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Health, psychology & science stories


Australian Aboriginals who revert to the paleolithic lifestyle

8 January 2002

Published in The Age

“With indigenous issues in this country,” Prime Minister John Howard said last year, “there’s an assumption that all the money that’s been spent, all the effort that's been put in, is not yielding any results.”

Howard pointed to the untold success stories behind the public debate over Aboriginal health - such as a 30-year improvement in the perinatal death rate.

Another such success story has slowly taken shape in the work of Professor Kerin O’Dea.

O’Dea heads the Menzies School of Health Research in Darwin. More than 20 years' research has convinced her that embracing key elements of the traditional lifestyle will yield impressive health results for Australia’s Aboriginal population.

Until 1788, Aborigines were living the hunter-gatherer lifestyle - on which all humans evolved. But as “Westernisation” took root, the proportion who hunted and gathered for a living dwindled to virtually zero.

For Aboriginal health, the Western lifestyle has been catastrophic. Exercise levels have plummeted, as have the freshness and nutritive value of food. Diabetes is epidemic.

“For a typical Westerner, at least 70 percent of calories are provided by foods that were practically unavailable during human evolution,” writes the Swedish scholar of evolutionary nutrition, Dr Staffan Lindeberg. “Namely dairy products, oils, margarine, refined sugar and cereals. These typical Western foods are low in minerals, vitamins and soluble fibre, but high in fat and salt. There is much evidence indicating that some of these dietary factors are important causes of common Western disorders - like coronary heart disease, stroke and diabetes -  which furthermore appear absent or rare in populations pursuing a traditional subsistence lifestyle.”

In 1982, from her then base at the Baker Institute in Melbourne, Kerin O’Dea decided to test her own ideas in this area. With the strong support of the local Mowanjum Community near Derby in WA, she drove into the state’s remote northwest Kimberley area with ten Westernised tribal Aborigines suffering from type 2 diabetes, and 4 non-diabetics. All 14 returned to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of their youth.

For seven weeks the group hunted, fished and gathered kangaroo, turtle, bream, yams, honey, figs, birds, crocodile and yabbies.

Out in the wild, O’Dea made some startling observations. Her blood didn't clot as much when she cut herself. Her Aboriginal "subjects" became fitter and more carefree. Everyone lost weight.

But what did the formal test results show, after the seven-week "reversion"? The conclusion in O’Dea’s research paper is dramatic:

"The major metabolic abnormalities of type two diabetes," she wrote, "were either greatly improved or completely normalised in this group of Aborigines."

"These people were diabetic," O’Dea told The Age. "And their fasting blood sugar fell dramatically. Their fasting glucose went down from 11.6 millimoles [a standard measure] per litre to 6.6. Now we’d rather it was around 5, but as you can see it’s a profound reduction."

Diabetes affects nearly a million Australians. Its prevalence has trebled in 20 years. Remote indigenous people suffer it at four times the national average. Professionals dealing with the disease are often under pressure from drug companies: O'Dea's work has been an important breakthrough in non-drug approaches.

Diabetic "biomarkers" weren't the only thing to improve in the ten Aboriginals, says O'Dea:

"Their blood fats normalised. Their blood pressure fell. Their blood showed a reduced tendency towards clotting. Everything we looked at improved.”

As “a public health person”, O’Dea is wary of promoting a high-meat diet. Yet her Aboriginal group ate 58 percent protein:

“But it wasn’t just lean meat that they ate. These people ate highly prized organs. Everything off a carcass was eaten. When I ate fish, I ate fish brains, fish eyes, fish liver...”

Was it necessary to be quite so scrupulous in following the hunter-gatherer lifestyle?

"After a couple of weeks I noticed that every time I cut myself it got infected. And the Aboriginal people weren’t getting these effects. I think I was starting to get scorbutic [vitamin C depleted], because we weren’t getting much plant food at all at that point. I noticed that the Aboriginal people were eating all the offal. And I later did a study showing that liver is a very good source of vitamin C."

Out of this experience, O’Dea has emerged as an advocate of liver from free-range animals - which she also believes to be an excellent source of fatty acids, zinc, iron and folate.

“All you’d have to worry about is pesticides and other chemicals from our modern environment - they do accumulate in the liver. But if the animal is reared in a fairly clean environment, it should be okay. When you eat liver really fresh, which most of us have never done in our lives, it tastes completely different. Fresh kangaroo liver tastes like pate - it’s absolutely beautiful.

“The polyunsaturated fat in organs goes off quicker, so it’s incredibly important that you eat these things fresh."

What about the human side of this Stone Age odyssey?

“It was dry season. We slept out, under the stars," O'Dea recalls. "I loved it. The Aboriginal people were just fabulous to me. At one point they caught some freshwater crayfish and crab. To have that kind of food caught and just thrown straight on the coals - it’s unbelievably beautiful. There was an amazing dish I had, which was lean stingray flesh mixed with fatty stingray liver.”

And what of the lessons for the healthcare community?

“I think a lot of the principles are appreciated,” says O'Dea. “That very positive message of the traditional lifestyle is one that I use a lot, and other people use a lot now, in health promotion.

"I'm not saying to go back and reconstruct the palaeolithic diet, because it is no longer practical. But we always say to people, 'Go out and hunt and gather whenever you can.' It's good from the social, the psychological, the physical activity and the nutritional points of view."

How might broader Australian society use the study's lessons?

“I’m a great advocate of lean meat production. For instance new-fashioned pork, which is much leaner than old-fashioned pork. And there are large lean lambs now. I’m very keen on kangaroo and rabbit and other wild animals, which are actually very lean. A bit controversially maybe, I’d advocate wild-farming kangaroos. When you make them a valuable resource, in the long run you protect them. They are also much better for the environment than hard hooved animals like sheep and cattle.

"But it isn't just around meat. It's plant foods - and it's also building exercise into the daily routine. No smoking, no grog, no substance abuse. We're promoting all that as a model for all of us."

When the ten study participants went back to their communities, O'Dea says, "Everybody said how wonderful they looked."

Since then, Derby Aboriginals have established outstations outside the city where the traditional lifestyle can be pursued.

“People like to go back for extended periods of time,” O’Dea says. “They're away from the pressures of town. It’s peaceful and rewarding. They take some Western food along, but they also hunt - with guns now, not spears - and gather and fish.”

Given that the human genome has hardly altered since we were all hunter-gatherers, it may be a recipe that everyone benefit from.

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