Researchers have identified the Tsimane people as having the healthiest hearts in the world. As expected, diet and exercise are believed to be responsible for the population's incredible heart health well into old age. What’s perhaps most surprising about their diet is how heavy it is in carbs.
A new study published in The Lancet details the research conducted July 2014 and September 2015. Scientists tested the coronary artery calcium (CAC) score of 705 Tsimane, a tribe located in the Bolivian rainforest. The test looks for signs of clogged blood vessels and determines likelihood of heart attack. A score 100-400 is generally understood to mean mild coronary artery disease is highly likely. The results from the study:
596 (85%) of 705 Tsimane had no CAC, 89 (13%) had CAC scores of 1–100, and 20 (3%) had CAC scores higher than 100. For individuals older than age 75 years, 31 (65%) Tsimane presented with a CAC score of 0, and only four (8%) had CAC scores of 100 or more, a five-fold lower prevalence than industrialised populations.
That’s right, 85 percent of the Tsimane subjects had a score of zero. How they manage to have such healthy hearts basically comes down to naturally doing what doctors generally recommend. They don’t smoke or drink. They walk between 16-17,000 steps a day. Even people over 60 were clocking in average of over 15,000 steps. To compare, the average American is believed to walk about 5,000 steps on an average day.
The BBC breaks down the Tsimane diet:
- 17% of their diet is game including wild pig, tapir and capybara (the world’s largest rodent)
- 7% is freshwater fish including piranha and catfish
- Most of the rest comes from family farms growing rice, maize, manioc root (like sweet potato) and plantains (similar to banana)
- It is topped up with foraged fruit and nuts
- 72% of calories come from carbohydrates compared with 52% in the US
- 14% from fat compared with 34% in the US, Tsimane also consume much less saturated fat
- Both Americans and Tsimane have 14% of calories from protein, but Tsimane have more lean meat
Yes, carbs have been demonised by fad diets for years and yet this group of incredibly heart healthy people primarily subsists on them. But that doesn’t mean you should just start eating loaves of bread all the time. Scientists appear to be more impressed with the level of exercise that the Tsimane put in.
“I would say we need a more holistic approach to physical exercise rather than just at the weekend,” Michael Gurven, professor of anthropology at University of California, Santa Barbara, tells the BBC. “The modern world is keeping us alive, but urbanisation and the specialisation of the labour force could be new risk factors [for an unhealthy heart].” Indeed, the study notes that as the Tsimane have been introduced to motorised canoes and processed food, cholesterol levels have increased.
Dr Joep Perk, a cardiologist at Linnaeus University in Sweden, summarised the study’s findings for Al Jazeera: “There’s a tendency to blame your genes for heart problems and what this study shows us is that you can’t blame your parents, just your lifestyle.” [The Lancet via BBC, Al Jazeera]