Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to should use caution viewing this post, as it contains images of dead persons. Nothing in this post should be taken as criticising or diminishing the efforts of the Nyungar or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in pursuing their health or be construed as criticism of them for an unfortunate situation. The Nyungar have a deep and rich oral culture of which I am not a part. Therefore, I hope to be excused for any error due to the interpretation of things via the written words of mainly white historians. It is worth the risk to be wrong because this issue deserves highlighting and, as always, my comments are open to people to improve the information on this blog.
In my last post, I talked about the phenomenal success of the ketogenic diet in Nigeria where hundreds of thousands of Nigerians were using a Facebook group to solve their obesity, diabetes and PCOS health problems with a ketogenic diet. Then I saw an article on Siberian health problems from carbohydrate consumption and other lifestyle change in Russia. It got me to thinking, how are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Australians faring?
A Diabetes Emergency in Aboriginal Australia
It is, unfortunately, no secret that diabetes is out of control for them and this crisis was seen as that many years ago. Even when compared to lower socio-economic Australians the statistics are horrifying. Whereas among other Australians, type 2 diabetes is virtually unknown in people under 25, the rate for Aboriginal Australians is 1.5% for people aged 15 to 24, and 0.5% for children aged 2 to 14! After that, the rates are about four to five times other Australians until age 55+ where 40% have diabetes. In general, Australian Aborigines develop diabetes twenty years earlier than other Australians and are about twice more likely to be hospitalised.
Why is it so bad?
Indigenous peoples in other places like the Arctic and the Pacific Islands experience similar problems with obesity and diabetes. This was blamed on ‘thrifty genetics’ that predisposes them to weight gain.
While the existence of a thrifty gene is now disputed, the common thread is that their hunter-gatherer lifestyle has changed to a Western diet. As concluded from this study, that change results in health problems linked to insulin resistance. The fat deposition is very noticeable in aboriginal people. They tend to put on weight around the middle yet can remain quite lean elsewhere, and this is backed up by the cited study.
There is a predominantly central pattern of fat deposition in both men and women, which is associated with greater insulin resistance and cardiovascular risk than is peripheral fat deposition.
Past Research into Diet
Prof. Kerin O’Dea undertook pioneering work into traditional aboriginal diets, obesity, diabetes and heart disease. In her study from 1988, it was noted that even in underweight subjects still adhering to a more traditional way of life; there was higher fasting insulin and elevated triglycerides (signs of insulin resistance) even though their diet was low fat and comprised of lean meat.
In a book chapter from 1988 “The hunter-gatherer lifestyle of Australian Aborigines: implications for health.” Prof. O’Dea looked precisely at what we could learn from a ‘Paleo’ type diet of aborigines. In summary:
- Aboriginals become obese and develop diabetes (along with high blood pressure and heart disease) when they stop eating traditional food.
- Before European contact, they were lean and physically fit, and there was no evidence of chronic disease. They were ‘underweight’ with low BMI (13.4 to 19.8 kg/m²) without having signs of malnutrition.
- There was a lack of literature and nutritional data on an entirely traditional diet, and so she studied people living mostly traditionally.
- One group she studied had “a traditionally oriented diet” with a BMI of ~17kg/m² and exhibited low fasting glucose (3.8±0.4 mmol/L) but still showed other diagnostic signs of insulin resistance.
- Referred to her previous seven-week study of a traditionally oriented diet (about 1200 calories). It had two-thirds of calories from meat, 13% from fat, 54% from protein and 33% from carbohydrates when the group were inland where tubers and honey were more plentiful. The carbohydrate quantity dropped to a level estimated at less than 5% when on the coast with protein at about 80% and fat at about 20%. The trial showed a normalisation or improvement of the metabolic factors associated with diabetes.
- She concluded that a traditional aboriginal (Paleo) diet could reduce primary diabetes and cardiovascular risk factors in the general population but noted it was unlikely to be popular with nutritionists.
