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Nutrition Past and Future

28 Ancestral Cholesterol 2 

I’ll start my review of the lipid scores of hunter gatherers by looking at what a Paleo broscholar might consider the most ancient living populations, the ones that could be said to be truest to the roots we all share, and they are the Hadza, the !Kung, and the Pygmies. Mitochondrial DNA studies have placed them closest to the beginnings of the modern human genetic lineage.

Of course, we can't say they are authentically Paleolithic. Human evolution has never stopped. No modern humans are like Paleolithic humans because the Paleolithic humans died off during the Paleolithic. We only have modern humans now like you and me.

Nevertheless, if we accept the Paleo premise, these populations of Africa should represent the Paleo paradigm more accurately than any other populations. They have maintained their hunter gatherer way of life and they have probably stayed mostly in the same areas from where we all came. I think these examples are the best we can do if we are serious about looking for exemplars for the Paleo concept. Let’s first consider the Hadza. This paper from 1972 shows us the very low cholesterol scores of Hadza nomads. Notice that the highest number here for cholesterol is only 129.3. These are almost certainly the cholesterol levels of our ancestors throughout our deep history. How close are your numbers to theirs? How badly would a self-styled Paleo blogger with cholesterol over 300 fit in with this crowd? Such a low-carb poser does not have Paleo blood coursing through his veins.

By the way, please notice that their cholesterol levels did not rise much across age groups.

Comparing the Minnesota businessmen with the rural Japanese of decades ago, you can see which group had cholesterol patterns most like the Hadza. The Hadza were closer to the Japanese than the Americans referenced here.

There were even some Hadza whose cholesterol scores were between 40 and 55.

These Hadza were certainly not a bunch of vegans. They hunted all types of animals and they preferred the fatty tissues. The authors here questioned how much fat they really must have consumed with such low cholesterol scores.

Well, the Hadza may want a lot of meat, and they may chase after a lot of animals to get it, but they have a much harder time actually acquiring it than your average trendy urban Crossfitter. They have to mostly focus on smaller animals because the larger ones are so difficult to kill. It was found during this study that an average hunter was successful with large prey only once per month on average.

But that doesn't explain their low cholesterol scores. Imbedded in this paper the authors gave the real reason for the low cholesterol levels they found in the Hadza. They had varying degrees of infections, including malaria and worms. They also had varying cholesterol levels. Perhaps the former was explanatory of the latter.

The Hadza, legendary hunter gatherers that they are, were observed to sometimes go weeks without a kill or finding a large carcass to scavenge. For this reason, big-game hunting does not provide them with a reliable source of food. The next time a Paleo dieter tells you he's living a lifestyle like a hunter gatherer's, ask him if he's recently gone weeks without eating the flesh of a large animal.

If he is also the typical low carb Paleo dieter, you might ask him how much sugar he's eaten recently, including the often maligned fructose. Honey is very high in fructose. Allow me to follow this tangent a bit.

If a low carber says he avoids fructose and honey and other sweet things because he's Paleo, you might suggest that he explain his beliefs about hunter gatherers to the Hadza, who consume honey in large amounts. One of you armchair caveman bloggers should go tell them they aren't doing Paleo right. This quote says, "All members of the party consume large amounts of honey as it is taken throughout the day."

Hey, Hadza! You genuine hunter gatherers should know that Malibu-based supplement salesman Mark Sisson says there is no free ride with honey so back away from that hive! No sweets for you!

Loren Cordain says, sure, they liked honey. But they hardly ever got it. The bees would just keep chasing them away. Paleolithic man doesn't like bee stings, you see. That's simple Paleologic straight from the top broscholar. That seems really truthy so it's a convincing explanation for the Paleo dieter.

I don't know, Dr. Cordain. This study by Frank Marlowe found that nomadic Hadza consumed only 5% more meat than honey. Are you saying that for your low carb diet, one should eat similar amounts of meat and honey?

Are you saying that real hunter gatherers are afraid of the stingless bees that are the source of some of their honey? Can one be a broscholar without bothering to research hunter gatherers?

Let's return to lipids and consider the !Kung, who are also a population with especially ancient genetics.

Please notice where the !Kung live. This region of Africa, near Angola, will be discussed in my Point of Origin video.

Here are their cholesterol values as measured in one study. These !Kung did consume some corn, but their diets varied widely. They were called Bushmen by these researchers. This was from 1992 so their diets may not have been completely representative of their oldest practices. Their total cholesterol was given as 3.71 mmol/liter, which converts to cholesterol of only 143 in the form we use in the US, which is mg/dL.

