Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Tokelau Island Migrant Study: The Final Word

Over the course of the last month, I've outlined some of the major findings of the Tokelau Island Migrant study. It's one of the most comprehensive studies I've found of a traditional culture transitioning to a modern diet and lifestyle. It traces the health of the inhabitants of the Pacific island Tokelau over time, as well as the health of Tokelauan migrants to New Zealand.

Unfortunately, the study began after the introduction of modern foods. We will never know for sure what Tokelauan health was like when their diet was completely traditional. To get some idea, we have to look at other traditional Pacific islanders such as the Kitavans.

What we can say is that an increase in the consumption of modern foods on Tokelau, chiefly white wheat flour and refined sugar, correlated with an increase in several non-communicable disorders, including overweight, diabetes and severe tooth decay. Further modernization as Tokelauans migrated to New Zealand corresponded with an increase in nearly every disorder measured, including heart disease, weight gain, diabetes, asthma and gout. These are all "diseases of civilization", which are not observed in hunter-gatherers and certain non-industrial populations throughout the world.

One of the most interesting things about Tokelauans is their extreme saturated fat intake, 40- 50% of calories. That's more than any other population I'm aware of. Yet Tokelauans appear to have a low incidence of heart attacks, lower than their New Zealand- dwelling relatives who eat half as much saturated fat. This should not be buried in the scientific literature; it should be common knowledge.

Overall, I believe the Tokelau Island Migrant study (among others) shows us that partially replacing nourishing traditional foods with modern foods such as processed wheat and sugar, is enough to cause a broad range of disorders not seen in hunter-gatherers but typical of modern societies. Changes in vitamin D status between Tokelau and New Zealand may have also played a role, due to the more indoor lifestyle of migrants.

The Tokelau Island Migrant Study: Background and Overview
The Tokelau Island Migrant Study: Dental Health
The Tokelau Island Migrant Study: Cholesterol and Cardiovascular Health
The Tokelau Island Migrant Study: Weight Gain
The Tokelau Island Migrant Study: Diabetes
The Tokelau Island Migrant Study: Asthma

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