When It Came to Eating Right, Did Hunter Gatherers Have the Right Stuff?

Yes, they lacked indoor plumbing, permanent settlements and elevated manners when it came to eating, but our hunter-gatherer ancestors may have eaten a diet that can help modern people combat metabolic syndrome and even type 2 diabetes.

That’s the hypothesis of Dr. Umesh Masharani, an endocrinologist at the University of California at San Francisco. He and his colleagues are looking into the benefits of the diet our ancestors ate during the Paleolithic Era more than 10,000 years ago, before the invention of agriculture.

Until then, our distant kin ate what they could hunt or gather. The result was a diet high in wild plants, with variable amounts of meat thrown in. It was, overall, a reasonably low-fat diet that required human digestive systems to work hard to extract nutrients. The pancreas and the body’s insulin-producing capabilities were never overwhelmed by a sudden sugar onslaught.

But that changed when humans domesticated animals, grains and other plants, and settled down in villages and cities. Their new, sedentary lifestyle provided them with unheard-of new foods: processed meat, high-fat dairy products, refined grains and legumes that added an abundance of saturated fat, simple sugars and salt to the human diet. Since then, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes have been a recurring burden on humanity.

Dr. Masharani and his team theorize that the Paleolithic diet of lean meats, fruits, vegetables and nuts could help prevent or treat metabolic syndrome and all of its related health challenges. They think the diet could result in improvements in glucose control, insulin resistance, blood pressure and lipids. 

Additionally, because the diet is rich in antioxidants, Dr. Masharani expects that oxidative stress will be reduced and endothelial function will be improved at the cellular level—helping to reduce cardiovascular disease risk in patients. 

His team plans to recruit 24 patients with type 2 diabetes to participate in an open-labeled, randomized diet intervention study. One half will follow the standard American Diabetes Association diet, and the other half will follow the Paleolithic diet.

More information about this study

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