Pygmies Stop Prediabetes with Food and Exercise

hunter-gatherer paleo diet for cardiovascular health in pre diabetes and metabolic syndrome x managementThe regular readers of Nutrientology know that we typically take an ancestral approach to exercise, food, nutrition and lifestyle when thinking about a starting point for a conversation about these topics, whether they pertain to preventing or stopping prediabetes or not.  This is simply the way science works – the present is considered in the context of the past.

There are a number of anthropology studies looking at the lifestyle and diet of traditional isolated hunter-gatherer populations. These cultures often live in an environment similar to that in which our human design evolved over time.  They can therefore offer some insight into the impact of diet, lifestyle, and the general nutritional environment on our health.

What Can Pygmies Tell Us About Preventing or Stopping Prediabetes?

First of all, I know that sounds like a strange heading, but bear with me. African Pygmies are an example of an isolated culture that we can observe to get some insight into our cultural and biological past. This is a group that lives a hunter-gatherer lifestyle  associated with a low risk of hardening of the arteries. This appears to be due at least in part to their healthy body weight, blood pressure, and blood fats (lipids).

I have previously posted on the forager-farmer Tsimane people of Bolivia. They are another isolated culture that is avoiding prediabetes, diabetes and cardiovascular disease that is so common in our modern society. Similar to the results found in the Tsimane, the Pygmy people of Africa have also demonstrated better cardiovascular health than our industrialized contemporary population.

In anthropology, a Pygmy is a member of hunter-gatherer people characterized by their short height. They are found in central Africa as well as some parts of Asia. Pygmy tribes strive to maintain their own culture despite interaction with neighboring tribes and the encroachment of more contemporary cultures. I found an interesting website depicting pygmy culture here.

Go to the website and observe this group like an anthropologist for a minute.  The images of the people show most to be rather lean and muscular. This is a body type highly consistent with cardiovascular fitness and good metabolic health.  This is a body type that prevents or stops prediabetes, has a good blood pressure, good blood fat levels and good cardiovascular health, including good blood flow to the feet and legs that is so important to keep you moving, healthy and independent into your senior years.

It is a repeated theme in the anthropological nutritional literature that isolated cultures that gather and grow what they need to survive appear to have lower cardiovascular risk than more modern societies. They do not have a life that is the “picture of health” by any means –  for one, there are many parasitic diseases that run through these primitive cultures – but they have a health status that avoids obesity, overweight, prediabetes and diabetes, and all their related medical conditions.

hunter gatherer campWhen you think about how well they do without all the modern-day conveniences it is eye-opening.  These cultures are eating “real food.” I have previously described this food as “offspring” since it is directly derived from “parents.”  It is not processed, manufactured, and packaged on an assembly line.  I realize this sounds a bit bizarre, when considered in the context of our contemporary culture, but real food is indeed food that had parents…Perhaps this language may turn some people off  because we have become so separated from the land?

Before the industrial revolution I am certain that concept wouldn’t have registered a blip on the “offensive scale.”

In addition to the food that is ultimately eaten, the physical activity that goes into hunting, gathering, and preparing the food certainly plays a role in pygmy cardiovascular health.  You do not have to become a hunter-gatherer or grow your own food in order to obtain the cardiovascular benefit of eating real food and engaging in some occasional exertion-movement. Simply buy real food at the grocery store, and move around during the day.  Exert yourself on a regular basis, it’s good for you.

Hunter-Gatherer Pygmies, Cardiovascular Health and Preventing or Stopping Prediabetes-Metabolic Syndrome

A study published in Hypertension: Journal of the American Heart Association looked at the health of pygmies by measuring 3 areas associated with the cardiovascular disease found in prediabetes-metabolic syndrome.

Namely,

  • how stiff their arteries were as a measure of atherosclerosis (“hardening of the arteries”)
  • blood pressure
  • lipid (blood fats and cholesterol) levels

cardiovascular disease in prediabetesResearchers looked at these indicators of cardiovascular health between three groups living in Camaroon in west central Africa:

  • 20 traditional pygmies living out a hunter-gather lifestyle.
  • 20 more contemporary pygmies who migrated to a semiurban area.
  • 22 more modernized Bantou farmers sharing the same environment.

