Uncovering the truth: Tropical hunter-gatherer diets contradict the assumptions of the Paleo diet

In a recent study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers evaluated the dietary variations of tropical hunters and gatherers and the impact of the foraging approach on implied macronutrient proportions.

Study: Comparison of dietary variation measured within and between groups of tropical hunter-gatherers on the paleo diet.  Image Credit: VitaliiVodolazskyi/Shutterstock.comStudy: Comparison of dietary variation measured within and between tropical hunter-gatherer groups on the paleo diet. Image Credit: VitaliiVodolazskyi/Shutterstock.com

Background

Human nutrition differed greatly before the spread of agriculture; however, the Paleo diet had a major impact on pre-agricultural perceptions of nutrition.

The diet recommends calorie percentages between 19% and 35% for protein, between 22% and 40% for carbohydrates and between 28% and 47% for fat. Additionally, the diet prohibits the consumption of foods with added sugars, such as dairy products, grains, legumes, and carbohydrate-dense tubes.

On the other hand, the empirical basis of the Paleolithic diet remains ambiguous, with some of its assumptions challenged by archaeological evidence and theoretical foundations.

On the other hand, the empirical foundation of the Paleolithic diet remains a mystery, with its presumptions challenged by archaeological evidence and conceptual foundations.

About the studio

In the present study, the researchers assessed the degree of variation among hunter-gatherer diets and investigated whether variations in foraging methods explained the differences in inferred diets.

The team evaluated published data on hunter-gatherer diets, including information on honey, animal and plant-based food consumption by kilocalories, and weight, from 15 published ethnographic studies with high-quality evidence for 11 hunting tribes. – gatherers living in tropical regions.

Data from studies published in the Human Relations Area Files, Anthro Source, and Anthropology Plus databases on tropical (non-temperate, non-Arctic) hunter-gatherer diets were analyzed.

Hunter-gatherers were classified as nomads who gathered, mined, and hunted wild plants and animals without engaging in gardening, animal husbandry, or agriculture. Studies included those from the Ethnographic Atlas with high-quality quantified observational dietary data and excluded hunter-gatherers from arctic and temperate habitats.

The impact of mean annual temperature (AMT), season, and calendar year on hunter-gatherer diets was studied for foods consumed in and outside field areas.

The nutritional values ​​of the foods were searched in United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) databases. [Global Branded Food Products, Foundation Foods, and the National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference] and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)/International Network of Food Data Systems (INFOODS) Food composition database for biodiversity.

Dirichlet regression modeling and Bayesian analyzes were performed for inferences, including environmental factors and data collection approaches as predictors of the model.

Results

The analyzes showed considerable variations in the foods of animal origin compared to the vegetable ones consumed and the corresponding proportions of carbohydrates, fats and proteins. Additionally, studies of the weight of foods consumed within and outside field boundaries over the years and seasons showed higher animal-based food intakes, which varied with AMT.

The results, by weight, showed interquartile ranges (IQR) of 41.0%, 35%, and 7.0% for animal foods, plant foods, and honey, respectively. The corresponding IQR values ​​for kilocalories were 51%, 45%, and 13%, respectively.

Analyzes of hunter-gatherer diets for kilocalories for carbohydrates, fats, and proteins showed that among the populations investigated, only a few had kilocalories in the ranges claimed by the Paleolithic diet. The Hiwi, Jarawas, Onge and Kunwinjku populations relied mainly on foods of animal origin, while foods of plant origin dominated the diet of the San, Efe, Batek and Nukak hunter-gatherers.

Honey made up a minor part of the diets among populations. Compared to the Paleo diet, the Nukak, Batek, Hadza and Efe populations consumed higher proportions of carbohydrates and the Onge, San and Kunwinjku populations consumed more lipids.

The protein content of hunter-gatherers Nukak, Batek and Efe was much lower than that of those consuming Paleo diets.

Plant-based foods provided 67% and 66% of protein respectively to the San and Nukak populations. Furthermore, 94%, 95%, 67%, 64% and 50% of calories from dietary fat were derived from plant-based foods in the Nukak, San, Efe, Hadza and Jarawas populations, respectively.

Among the Jarawas, Aché, Nukak, Efe, Hadza and Batek populations, honey provided respectively 37%, 57%, 20%, 33%, 21% and 10% of the caloric intake derived from carbohydrates and 61% of calories were derived from carbohydrates for the population of Kunwinjku.

Total fat intake varied between tribes; however, the percentage of each type of fat was relatively constant. The number of calories provided by foods of animal origin was not consistently correlated with the percentage of polyunsaturated versus saturated fatty acids in the diet, indicating a wide range of amounts and sources of lipids in ingested foods of animal origin.

AMT ranged from 21°C to 27°C in all groups. Honey intake was not affected by temperature. Annual mean temperature and the animals’ contributions to hunter-gatherer diets in kilocalories or weight had positive relationships.

Conclusions

Based on the study findings, hunter-gatherer meals vary widely, challenging the pre-agricultural “standard” conceptual meal in terms of macronutrient percentages or proportions of animal versus plant food. Some tribes consumed mostly plant-based foods, while others consumed mostly animal-based foods.

While the rainforest tribes (Batek and Nukuk) obtained few calories from foods of animal origin and consumed foods with a high carbohydrate and low protein content, as well as fat, the tribes that lived in more open environments (Onge and San) they ingested a variety of food sources and nutrients such as carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins.

The groups also differed in their methods of obtaining macronutrients, with the Nukak and San tribes obtaining fat and protein mainly from plant-based meals and the Jarawas obtaining carbohydrates mainly from honey. Seasonal and annual diversity has been noted between the two extremes.

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