Deep in the Amazon rainforest is an indigenous tribe known as the Tsimane (Chee-mah-nay). This 16,000 person tribe in Bolivia covers around 3,000 square miles of the jungle.
To survive, they depend on fishing, farming and hunting. And researchers have discovered they have the healthiest arteries on the planet. In fact, they are 5x less likely to have coronary atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) than Americans. Beyond that, researchers have never found this type of cardiovascular health in a single population.
To put this in perspective, an 80-year old Tsimane man had the equivalent “vascular age” as a 50-year old American. Researchers in this study found that only 3% of the Tsimane were moderate to high risk for heart disease and 85% had almost no risk! Compared to Americans they found 50% were moderate to high and only 14% had almost no risk!
Even when researchers looked at the Tsimane over age 75, they found 65% had almost no risk of heart disease, with 8% having moderation to high risk.
So what’s the Tsimane’s secret?
Certainly their active lifestyle is part of it. They spend less than 10% of the day sedentary. They are busy chopping through the jungle with machetes, fishing, hunting, or farming. But their nutrition points to another clue. They consume a high percentage of starchy root vegetables known as resistant starches.
Resistant starches are a starch that cannot be completely digested by the body. Instead, the bacteria in our digestive system break it down into short-chain fatty acids which increases mineral absorption, protects us from cancerous compounds, stops the growth of bad bacteria in our gut, and even helps organs outside the digestive system.
One of the most powerful effects is on blood sugar and insulin.
Studies in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Diabetes Medicine and Diabetes Care have found that resistant starches can help increase insulin sensitivity and reduce blood sugar levels after a meal. A 2012 study published in The Journal of Nutrition found that just 15-30 grams of resistant starches increased insulin sensitivity in overweight and obese men. This improvement was equivalent to dropping 10% of their body weight!
Resistant starches also create a “second meal effect”. When you eat resistant starches, not only do your blood sugar levels not spike as much, but this effect carries over into the next meal as well!
Here are a few resistant starches that the Tsiname people consume:
Cassava, also called manioc or yuca (not yucca), is a starchy root vegetable. In fact, it looks similar to a white potato. Many developing countries consume it because it is cheap, plentiful, drought resistant and can survive in the ground for up to three years. It is often made into tapioca or ground into cassava flour.
Critics of cassava will say that it contains very few nutrients and is high in calories. It does not have a ton of protein, but has more than yams and white potatoes. It also does not have a high concentration of vitamins and minerals, but it has a high diversity of them (including potassium, manganese, zinc, calcium, folate, B-vitamins, and many more).
And even though it is similar to a white potato and actually has higher calories, it is a low glycemic food. Meaning: it does not spike your blood sugar much- which is great for weight-loss and for diabetics. The same cannot be said of white flour, white potatoes and refined carbohydrates that most people consume on a regular basis. Plus, it’s grain-free and gluten-free. There are plenty of foods that are high-calorie and are healthy. High-calorie does not always mean unhealthy.
Cassava cannot be eaten raw so make sure to cook it and prepare it correctly. Cassava flour is easy to work with though and available at most grocery stores. You can replace it for white flour in many recipes (depending on what you are cooking). You can use it in desserts and treats in combination with coconut and almond flour. Chebe brand is one of my favorite mixes for cheese bread and pizza using manioc (cassava) flour.
Plantains also called “desert bananas” are extremely common in tropical areas. These banana-looking vegetables carry way more vitamins and minerals than other starchy vegetables (such as potatoes). Like cassava, they are gluten and grain-free. They are loaded with potassium, magnesium and vitamin B-6, A and C. In fact, a cup of plantains has 32% of your daily recommended amount of vitamin C. And 34% your recommended amount of vitamin B6, which helps heart health.
It also has more potassium than bananas. The USDA has found that most people don’t get enough potassium even though it helps decrease blood pressure and heart disease risk. Plus, according to research in The Journal of Ethnopharmacology found that plantains have compounds that may be anti-inflammatory.
Plantains can be found at the grocery store very inexpensively. Don’t be fooled though, it does not taste like a banana and needs to be cooked first. You can either chop it into slices and make your own plantain chips. Or you can just buy your own plantain chips.
