Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Masai and Atherosclerosis

I've been digging deeper into the health of the Masai lately. A commenter on Chris's blog pointed me to a 1972 paper showing that the Masai have atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. This interested me so I got my hands on the full text, along with a few others from the same time period. What I found is nothing short of fascinating.

First, some background. Traditional Masai in Kenya and Tanzania are pastoralists, subsisting on fermented cow's milk, meat and blood, as well as traded food in modern times. They rarely eat fresh vegetables. Contrary to popular belief, they are a genetically diverse population, due to the custom of abducting women from neighboring tribes. Many of these tribes are agriculturalists. From Mann et al: "The genetic argument is worthless". This will be important to keep in mind as we interpret the data.

At approximately 14 years old, Masai men are inducted into the warrior class, and are called Muran. For the next 15-20 years, tradition dictates that they eat a diet composed exclusively of cow's milk, meat and blood. Milk is the primary food. Masai cows are not like wimpy American cows, however. Their milk contains almost twice the fat of American cows, more protein, more cholesterol and less lactose. Thus, Muran eat an estimated 3,000 calories per day, 2/3 of which comes from fat. Here is the reference for all this. Milk fat is about 50% saturated. That means the Muran gets 33% of his calories from saturated fat. This population eats more saturated fat than any other I'm aware of.

How's their cholesterol? Remarkably low. Their total serum cholesterol is about half the average American's. I haven't found any studies that broke it down further than total cholesterol. Their blood pressure is also low, and hypertension is rare. Overweight is practically nonexistent. Their electrocardiogram readings show no signs of heart disease. They have exceptionally good endurance, but their grip strength is significantly weaker than Americans of African descent. Two groups undertook autopsies of male Masai to look for artery disease.

The first study, published in 1970, examined 10 males, 7 of which were over 40 years old. They found very little evidence of atherosclerosis, even in individuals over 60. The second study, which is often used as evidence against a high-fat diet, was much more thorough and far more interesting. Mann et al. autopsied 50 Masai men, aged 10 to 65. The single most represented age group was 50-59 years old, at 13 individuals. They found no evidence of myocardial infarction (heart attack) in any of the 50 hearts. What they did find, however, was coronary artery disease. Here's a figure showing the prevalence of "aortic fibrosis", a type of atherosclerotic lesion:

It looks almost binary, doesn't it? What could be causing the dramatic jump in atherosclerosis at age 40? Here's another figure, of total cholesterol (top) and "sudanophilia" (fatty streaks in the arteries, bottom). Note that the Muran period is superimposed (top).

There appears to be a pattern here. Either the Masai men are eating nothing but milk, meat and blood and they're nearly free from atherosclerosis, or they're eating however they please and they have as much atherosclerosis as the average American. There doesn't seem to be much in between.

Here's a quote from the paper that I found interesting:

We believe... that the Muran escapes some noxious dietary agent for a time. Obviously, this is neither animal fat nor cholesterol. The old and the young Masai do have access to such processed staples as flour, sugar, confections and shortenings through the Indian dukas scattered about Masailand. These foods could carry the hypothetical agent."

This may suggest that you can eat a wide variety of foods and be healthy,
except industrial grain products (particularly white flour), sugar, industrial vegetable oil and other processed food. The Masai are just one more example of a group that's healthy when eating a traditional diet.