The Village Model Eliminates Chronic Diseases

The world is in an obesity epidemic, and this is associated with hundreds of chronic diseases. It is estimated by the World Health Organization (WHO) that the global obesity rates have tripled since 1978. About forty percent of the USA population are overweight and obese. However, obesity was rare in Western countries, absent in Africa, South America, and Asia at the beginning of the 20th century but the world has witnessed a dramatic rise in obesity incidence since then.

The current global obesity epidemic suggests there is something fundamentally wrong with either our genes, environment, or lifestyle. While there is evidence for a role of genetics in obesity, our environment has significantly changed in the last 10,000 years.

Our ancestors were mostly hunters and gatherers and barely had enough food to eat. We have transformed how we eat and utilize caloric energy with the beginning of agriculture. We have shifted from hunters and gatherers to growing food ourselves on an industrial scale. For the first time in human history, we can produce high energy caloric dense foods more than we know what to do with. It is not just excess of calories, but we are also changing the nature of foods towards ultra-processed foods and cheap. These foods are low in fiber, full of fat, and padded with artificial additives, sugars, and salt and the Western world is leading in this current food industry. It is no coincidence that obesity epidemic is spreading around the globe because wherever modern western lifestyles show up, obesity is likely to follow. Until we can solve the underlying causes of obesity we will never get ahead of diabetes, hypertension, kidney failure, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer.

Nowadays, only a few scattered tribes of hunter-gatherers remain on the planet. The Hadza tribe is considered one of the last hunter-gatherer population in the world. The diets of the Hadza hunter-gatherer and other rural communities in developing countries tend to be less energy dense and richer in fiber and micronutrients than modern diets. Consequently, the hunter-gatherer people are trim, healthy, strong, and young looking. Chronic diseases such as cardiovascular diseases (CVD) are rare in the Hadza hunter-gatherer population and the incidence of obesity in this population is exceptionally low (less than 5 percent) compared to the average global population (approximately 40 percent).

The Hadza people are physically active because they walk and run several miles in search for food and this forces their bodies to utilize stored body fat as energy and therefore did not suffer from many of these excess-calorie related chronic diseases. Their physical activity level is high more than 100 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous physical activity compared to the sedentary life of most western cultures.

These observations has made some health gurus suggest that to reverse the current trend of chronic diseases, we should stick to the foods of our ancestors (the Paleo-diet). Noting that such dietary pattern can help avoid the disease associated with modern civilization such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, hypertension, and cancer. While this suggestion is sound, the question is which paleo-diet to follow as the paleolithic diet of our ancestors depended very much on their geographical locations. There is no single “best diet” for all people because we are all different. We come from different geographic locations and have adopted different dietary patterns that are influenced by many factors including hormonal signals, gut microbiome, circadian rhythm, sleep, and individual genetic traits.

In other words, humans can adapt to many different environmental conditions and many different foods to create healthy diets for good health. Unfortunately, modern western diet does not appear to be one of them. However, the solution is not to go back to the stone age but rather learn from evolutionary history and get the best of both worlds.

Evidence in support of healthy diet for good health and longevity comes from lifestyle patterns in certain parts of the world known as “Blue Zones”. The Blue Zones of the world are Okinawa (Japan), Sardinia (Italy), Nicoya Peninsula (Costa Rica), and the Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda (California). These countries are characterized by diet rich in organic complex carbohydrates, plant-derived foods (mostly fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds and whole grain cereals) low intake of meat (red meat) and plenty of exercise. Countries such as Greece, Southern Italy and Spain and places that grow olives in the Mediterranean are characterized by the so-called Mediterranean diet that is consistently associated with good health. The Mediterranean diets is similar to that of Blue Zones; generous amounts of olive oil (as main culinary fat) and high consumption of plant-derived foods (fruits, vegetables, legumes nuts and seeds, and whole grain cereals). The answer to maintaining good health and avoiding obesity is simple and unchanging. Eat more fruits and vegetables, while cutting out (or at least cutting down on) processed convenience foods and sweets.

The human body is designed to move, such as hunter-gatherers chasing prey for long distances across the plain. The phrase “sitting is the new smoke” underscores the dangers of sedentary lifestyle. Sedentary lifestyle is associated with many chronic diseases that is predominantly linked to tobacco smoke. According to a Time’s magazine article published on January 18, 2017, “Sitting too much ages you by 8 years”. Sedentary lifestyle contributes to 300,000 preventable deaths each year in the USA alone.  Whereas regular physical activity is shown to be protective against many chronic diseases.

Therefore, understanding the dynamic nature of the human body and the interrelated and synergistic roles of diet and physical activity in controlling body weight can lead to implementing more effective weight management and avoidance of chronic diseases.

The dietary patterns of different populations provide insights into how indigenous populations gets into trouble when they abandon their traditional diets and active lifestyles for the Western equivalent.

Populations such as Eskimos and New Papua Guinea natives who live off the land have low incidence of cancer. Other countries such as Japan and Thailand whose diet is rich in complex carbohydrates and fruits and vegetables have lower cancer incidence and mortality rates compared to other Western countries whose diet is rich in red and processed meat, refined grains, sugar sweetened beverages, refined carbohydrates, and saturated fats.

