Emphasizing whole foods is probably the biggest key to a healthy lifestyle.  

By Lauren Wicks
Updated December 19, 2018
Getty Images / Maximilian Stock Ltd.

Obesity has been trending upward for the past forty or so years, more than doubling since the ‘70s, and scientists are still unsure as to why. We never seem to be short on trendy diets, newly discovered “superfoods,” and medical procedures all claiming to help us live longer, or fight the obesity epidemic that has affected over 40 percent of Americans.

To help figure it out, researchers are looking to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, known for excellent metabolic health as well as their relative lack of chronic diseases and obesity. A recent study, published in the Obesity Reviews journal, analyzed diets, lifestyles, and physical activity levels of hundreds of modern hunter-gatherer societies whose diets more closely resemble those of our ancient predecessors than the Standard American Diet of today.

After analyzing hundreds of these people groups, researchers found a surprising amount of variety—none of which led any group to be healthier, overall, than another.  For instance, some societies consume 80 percent of their daily calories from carbohydrates, while others are mostly carnivorous.

There were some commonalities, however: Findings showed almost all of the societies consume a mix of meat, fish, and plant-based foods and clearly do not eat any processed or packaged products. Surprisingly, most of these societies regularly consume sugar (mostly in the form of honey). But one of the biggest differences is that on average, they consume much more fiber than most Americans.

Contrary to popular belief, longevity among these small-scale populations is actually about the same as in our industrialized world. While people in these groups may suffer some diseases that modern science has cured, they are largely free from obesity and many chronic diseases that are highly prevalent in the US. Researchers noted obesity in these people groups is less than five percent.

These hunter-gatherers are also much more active but expend similar amounts of energy to people in more modern societies. The study notes this means we should start viewing exercise as a more natural part of a healthy lifestyle instead of an exhausting attempt to burn calories for weight loss.

Interested in learning more about how exercise impacts overall health?

The study also noted if any one from these indigenous people groups moved to an industrialized society or if one of these people groups adopted dietary habits of industrialized societies, they eventually developed the same chronic diseases. Researchers noted based on this fact, as well as the variance of diets but similarly low rates of obesity and chronic disease, we can assume the health of hunter-gatherer societies is more impacted by environment than genetics.

So where do we go from here?

Conclusions from this study point us to no specific diet at all, but rather a prescription to move our bodies more and swap processed foods for whole ones. Researchers encouraged exercising more than just the recommended 150 minutes a week, but choosing lower or more moderate-intensity workouts could be more attainable and beneficial for overall health. They also noted modern processed foods are engineered for flavor and repeated consumption, making them easy foods to overconsume, and therefore, they should be eaten less of. New Year’s resolutions, anyone?

Reducing processed food intake starts by getting in the kitchen. Whether you prefer to meal prep on the weekends or shop for groceries several times a week for fresh and fast dinners, controlling what (and how much of it) goes into your meals is a great step in achieving overall health.