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Palaeolithic diet helps with healthy ageing

23 March 2012

Human DNA has been perfectly adapted to its environment during millions of years of evolution. This optimal match between the human genome and its environment, including the human diet, enabled our Palaeolithic ancestors to age healthily. To gain insight in the composition of our Paleolithic diet UMCG researcher Remko Kuipers investigated the conditions of existence/the ecological niche of our ancestors, made a reconstruction of their diet and examined the diet of modern-day traditionally living East-African tribes. Compared with East-African women, Western women eat fewer omega-3 fatty acids, for example. As a result, Western women develop a relative shortage of these vital building blocks during pregnancy and lactation, when they are needed by the infant to develop organs including the brain. Kuipers concludes that reverting to a 21st-century version of Stone Age eating patterns would greatly benefit the process of healthy ageing. He was awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 26 March 2012 for the results of his research.

Contrary to popular opinion, Kuipers claims that our ancestors did not live on the arid savannas but in places where the land meets the water. He demonstrated that, when compared with our Western diet, the food from this land-water ecosystem contained more proteins, fewer carbohydrates, less linoleic acid and more omega-3 fatty acids.

Fatty acids and disease

The fatty acid composition of a modern-day diet is often linked to typical Western diseases. It is generally agreed that adults who consume too few omega-3 fatty acids have a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease and depression. In newborn babies, a diet containing too few omega-3 fatty acids is believed to hamper optimum neurological development. 

Linoleic acid

Kuipers also concludes that a primitive diet contained far less linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid) than a modern Western diet. This is relevant because of the current (mis)conception that consuming linoleic acid helps to protect people from cardiovascular disease. New insight is now connecting high linoleic acid intake with a reduction in the body’s ability to produce and assimilate omega-3 fatty acids in the body. As a result, the body becomes less able to resolve chronic inflammation. Current scientific insight states that chronic inflammation reactions are at the basis of cardiovascular disease. In line with Kuipers’ research, a recent American study by Dr. Ramsden c.s. showed that replacing saturated fatty acids with linoleic acid, as currently recommended in the West, may well lead to a rise, rather than a drop in cardiovascular disease.

Ratio between nutrients

Finally, Kuipers criticizes the current practice of replacing carbohydrates for saturated fat. Having reviewed the literature, he claims that it is not the consumption of saturated fats that increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, but the consumption of carbohydrates with a high glycemic index, such as sugars in soft drinks and sweets. His findings correspond with the results of his reconstruction of our ancient diet, which contained as much saturated fat as the current Western diet, but more proteins and less carbohydrates.

Curriculum Vitae

Remko Kuipers (Groningen, 1980) studied medicine and pharmacy at the University of Groningen. His PhD research was conducted in the Laboratory Medicine Department of UMCG, and funded by the Junior Scientific Master Class of the UMCG, the VSB fund and FrieslandCampina. Kuipers’ thesis is entitled ‘Fatty acids in human evolution: contributions to evolutionary medicine’.

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.28 p.m.

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