Although I am sure these three groups had some differences in their lifestyle, I believe the study would have been more telling had it compared the pygmies to an urban population such as 20 people from Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, or how about 20 people from New York or London.

The study found that traditional hunter-gatherer Pygmies who remained isolated from civilization had less “hardening” of their aorta artery compared with Pygmies living in a more contemporary environment or the more modern Bantu farmers in that same environment. (Although significance was reduced when adjusted for body weight.)

Traditional Pygmies had:

  • lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C)
  • higher high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C)

than the Bantou farmers.

Blood pressure and heart rate were similar in all three groups.

The differences in arterial stiffness were not substantial, nevertheless the authors concluded:

hunter-gather lifestyle is associated with low atherosclerosis risk translated by lower aortic stiffness attributed at least partly to low (body) weight and blunted effects of aging and blood pressures on traditional pygmy arterial structure and function.

The study suggests that the atherosclerosis that appears to develop as a consequence of aging in our contemporary industrialized culture is apparently lessened by a traditional diet of plants and meat along with a lifestyle of movement and occasional exertion.  I am sure their internal circadian clocks are also more in sync than ours.  They enjoy the health that comes with going to sleep when it gets dark and waking up when it’s light, but that’s a post for another day.

Lifestyle factors specific to hunter-gatherers might explain the minimal increases in blood pressure in the Tsimane that I have written about, and the low atherosclerosis risks in the traditional Pygmies.

These factors include:

  • physical activity
  • low stress levels
  • diets of vegetables, simple starches (yams), meats, and fruits

It’s not all that hard to control your body weight…Learn from the pygmies and other traditional hunter-gatherer cultures to help prevent, stop or reverse prediabetes. They are a surrogate for our evolutionary history, and can help us understand diet, food and movement in a context that is consistent with our evolutionary design.

Self-Apply the Pygmalion Effect to Help Prevent, Stop or Reverse Prediabetes

your personal certificate of achievementThe words pygmalion and pygmy do not have anything to do with one another, but they sound like they should, so what better place to talk about applying the “pygmalion effect” to your effort to stop and reverse prediabetes than in a post about the health of pygmies?  🙂

The pygmalion effect was first described by Robert Rosenthal. Simply put, it describes the phenomenon of the positive influence of expectations on those who are expected to perform a certain way.  Robert Rosenthal put it this way, “what one person expects of another can come to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

So how does this apply to your effort to improve your health, stop prediabetes and avoid the immobilizing complications of diabetes that I see on a regular basis?

  • Set positive expectations for yourself in your effort to prevent or stop prediabetes.
  • Be kind to yourself and stop blaming yourself for your current health condition.
  • Learn what you can about the steps you can take to gain better health, including a healthy blood sugar level, blood pressure and body weight. Reading Nutrientology is a great start!  😉
  • Give yourself a break…If you go off track a little bit, and have a lapse in your healthy lifestyle to prevent or stop prediabetes, don’t condemn yourself. Think about what happened and what positive steps you can take to resume a healthy lifestyle.
  • When you do have a good day of eating healthy real food, moving and sleeping well, congratulate yourself.

For those of you who want to hear Robert Rosenthal talk about the Pygmalion Effect as it applied to his original work in the classroom setting, check out the 6 minute video below:

If you are a member of a healthcare field, or otherwise have a special knowledge in the area of nutritional supplements, movement or food, and you would like to share your knowledge with the Nutrientology family, go here. We’d love to hear from you.

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About Robert Creighton

Dr. Creighton is a podiatrist and foot surgeon with over 26 years in podiatric practice treating thousands of patients afflicted with the physiological, physical, and psychological side effects and complications of diabetes and pre-diabetes metabolic syndrome. He believes these disorders present a pressing public health concern that need to be more actively addressed in a multidisciplinary way. Dr. Creighton graduated from what is now the Temple University School of Podiatric Medicine after receiving his undergraduate degree in Biology. He is certified by the American Board of Foot and Ankle Surgery, a member of the American Public Health Association, an American College of Sports Medicine certified personal trainer and a Member of the American Nutrition Association.

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