Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Paleo Diet Analysis: Kitavan Analogue Diet

This weekend I spent some time reading Stephan Guyenet's excellent series of posts on the Kitavans, along with parts of Staffan Lindeberg's website and book Food and Western Disease: An Evolutionary Perspective, which also contain information on the Kitavans.

The Kitavans display exceptional health and live well into their 90s without heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, or other diseases of civilization. They eat eat a diet composed primarily of tubers (sweet potatoes, cassava, yam, taro), coconut, fruit (bananas, guava, watermelon, pineapple), vegetables, and fish. Far from a low carbohydrate or high animal protein diet, this supplies 69% carb, 21% fat, 10% protein. They maintain immunity to modern diseases and have low insulin levels (almost half those of Swedes).

I decided to create a Kitavan diet analogue for analysis. They have an average caloric intake of 2200 kcal per day, so I aimed for that figure and incorporated the foods Lindeberg lists as their staples (above). The food list looks like this (click on images to enlarge for ease of reading):

The diet supplies 376g carbohydrate, 63g fat, and 64g protein.  The macronutrient analysis looks like this:

By energy, 66% carbohydrate, 24% fat, 10% protein, close enough to Lindeberg's reported 69:21:10 to serve as a valid measure.  It contains 52g saturated fat and supplies 20% of calories as saturated fat, again not significantly different from Lindeberg's reported 17% of calories from saturated fat.  Polyunsaturates and monounsaturates each contribute only 1% of calories.

Kitavans, photo source:  Staffan Lindeberg

The four fruits (one serving of each) supply about 72g of the total carbohydrate, which would mean an intake of about 36g of fructose.  Since the Kitavans have low insulin levels and don't have heart disease, cancer, diabetes, dementia, or any other disorder, they seem to provide evidence against the claim that more than 15g/d of fructose causes insulin resistance, etc.

The micronutrient analysis looks like this in tabular then graphic display:

The menu shows shortages in vitamin D and calcium.  Kitavans get plenty of sunshine so don't need dietary vitamin D.  My analysis assumed that they don't consume soft fish bones or make broth from fish bones, probably an incorrect assumption, and also does not account calcium they may get from drinking water (mineral waters can supply up to 500mg per liter), so their calcium intake probably exceeds the level in this menu.

 Kitavan fisherman, photo source:  Staffan Lindeberg 

One note about zinc:  Two thirds of the zinc supplied by this menu comes from one single oyster. Oysters supply 150mg of zinc per 100g serving, so a Kitavan needs only one oyster daily to bring the zinc level to well above recommended levels. 

In short, the Kitavan diet easily supplies all the essential nutrients at recommended levels, and affords a high immunity to modern diseases along with excellent longevity, without a high protein or low carbohydrate intake.


Chris Kresser said...

I get that this diet worked for the Kitavans, but I'll tell you right now that if I ate what you roughed out in your analog Kitavan diet I'd feel like cr#p!

What I take away from the Kitavan study (along with studies of other primitive diets) is that there's a fairly wide range of food humans can thrive on.

They all share this in common, though: no industrial seed oils and no refined grains or sugars.

undertow said...

Excellent post, more evidence against unnatural PUFA's being the main culprit in the metabolic syndrome. I think that once someone overcomes metabolic syndrome issues/symptoms, sucrose (unrefined or fruit) could be added back to a diet that is very low in PUFA's and adequate vitD is available.

Message needs to get out; eat real food, seed oils are not natural food.

Ned Kock said...


The Kitavans are one ore many examples of what seems to be a general rule.

When we look at various hunter-gatherer and also isolated groups that were apparently free of diseases of civilization prior to westernization, there is a common denominator.

That common denominator was not diet, as Weston Price showed us. That common denominator was arguably the fact that they had relatively low body fat. As a result, they had elevated levels of the protective hormone adiponectin:

gn said...

"they seem to provide evidence against the claim that more than 15g/d of fructose causes insulin resistance"

is it plausible to suppose there is some genetic / racial differences in how humans deal with fructose load?: so, perhaps, constant fructose consumption won't make any damage to dark-skinned kitavans living in tropical climate (constant summer) for hundreds of genereations, but will be detrimental to people of european descent whose ancestors had fructose supply only in late summer and fall seasons? there is a new post by Mark Sisson which somehow implies that:

madMUHHH said...

Thanks for that post, Don!
I've tried to orient myself to Kitavan ratios because I think I do waayy better on that.
Nice to see how a practical replication of the Kitavan diet could look like.

Oh, and btw, pretty much all your posts are superb. I really enjoy reading your stuff.

J. A. Deep said...

Don, Great work here. Do you have a sense from your reading whether Kitavans use any special preparation for their carbohydrate sources, for example, fermentation, cooking times or temperatures, food and spice combinations, or even rituals of preparation? (Especially interested the preparation of tubers and coconut?)

Like the examples you mention of sunshine, water and fish bones, are there other ways that the bioavailability of micronutrients in "modern" carbohydrate sources might be reduced, compared to the Kitavan?

One advantage of grass-fed animals and wild-caught seafood, like the Kitavan's oysters that you mention, is that the micronutrients are more likely to be bioavailable, in a form we are evolved to use -- all the complex food processing done by our prey!

malpaz said...

ehh i think their diet looks incredibly monotonous.. i mean between tarro, cassave, pumpkin, sweet potato...stuff all relatively tastes the same...bleh... seems like a massive vitamin A overload too but maybe not

zach said...

