What a Hunter-Gatherer Diet Does to the Body in Just 3 Days

hunter gatherer diet

Story at-a-glance -

  • The type of food you eat influences the health of your gut, as bacteria and fungi in your digestive tract make up your microbiome, which can make or break your health and make you more or less prone to disease
  • A researcher studying differences between his own Western diet compared to that of the Hadza, one of Africa’s last hunter-gatherer groups, found their gut microbiome to be much more diverse and healthier
  • After eating such native fare as baobab tree pods, local honey and porcupine and hyrax meat (nothing wasted), subsequent testing showed the researcher to have significantly higher microbiome diversity
  • Eating fermented and prebiotic foods, adopting a high-fiber diet and/or taking probiotic and fiber supplements can help optimize your gut health

By Dr. Mercola

If you're not convinced that eating a healthy diet is crucial to your health, and perhaps for reasons that might be a surprise, you may remember the story of an undergraduate student who spent a solid month eating breakfast, lunch and dinner at McDonald's. The rule was that every time someone took his order and asked if he wanted something "super-sized" he had to go for it.

Over those few days and weeks, he not only gained weight, his liver was damaged and several other changes took place that prompted his doctor to advise him to go off the diet for the sake of his long-term health.

At the time, the high levels of the worst kinds of fat, high carbs and a blend of toxic preservatives and other chemicals were blamed for his quickly failing condition, but as The Conversation astutely notes, tongue in cheek, there are "others" who don't appreciate being fed a fast-food diet: the microbes teeming in your intestines:

"These are the hundred trillion microbes that outnumber our total human cells ten to one and digest our food, provide many vitamins and nutrients and keep us healthy. Until recently we have viewed them as harmful — but those (like salmonella) are a tiny minority and most are essential for us."1

The premise has been backed up by other studies2 showing this to be the case — that atherosclerosis can even be induced by combining a "low colonic bacterial diversity" gut with a high, "bad" fat diet. Bacteria and fungi in your digestive tract, principally your large intestine, and the type of food you're eating — while simultaneously "feeding" the critters that make up your microbiome — can make or break your health. Your gut health sets the tone for your mood, metabolism, immune system and so much more.3

How Do You Measure Someone's Gut Microbiome?

A couple of scientists conjectured that while someone's low microbiome population makes a positive shift when they begin eating a healthier diet, it wasn't clear whether someone with a "healthy stable" gut bacteria could be improved in a matter of days.

When Tim Spector, researcher and professor of genetic epidemiology at King's College London, joined colleague Jeff Leach (founder of the American Gut, the world's largest open-source/crowd-funded microbiome project in the world) in Tanzania where the latter had been living and working among one of the last hunter-gatherer groups in Africa, the Hadza, they had an opportunity to find out.

As previously noted, a "low-diversity" gut is one that doesn't have a wide representation of bacteria, which makes the individual more susceptible to disease. An organization called Map My Gut can assess the diversity of peoples' gut ecosystems using state-of-the-art DNA sequencing technology to identify microbes. This is done by "matching" pieces of bacterial DNA, the website explains:

"We literally create a map of the microbial contents of your gut, hence the name. Our microbiome specialists then add an individualized analysis of your results. Finally, we create a thorough report that describes the key microbes we've found living inside you and what they mean for you and your health."4

Analysts representing Map My Gut suggest that people who have trouble controlling their weight, have been on antibiotics long term, have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), colitis or other gut issues, want to change their diet or are interested in learning the status of their gut health may benefit from such an assessment.

The 'Most Diverse Microbiome on the Planet'

Spector had his intestinal flora tested along with 100 other people and discovered that his own microbiome was the healthiest of all of them — or more correctly, had the best gut diversity, which is linked to a low risk of many diseases as well as obesity. As it happens, the Hadza people have the richest and most diverse gut health on the planet.

Leach suggested that Spector adopt a three-day nutritional plan of adopting the Hadza hunter-gatherer diet, which wastes nothing and kills nothing unnecessarily. One has to wonder if he at that point wondered what he might be agreeing to; Spector wrote for CNN:

"I would measure my gut microbes before heading to Tanzania, during my stay with the Hadza, and after my return to the UK. I was also not allowed to wash or use alcohol swabs and I was expected to hunt and forage with the Hadza as much as possible — including coming in contact with the odd Hadza baby and baboon poo lying about."5

After only three days with the remote tribe and eating everything they ate, the team, including Leach and his "poo" samples, would return to London for sample testing.

The Hadza's Million-Year-Old Diet

Visiting such a remote area started with the Mount Kilimanjaro Airport in Tanzania, northward for an overnight stop in Arusha (where Spector's first "poo" sample was taken) before another eight hours to Lake Eyasi and the Serengeti region.

Hadza hunter-gatherers still sleep in grass huts or by the fire and forage for the same plants and animals as they've done for centuries. Spector's first breakfast consisted of pods from the seemingly limitless baobab trees, the seeds of which contain high amounts of fat, fiber and vitamins. Its chalky flesh, mixed with water with a stick, was placed in a mug to make a thick, milky, "surprisingly pleasant and refreshing" porridge with a citrusy tang. His two mugs proved to be quite filling. As a snack:

"The wild berries on many of the trees surrounding the camp — the commonest were small Kongorobi berries. These refreshing and slightly sweet berries have 20 times the fibre and polyphenols compared with cultivated berries — powerful fuel for my gut microbiome."6

Harder to eat, their late lunch was a few high-fiber tubers, "like tough, earthy celery," which women dug up with a sharp stick and tossed onto the fire. Spector didn't ask for seconds but didn't feel hungry, which he attributed to the high-fiber breakfast.