What makes a food healthy?
Full of vitamins?
High in antioxidants?
Today people have different definitions on what constitutes healthy. And while different nutrition plans will feud over certain subtleties, one thing they can agree on is the reduction or elimination of processed foods. But what exactly are processed foods?
According to the International Food Information Council, food processing is “any deliberate change in a food that occurs before it’s available for us to eat”. So foods that are packaged or frozen are considered “processed food”. That doesn’t mean all processed foods are bad.
In fact, here are four categories of processed foods that were recently reviewed:
#1 Unprocessed or minimally processed foods
These are foods with plant origins.
This would include fruits, nuts, seeds, stems, or leaves). Or they have animal origins (fresh meat, eggs, etc.). When a food is minimally processed they do not gain any new substance, the only change is they may lose parts of the original food. So this could be dried beans, eggs, unsalted nuts, frozen fish, frozen meats, frozen veggies or frozen fruits, How much does the average American consume? 29.6% of their daily calories come from this.
#2: Processed culinary ingredients
These are ingredients that have been extracted from parts of food, purified or gathered from nature. Many of these have been pressed, milled, stabilized, or pulverized. Or they have other agents or additives mixed with them. These could be flours, sugars, plant oils or animal fats. Researchers found the average American eats 2.9% of their daily calories from these.
#3: Processed food products
These are foods that have things like salt, oil or sugar added to them to increase aesthetics and how palatable they are. Examples included foods that are canned or bottled with syrups, salts, oils or sugars or processes such curing, salt-pickling or smoking. So this would be canned fruit (in syrup), cheese, salted nuts, canned veggies, processed meats like bacon or ham. Researchers discovered the average American eats 32.6% of their daily calories from this group.
#4 Ultra-processed products
Okay, best for last. To give this description justice I’m going to use the exact quote researchers used:
“Typically contain little or no whole foods. Durable, convenient, accessible, highly or ultra-palatable, often habit-forming. Typically not recognizable as versions of foods although may imitate the appearance, shape and sensory qualities of foods.”
That’s a little scary to see ‘habit-forming’ as a description for food.
And what’s also shocking here is to see that they don’t even recognize them as food – even though they may look like foods, be shaped like food, and feel like food. Let’s continue:
“Numerically the majority of ingredients are preservatives… Bulk may come from added air or water. Microntrients may ‘fortify’ the products.”
“The majority of ingredients are preservatives” is very reassuring.
It’s also interesting to note here that micronutrients are added to ‘fortify’ the food. Micronutrients are any vitamins or minerals. That doesn’t sound like a bad thing until you dig deeper and find out that some of these vitamins are not being extracted from natural sources. For instance, vitamin B1 (thiamine) can be found in nuts, oranges or eggs. However, this vitamin is often created from coal tar.
So what makes up these Frankenfoods, also known as ultra-processed foods?
Examples include soda, chips, hot dogs, instant soups. Packaged salty snacks, chicken nuggets and cookies, pre-prepared meat and pasta, cakes, pastries, breakfast cereals.
Brace yourself. According to a recent study published in the British Medical Journal Open, the average American consumes 57.9% of their calories from ultra-processed food.
Not surprisingly, 90% of added sugar in the diet is due to ultra-processed foods.
So what does research say about ultra-processed foods?
Rev Up Your Appetite
One small 2019 study published in the journal Cell Metabolism found that when people ate high amounts of ultra-processed food they ate 500 more calories each day. That’s the equivalent of a Big Mac or a large Belgian Waffle. In other words, it caused them to roughly eat an extra meal each day.
By the way, what do the following foods have in common?
What do you think? Each one clocks in at 500 calories. Yes, only four slices of bacon. These are sneaky foods that can add quite a few calories to your day.
Harm Your Heart
A review of over 13,446 adults over the age of 20 looked at the impact ultra-processed foods have on heart health. Over the course of 2011-2016 they found every 5% increase in calories from ultra-processed foods resulted in a decrease in cardiovascular health. And people who ate 70% of their calories from ultra-processed foods cut their chance for ideal heart health by half!