We can find cholesterol measurements of them that are older than those. Here, as reported in 1968 by Stewart Truswell, you can see that their mean scores were between 100 and 121, with the range going from a low of 57 to a high of only 178. I'll just point out for any doubters that these researchers maintained constant refrigeration of their samples and used samples of their own blood as controls. These numbers are probably good.

Next we are up to the Pygmies of present day Congo, here referred to as Zaire, who are also especially ancient hunter gatherers. Loren Cordain has personally selected them as admirable examples of both body composition and cholesterol levels. You can see he recorded them in his table as having cholesterol all the way down at 106, the least on his list. I'm not sure if this was published before or after his flip-flop about the proper place of saturated fat in the eternal human diet.

Once again, we are talking about a culture found in Central Africa. This was their approximate location.

It is ironic that Cordain selected them because the old research on their cholesterol levels states that their diets were predominantly vegetarian and low in fat and protein. This is not exactly the message one gets from Cordain's many diet books.

He argues against vegetarian diets as his brain thinks it requires him to eat meat to maintain its proper human size. He thinks he would wind up with a chimp-sized brain without it. Cordain says he is meant to eat meat because meat allowed him to become the terrible excuse for a scientist that he is today. There must be a better argument for meat-eating than this.

The pygmies were certainly found to have very low cholesterol. This paper is especially noteworthy because the research team here was led by legendary diet-heart opponent George Mann. Mann showed us that mean cholesterol maxed out in older Pygmy men at only 110. With cholesterol this low, who really cares whether or not their LDLs were large and fluffy?

Here, too, it was found that real hunter gatherer cholesterol did not increase much at all with age.

This was not just a result of their mostly vegetarian diets. Mann extensively assessed their health and reported on the impressive collection of parasites they carried inside them.

He remarked on their poor overall health. For our ancestors in the rainforest, there were many challenges. The real hunter gatherer lifestyle wasn't all that the bloggers and diet book authors make it out to be.

Mann also traveled to Niger to measure the lipids of their tribesmen. They ate foods containing saturated fatty acids, including a few animal products and palm oil. They, too, had very low total cholesterol numbers, in this case 129.9.

Pygmies in Cameroon were also studied quite recently to measure the health of their arteries. They were reported to consume a diet high in complex carbohydrates like cassava and fruit.

They, too, were found to have low cholesterol. Their mean total cholesterol was found to be 149.

The authors noted that their arteries were remarkably elastic and healthy. They attributed the health of their arteries in part to their low cholesterol levels and high fruit and vegetable consumption.

My channel viewers know that I have already made three videos in which I've talked about the Masai, but I'd like to talk about them again in this video because I have more references to share and because they are such a favorite of the cholesterol confusionists. For this section I will go back and forth freely between them and the Samburu as they were such similar peoples from a dietary perspective. Here is Gary Taubes informing us that they ate a lot of animal foods yet they had among the lowest cholesterol scores ever measured. He uses a reference by a researcher named Shaper to support that statement.

This is the paper he referenced for that statement. As you can see, these are not among the lowest cholesterol levels ever measured. Compare a high of 170 for them to the scores for the Pygmies we just saw that were around 100. Gary Taubes likes to make stuff up, as you know. It's his unique prerogative as a respected journalist.

But beyond that, I once again wonder what his point is exactly.

He has already said that saturated fat raises cholesterol. Why does he contradict himself? Why doesn't he actually do a little research the way I have so that he might come up with a plausible explanation? The reason is, of course, that Gary Taubes isn't trying to understand this. He only wants to give his readers the false impression that diet-heart doesn't hold together as a hypothesis. He simply wants his readers to eat lots of animals like he does and he'll say anything to convince them to do that.

The Weston Price Foundation founders are invested in the example of the Masai as well.

The notoriously poorly informed but prolific cholesterol confusionist Uffe Ravnskov has trotted out the Masai model as well. He says their example tells us that it is possible to gorge on cholesterol and animal fat and keep cholesterol low. He doesn't have a reference for this. He has no science to support his claim whatsoever. He seems to imagine the Masai as rail-thin impoverished nomads who can belly up to an all-you-can-eat buffet with plenty of choice cuts whenever they like. In his incredibly undisciplined and illogical mind, unfettered by any influence of the scientific method, he has decided that the mere existence of the Masai should have sunk diet-heart. He includes the Samburu in this passage.

