Lots of carbs, little meat and minimal protein: It sounds like the kind of diet your doctor would warn you against. But for a native population in Bolivia’s Amazon rain forest, this type of diet, known as a the Tsimane Diet, protects these Bolivian inhabitants against heart disease, according to a recent study published in The Lancet. (1)
What Is the Tsimane Diet?
See, researchers have long thought that heart disease is inevitable. After all, even when they studied ancient Egyptian mummies, they discovered evidence of plaque in the arteries, signaling the presence of coronary heart disease. It seemed like as people aged, heart disease was something that would happen no matter what.
Until they began studying the Tsimane population, that is.
This group of indigenous people living in the Amazon live a lifestyle that harkens back to the pre-industrial days without electricity, cars or any of the modern conveniences that fill our days. And their diet is quite different than ours as well. Complex carbohydrate foods packed with fiber, like bananas, corn, cassava and rice, make up about 70 percent of their diet. The other 30 percent is split pretty evenly between protein, mainly from wild-caught animal meat, and fats.
A study of 705 Tsimane people found that the results of this diet are pretty astonishing. Atherosclerosis is plaque of the arteries, a sign of heart disease that increases the risk of strokes and heart attacks while impeding blood flow. Almost 85 percent of Americans 45 years or older have atherosclerosis.
But in the Tsimane, it’s nearly the exact opposite. About 85 percent of Tsimane over 40 have no atherosclerosis. The numbers look good as they age, too: Nearly two-thirds of Tsimane people over 75 years had no plaque in the arteries. With those numbers, an 80-year-old Tsimane person has the heart of the average American in his or her 50s.
What makes this discovery especially interesting is that the Tsimane people don’t score so well when it comes to other factors that we usually consider markers of health. For instance, they have high levels of chronic inflammation and low levels of “good” HDL cholesterol, which usually increase the risk of heart disease. When it comes to the Tsimane population, it seems that nurture vs. nature — or food and lifestyle vs. genetics — seems to win.
Benefits of the Tsimane Diet: What Makes It So Healthy?
What is it about the Tsimane diet that provides such impressive heart-healthy benefits? Let’s dig in.
1. There Are No Trans Fats
Our ancestors didn’t eat trans fats, and the Tsimane people don’t either. Trans fats are artificially created, genetically modified cooking oils, so they’re not found in fresh foods or foods with little processing, like rice or oats. But they are prevalent in highly processed foods, like cakes, cookies, deep-fried fast foods, margarine and anything made with Crisco. Eating trans fats raises your bad cholesterol while lowering the good levels, increasing your risk of heart disease and stroke. It’s also been associated with a higher rate of type 2 diabetes. (2)
In fact, one landmark study reviewed the published studies about trans fats, involving hundreds of thousands of people. Researchers found that people who ate more trans fats had a 34 percent higher rate of dying from any cause than those who ate less of the stuff. They also increased their risk of dying from heart disease by 28 percent and had a 21 percent higher risk of heart-related health problems. (3)
The Tsimane, with virtually no trans fats in their diet, don’t have this problem.
2. It’s Low in Sugar
In modern Western diets, it’s hard escaping sugar and sweeteners. Everything from bread to yogurt to pasta sauce has added sugars in it, and that’s before we even consider what sweetening, such as when we add honey to oatmeal or sugar in our morning coffee. The Tsimane, on the other hand, consume very little sugar. There are no modern foods with sneaky added sugars. Instead, the only sugar that the Tsimane people eat comes from the small amount of fruit they eat.
We know that added sugars increase the risk of heart disease. One major study that took place over 15 years found that participants who got 25 percent or more of their calories from sugar were more than twice as likely to die from heart disease compared to folks whose diets had less than 10 percent added sugar. (4)
The more sugar in a person’s diet, the higher the odds that person would die from heart disease. This discovery held true no matter a person’s age, sex, body mass index or physical activity level. That’s concerning, because while the American Heart Association recommends no more than six teaspoons of sugar a day for women and nine for men, the average we consume is 22. With very little sugar in their diets, and all of it coming from natural sources, the Tsimane have drastically reduced their risk of heart disease.