According to nutrition expert Dr. Barbara Davis:
“Not only do people eat more and gain weight, but they don’t meet their nutrient requirements. So, essentially, we have a growing number of overweight and obese people who are malnourished.”
Tend to Contain Deadly Trans Fat
In 2015 the FDA declared that artificial trans fats were harmful to eat and gave food companies three years to get rid of them from their products. They estimate this move may prevent 20,000 heart attacks per year. That’s’ because the body is unable to break trans fat down. So the body ends up building it up in the liver and arteries. Even though trans fats are officially “banned” they still show up in many highly processed foods.
Increased Risk of Early Death
A study by the University of Paris looked at data from over 44,000 adults over the age of 45 over a 7-year period. This study found that on average 30% of the subjects’ daily calories came from ultra-processed foods. However, for every 10% increase in ultra-processed foods, their chance of death increased 14%. This increase held true even when controlling for factors like BMI, smoking, physical activity, alcohol consumption and total calorie intake!
With that being said:
What processed foods are you going to start removing from your diet?
Low metabolism can have many causes, but one of them deals with a certain type of fat.
People have two types of fat: white and brown fat.
White fat is what people typically refer to when they mention losing body fat. This fat is not very metabolic and is usually the culprit of health consequences. However, brown fat is quite the opposite.
It is very metabolic and when it’s activated, it tends to even burn white fat!
Typically babies have the highest amounts of brown fat and have less as they reach adulthood. Most people have pounds of white fat but ounces to grams of brown fat. And while white fat is stored primarily around the stomach, hips and thighs, brown fat does not have a predictable pattern (although it’s more often around neck and shoulder area).
Plus, research has emerged that shows brown fat may help fight off chronic diseases.
In a 2021 study published by Nature Medicine, 52,000 subjects were studied. Only 10% of subjects had detectable brown fat (seen via PET scans). And those subjects were less likely to have heart and metabolic conditions such as type II diabetes.
In fact, out of those with detectable brown fat, 4.6% had type II diabetes (compared to 9.5%) and 18.9% had abnormal cholesterol levels (compared to 22.2%). And they had lower levels of congestive heart failure, hypertension.
So what controls brown fat?
Researchers used to think that brown fat just disappears as we age. However, some research has shown that this is not the case. Exposure to colder temperatures can actually increase brown fat – and with that an increase in metabolism! In one study, researchers found that they could turn stem cells into brown fat instead of white fat with temperature change.
In a small 2014 study, published in Diabetes, five subjects stayed in rooms set for different temperatures for four months. They did their normal everyday activities and then stayed and slept in their rooms for 10 hours each evening. They wore the same outfits in their rooms. They used the same type of bedding. They all ate the same amount of calories that had the same nutrient density. Each month they had fat and muscle biopsies, PET/CT scans of the upper back and neck, and measurements on energy expenditure.
After a month of exposure to the cold rooms, subjects increased their brown fat by 42%! Plus, they increased their fat metabolism by 10%, had significant changes in the hormones adiponectin and leptin (metabolism hormones), and improved their insulin sensitivity after meals. And remember this was just after one month of exposure to colder temperatures.
So why does the cold cause an increase in brown fat?
A 2014 study published in Cell Metabolism opened up this topic even further.
Scientists have known that during contraction of the muscles, the body releases a hormone called irisin. Irisin can literally take white fat cells and convert them into brown fat cells. But they haven’t known exactly how this happens. In this study, they had 10 female subjects exercise on a stationary bike. Researchers found that during brief intense bouts of cycling, irisin levels rose. And during an hour of low to moderate intensity, it rose 3x. This demonstrated exercise’s power to boost irisin levels.
However, they took this study one step further.
This time they wrapped the subjects in water-infused thermo-blankets that progressively went from 80 degrees to 53. When this happened, subjects burned 48% more energy. And when they measured their muscular activity, they found that it increased by 88% for those who shivered (13% for those who didn’t shiver). Plus, the more shivering, the more irisin was released.
“Cold-induced shivering, which is an energy-inefficient mechanism, stimulates the highly efficient brown adipose tissue to maintain the core temperature of the organism”. - Dr. Francesco S. Celi
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