It is true that the Masai had relatively low cholesterol levels in this study, although not at all near the lowest ever recorded. Here they were at 174. The Samburu were at 226,  which is high cholesterol.

Here the Samburu were between 179 and 201 as measured by Shaper in 1963. Not so low for them here, either.

Taubes used a reference by Shaper from 1962.

In this reference from 1969, Shaper compared Samburu who were serving in the army - and who were therefore not eating their traditional meat, blood, and milk diet - with Samburu who were still in their home areas and eating their traditional diet.

Here, what are called the "Control" groups were those Samburu he'd measured eating their traditional fatty diets. The other groups you see, called "Group I" , "Group II" , and "Group III" , are for the Samburu men serving in the army. As you can see, off of their traditional high-fat diets, their cholesterol numbers were much lower. Even for African pastoralists, saturated fat raises blood cholesterol.

Here is Shaper making that explicit for me. "The total blood cholesterol"  levels were “all lower in the Army groups compared with their control groups."

I said in my third anomaly hunter video that I would talk about another study of the Masai further in this video. This is that study. George Mann found that the Masai had low cholesterol and a lack of obvious coronary disease as determined by electrocardiography. He therefore concluded that dietary fat does not cause heart disease.

Of the four hundred thirty-six men Mann's team examined, only three were older than 55. Mann wrote, "It is noteworthy that there were few aged men." Realize this is a model Paleo culture. Are these the demographics of a healthy community? No, the Masai did not send off their old folks to nursing homes. The fact that old folks weren't around meant that they were dead.

On this encounter with the Masai, cholesterol levels were found to be quite low, with no age group averaging above 130.2. Regardless of their dietary practices, the Masai studied this time did have typical cholesterol levels for primitive humans. They had ancestral cholesterol.

How would this be explained? You know the answer by now. Dr. Mann is an interesting character. He methodically tested the populations he encountered for diseases that might have explained their low cholesterol and lack of coronary disease. Notice that anemia was common for these true Paleo low-carbers. Anemia is Paleo.

Mann even wrote that these diseases "may have some bearing upon their immunity to cardiovascular disease."  He was so close to figuring this out! Yes, Dr. Mann. Their parasites were the most important explanation.

But Mann had his opinions and he wasn't going to change them. He said his study indicated that saturated animal fat consumption did not raise cholesterol. The low carber tradition of over-interpreting data goes way back.

You would think that the presence of intestinal parasites in practically all of his subjects might have signaled to him that primitive people like these were not quite like the folks back home. He wasn't exactly piecing together all the clues he was finding. He should have been more cautious about generalizing based on the example of the Masai. With what we know today, we have no excuse if we make the same mistake.

There are people out there who have watched all of my videos, and I am very grateful to them for all their time, attention, and support. I want to keep these videos fresh for them. Therefore, I am not going to repeat my other material about the Masai here. You should watch my other videos to get the full picture.

One thing I want to explore further in this video is Uffe Ravnskov's fanciful assertion that the Masai would "gorge" on cholesterol and animal fat. This is utterly absurd.

The Masai are historically pastoralist nomads. Unlike populations that might establish themselves along a seacoast or a river valley, the Masai had to keep moving to feed themselves and their cattle. They lived in areas with limited vegetation and water, high temperatures, and infections that would have affected their lipids. They, like the other hunter gatherers the cholesterol deniers like so much, lived in marginal lands, a point I made repeatedly in my Primitive Nutrition Series. Their way of life has been based on food scarcity. It's why they need their cattle, as the cattle can extract food energy from tough vegetation like grasses, unlike humans.

The Masai and another pastoralist people mentioned here were said to only consume between 55 and 75% of the food energy that was considered normal in the United States at one time. Please find this information in the second line. These people ate much less than the Paleo dieters who pretend to be like them. The Weston Price people are not likely to tell you that one of their model cultures were found to have high rates of anemia among their women and children. When Sally Fallon talks about nourishing traditions, do you think she knows that the Masai were undernourished and anemic? Is Sally Fallon calorie-deprived, too?

Even for the skinny Masai, variations in their food availability could cause them to lose 5 to 7% of their body weight on a seasonal basis. No, Dr. Ravnskov, the Masai do not show us how one can gorge on animal foods and have low cholesterol.

And may I remind you here that Gary Taubes faulted Ancel Keys for saying that they lived at a subsistence level. How ridiculous is this guy?

The Weston Price people will tell you that there are times when the Masai consume a great deal of meat.

