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Nutrition Past and Future

TPNS 29-30: The Masai Model

Primitive Nutrition 29:
The Masai Model, Part I


The Masai tribe of east Africa are a favorite model for the primitive nutrition crowd.  It seems their attention is drawn to them by two publications.

The first is again Weston Price's book, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration.  Price related a unique Masai ritual.

They puncture the necks of their cattle to drain and consume their blood.

Visit The History Channel website and you can see this process in living color.  Here they capture the blood in a gourd.  Then they physically pound it into a gelatinous clump.

Here is what results. It's ready to eat.  Does it look appetizing to you?

I have yet to see a Paleo dieter eat anything like this.  There are drawbacks to consuming uncooked blood, as I'll show you soon.

It appears to me the other source which piqued interest in the Masai was this study, which indicated their blood cholesterol was low despite diets rich in animal foods.  Heart disease seemed rare.  The lead author, George Mann, did not conclude animal foods are somehow protective against heart disease back then, but some of today's primitive dieters will say just that.

Mann later examined the bodies of Masai men at autopsy.  He observed that although they did not develop lesions that might lead to heart attacks, he did note that their arteries were as thick and hardened as those of old men in the United States.  By this time he thought what saved the Masai from heart attacks was the larger diameters of their blood vessels, perhaps due to exercise.

Primitive nutrition bloggers have drawn their own conclusions.

Surely the atherosclerosis observed at autopsy was due to the intrusion of modern foods among some of them.  The thought that the meat and animal fat in their diets may have caused their atherosclerosis, which is the most obvious explanation, is not entertained.

George Mann's observations intrigued other researchers, who sought explanations for their low cholesterol.  It was shown that urbanized ethnic Masai who did not consume traditional diets were similar to ethnic Europeans in body size measurements, although their blood pressure and cholesterol levels were lower.  Perhaps genetic traits were part of the explanation.

Attention was also given to the dairy component of their diet.  George Mann tested the effects of the fermented milk products they consumed for lipid-lowering effects.  He believed special properties in their milk explained their cholesterol levels as well,

A recent study examined the bacteria in the fermented milk products the Masai consume.  These bacterial strains were shown to be able to survive the acidic environment of the stomach.  Could they then lower cholesterol?

Perhaps.  Under controlled circumstances, bacteria in fermented milk have been shown to lower cholesterol levels.  We might therefore say that in a sense, the Masai were on a natural cholesterol lowering medication.

Some plants can also be thought of as lipid lowering agents.  We know they can be almost as effective as statins.

The Masai recognized the medicinal properties of many plants...

So they may have benefited from this fact.  Most of the plants these researchers linked to the Masai diet could potentially lower cholesterol.

I'll offer one more explanation for the low rates of heart attack among the Masai.  They live on a plateau at high elevation.

High altitude lowers LDL or bad cholesterol...

and raises HDL or good cholesterol, so high altitude probably does protect against heart disease.

High altitude probably explains the low cholesterol observed in people living in the Swiss Alps ...

And people living in the Himalayas.

Recently it has been shown that high elevations are protective against ischemic heart disease, too.

No one was aware of the effects of altitude on heart disease back when Mann presented his findings in the '70s.  Not everyone agreed with Mann's belief that their dairy protected them, including these researchers, who I think really nailed what is probably the most important factor.  They just don't eat very much.

These researchers demonstrated that energy intake among the Masai was extremely low.  You will see a pattern in the material I present in these videos that low calorie diets regardless of composition improve blood lipids.  On a side note, you can pause the video if you'd like to read about how their grass-fed cattle added a lot of saturated fat to their diets.

This is further evidence of their very low energy intake compared to energy expenditure.

Look at pictures of Masai and it will be apparent to you that they have low BMIs.  Eat few enough calories and you might look like this, too, regardless of the plant to animal ratio in your diet.

Consuming raw blood probably means consuming parasites.  The Weston Price Foundation present themselves as concerned about prenatal nutrition.  You should bear in mind that one of their favorite so-called wise traditions cultures produced outrageous levels of sterility and infant mortality during Weston Price's era.  These people were heavily burdened by parasites. Somehow the Weston Price Foundation thinks this is a model for us today.

Here again is my slide to make the point that parasitic infections lower blood cholesterol.  We now have a list of factors contributing to their low cholesterol that includes genetics, bacterial strains in their fermented dairy, plant sterols, altitude, low calorie diets, and parasitic infections.  Yet the intransigent animal-food promoters ignore all this and simply choose to believe that animal foods don't raise cholesterol or cause heart disease.  Those are called confounders, folks.  You need to account for them.

They have another problem.  The Masai aren't the big meat eaters they want them to be.  That's just ahead in Part II.