This just goes to show how bad industrial oils, white flour and refined sugar are. I agree with Chris though, I would be very hungry on their diet, and not feel very well. Fruit makes me hungry. Hungry for more sweet especially.

Don said...

Chris and Undertow,

Good observations.


Does low body fat protect against tooth decay, maloclussions, diabetes, heart disease, dementia, and cancer?

Does low body fat occur independent of diet composition?

Weston Price clearly disagreed with your statement that diet was not a common denominator among these groups. In chapter 15 of NPD he wrote:

" There are certain characteristics of the various dietaries of the primitive races, which are universally present when that dietary program is associated with a high immunity to disease and freedom from deformities. In general, these are the foods that provide adequate sources of body-building and body-repairing material. The use by primitives, of foods relatively low in calories has resulted in forcing them to eat large quantities of these foods, in order to provide the heat and energy requirements of the body. The primitives have obtained, often with great difficulty, foods that are scarce but rich in certain elements. In these rare foods were elements which the body requires in small quantities, including minerals such as iodine, copper, manganese and special vitamins."

He apparently believed that all primitive diets had the characteristic of relatively low caloric density combined with high micronutrient density (compared to modern foods). The low caloric density contributes to low body fat, and the high micronutrient density enables excellent development, immunity, and maintenance of body structures.

Don said...


I forgot to give the online source for that quote from Price before I posted that last comment:


The fructose issue warrants an upcoming post.


Glad I have helped.

JA Deep,

I know that throughout the S. Pacific people ferment taro to produce poi, but not presently aware of any other special processing applied to the listed tubers. Tubers have low antinutrient levels compared to cereals and I don't know of any evidence that one must specially process them, beyond normal cooking, to access the micronutrients they supply. Simply cooking them will explode their cells to release the contents.

Ned Kock said...


What I meant is that their diet was not the same, not even close.

An isolated group in Switzerland consumed a lot of rye bread and and cheese; the Masai followed a completely different diet; Kitavans another one etc.

Besides, on different diets, the need for certain micronutrients is also different, as you noted before on this blog.

Body fat is akin to an endocrine organ; not an inert energy store. One would have to look at different effects of the hormonal mixes created by high versus low body fat, and see what effect they have on the conditions you listed.

For example, tooth decay is likely to be influenced by body fat in many ways. For example, excessive body fat has a hoarding effect on fat-soluble vitamins that affect teeth health, such as K and D. Also, excessive body fat is highly pro-inflammatory, which may have a negative effect on gum health, and thus teeth health.

And that does not even address the various effects of adiponectin, which are still being studied.

Helen said...

I'm convinced that fructose is harmful - when it's *not found in fruit!* I'm not sure what form of fructose has been used in the studies showing it is harmful - but have there really been any that showed that consumption of whole fruits are harmful?

I think we may be talking about two different animals - one, a fructose molecule bound to other molecules, encased in a fibrous package, which also contains vitamin C and other important nutrients, which we are adapted to use, and another, unbound or at least very much refined, without the nutritious delivery package, which wreaks havoc on our system.

I think some of the freakout about fructose is reductionist, similar to people being afraid of eating eggs because of "cholesterol."

On the other hand, I am sure that HFCS and crystalline fructose *are* poison, and that excess sugar (more than on special occasions) is bad, though not quite as bad, etc. Modern fruits like bananas and apples are very high in fructose, too, and a doubt a diet based on them would be healthy, but in some fruits the primary sugars aren't even fructose.

Don said...


Price pointed out that although each group he studied ate different foods, they had similar micronutrient profiles.

I didn't say that adipose is an inert energy store. I only doubt that you can explain all disease via body fat. I have seen plenty of sick lean people, including lean people with tooth decay, heart disease, dementia, and cancer.

Moreover, in the US, people who are slightly "overweight" by BMI live longer than thin people, on average.

madMUHHH said...

You may not be the right person to ask about this and maybe Staffan Lindberg should be contacted directly for that, but do you know anything about the meal frequency of the Kitavans?
This is something I am very curious about, not necessarily for a specific reason, but I still think it'd be nice to know that.

Oh, and another thing that is completely off-topic, but since you seem to know a lot about fodd preparation, I tought I'd ask anyway. Regarding vitamin C: I know that foods like broccoli and potatoes contain vitamin C as well. But I also know that vitamin C is destroyed by heat. So will cooking those foods destroy or at least reduce the vitamin c content to a great extent? Broccoli for example is often praised for it's high vitamin C content. But will the vitamin C content really still be that high after cooking?

Ned Kock said...

Of course lean people can have disease! Extremely, pathologically lean people will have even more disease than slightly overweight people.

In multi-factorial issues like health issues, statements usually have a probabilistic nature. Mine included.

But I will bet anything that if you get a group of 100 people, half obese and half thin, the obese will have significantly more disease than the thin.

Now, I have seen the research you mentioned on slightly overweight people living longer. I have to look at it more carefully (if I can find it), but I think the phenomenon has a U-curve distribution, and the method the researchers used (as almost everybody else does) was linear.

If you are interested, I have a post on my other blog discussing the problems that this type of decision can cause:

Helen said...

madMUHHH -

I recently read that boiling potatoes in salt water increases vitamin C retention by 40% or so (can't remember the exact percentage). Maybe it's true of other vegetables as well, and another instance in which our grandmothers knew best.

Christine & Mike said...

I've been thinking of food in terms of adaptation recently. Is it possible that a Kitavan diet makes sense there but would be disastrous, even for people who have been eating it their whole life, if you moved them to Seattle?

What role does locality play in health? Can food be analysed as adaptive or maladaptive?