Eat more like your hairy, primitive ancestors and you're likely to reap the health – and weight loss – benefits.
So says UK nutritionist and medical doctor John Briffa, who is currently touring South Africa to promote his book, The True You Diet. He firmly believes that the way forward in terms of our eating habits can be found in our ancient past.
According to Briffa, the biggest diet mistake people make is to think that they have to eat less to lose weight. It isn't sustainable to go hungry, he says, and counting kilojoules just isn't going to get you anywhere. "Quality is more important than quantity. If you concentrate on the quality of the food you eat, the quantity will take care of itself."
The key here is to find foods that are healthy and sustaining – and therefore of good quality – for you, as not all of us fare well on the same type of diet. "Once you've found what naturally satisfies your appetite, you'll eat less," Briffa says.
Hunter or gatherer?
Finding which foods best suit your needs are tied to the hunter-gatherer theory.
Briffa explains that some of our ancestors evolved in cold places – in other words, in areas where there weren't a lot of fruit and vegetables available, but where meat was highly accessible. As a result, these so-called "hunters" evolved to eat more protein foods. Others evolved in warmer, tropical climes where fruit and vegetables were more readily available. These early humans, called the "gatherers", adapted to eat more carbohydrates.
To this day, our genes dictate that we fall into either one of these categories, or somewhere in between, Briffa says. On this, it seems we can trust our instincts and food preferences. "The defining characteristic of hunters is that they gravitate towards fatty foods. That's what satisfies them properly... gatherers, on the other hand, find fat a bit 'icky', but will be satisfied with a bean salad, for example."
A questionnaire included in Briffa's The True You Diet can help you determine in which category you fall. If you find for instance that you're a hunter, it might do you good to substitute some of the carbohydrates in your diet with protein and fat. Briffa explains that if you're more protein and fat-driven, carbs wouldn't really sustain you. It would be a bit like throwing sawdust onto fire: that is, you'll burn energy quickly and feel quite hungry soon after. Ultimately, this could lead to over-eating and weight gain.
Your genes play a major role in determining whether you're a hunter, a gatherer or a hunter-gatherer. But your metabolic rate can provide clues.
Those of us who have a high metabolic rate, who generally feel warm quite easily, and as a result are better adapted to handling cold climates, can mostly be classified as hunters. Those of us who have slow metabolic rates, who often feel cold and prefer warmer climates, generally fall into the gatherer category. "Once you know whether you're a hunter or a gatherer, what you have to eat becomes obvious."
But no matter where you fit, Briffa believes that foods that, on an evolutionary scale, are relatively late additions to the human diet aren't good for anyone.
Prior to about 10 000 years ago, our diet was essentially devoid of grains, dairy products, refined sugar, refined vegetable oils, partially hydrogenated fats and alcohol. The problem is that while our bodies are still trying to adapt to these foods, they're already making up about 75% of the kilojoules we consume.
Defying conventional wisdom
The notion that we all need six to eleven portions of carbohydrates (mostly in the form of grains) a day is, according to Briffa, a myth. "Starch and carbohydrates destabilise our sugar and insulin levels, which could lead to weight gain and type 2 diabetes. What's more, grains are really not that nutritious – they're inferior to fruit, vegetables and pulses, for example."
Also, he says that fat isn't the real culprit in terms of the world's obesity problem. In his home country, Britain, the incidence of obesity and diabetes has sharply increased over the past few decades, while fat intake has decreased. The problem, Briffa believes, is that the British are consuming too much carbohydrate.
What's more, saturated fat and cholesterol in animal products doesn't seem to be all that bad, he claims. "Saturated fat doesn't make you fat and doesn't cause heart disease," Briffa says, putting his head on the block and defying conventional wisdom.
In his book, he expands on this theory, noting that over the last half-century there have been more than two dozen studies that have analysed the relationship between saturated fat and the risk of heart disease. All but four of these studies found no association between saturated fat intake and heart disease.
In one study, Briffa writes, higher intakes of saturated fat in the diet were associated with reduced narrowing of the arteries supplying blood to the head – something that's taken as a sign of reduced heart-disease risk. According to him, it's the trans fats found, for instance, in brick margarine that are the real culprits.
Note, however, that most major international health authorities – including the South African Heart and Stroke Foundation – don't encourage the intake of saturated fat. And low-carbohydrate diets are generally not recommended.
A diet based on primal foods
If there's one simple message that could make a major difference to your health, Briffa believes it's this: "Base your diet on the foods we've eaten for longest in terms of our evolution. The best diet for the human species is based on primal foods – that's meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, seeds, nuts and legumes."
- (Carine van Rooyen, Health24, July 2008)
Click here to order your copy of The True You Diet by Dr John Briffa.