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.
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