#211 How to Make Your Heart 30 Years Younger: Lessons from the Tsimane

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How to Make Your Heart 30 Years Younger: Lessons from the Tsimane

The Tsimane living in the Amazon rainforest have hearts that are 30 years younger than anything you might see in the US or other developed countries.  How do they do it?

In this article, I share the science behind the Tsimane people who have the healthiest hearts ever studied.  I will also teach you how to make your heart 30 years younger by learning the secrets of the Tsimane people.

Who are the Tsimane?

The Tsimane, which are pronounced “chew-may-nay,” are the hunter gatherer people living in the Bolivian rainforests.  There are only about 16,000 of these hunter-gatherer people left.  Despite all the developments in the world over the last 100 years, their traditional way of life has changed little from thousands of years ago.  That is until recently…

The Tsimane Heart Study

For decades now, Dr. Hillard Kaplan, and his colleagues from the National Institute on Aging and St. Luke’s Hospital of Kansas City, have been fascinated with the Tsimane people living in the Amazon jungle who don’t get heart disease.  This study, which was recently picked up by worldwide media outlets, represents the culmination of their findings.

Dr. Kaplan’s research team visited 85 villages of Tsimane people.  To determine exactly how much heart disease was present in these people, they performed CT scans of every adult Tsimane they could find.  In total, they scanned the hearts of 705 Tsimane.  They also looked at other factors associated with heart disease like high blood pressure, cholesterol, inflammation, etc.

For those who don’t work in the medical field, a CT scan looking for coronary artery calcification is considered the best screening test to determine if someone has clogged up arteries or heart disease.  As readers know, the single most important factor as to whether someone gets clogged up arteries or not is their lifestyle.  Also, the degree to which someone gets this hardening of the heart arteries determines, to a large extent, how long someone will live.

Here is what they found.  Of the 705 adult Tsimane people studied, fully 85% had no evidence of any plaque build up in their arteries.  This represents a coronary artery calcium score of zero which is the best score you can get from this test.  Even more remarkable was that of those Tsimane over age 75, 65% still had no heart plaque whatsoever.

To put these findings in perspective, almost all Americans over 75 will have at least some plaque build up or hardening of the arteries in their heart.  No other group of people in the world have ever had such low levels of atherosclerosis documented before in a medical study.

The Tsimane Inflammation Paradox

As I often discuss on my blog, studies show that keeping inflammation as low as possible is one of the major factors in avoiding heart disease and living a long life.  The Tsimane, appear to be an exception to this rule.

In this study, researchers measured C-reactive protein, or CRP, in the Tsimane.  Remarkably, 51% of Tsimane had a CRP above 3.0 mg/dL.  To put this in perspective, a CRP above 3 increases your risk of heart disease three-fold.

Given the lack of good public health measures, the Tsimane get many more infections than we do.  Of the many infections the Tsimane get, intestinal worms are probably the most common.  As CRP levels tend to be high when the body is fighting off an infection, this could explain why so many Tsimane had an elevated CRP.

It is also well known that when the body is fighting an infection, heart attack risks go up.  This is what makes this study even more remarkable.  Despite high levels of inflammation from chronic infections, their lifestyle still protects them from heart disease.

The 5 Secrets of the Tsimane

1. They Eat a High Carbohydrate Diet

Yes, it is true.  Despite all the evils the media would have you believe of eating a high carb diet, the Tsimane eat more of them than almost any other group of people ever studied.  In fact, 72% of their calories come from carbs which is much higher than the 52% carb diet that most Americans eat.

The primary difference between the Tsimane carbs, and the typical American’s carbs, is that the Tsimane don’t eat processed carbs.  They also don’t eat sugar.

The carbs they eat are are the healthy ones which are unprocessed and high in fiber.  Their carbs typically consist of wild fruits and vegetables, tubers, brown rice, and natural corn.

2. They Only Eat Lean Wild Meat

You won’t see processed meats, like bacon, sausage, hot dogs, or deli meats, on their plates.  Rather, almost all of their protein comes from wild fish, like piranha or catfish, pigs, or capybara.  For those unfamiliar with capybara, it is a South American rodent that can grow to a size of 146 pounds or 66 kilograms.

Despite living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, only 14% of their calories actually come from animal protein.  Interestingly, Americans also get about 14% of their calories from protein.

However, the main difference between the Tsimane protein, and the protein most Americans eat, is that the Tsimane only eat wild animals.  These wild animals are naturally low in fat, especially saturated fat.  The Tsimane also don’t eat dairy.

