Maasai – What I have learnt from them about paleo and human dieting

I was watching a show called Wildest Africa couple of weeks ago and the episode 3 show cases – Ngorongoro (pronounced as “goron goro”). Ngorongoro conservation area covers 8,292 sq kilometres out of which 100 square miles is occupied by a crater, no kidding. By the time I was done watching this episode, I was in awe of Maasai people that occupy this region and it made me ask a much bigger question about our relationship with food and why humans have been so successful as a species. So bear with me for a few minutes and you will see that what we eat and how we live is an integral part of the environment we live in. Perhaps we need to look at a bit more than a cut and dry way of looking at food as dictated by some diets. Eating only raw fruits and vegetables or eat only fats and proteins may sound like just an imposition on what really should constitute a diet on which you can thrive.
Ngorongoro is a very unique place and one of highlights is Ngorongoro crater. From Wikipedia “The crater, which formed when a large volcano exploded and collapsed on itself two to three million years ago, is 610 metres (2,000 feet) deep and its floor covers 260 square kilometres (100 square miles).” So basically it’s a big hole and because of its unique geography, parts of it are forest, parts are open grassland and parts bush land dotted with trees. Words don’t do justice, here is a photo from Wikipedia.




Ngorongoro crater

Maasai who occupy a big area between Kenya and Tanzania, share Ngorongoro with big game animals.  You know, lions, cheetahs, bulls, rhinos, elephants.  Maasai are interestingly herders. They have herds of cattle and goats and you can imagine the relationship between these carnivore animals especially the lions and Maasai. Lions would love to eat their goat and Maasai will have none of it. So Maasai fiercely protect their herd and what I can tell you is that when Maasai men have the spear in their hands, lions have learnt to keep their distance from them.
Maasai and their herd

The rite of passage (used to be) for a young boy to become a man was to kill a lion by himself using nothing but a spear! Even if that sounds like a bit of hyperbole, these guys have been tested for their physical fitness and their strength were considered to be of ‘Olympian’ level. Young men often jump high like this to showcase their strength and agility.

Jumping high, showcasing their strength

400 Maasai men had their blood work done and none of them showed any sign of inflammation or modern chronic diseases like diabetes 2, cardio vascular or coronary issues. In fact, Maasai aren’t any different from other modern hunter-gatherer tribes in this aspect. None of them seem to suffer from diseases of civilisation and they all eat varying ratio of macro-nutrients. Let’s talk about Maasai diet. A lot of region Maasai occupy is arid and it’s pretty amazing how they manage to thrive so well on seemingly so little. Remember they are herders and they have relied heavily on their herd to meet their food and nutritional requirements. Raw milk, raw meat and raw blood. They even mix and blood and milk. Yep, you heard that right. This is what used to be the bulk of their diet. So as you can see, they get plenty of fat and proteins in their diet.




Which also brings me to the point that humans are obligated omnivores and this is a big reason why we have been so successful as a species. Wherever we have lived and whatever environment has offered, we have adapted to that and thrived on it. Humans haven’t insisted on eating only grass and vegetables and fruits (notice we don’t exactly have 4-cylinder stomach like cows) or being exclusive carnivores. If push comes to shove, we can live for long times as exclusive herbivores or exclusive carnivores. Now imagine a group of scientists walking up to Maasai and telling them that they have it all wrong. They should actually only be eating vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds and absolutely no animals fat and proteins. Or they should be on a low-carb diet – that is eat high fat and moderate protein and they may want to take it easy on tubers.  If I ever get a chance to spend time with Maasai I will just shut up and watch and learn from them.



