Lab experiments and scientific studies are great for putting together pieces of the microbiome puzzle, but so is anthropology: customs, rituals, dietary patterns, behaviors. In fact, anthropology may be the only way we really figure this out before it’s too late and we fully cut the cord on our ancestral microbiome. That’s why I’m enthralled with the work of anthropologist Jeff Leach, who is leading the American Gut Project.
Among other things, Jeff is doing some fascinating work with African hunter-gatherer tribes like the Hadza and Otjhimba, some of the few remaining true hunter-gatherer tribes left on the planet. His work is focusing on the make up of of their microbiome in comparison to industrialized, Western people, and how their dietary and social/behavioral patterns contribute to their flora.
There’s a ton to talk about, obviously, and it seems like Jeff’s work with them is just getting started. For now, I just want to quickly focus on one teeny tiny piece that relates to my last post on Seth Roberts’s honey experiment.
If it’s one thing we know about the Hadza and Otjhimba, it’s that they love honey. It’s their most prized food source. From Jeff, we learn that for a part of the year, the Hadza rely on honey for up to 70% of their energy intake. 70 percent! (I don’t know about the Otjhimba, but judging from their nickname — “the honey people” — I’m betting it’s pretty darn high.)
That kind of a reliance on one single source of food is enough to send your average food pyramid nutritionist (oh, sorry, now it’s “MyPlate”) into full on panic mode. Honey is a pretty energy dense food. So from that standpoint, they’re fine — they’re getting their calories. But it isn’t a particularly nutrient dense food. Only very trace amounts of vitamins and minerals. Where’s the Vitamin B??? Vitamin K??? Dear god, some one do a fly over and drop some heart healthy grains on these poor souls.
Oh wait. That’s right. Perhaps their other half is picking up the slack. More and more, we find that when people are heavily reliant on a single source of not-so-nutrient-dense food, it’s because perhaps that food is feeding someone else, and that someone else is holding up its end of the bargain.
(Btw, honey seems particularly good at stimulating the friendly bifido’s. Might be the scFOS, which is shown to be pretty bifidogenic. But this study seems to indicate that it’s some kind of synergy between the sugars found in honey.)
Lest all this talk of African hunter-gatherers seems a little too exotic for you, I’ll just add this: In light of all this, doesn’t everyone’s favorite Greek-inspired snack — honey + yogurt — start to make a lot more sense now? History’s first probiotic/prebiotic combo. Those clever Greeks.
See? Told you anthropology was cool.