Early Humans Can Teach Us About Heart-Healthy Lifestyles

A closer look at Paleolithic lifestyle can give us some useful information on preventing chronic disease today.

You might think that, with all of our scientific and medical knowledge, the last place scientists would look for an understanding of our current health and disease patterns would be to our stone age ancestors who roamed the earth 40,000 years ago. Civilization has dramatically changed the way we live our lives, but there is one important thing we have in common with humans from long ago: our bodies.

Humans and animals adapt to their climates, food sources and water supplies, and can conserve vital resources such as energy and sodium. Our modern body is still adapted, in many ways, to the lifestyle of early humans who lived primarily as hunters and gatherers, hunting whatever animals were tasty and available, and gathering local plants.

How can these stone age people, who generally died at a young age, give us clues to healthy living? After all, only about 9 percent of these people lived beyond the age of 60. Leading causes of death included hunting accidents, infections and complications in childbirth.

Lifestyle lessons come from that small group of people who managed to survive to what we would call midlife. People in this group were generally lean, fit and quite healthy, with no evidence of the “diseases of civilization” that are the leading killers today: heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, obesity and cancer. These ancestors had dense bones and strong, lean muscles. Their teeth were healthy and free of cavities. A closer look at their Paleolithic lifestyle can give us some useful information on preventing chronic disease today.

Food and activity

Obesity results from an imbalance of food intake and physical activity. Scientists who have studied early humans believe that, for most groups, food was plentiful most of the time. Their leanness came not from starvation, but from the high levels of physical activity demanded by daily life. So the message for modern men, women and children is that our bodies were made to move. Our bones, joints, hearts, blood vessels and even our brains are healthiest when we lead active lives.

Heart-healthy fats

The meat consumed by early hunters was much lower in fat than the meat we eat today. Wild game was generally around 4 percent fat, and had higher levels of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Compare this to modern beef cattle, which has about 25 to 30 percent fat, much of it saturated, with negligible amounts of essential fatty acids. Early people also obtained heart-healthy fats from nuts, seeds and fish. To decrease saturated fat today, choose poultry, legumes, nuts, seeds and fish, rather than fatty meats and high-fat dairy products.

Fruits and vegetables

In Paleolithic times, almost all food came from the meat, fruit and vegetable groups. Although some wild grasses and grains were consumed, grains and dairy did not become major dietary components until farming was developed. The bulk of calories were obtained from a wide variety of plant foods. This high intake of fruits and vegetables (in some groups, around 3 pounds of produce per day) gave the eaters high intakes of vitamins, minerals, fiber and the helpful phytochemicals that reduce risk of heart disease and cancer.

We would do well today to increase our intake of fruits and vegetables, choosing a variety of colors in these foods. Also, choosing whole grain rather than refined grain products helps increase fiber intake.

Low sodium, high potassium and calcium

The average Paleolithic sodium intakes were around 1,000 mg per day, less than one-fourth of the U.S. average. Plenty of plants gave early people high intakes of potassium and even calcium (1,900 mg per day). Modern people would have a hard time achieving such a high calcium intake from plant foods alone, and might also need to turn to low fat and nonfat dairy products, or calcium-fortified foods and supplements.

Thirsty? Try water

Health can improve with increased water intake, and a decreased intake of most other beverages, which add sugar and empty calories to the diet. The Paleolithic diet had no added sugar, except for occasional use of honey, when available. Medical experts agree that, for many people, decreasing intake of added sugars improves blood sugar control and helps prevent obesity.

Barbara A. Brehm, Ed.D., is professor of exercise and sport studies at Smith College, Northampton, Mass.

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