Hunter Gatherer Profile: The Kitavans


I covered the traditional Inuit in the last hunter gatherer profile, whose diet consists of sometimes 90% animal products.  Hardly eating any carbohydrates at all for most of the year, they are on one end of the hunter gatherer macronutrient intake spectrum: the high protein end.  On the other end are the Kitavans, whose diet consists of about 70% carbohydrates, 20% fat and 10% protein.  I chose this group of people because they have been so well studied, and because you’ll probably come across a reference to them while perusing the other Paleo websites.

The Study

A Swedish MD and professor named Staffan Lindeberg decided to do a medical survey in the early 1990’s on the Kitavans, a group of people thought to be living the same sort of existence they would have thousands of years ago.  The Kitavans live in Kitava, on the Trobriand Islands in Papua New Guinea.  Papua New Guinea is a group of islands northeast of Australia.  Kitavans seemed to suffer from no heart disease or other degenerative diseases.  In fact, a 100 year old man on the island stated that he never in his life saw anyone suddenly die, as we might see someone die from a stroke or heart attack.  Unless someone was to fall from a coconut tree or drown, people usually either died of malaria (especially children) or of old age.  And by old age I mean they carried on with life as usual until one day they were too tired and a few days later had passed away.  Sounds pretty good to me.


The Kicker

The fact that there is no heart disease on the island is notable, but understandable since we know that a primitive diet promotes health.  But these people were smokers.  80% of women and 75% of men over 20 years of age smoked daily, and they still had no signs of heart disease.

Who Are the Kitavans

The Kitavans live in huts and eat like they would have centuries ago.  However, they’ve been influenced by western culture in that at the time of the study they wore modern(ish) clothing most of the time, used modern tools and kerosene, and they smoked.

Their diet consisted of root vegetables (yam, sweet potato, taro, tapioca), fruit (banana, papaya, pineapple, mango, guava, watermelon, pumpkin), vegetables, fish and coconuts. Less than 0.2% of their calories came from imported Western foods, like margarine, dairy products, sugar, cereals, and alcohol.  Because much of the fat they ate came from coconuts, it was saturated, which destroys the “saturated fat causes heart disease” theory.  Their salt intake was much lower than the typical American diet, and they had a good omega 3 to omega 6 ratio from the fish they ate.

Their average lifespan was 45 years, which doesn’t seem that old, but it averaged out to that because a lot of children died of malaria.  Once they reached adulthood, their chances of reaching old age were possibly about the same as Westerners.  6% of the population was 65 or older (compared to 12% in the U.S.).  Their activity level was high, but not outrageously high.  Oh, and none of the elderly seemed to suffer from dementia or poor memory.

Their Medical Statistics

The researchers took many medical measurements and compared all of their Kitavan subjects’ results with normal Swedish people’s, since Swedes have a propensity for heart disease.

Kitavans had lower blood pressure, BMI, and body fat than the Swedes, sometimes by a lot.  Only the older Kitavans had lower total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol (the so-called “bad” cholesterol), and the HDL cholesterol didn’t differ much between the populations.  In some age groups, the triglycerides were actually higher in the Kitavans.  And some of the other standard markers for heart disease (various lipoproteins) were by Western standards sub-optimal in the Kitavans.

What the researchers concluded was that some of the markers we consider very indicative of impending heart disease may not be quite so accurate.  They thought that the Kitavans’ low BMI and low blood pressure were the main reasons for their freedom from heart disease.

Imagine that.  Smokers who eat a lot of saturated fat are at (much) lower risk for heart disease than Americans or Swedes.  Despite their nasty tobacco habits, we can only assume that their traditional diet and lifestyle (that is, slow and not much stress) probably have much to do with their superb health.

Closing Thoughts

What I learned from this is that high protein is not necessarily king.  Fruits, veggies and tubers, a little coconut and a bit of fish can make for healthy, happy (and sometimes really ripped) people.  Not everyone, but some people could thrive on this diet.  If I tried eating that way, my energy levels would plummet and I’d be pretty grumpy, but you – you may do really well on this diet.  No grains, no legumes, no refined sugar, no dairy and no alcohol – those are the things they’re not eating that Westerners are.  They don’t have the phytic acid from the grains and legumes robbing them of minerals, and they don’t have the refined sugars and alcohol messing with their blood sugar and giving them systemic inflammation.  It’s Paleo(ish), just high carb Paleo.  Either way, it sounds delicious.