Later, nobody seemed interested in dinner. Then came a hunting party to locate two porcupines, about 45 pounds each, eventually tracked to their tunnel system in a termite mound. Considered a rare delicacy, the tribesmen dug and tunneled to find them, careful of the razor-sharp quills, until they were speared.

"A fire was lit. The spines, skin and valuable organs were expertly dissected and the heart, lung and liver cooked and eaten straight away. The rest of the fatty carcass was taken back to camp for communal eating. It tasted much like suckling pig." 7

Subsequent meals were similar, other than a changeup of meat from a 9-pound hyrax, "a strange furry guinea-pig-like hoofed animal" related to the elephant. Dessert was honey retrieved high from a baobab tree, the bonus being the honeycomb complete with larvae, full of "good" fat, sugars and protein, a combination being "the most energy-dense found in nature," which Spector said "may have competed with fire in terms of its evolutionary importance."

What Do Three Days on a Native Tanzanian Diet Do for Your Gut?

Returning to London and subsequent testing, Spector learned that between his first and last sample submittals, his gut diversity had made a "stunning" 20 percent increase, which included some new African microbes, such as those of the phylum Synergistetes. But in a matter of days, the diversity and bacteria number returned to where they had been before the experiment. He called it "bad news."

"But we had learnt something important. However good your diet and gut health, it is not nearly as good as our ancestors.' Everyone should make the effort to improve their gut health by re-wilding their diet and lifestyle. Being more adventurous in your normal cuisine plus reconnecting with nature and its associated microbial life, may be what we all need."8

Two years later, Leach observed how impressed he was by the variety of plant and animal species (around 600, mostly birds) the Hadza consumed compared to the few consumed in the West, as well as their availability above and below the ground and that in comparison, the current human microbiome could be called an ecological disaster zone — a proverbial canary in a coal mine, with every evidence of having breathed its last.

In addition, he wrote, the reduction in the number and assortment of bacteria in the human microbiome seems to be simultaneous with the rate of disease, but: "What we don't know is which way cause and effect runs. Does disease cause a drop in microbial diversity or does a drop in diversity cause — or precede — disease?"9 Further, in relation to the Hadza diet:

"With each animal killed, microbes are given the opportunity to move from one species to the next. With each berry that is plucked from a bush or tuber dug from beneath the microbial-rich ground, each and every act of foraging keeps the Hadza connected to an extensive regional (microbial) species pool."10

He surmises that the relatively lower number of gut bacterial diversity could be a combination of a degraded regional species pool or an increase of environmental filters, such as too much time indoors, which reduces your exposure to microbial diversity,11 the increase of caesarean birth and decrease in breast-feeding, as well as the wide use of antibiotics, from antibiotics in the meat you eat12 to antibacterial hand soaps.

How Can You Diversify Your Gut Health in Today's Culture?

A number of factors in today's culture can adversely influence your gut health, from getting inadequate fiber, which causes, among other things, constipation, to consuming massive amounts of sugar, which feeds the bacteria you don't want and ravages your intestines, opening the door to multiple diseases. Your gut microbiome can even hamper gene expression.

Prevalent lifestyle and environmental challenges certainly don't help, with the lack of exercise, pesticides, herbicides and genetically engineered (GE) foods tainting the collective gut, pollution, vaccinations and drugs — including those in your food — as virtual gauntlets your system is forced to run through unless you take precautions to curb their effect.

Multiple clinical studies show that your diet is the key to developing a more diverse gut "culture," if you will, and optimizing your health. One of the easiest ways to do this is by simply adding to the diversity of foods you eat, especially plant-based foods. How alarming is it that recent studies show about 75 percent of the Western diet consists of as few as 12 plants and products from five animal species?13

Gut bacteria can ferment soluble fiber in vegetables, legumes and fruits, the byproducts of which help to feed the cells lining your colon to prevent problems associated with leaky gut syndrome. The most important fermentation byproducts are short-chain fatty acids,14 which help balance your immune system to the point of preventing Crohn's disease and asthma.

Besides branching out and bringing more food diversity into your life, introducing more of these high-fiber foods is easy and delicious. According to Greatist,15 the highest fiber foods include split peas, lentils, black and lima beans, artichokes, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, raw berries and avocadoes. To help get your gut health under control and minimize, prevent and even eliminate your risk of many chronic diseases, try:

  • Eating fermented food, such as kimchi and other fermented vegetables, kefir, kombucha and raw, grass fed yogurt, which you can make yourself.
  • Eating more prebiotic foods, like unripe bananas, papayas, mango, white beans, lentils and seeds, which are resistant starches, which optimize your gut health.
  • Taking a fiber supplement such as psyllium seed husk if you can't seem to get enough through your diet.
  • Eating foods containing lots of polyphenols, such as raw cacao (found in some dark chocolate), onions, Matcha green tea, blueberries and broccoli.
  • Taking a high-quality probiotic supplement that can make it to your intestines intact to optimize the number of bacteria, which incidentally must have health-promoting features that remain through their production process.

Simple measures such as opening your windows to get outside air, growing your own organic garden (or buying organic), avoiding antibiotics and eating as much of the vegetable and fruit as you can, such as the outermost skins of onions and the stems, not just the floret, of broccoli, and washing your hands with plain old soap and water rather than relying on germicidal soaps to keep germs at bay (which in fact do the opposite) are also important.

Finally, keep yourself informed of things like which foods contain the highest levels of pesticides and what meats contain the most antibiotics. Pass your knowledge along, because the planet your grandparents enjoyed is not the same one your children and grandchildren will grow up on.

Post your comment