Diabetes was virtually unknown in the Mayan population of Central American whose main staple diet was maize supplemented with beans, squash and chile peppers. However, beginning in the 1950s there was a shift from traditional culture to working in industry and this coincided with a switched from traditional diet to a Western diet rich of processed foods and high sugar content. Consequently, the rates of diabetes skyrocketed.

Similarly, heart disease was virtually unknown in Siberian nomads and the Evenk reindeer herders and the Yakut whose diet was rich in red meat. However, with urbanization and consumption of market meats containing chemical preservations instead of fresh meat from hunting and gathering, the incidence of heart disease has significantly increased. Today about half the Yakut living in villages are overweight, and almost a third have hypertension.  

These are but just a few examples of how a shift from traditional plant-based diet of complex carbohydrates rich in dietary fibers, fresh fruits and vegetables, and fresh meat or wild-caught fish to our modern-day highly processed diets rich in sugars, processed meat, saturated fats, high energy dense nutrients spells disaster for our health as demonstrated by increased risk to chronic diseases.

The good news is that these chronic diseases can be reversed by the adaption of healthy diet and physical exercise. One scientific study observed that when obese Australian Aborigines temporary reversed their Westernized lifestyle (by living as hunter-gatherers in their traditional country for 7 weeks), they essentially reverse their T2D risk. The evidence is clear that when contemporary hunter-gatherer societies adopt the “Western” way of life, obesity, diabetes, and atherosclerosis became a common place. Thus, if we can avoid modern westernized diet, we can reduce our risk to cancer.  

Another study from Marshall Island population demonstrated that plant-based diet and vegan diet can reverse diabetes. Diabetes was unheard of in Marshall Island about 80 years ago when the people lived off foods from the land. However, in recent years and as the Islanders relied on imported and refined foods laden with salt, sugar, and fat, this population has seen one of the highest incidences of T2D in the world. In this study, 169 participants were put on plant-based diets and/or moderate exercise. After 3 months intensive diet (low-fat vegan diet), markers for cardiovascular diseases and T2D were improved, such as fasting sugar levels was reduced, Insulin resistance was reduced, and CRP level was reduced. As much as lifestyle and dietary factors can increase the risk of T2D, this finding suggests benefits of plant-based diet in reversing chronic disease.

Various dietary patterns that have emerged over the years with differing benefits and harms. Some are ancient dietary methods that have gained renewed popularity in our modern world including fasting, the ketogenic diet, plant-based diet, and the calorie restriction diet. Fasting is a holistic (spiritual, psychological, and physical) challenge to the human body with tremendous benefits to human health. The principle of Fasting relies on an organism’s innate adaptive mechanisms and the ability to switch from readily available energy source (glucose) to stored energy (fat) during period of starvation and famine. A plethora of health benefits has been attributed to fasting. Favorable effects on several health-related outcomes including reduced inflammation, blood pressure, blood lipids, insulin sensitivity and biomarkers of oxidative stress. Scientific reports indicates that a wide range of chronic disorders including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and neurodegenerative brain diseases can be reversed by fasting.

The Ketogenic diet has gained enough momentum to become a trend particularly among young Hollywood actors and Silicon Valley tech geeks. Many people reportedly have dropped pounds and feel healthier and more fit, and other positive effects such as reversing T2D, improved HDL “good” cholesterol levels and controlling blood sugar levels, have been noted albeit with short term benefits. Calorie restriction diet by feeding 30% less calories than normal diet is associated with learner, healthy and younger looking, had less age-related diseases as well as had lower incidence of chronic diseases (cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancer) compared to individuals who feed at will.

Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) characterized by high intake of fruits, vegetables, and a low-fat dairy pattern is hugely successful in reversing and preventing hypertension. The DASH diet is flexible but emphasizes on reduction of salt intake, increased potassium intake, reduced alcohol intake.  

The overwhelming evidence support plant-based diet is the best for good health and prevention of chronic diseases. Some of the benefits of plant-based diet compared to meat diet is that plant based diets have the highest fiber foods, high phytochemicals, high antioxidants, low in fat, saturated fats, cholesterol free, non heme iron, no hormones/antibodies, no trimethylamine N-oxide, low chemical contaminants and no endotoxins. Plant-based diet is associated with good health and longevity.

We can profoundly change our health by what we eat. More importantly, we must pay attention to eating a healthy balanced diet of organic whole grains (5-6 servings); vegetables (4 servings), fruits (2 servings); vitamins, minerals, natural sugars); dairy products; meat; beans; polyunsaturated fats (rich in omega 3 fatty acids). Yet, many of the processed foods that we eat have been adulterated to improve palatability, texture, and shelf life. Organic food is more nutrient dense than these conventional foods and if you think that you cannot afford organic foods, think about the cost of medicine. We are in control of what we buy, and we must begin to choose healthy foods. Regardless of dietary preference, the overwhelming evidence support plant-based diet or Mediterranean-type of diet as best for good health.  If we can avoid modern westernized diet, we can reduce our risk to hundreds of chronic diseases.  

(Read more: Check The FATS! – Eliminate Chronic Diseases; Under review by Elite Publishers 2021).

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