3. Obesity Rates Are Nonexistent
While there are people in the Tsimane population who are overweight, no one is obese. Compare that with America, where more than one-third, or about 35 percent, of adults are obese. (5) Obesity has massive health implications for a person’s heart and overall health. It increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, lowers good cholesterol while raising bad levels and increases blood pressure, all which increase your risk of cardiovascular disease. (6)
Treating obesity and getting to a healthier weight can help mitigate many of those risk factors.
4. People Are Highly Active
While this isn’t diet-related, it definitely affects the heart health of the Tsimane people. They spend 90 percent of daylight hours in motion. Now, we tend to romanticize the lives of hunter-gatherers like the Tsimane and our ancestors. They’re not out there running marathon-long distances or doing crazy vigorous exercise — they’re just constantly in motion and not sedentary, the way many of us are now. Between commuting to and from work, sitting at a desk all day, and binging on Netflix marathons to unwind, we now spend about 70 percent of our day sitting, and we know the damage sitting too much can do. (7)
Sedentary behaviors are linked to heart disease because your muscles don’t burn as much fat and blood flows through at a slower pace. One study even found that the more time men spent in cars or watching TV, the higher their risk of cardiovascular disease. (8) Being active also reduces your risk of type 2 diabetes and can help keep your weight down, positively affecting your heart health. While most of us won’t be able to spend 90 percent of daytime hours moving, it’s clear that taking a cue from the Tsimane people and getting up more can help.
Similarities to Certain Modern Diet
The Tsimane diet is most like the Okinawa diet, named after the island in Japan whose inhabitants have some of the highest life expectancies in the world. Okinawans eat a lot of rice and purple sweet potato and limit their consumption of meat, seafood and dairy to small amounts. Both diets focus on complex, not refined, carbohydrates.
Unlike refined carbs like cakes, cookies, cereals and other processed foods, complex carbohydrates take longer to digest, while refined (simple) carbs are packed with sugar. Complex carbs, on the other hand, have more nutrients. They are fiber-rich, which keeps you feeling full for longer, and are digested by the body much more slowly. That means there are fewer spikes in blood sugar, the way you peak and crash from simple carbs, and you’ll feel satiated for longer.
Carbs just might be experiencing a comeback!
Precautions with the Tsimane Diet
The Tsimane diet works really well for folks in the Amazon, but it might take some practice to get it right for you. While the heart health of the Tsimane was fantastic in the study, they still had high levels of chronic inflammation and “bad” cholesterol. It’s likely that their active lifestyle helped mitigate some of those effects. For those of us who aren’t quite as mobile, loading up on 70 percent carbohydrates is probably not going to lead to the same outcomes.
Additionally, while the high levels of chronic inflammation might not affect heart health, they could still have health repercussions in other parts of the body, since inflammation is at the root of most diseases. And as roads connecting the Tsimane to the “outside world” are paved, electricity comes to the area and shops stock up on sugar, vegetable oils and other processed foods, it’s unlikely that the Tsimane diet will remain as healthy as it is now.
Finally, it’s important to note that researchers don’t think it’s one specific thing that keeps the Tsimane’s hearts so healthy. It’s something about the combination of a high-carb, low-sugar, active lifestyle that keeps their tickers going, not any one thing in isolation. While that might sound disheartening, it does point to changes you can make in your own diet and lifestyle to ward off heart disease. Enjoying fiber-rich, complex carbohydrates like brown rice, quinoa and vegetables; spending a bit more time moving — think lunchtime walks, going to a co-worker’s desk instead of emailing or jogging on the treadmill while catching up on TV episodes — and working to maintain a healthy weight can all help keep your heart in top condition.
Final Thoughts on the Tsimane Diet
- The Tsimane diet, which is heavy on complex carbohydrates with minimal protein and sugars, has translated to exceptional heart health for the Tsimane population living in Bolivia’s Amazon.
- The absence of trans fat, diets low in sugar, a nonexistent obesity rate and days filled with lots of movement mean that the Tsimane people have extremely low levels of heart disease and are some of the longest-living populations.
- The Tsimane diet is similar to the Okinawa diet, which also includes rice and complex carbs with a small amount of meat.
- There isn’t one specific part of the Tsimane diet that protects their hearts. Instead, it’s likely the combination of several factors — diets low in sugar, high in complex carbs and plenty of psychical movement — that’s giving them the edge.
- While we might not live in the Amazon, we can replicate parts of the Tsimane diet by choosing carbohydrates rich in nutrients, adding more activity to our days, and giving the boot to added sugars and trans fats.
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