They forget to also mention that this likely happens at the end of their dry season when their cattle are in poor condition and can no longer produce milk.

They also won't tell you that 62% of Masai were found to be lactose intolerant. The Weston Price people like to blame lactose intolerance on the pasteurization of milk but they can't use that excuse to explain the Masai's difficulties with it.

A very likely reason that the Masai were found to have relatively low cholesterol levels was their high rates of parasitic infection. Fortunately, the Guinea worm which once plagued them is nearing eradication.

A recent paper looking at the Masai deserves our attention. The authors stated here that meat and blood were not found to be their dietary staples, which is not what lazy researchers like Ravnskov and Taubes will tell you. In fact, blood has been said in numerous accounts to be rarely consumed by them.

This is a really interesting recent study of them. It was reported here that the Masai have in recent years modified their lifestyle to include more plant foods.

That's interesting but here is the really fascinating finding of this study. So often vegans are told that they are lacking in dietary essential fatty acids. I'll come back to this issue in a later video, but here notice that the fabled Masai were said to consume very low quantities of EPA and DHA, levels similar to vegans and vegetarians. Nevertheless, their blood concentrations of these fatty acids were found to be normal. The authors likened this finding to recent studies of vegans and postulated that the synthesis of these fatty acids is increased when they are lacking in the diet. At least with respect to their cholesterol scores and their fatty acid intakes, it looks like vegans are a lot closer to the Masai than the low carbers!

Their arteries weren't as healthy as those of health-conscious vegans, though. Despite their relatively low cholesterol levels and their hard work and their low calorie diets and their infections, the Masai were still found by George Mann to have considerable atherosclerosis, just like elderly American men. I never said that cholesterol explained everything. There is no substitute for whole plant foods.

Now I'd like to return to talking about Pygmy populations but in this case, Pygmies outside Africa. The Pygmies of Papua New Guinea were here said to lack any evidence of coronary artery disease. They also lacked our common metabolic disorders like obesity and diabetes. They had high triglycerides which should tell you something about the lack of importance of that risk factor in the context of low blood cholesterol and a plant-based diet. These Pygmies were said to consume a diet very high in carbs made up mostly of sweet potatoes.

Here they are preparing their sweet potato meal in a photo from a paper from 1964. There isn't a lot of food there. To the right you see a child with apparent kwashiorkor. I am thankful to be living in a society with plentiful food provided by agriculture.

In 1964, these Pygmies were studied in an effort to understand the effects of their sweet potato-based diet. This diet was said to be inadequate in sulfur-containing amino acids. They consumed only 15 to 35 grams of protein daily, and this is undoubtedly too low for optimal health.

Their diets were up to 95% sweet potato. The researchers noted the common occurrence of parasitic infections.

These Pygmies were not restricting animal foods on principle. They just didn't get them very much so these foods were mostly consumed on special occasions.

The Pygmies living in their traditional setting were found to have a cholesterol level of only 133.

This is probably why they were found to have practically no cases of heart disease. It certainly wasn't because they didn't smoke. Smoking was said to be almost universal among them here. Smoking doesn't seem to be quite as deadly in the absence of high cholesterol.

As I said when discussing the issue of poverty in my Cholesterol Confusion video, the cholesterol deniers can be incredibly offensive when trying to deal with the inconvenient fact that hunter gatherers in warm climates have such low cholesterol levels. Pause the video and read this slide and remember that these are educated people who have written this. First, they are at least partly correct when they say that diet does not determine cholesterol levels. Despite the false impression they are trying to give, diet is the most important determinant of cholesterol among people like them and you, but it is true that infectious diseases drive down cholesterol levels among hunter gatherers. The next line is where the they show their ugliness. They say low cholesterol is not healthy because it is associated with the health problems of the poor.

Here is my challenge to the Perfect Health Diet people. I dare them to go live for a few months the way those real hunter gatherers do. I dare them to go there without vaccinations. I dare them to drink the same water, eat the same food, practice the same hygiene, and sleep in the same shelter. They should be allowed to bring as much butter or lard or any other cholesterol-raising food they like. This will give them a chance to prove what they are suggesting, that high cholesterol is somehow protective against parasitic infection. If they do this little experiment, I predict that they will contract the very same infections as their native companions, and that they will have lower cholesterol levels at the end of a few months.