Primitive Nutrition 30:
The Masai Model, Part II


The Masai diet is usually described as almost all milk, meat and blood.  Look at old accounts like this one and you'll see this is an oversimplification.  Only the young excluded other foods.

After the age of twenty-five, they then ate more vegetables and even grains.

This 1925 book makes clear that diets varied by age and gender and include flour.  These Masai weren't very committed to the Paleo diet.

But they definitely ate a lot of animal foods, so it is little wonder they needed to find some effective natural laxatives.

Even this old trade publication for the meat industry took note of their constipation.  Here they compare the Masai to a vegetarian tribe.  Quoting the article, "The carnivorous tribe, however, showed greater prevalence of intestinal stasis and of rheumatoid arthritis than did the vegetarian tribe."  Intestinal stasis is constipation, and once again, Paleo imaginings of animal foods helping rheumatoid arthritis are undermined.

The Masai are an unlikely model for the Paleo crowd.  They consume meat only on rare occasions. Most wild game is taboo.

Like other cultures that rely on animal foods, they inhabit marginal lands.  Droughts have forced them to practice agriculture these days.  In other words, the Masai are adapting to modern realities.  Imagine that.  Pastoralists adopting agriculture in response to changing facts.  How very human.  This foreshadows my Waking to Realities section.

As inhabitants of marginal lands, the Masai have religious beliefs that center around cattle, which are considered sacred.  Paleo dieters should note their view of carnivores.  They see them as gluttonous, competitive, and selfish.  Meat presupposes death and is therefore restrained.

Due to their marginal environment cattle are considered a capital good.  They are more valuable alive to produce milk.  Eating them would directly make them poorer and more vulnerable.

Once you understand how much the Masai valued their cattle, you can begin to appreciate their remarkable gesture after 9/11, when they donated 14 cattle to the United States.  I am quoting a line from this article now.   "As one elder told a reporter, a cow is a “handkerchief to wipe away tears”."

You may recall that Loren Cordain links dairy to higher levels of IGF-1 and cancer.  Did the Masai suffer from cancer?

Here is a survey that looked at various Kenyan tribes and their rates of nasopharyngeal cancer.  The Masai were in a cluster of groups with higher rates of these.

The tribes that suffered more than them were also dependent upon cattle and milk, such as the Nandi,

The Kipsigis,

And the Elgeyo.

Notice one tribe is especially low.  The Taita had only one case observed.  Maybe we should copy their lifestyle instead.

The Taita were effectively banned from hunting long before the survey of cancers was conducted.

Consequently, the Taita are serious consumers of healthy carbs from whole plant sources, including grains, legumes, and potatoes.

Only occasionally would meat supplement their high-carb anti-Paleo diets.  They have a dish called Kimanga that sounds fantastic.

Their diet was dominated by vegetables, beans, and grains, with very little meat or dairy.

Returning to the Masai, as I have shown you, they have very low BMIs, generally speaking.  They are also very tall.  This conforms with Allen's rule.  They have adapted to their environment over time to better dissipate heat from there lanky bodies.

Hard core Paleo Crossfitters who think they are following the footsteps Masai tribesmen should remember that the Masai men were known for their thin physiques.  After their warrior days, they preferred to just take it easy.

As I mentioned earlier, the Masai lifestyle produced difficulty with fertility.  Real Paleo-style seasonal stress is part of the explanation.  In their marginal lands, food shortages are a recurring problem. 

The Weston Price Foundation might be surprised to learn that milk was a taboo food for their pregnant women.  They deliberately avoided dairy fats.  They were concerned milk would cause their babies to grow too much, making for an unmanageable delivery.  They preferred carbs during pregnancy, instead.  This is not the only reference I found for this practice.

Here's another.

I wonder what Sally Fallon would make of all this.

This may have been a wise tradition indeed.  As you've seen, animal proteins do seem to increase ovulatory infertility.

And dairy does appear to increase birth weight.

Dairy also seems to promote height.  Maybe the height among Masai is partially explained by this.  Dairy does seem to make things grow, like calves, for example.

And cancer.

One final note.  George Mann, the researcher who first brought to light the low cholesterol of the Masai, let their example push him to the fringes of medicine, preferring to believe in saturated fat conspiracy theories rather than accept that other factors might be at play with the Masai. Here you see in 1979 he had marginalized himself.

Not that he minded.  He liked to argue.

As you'll see, the cholesterol deniers' beliefs are all over the map.  In Mann's case, he accepted that cholesterol was a contributor to heart disease, just not cholesterol from the diet.  He preferred to explain heart attacks as the result of a lack of exercise.  Of course, exercise is a good prevention strategy, but Mann's views of cholesterol in the diet have not fared well over the years.  He has not been the only one to be overly distracted by the Masai.  I hope these videos lay this outlier group's example to rest once and for all.

I'll look at one more Paleo model culture, the Australian Aborigines, in the next video.

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