Having said that, I don’t mean to say that we should eat whatever we want. In fact, you and I live a lifestyle that is nothing like Maasai. That is fortunate and unfortunate. We live in a made up environment which provides us with unlimited variety of foods – whole foods, junk foods, processed foods, toxic foods. We are encouraged by corporations to take the short cut and eat whatever takes the shortest time.  Maasai have lately incorporated Maize in their diet and they appear to be doing fine. But I absolutely don’t intend to start eating grains again. If you can live like Maasai, you can eat like Maasai. We on the other hand have to be careful about what we put in our mouths and what we do with our bodies. If you don’t think you are thriving, have a good look at your diet, sleep, stress and physical activity levels. For me, I have come to realize that I am thriving on a diet of whole foods – lots of plants – salads and vegetables, moderate high-quality meat, nuts and seeds. I like to eat as much whole foods as I can enjoy and no more. High quality dark chocolate, high quality and slightly processed oils and coffee also have a place in my diet. And ‘thriving’ is not an abstract concept or just a feeling. You can get the blood work done and know for sure that your bio markers confirm the awesome feeling. 

If you have specific issues you need to work with, LowCarbHighFat (LCHF) or high fat vegan or low fat is what you may need. I think it’s a big mistake to think that everybody in the world should convert to paleo or veganism or what have you. Basically eat from a list of foods and no more or no less. That doesn’t make sense because had we been like that, human species would have been extinct long ago.

Hola – I discover food

Hola!

In the final months of 2013 I decided to do something about a bit of belly fat. I was lean overall , some would say even underweight and so I desired a lean stomach too but that wasn’t the case.  And how did I go about fixing the issue: like every one thinks this issue should be solved. Exercise more, eat less. In other words, watch the calories and because we are heat engines and nothing more and nothing less, calories in – calories out == weight gain. I had been on this path for only a few days when out of sheer good luck* after a lunch of wheat rotis and Indian curry, which naturally make you feel very sleepy, as I lay on bed for an afternoon sleep, I happened to listen  to Jonathan Bailor of “The Calory Myth” on Fat Burning Man podcast. It kind of blew my mind as Jonathan explained how a calorie of food itself doesn’t have any context. How the impact of 100 gms of PROTEIN is very different from that of 100 gms of CARBS and which again is very different from that of FAT. They elicit different hormonal response.
In fact Jonathan seemed to be suggesting that we basically need lots of good FAT and good PROTEIN. 

/*
I call it good luck because in hindsight by focussing on just calories I could have damaged my brain, thyroid, cells and suffer muscle loss.
*/

This made me very curious and next I listened to Dr. Perlmutter of The Grain Brain fame. Dr. Perlmutter is very pro FAT and he went on to explain how FAT is the fuel your brain desires and keto adapted (which I didn’t understand at the time) state is ideally what you want. You should become a FAT burner from a sugar\glucose burner. I think at the time it sent my brain into a tizzy because I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that it’s not FAT which makes you fat but rather a combination of refined carbs and sugar mixed with FAT in the food. Grains were also pooh-poohed in the podcast and I couldn’t believe the wheat rotis I grew up on were not the health food I thought they were.

I kept listening to as many Fat Burning podcasts as I could even though I wouldn’t understand half of it.  However, a few things started to crystalize in my head like

– Not all calories are equal. They have very different impact on our bodies. So, quality of food is much more important than focussing on quantity of food.
– Being FAT adapted or KETO adapted seemed like a good thing. In fact, it seemed that good FATs were very important for us.
– Grains and sugars seemed to be big issue in causing modern diseases.

Over next few months I read books like ‘The Calorie Myth’, ‘The Grain Brain’, ‘Primal Body, Primal Mind’. Soon thereafter I discovered the works of Mark Sisson, then Robb Wolf and finally The BulletProof Executive podcast.  Because I kept feeling better and started putting on some lean muscle mass, it kept me very thirsty to constantly learn new things. When I look back over the last 14 months, I have gone from a typical westernized India diet built on bread, sugar, grains-beans-legumes curries to a diet of whole foods like vegetables, salads, meats, eggs etc. In fact, food is only a small part of this primal\bulletproof lifestyle equation. Sleep, stress, inflammation, fitness, movement, primal connection with nature are equally important aspects of the equations.

Food
 

In my next post I should talk about how I went through different stages of food-nutrition enlightenment.