What these goofballs don't understand is that up until recently, it was not just low cholesterol that was associated with endemic infectious disease. Simply being a human meant you had these problems. This is my point. The puffy, well-fed, sedentary, parasite-free Perfect Health Diet people do not represent the norm of human history. They are the exception. They fail to understand that our historically exceptional circumstances are the cause of heart disease. Our artificially raised cholesterol levels are what make us no longer  "Paleo," in the cardiovascular sense, if you prefer to think about it that way.

It was recognized by Shaper, the man whose paper Gary Taubes referenced, that cholesterol levels in modern societies are artificially raised. He looked at primitive populations and concluded high cholesterol to be a necessary precondition for heart disease. Like Loren Cordain, Shaper looked around at undeveloped societies and saw an absence of heart disease coupled with low cholesterol levels. Unlike Cordain, he wasn't trying to make a buck peddling a fad diet. He didn't have to pretend there was a paradox. He simply recognized the importance of low cholesterol levels. When Taubes cites him, he is filtering out his intelligent interpretation of his findings. He didn't tell you that Shaper thought that high cholesterol was an artificial condition.

The stresses that would have affected our ancestral populations are the likely explanation for why we see people with genetic predispositions to high cholesterol today. With infections and periods of low food availability, genetically elevated cholesterol would have been protective to a developing fetus.

Also, the less severe form of familial hypercholesterolemia would have at worst had a neutral effect on evolutionary fitness because any heart disease it would have caused would have taken place after reproduction.

There are hunter gatherer peoples who don't have low cholesterol. Here I show you a herding population of northern Eurasia called the Sami. They used to be known as the Lapps. On the right, you can see that their cholesterol levels were quite high while eating animal foods like reindeer. These people are almost certainly not related to you. Even if they were you could not claim that your shared ancestry protects you from heart disease. In this study they are being compared to men in Finland, who are said to have extraordinarily high mortality from coronary disease. Their cholesterol levels were nearly the same.

The Swedish Sami here were said to have a similar risk for diabetes and cardiovascular disease as other populations.

Their traditional diet elevates their total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. Despite their greater levels of physical activity, they are equally at risk from heart disease as the people who surround them. Dr. Ravnskov, here is evidence that animal foods raise cholesterol and consequently the risk of heart disease in hunter gatherer populations.

Any references you may find which suggest a lower rate of heart disease among the Sami are likely to be affected by their low rates of contact with health services. The statistics on them are probably not very good.

The humans of ancient times do not make for a useful model of health for us today. It is almost certain that they did not live as long as us, and it is far more likely that they had lifespans that we would find unacceptably short.

Nevertheless, we should use the examples of hunter gatherers and undeveloped societies to help us understand how to live our lives for maximum health potential. We should look at the low cholesterol levels across poor African societies and link that with their incredibly low historical levels of heart disease. We should see what foods protected them and ask ourselves how we can live modern lives while maintaining ancestral cholesterol levels. We should think intelligently in terms of primitive nutrition.

The low cholesterol levels of vegetarians mimic those of the model populations for the Paleo dieters. This is why I consider myself to be a better representative of Paleo nutrition than the meat-pushing faddists of the low-carb Paleo herd. My cholesterol is way down there with the Hadza, the !Kung, and the Pygmies. I'm proud of that. These hunter gatherers reveal my true ancestral cholesterol. I am grateful that I can have the same lipids as theirs without the same hardships they faced.

To have ancestral cholesterol today, you have to adapt to modern times. This is an irony but it is also inescapably true. You live in a modern society and you will do everything you can to keep it that way. Therefore, you would be smart to get past silly dietary phobias and consider eating something that isn't Paleo, like soy. Soy is a great tool to help us achieve ancestral cholesterol.

If you want ancestral cholesterol, the cholesterol that starts low and stays low and keeps heart disease at bay, you have a choice to make between drugs and a plant-based diet. I choose the more primitive way. I will skip the modern pharmaceuticals in favor of the fruits and potatoes of my ancestors. I will combine modern nutrition science with the lessons of evolution, and I won't have to go into a bubble of denialism and delusion to do that.

You will recall that I found it interesting that the populations with genetics cleanly extending furthest back into our deep history are situated in equatorial and West Africa. After the next few videos I will tell you why. We will go to the other end of Robb Wolf's metaphorical football field in my video, Point of Origin. But first, we must take our knowledge of ancestral cholesterol with us into one last run through the confusionist research. The best of the low-carb and Paleo science, as cherry picked by a prominent promoter of Paleo and low-carb, will be exposed. "The Diet Doctor" gets a thorough examination, next.

(Incorrect transition. Point of Origin follows.)