Home Heart Healthy Diet These Amazonian people have 'the healthiest hearts ever studied'. This is how they eat

These Amazonian people have 'the healthiest hearts ever studied'. This is how they eat

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How should you eat to protect your heart? The Amazon rainforest may reveal some answers.

The Tsimane (pronounced "chee-mah-nay") are a population of forager-farmers in Bolivia who, until recently, have had little contact with the outside world. Studies have determined they have an almost non-existent risk of developing heart disease — in contrast to Australia, where it's one of the leading killers.

"The Tsimane have the healthiest hearts ever studied, so naturally there's a lot of interest in understanding why and how," said Michael Gurven, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

"The obvious first contender is, what are they eating? And are they eating what we think is best for heart health?"

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For a new paper in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Gurven and his colleagues analysed the Tsimane diet to tease out its apparent cardiovascular benefits and how it compares to other heart-healthy ways of eating.

Their diet turns out to be pretty high in carbs, which account for 64 percent of their energy intake. They rely on complex carbohydrates such as plantains, cassava and rice, which are also high in fibre — their fibre intake is almost double that of the average American (which is about 15g fibre per day, well short of the 30g recommendation).

Protein makes up 21 percent of what they eat, coming mostly from animal sources, particularly fish and wild game; and the remaining 15 percent comes from fat (of that, less than a third is from saturated fat).

FYI, Australian health authorities dictate a diet of 45 to 65 percent carbs, about 25 percent protein, and 20 to 35 from fat.

The Tsimane consume about 2400 to 2700 calories a day — in Australia, the average adult's daily energy requirement is a little over 2000. This high-calorie diet is offset by high levels of physical activity: Tsimane adults average 17,000 steps per day, well above the 7400 managed by Australian adults).

"They're also physically active — not from routine exercise, but from using their bodies to acquire food from their fields and the forest," said Gurven, who is also co-director of the Tsimane Health and Life History Project, in a statement.

"You can't look at what you're eating irrespective of what you're doing with your body. If you're physically active, you can probably get away with more flexibility in the diet."

(UC Santa Barbara)

The researchers concluded it's this diet rich in complex carbs, paired with a physically active everyday life, that's linked to the Tsimane's low risk of cardiovascular disease.

However, their diet has started to shift as they gain access to the outside world: the researchers observed how, over a five-year study period, the Tsimane "significantly" increased their consumption of lard, oil, sugar and salt.

"They're basically deep frying and adding lots of sugar to drinks when they can," Gurven noted.

To be clear, the Tsimane are not models of perfect health — they have high levels of infection and inflammation and low average life expectancy, and the study isn't intended to suggest theirs is the ideal diet. But their low risk of heart disease, and how that risk will change as they transition to a more modern lifestyle, makes what they eat worth studying.

"It definitely sheds light on the diversity of diets that are compatible with good cardiovascular health," concluded UC Santa Barbara anthropologist Thomas Kraft, the paper's lead author.

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