds. “Maybe we should occasionally go back to our roots - rewild ourselves, go camping with the kids, and get dirty.”

Of course, Professor Spector’s experiment wasn’t a big study, but it certainly offers some food for thought.

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