3. They Eat a Low Fat Diet

Just when the media had you convinced that the low fat craze of the 1980s was totally debunked, then along comes this study.  Yes, it is true, the Tsimane eat a very low fat diet.

In fact, just 14% of their calories come from fat.  In contrast, the typical American gets 34% of their calories from fat.  The Tsimane also keep saturated fat intake extremely low and they don’t eat any trans fat.

The Tsimane do, however, eat nuts, which are high in fat.  For cooking, the Tsimane generally cook with animal fat rather than the vegetable oils that most Americans use.

Probably the biggest difference of the Tsimane people to the low-fat craze of the 1980s is that in the 1980s Americans replaced fat with processed carbohydrates.  In contrast, you won’t see any processed carbohydrates or sugar in the traditional Tsimane diet.

4. They Average 17,000 Steps Daily

The Tsimane don’t sit in front of their computers or TVs.  They also don’t go to the gym to get in a work out.  Rather, they are naturally active all day long.

While Tsimane men average 17,000 steps daily, the Tsimane women deliver a respectable 16,000 steps each day.  Even those over age 60 still log more than 15,000 steps daily.

The Tsimane don’t log these impressive step counts from a walking on a track or around their neighborhoods.  Rather, they get their steps in from hunting, foraging, fishing, and farming.  The men will typically spend 6-7 hours each day in these activities whereas the women will spend 4-6 hours doing these same things.

5. They Live Socially Connected Lives

The main thing this study missed was the highly connected lives the Tsimane live.  When the Tsimane men and women weren’t hunting or gathering food, they spent the rest of the day with their friends, family or neighbors.

The Tsimane have a custom of visiting friends, family, or neighbors in their homes every morning and evening.  Sometimes, these visits would last weeks, or even months, during which one Tsimane family might move in with another Tsimane family.

As there were no computers or TVs, the Tsimane had to spend time each day actually talking and telling stories with each another.  Despite having no real possessions, this highly connected social life resulted in very high levels of reported happiness.  An added benefit was that even though they faced the daily stress of possible starvation, this highly connected life allowed them to have stress levels much lower than those of people living in the modern world.  Every Tsimane knew everything about everybody in these villages.

Cholesterol, Obesity, Diabetes, and Blood Pressure of the Tsimane

As you might imagine, very few Tsimane have high cholesterol.  They also don’t take cholesterol lowering drugs.  With their diet and high levels of physical activity, their average LDL (bad cholesterol) is 91 mg/dL and their average HDL (good cholesterol) is 40 mg/dL.

You also don’t see anyone overweight in their community.  It is almost impossible to be overweight if you only eat wild foods and are active all day long.  Diabetes and smoking are both almost absent from their community.

Popular Diets and the Tsimane

The high carb low fat Tsimane diet definitely challenges the popular diets of today.  It may even challenge what you believe to be a healthy diet.  The key thing is to be open minded about the findings of this study.

It is important to remember that, from a health standpoint, humans have thrived on nearly every traditional diet ever studied.  The only diet humans have not yet adapted to is the highly processed, sugar rich, Standard American Diet (SAD).

At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter if you are paleo or vegan.  It also doesn’t matter that much if you eat a diet high or low in carbs, protein, or fat.  The key is to find what works for you and to minimize anything processed, pre-prepared, or that which comes with any added sugars or oils.

This is why I am a big fan of just eating real food.  Healthy eating doesn’t have to be that complex. You don’t need any special diets.  If you can just eat as natural as possible, you will likely enjoy great health and a trim waistline.

The Tsimane Today

Sadly, the Standard American Diet is starting to take hold even in this remote corner of the Amazon jungle.  Over the last few years, new roads and motorized boats are opening up the Tsimane to the outside world.  With this contact to the outside world, the Tsimane now have access to processed foods, sugar, and oils.  Thus, it is just a matter of time before the Tsimane will start getting heart disease.

How to Live Like the Tsimane

Do you have to move to the Amazon rainforest to avoid heart disease?  Absolutely not.  You can prevent or reverse heart disease today, even while living in a highly developed country.

The key lessons from the Tsimane are to minimize anything processed, stay active all day long, and maintain a high level of social connectedness.  By minimizing anything processed, you want to eat as natural as possible.  In practical terms this means avoiding the isles of the grocery store. Only shop the periphery of the store where you can find fresh produce and other unprocessed foods.  It also means cleansing your home of junk food, shopping at farmer’s markets, or even growing your own garden.

