I have seen some bloggers cite the Masai as an example of a people who consume a diet high in saturated fats from animal products, eating no plant foods, yet have a very low average serum cholesterol (approximately 150 mg/dl) and little or no cardiovascular diseases.
Some have suggest that the Masai provide “proof” that humans don’t need plant products to maintain good health.
Do the Masai “prove” that humans thrive on a plant-free diet? No, not because they don’t thrive, but because they don’t eat a plant-free diet.
I recently read Wild Health, by biologist Cindy Engel, Ph.D. , who specializes in studying the health maintenance behavior of wild animals. Wild Health presents a lot of evidence indicating that wild animals deliberately engage in “non-nutritive ingestive behaviors” that appear to have medicinal functions. In other words, they go out of their way to consume items that have little or no nutritive value (clay, various herbs). I plan to write more about this in the future.
In the last chapter of this book, Engel discusses paleo diet and the deficiencies of agricultural diets. She notes that paleo people had higher intakes of phytonutrients even if they ate a meat-based diet:
“Agriculturalists select and domesticate plants for ease of cultivation and palatability. Over time they have chosen plants with fewer bitter-tasting or astringent secondary compounds, and these plants are inevitably more susceptible to disease. Modern crops, therefore, need more chemical intervention than wild plants, which retain their own defensive pesticides. Consuming modern crops is consequently very different from consuming wild plants, and when we eat the meat of domesticated animals fed on these domesticated plants, our total intake of beneficial plant compounds is far lower than if we had eaten wild game.”
Many people tell me they dislike the “gamey” flavor of wild game or, as Joel Salatin calls it, “salad bar” beef from 100% grass-fed animals. That “gamey” flavor disappears when we feed animals corn (witness corn-fed bison), because that flavor comes from the fat-soluble secondary plant compounds present in the green leafy vegetation eaten by wild or grass-fed animals. So a real hunter-gatherer would get a daily dose of “greens” via the phytonutrients in his meat, even if s/he didn’t eat a lick of leaves directly. (This is one reason I recommend regular consumption of green leafy vegetables, unless you eat only grass-fed meat and do so every day.)
Engel refers to the some papers by Timothy Johns, a nutritionist who has studied the use of herbs in the Masai diet. I got a hold of a couple of papers that Johns wrote:
Phytochemicals as Evolutionary Mediators of Human Nutritional Physiology, Int J Pharmacognosy 1996, 34:5:327-34.
The Chemical Ecology of Human Ingestive Behaviors, Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 1999, 28:27-50.
In these papers, Johns presents the following hypothesis:
1. Human evolution involved gains in brain and body size; increased ingestion of long-chain (omega-3) polyunsaturated fats, cholesterol, and total fat and calories; heating of fatty food; and greater longevity, all of which increase cumulative oxidative stress.
2. Meanwhile, increased reliance on meat and reduced reliance on plants decreased ingestion of exogenous antioxidants.
3. These two trends led to selection for “nonnutritive ingestive behaviors” as a compensatory mechanism for increasing intake of antioxidants, including the development of herbal medicine. In other words, they favored the development of the use of herbs as both dietary components and medicines, to compensate for the loss of plant secondary compounds due to the reduced direct reliance on plant food.
To illustrate, Johns points to the Masai (Maasai). According to Johns, Maasai usually consume meat with or as soup, using 28 different herbs to make the soups, using the herbs in levels that make the food bitter. They also add a dozen plants to milk to prepare a tea-like beverage called orkiowa. Such use of herbs occurs universally.
Screening of 12 of the Masai food additives found that 82 percent contained potentially hypocholesterolemic saponins and/or phenolics. The Masai, when questioned, state that a person would not maintain health without using these additives. They recognize the most widely used of additives, okiloriti (Acacia nilotica) as a digestive aid, flavoring, and nervous system stimulant (in high doses). The Masai’s appreciation of the digestive effects of these herbs likely relates to their ability to stimulate bile flow to emulsify fats in their high fat diet, lack of which would lead to diarrhea.
Plug “Acacia nilotica” into a PubMed search window, and you will find that this herb has strong free radical scavenging compounds, and displays anticancer, antimutagenic, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antifungal, anthelminthic (kills worms), antidiarrheal, and antiplatelet-aggregation activities.
Johns also points out that chewing of plant gums, resins, and latexes occurs universally. The Maasai use 25 different gums, and adults chew gum an average of 3 days per week, with a third of the people chewing daily. Of gums and resins used by the Masai, Commiphora africana (A.Rich) Engl., of the genus that includes myrrh, is the most important. Some research indicates that phytosterols in Commiphora mukul Hook. ex Stock have
hypolipidemic and hypoglycemic effects
It may also inhibit oxidation of LDL.
So, to eat like the Masai you have to use the full complement of herbal additives that the Masai use. They do not eat a purely carnivorous diet composed only of meat and milk, and the herbs that they consume may actually be essential to the success of their dietary regime from both an ecological adaptation standpoint and a health standpoint. If you eat milk and meat but avoid bitter herbs, you can't expect that you will have the same lipid profile or good health as the Masai, because you aren't eating like the Masai.
Since it appears that wild humans naturally and continuously ingested many plant secondary compounds, both directly from plants and herbs, and indirectly from wild game meat, and did so for millions of years, it seems very likely that human physiology adapted in specific ways to these components and now requires them to maintain normal functions. I find the hypothesis put forward by Johns fairly compelling as an explanation for the universal human use of herbs as food additives and medicines.