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The Secret to the Perfect Diet?
An Amazon-based Bolivian tribe called the Tsimane may hold the secret to perfect health and longevity for their 16,000 members, according to new research published in the Journals of Gerontology. For two decades, researchers have sought to understand why this indigenous tribe has lived almost completely free of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and age-related cognitive decline.
When compared to America and Europeans of the same age, the Tsimane also show almost no signs of brain atrophy with age.
According to decades of research it’s normal for the human brain to lose volume and shrink with age. This pattern can be linked to cognitive decline and dementia.
The Tsimane experience brain atrophying 70% slower than Western populations.
The researchers looked at brain scans of 746 Tsimane from age 40 to 94. (They traveled two days to the nearest hospital).
Not only were Tsimane brain more youthful, they also had a surprising levels of inflammation, which is typically linked to a higher risk of heart and brain disease—but not for the Tsimane. For the Tsimane, their inflammation was linked to parasitic and bacterial infections, which posed the greatest mortality risk for them—not heart and brain disease as we see in the West.
According to a 2017 study published in the Lancet, the Tsimane had the lowest rates of coronary atherosclerosis of any population known to science.
In comparison, one in four people in the U.S. die from heart disease each year, making it the number one cause of death here. Globally, 31% of all deaths are from heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet this small tribe in Bolivia has found a way to beat the odds.
In this article, we’ll unpack the Tsimane diet.
The Tsimane Diet
Researchers believe that the key to the remarkably good health of the Tsimane is their traditional lifestyle of hunting, gathering, fishing, and farming. They survive on a high-fiber diet that includes vegetables, fish, and lean meat, and they remain very physically active throughout their lives.
The Tsimane remain isolated in the Amazon compared to their tribal neighbors the Moseten, who have more access to marketplaces and Western influence and do not share the same good health
In a 2018 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers evaluated more than 1,200 Tsimane and almost 230 Moseten and complied dietary profiles for each group. The Tsimane’s diet was high in carbohydrates and protein but low in fat. They ate about 2,400 to 2,700 calories each day comprised of 64% carbs, 21% protein, and 15% fat. They also did not eat a wide variety of foods and stuck to their dietary staples of rice and plantains. With a diet lacking diversity they do run low on calcium and fat-soluble vitamins D, E, and K, but seem to get plenty of potassium, selenium, and magnesium, which may be, in part, responsible for their astonishing heart health.
About 16% of the Tsimane diet is from a wide variety of fish and just 6% is from wild game. The Tsimane were consuming 8% of their foods from Western-influenced markets, during the time of the 2018 study.
Perhaps that could be a marker for a Tsimane-like diet—consume only 8% of your diet from packaged foods; the rest source from whole foods that are in season.
During the five year period in which the new study was conducted there were significant changes in road and river access, making the Tsimane much less isolated. The researchers noted that during those five years, there was a drastic increase in the amount of calories and carbohydrates consumed by the Tsimane and larger quantities of lard, oil, sugar, and salt were finding their way into their diets.
How an Ayurvedic Diet is Similar to the Tsimane Diet
Contrary to all the healthy diets being promoted in the Western world, a non-processed, high-carb, high-fiber, low-meat, and fish-based diet is rarely recognized as heart- and brain-healthy, or a diet that supports longevity.
Yet, this diet, with a relatively small amount of animal protein (mostly fish) is similar to an Ayurvedic diet and is the diet consumed by most of the centenarian cultures around the world.
It would be foolish however to give diet all the credit for Tsimane health. They enjoy a traditional lifestyle that is spent mostly outside, living with the seasons, getting plenty of sun and exercise (no gyms), and living in a close-knit community. All of these ways of life are also are well documented among centenarians and in Blue Zones (where people live the longest) around the world.