When it comes to physical activity, it means you need to be active during most of the day.  The recommendation to get 10,000 steps daily is really the bare minimum.  If you spend most of your working day on the computer, you may want to consider a standing desk, treadmill desk, or just frequently find an excuse to get up.  As the Tsimane have taught us, you need to be up near 17,000 steps a day to enjoy the same heart protective effects.

Lastly, you can’t forget the social component of Tsimane life.  Make sure you call or visit friends, neighbors, and family members every day.  Social connectedness also goes a long way to defusing the high levels of stress that are so common with modern life.

What is your take on this Tsimane study?  Please leave your thoughts, questions, and comments below.  Also, if you enjoyed this article, please be sure to sign up for my free weekly newsletter and podcast.

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10 Comments
  1. It’s interesting that this diet shares a lot of similarities with the Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease diet promoted by Dr Esselstyn at the Cleveland Clinic: very low fat, moderately low protein, highly plant based and high carb from real whole plant based foods while seeking to eliminate refined carbs as well as added oils (which is also a highly refined food equivalent in some ways to sugar). Esselstyn also likes to mention the traditional diet of the Tarahumara Indians and certain Asian and Africans groups who largely avoid coronary artery disease until they start shifting to an American diet. Esselstyn goes one step further and has his patients cut out all animal products. Of course his goal is to halt and reverse heart disease even in those who already have severe CAD and may not be able to exercise at all. To my knowledge this type of diet is the only diet that has actually shown to reverse coronary artery disease, sometimes dramatically. It has certainly shifted me to eating whole food plant based diet and at 45 I have been able to stay in optimal health. Thanks so much for all the education you do with your blog!!!

    • Hi Jim,

      Unfortunately, I’m not sure if those data are even available. In places like these with poor public health measures, life expectancy for everyone tends to be low because of the high infant death rate from infectious diseases. Typically, if you can survive all the infectious diseases until age 18, you tend to live a very long life. However, as half the children may never survive childhood, the averages will be lower…

      John

  2. I like the article and it ended well when you really focused on processed foods and lifestyle as the real issues. It seemed you were using this single case study as an indictment of high high fat diets which there is mounting evidence are quite excellent. We can all find examples where either high fat or low fat seem to work and it often seems the ones we pick are due to a confirmation bias toward one. I haven’t seen heart CT or lab data on Eskimos but they traditionally ate very high saturated fat diets and were very health until we pushed our western diet and lifestyle. My point, which you did make, is that the universal truth is about lifestyle and processed bad foods.

    I went low carb/high fat 5 years ago and increased sleep/exercise after an epsiode of paroxysmal Afib due to being overweight, stressed out and generally not taking care of myself well enough (was an athlete most of my life but life happened…). I lost 35bs, stopped snoring, HDL soared to 50, LDL to 90, tris from 350 to 160. My numbers and tests like stress echo are thus far very good and the afib has disappeared (still have some PVCs).

    I eliminated almost all sugar and processed foods including artificial sweetners. Got rid of almost all alcohol (a bottle or two of red wine down to a glass or two once in a while). The diet might be close to paleo or bullet proof but it includes fats such grass fed butter, coconut, avocado, nuts, non tainted fish, and lots of veggies as well. Also includes free range chicken and a little grass fed beef as well. I also do yoga or move (cycling, hiking, skiing etc.) at least 10-15 hours a week.

    Thanks for the research as it is always literally food for thought. I would love to see more debate about the high fat or high carb diet approach versus it all really being an issue of lifestyle and processed foods.

    • Hi Steve,

      Thanks for your thoughtful response. You are absolutely correct. The purpose of this article was to remind people that a traditional diet (no processed/sugary foods) combined with physical activity and social connectedness is really the key to health. The high fat low carb, low fat high carb, paleo, vegan, etc. debates are really just a distraction as some people will do better on one versus another. There is no one perfect way of eating for everyone.

      Thanks for reading!

      John

  3. your articles are always very interesting, I wonder if there was any information on blood examination (FBE) of the people? ie whether there was any any anomalous results due to the inflammation levels? and how the immune system was coping with the parasitic levels?

    • Hi Steph,

      Great point. On my first draft of this article, I included a paragraph that addressed your point. I later pulled it as I felt the article was already getting too long and it might serve as a distraction from the main point.

      You are correct, the high inflammation levels of the Tsimane are really quite interesting. This is something I have never seen before…a group of people with high inflammation levels but yet no significant heart disease.

      With this in mind, it certainly raises the question if one of their intestinal worms/parasites could somehow be cardiac protective. While this is unlikely it is certainly possible. Stranger things have been discovered…

      Thanks for bringing this point up!

      John