Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Kitavans: Wisdom from the Pacific Islands

There are very few cultures left on this planet that have not been affected by modern food habits. There are even fewer that have been studied thoroughly. The island of Kitava in Papua New Guinea is host to one such culture, and its inhabitants have many profound things to teach us about diet and health.

The Kitava study, a series of papers produced primarily by Dr.
Staffan Lindeberg and his collaborators, offers a glimpse into the nutrition and health of an ancient society, using modern scientific methods. This study is one of the most complete and useful characterizations of the diet and health of a non-industrial society I have come across. It's also the study that created, and ultimately resolved, my cognitive dissonance over the health effects of carbohydrate.

From the photos I've seen, the Kitavans are beautiful people. They have the broad, attractive faces, smooth skin and excellent teeth typical of healthy non-industrial peoples.


Like the
Kuna, Kitavans straddle the line between agricultural and hunter-gatherer lifestyles. They eat a diet primarily composed of tubers (yam, sweet potato, taro and cassava), fruit, vegetables, coconut and fish, in order of calories. This is typical of traditional Pacific island cultures, although the relative amounts differ.

Grains, refined sugar, vegetable oils and other processed foods are virtually nonexistent on Kitava. They get an estimated 69% of their calories from carbohydrate, 21% from fat, 17% from saturated fat and 10% from protein. Most of their fat intake is saturated because it comes from coconuts. They have an omega-6 : omega-3 ratio of approximately 1:2. Average caloric intake is 2,200 calories per day (9,200 kJ). By Western standards, their diet is high in carbohydrate, high in saturated fat, low in total fat, a bit low in protein and high in calories.


Now for a few relevant facts before we really start diving in:
  • Kitavans are not particularly active. They have an activity level comparable to a moderately active Swede, the population to which Dr. Lindeberg draws frequent comparisons.
  • They have abundant food, and shortage is practically unknown.
  • Their good health is probably not related to genetics, since genetically similar groups in the same region are exquisitely sensitive to the ravages of industrial food. Furthermore, the only Kitavan who moved away from the island to live a modern life is also the only fat Kitavan.
  • Their life expectancy at birth is estimated at 45 years (includes infant mortality), and life expectancy at age 50 is an additional 25 years. This is remarkable for a culture with limited access to modern medicine.
  • Over 75% of Kitavans smoke cigarettes. Even the most isolated societies have their modern vices.
The first study in the series is provocatively titled "Apparent absence of stroke and ischaemic heart disease in a traditional Melanesian island: a clinical study in Kitava." In it, Dr. Lindeberg presents data from interviews and electrocardiograms (ECG) suggesting that heart disease and stroke are absent or extremely rare on Kitava. The inhabitants are entirely unfamiliar with the (characteristic) symptoms of heart attack and stroke, despite the sizable elderly population. This is confirmed by the ECG findings, which indicate remarkable cardiovascular health. It also agrees with data from other traditional cultures in Papua New Guinea. Lindeberg states:
For the whole of PNG, no case of IHD or atherothrombotic stroke has been reported in clinical investigations and autopsy studies among traditionally living Melanesians for more than seven decades, though an increasing number of myocardial infarctions [heart attacks] and angina pectoris in urbanized populations have been reported since the 1960s.
Dementia was not found except in in two young Kitavans, who were born handicapped. The elderly remained sharp until death, including one man who reached 100 years of age. Kitavans are also unfamiliar with external cancers, with the exception of one possible case of breast cancer in an elderly woman.

Overall, Kitavans possess a resistance to degenerative diseases that is baffling to industrialized societies. Not only is this typical of non-industrial cultures, I believe it represents the natural state of existence for Homo sapiens. Like all other animals, humans are healthy and robust when occupying their preferred ecological niche. Our niche happens to be a particularly broad one, ranging from complete carnivory to plant-rich omnivory. But it does not include large amounts of grains or modern industrial foods.

In the next few posts, I'll discuss more specific data about the health of the Kitavans, including their body composition, serum lipids, and hormone profile. These data challenge the theory of an "atherogenic lipid profile", the idea that certain blood lipid patterns cause heart disease.

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