Mind and Body
How the Tsimané of Bolivia Stay Heart-Healthy, Despite a 2,700-Calorie Diet
Members of the Tsimané, an indigenous population in the Bolivian lowlands of South America, pound down more calories per day than a typical American while still boasting some of the healthiest hearts in the world. This has made the group the envy of industrialized society, but researchers who have been investigating them for decades warn that most people should still be wary about breaking out the Tsimané cookbook.
The typical Tsimané 80-year-old has the heart health of an American in their mid-fifties, a study published in The Lancet last year reported. That heart health is in spite of the fact that they consume between 2,433 to 2,738 calories per day, which UC Santa Barbara anthropologist Michael Gurven, Ph.D. identified in his most recent paper, published October 31 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Gurven goes deep on the aspects of the Tsimané diet, illuminating that, strangely, their diets aren’t incredibly healthy, though we can still learn a thing or two from their lifestyle.
Gurven first encountered the Tsimané in 1999, long before he knew anything about the group’s healthy hearts, and he’s been investigating them ever since.
What Do the Tsimané People Eat?
Gurven’s paper shows that the Tsimané eat around 152 different types of foods, but that the bulk of their calories come from plantains, rice, manioc root, and corn, which are all grown in small gardens. These are supplemented with some wild game, like peccary and coatimundi, or fish, and the occasional swig of a beer-like drink that’s made from fermenting manioc root. In total, their diet breaks down to 64 percent complex carbohydrates, 21 percent proteins, and 15 percent fats.
“One thing this shows is, look, here’s a population without heart disease, and they have a really high percentage of carbs in their diet,” Gurven tells Inverse. “They’re definitely not paleo, they’re definitely not Atkins, they’re not keto.”It lo
The Tsimané didn’t accidentally invent a fad diet, and there may even be some aspects of their eating habits that could be replicable for industrialized societies. Gurven’s paper points out that the Tsimané diets are rich in micronutrients that have been linked to heart health, like potassium, magnesium, and selenium. The Tsimané diets also tended to have between 1.5 and 2 times more fiber than US ones, which may confer some protection from cardiovascular disease. But they also tended to consume far less vitamin D, E, and K.
What Don’t the Tsimané People Eat?
Perhaps just as importantly, the paper points out the things that the Tsimané don’t eat, like large amounts of processed sugar or salts, which are common in American diets. But on the whole, Gurven adds that the adopting a Tsimané diet probably still wouldn’t help most Americans, because it’s not so much about what they eat. Instead, the secret lies in how they burn it off.
How the Tsimané People Burn So Many Calories:
Several years ago, Gurven had the Tsimané wear heart rate monitors and step counters: The average Tsimané adult walked 17,000 steps a day. A 2010 report in Medicine and Science In Sports and Exercise found that the Average American takes just about 5,117 steps per day.
“Just based on calories, the Tsimané eat more than most Americans do, and they’re about 60 percent of the size of most Americans,” he says. “But, they’re way more physically active. A lot of that daily activity is physical subsistence work, it’s not running for it’s own sake. If anything that probably keeps people healthy in spite of certain aspects of their diet.”
An active lifestyle borne of necessity may give the Tsimané a bit of wiggle room when it comes to their diet. But Gurven adds that there may be another, more sinister source of energy expenditure. The Tsimané are often afflicted with certain types of infections or parasites, like worms, that are borne of living in certain isolated rural areas. Gurven estimates that about 10 percent of their daily energy intake is actually used up by their immune systems to fight off these dangerous invaders:
“If you eat a 2,000 calorie diet a day, imagine 200 calories just going to help your body keep all the micro-critters at bay. I tell my students it’s the tropical forest diet: eat whatever you want and you’ll still lose weight,” he jokes.
So while trying to take a few more steps during the day is probably attainable, trading in modern medicine to expend energy fighting off parasites isn’t likely a great idea either. But the next time you’re faced with the decision to take the elevator or the stairs, Gurven suggests you call to mind the Tsimané, who have been walking off the consequences of a high-calorie diet for hundreds of years.
“Obviously we can’t live like hunter-gatherers,” he says. “What we can show is, wow, lifestyle differences really can make a difference.”