This type of diet is also unusually rich in animal protein and high in cholesterol- characteristics not generally favoured by nutritionists in making recommendations for better health.
Prof. O’Dea performed other ground-breaking research regarding diet, diabetes and Australian aboriginals. These included:
- A 1980 three-month cross-over study that compared an aboriginal urban diet and traditionally oriented diet (50% protein, <20% carbohydrates, >30% fat) with a Caucasian control group that showed aboriginal people exhibit a stronger insulin response to glucose than Caucasians which was less pronounced after a traditional diet. This was likely to be a major factor in their predisposition to diabetes.
- A study in 1982 on the effect of a high protein, seafood based, very low carbohydrate ketogenic diet for two week period. This showed a significant but small improvement. Most other trials of ketogenic diets have proceeded for longer periods as two weeks is about the time required for initial ‘fat adaptation’. It can be wondered what might have been the result had this trial been longer.
My armchair research is not as ground-breaking, but I do want to add. I decided that I would like to focus this blog on one particular group. The Nyungar (or Noongar) whose lands I dwell upon in South Western Australia. Why? The Nyungar were lean and healthy eating a traditional diet until relatively recently, and much of that diet is well recorded.
It is unknown exactly when the Nyungar came to these lands, but there is evidence dating to at least 30,000 years- or greater than 1,500 generations ago. History records that Europeans did not first settle here until 1826. Along with European settlement came new foodstuffs, disease and farming practices previously unknown to the Nyungar. Flour became especially attractive to them as they had nothing as starchy in their traditional diet. Some of the trouble with settlers was for stealing flour however despite new found foods, the traditional way of eating is said to have existed until the 1960s. Allowing some leeway, it was only three to five generations ago that the Nyungar changed their diet.
Many things changed with the coming of settlers, but I will focus on their food. It is common sense to do so as obesity is roughly 80% metabolism and diet and only 20% exercise and other lifestyle factors. The Nyungar did not run marathons for fun. Like other hunter-gatherers, their activity was low level for long periods and aimed at surviving. If you doubt that common sense, remember that it takes a 6.8km run to burn off a serve of coca cola and takes little effort to drink a few serves. I do not know why people confound themselves with other factors and think that we are obese because people just aren’t moving as they used to. It is a factor, but you cannot outrun a bad diet- contrary to the favoured myth of the fitness industry.
Nyungar Diet Today
So what was their diet like then and what is it like now? Some of the information I am about to present comes from this paper from 2010. It suggests that the current diet is high in fat, sugar, fast food and carbohydrates and that it is given to infants at an early age.
The majority of infants had received ‘fast foods’ by 12 months of age with 56.2% had been given coca cola, 68% lemonade and 78% fried chips.
Unsurprisingly, many are on the same poor Western diet that causes diabesity all around the world. The same one that results from giving advice to the populous to minimise salt, fat, sugar, avoid saturated fat and to eat 45 to 65% of dietary intake from carbs (Australian Dietary Guidelines) and the food industry adjusts its products to match. The diet exacerbated by the fast food industry with its fattening mix of carbohydrates and polyunsaturated seed oils.
What was their diet? Well, the account of foods is quite detailed in this paper too. It was a meat based diet rich in meat, offal, but low in green vegetables with some tubers with limited grains, fruit and sugars. The effect of that diet is apparent below.
Respectfully, I have not put any pictures here of today’s Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders following (as best as they can) the Australian Dietary Guidelines but you can do your own google search. You are likely to find that, along with all Australians, people are not as lean. It is important to remember however that research showed that even lean Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were predisposed to diabetes.
I think it is important that a reader gets some context of the ‘bush tucker’ food available here- especially the carbohydrates. The exceptional skill that the Nyungar had to live on this land is hard to appreciate unless you have spent time here. We do not have natural forests of edible nut trees with an undergrowth of berries. There was no farming, and everything was taken in season leaving enough to replenish naturally. Surviving on meat and fish here is one thing, determining the edible plants among the majority that are toxic belongs to Nyungar knowledge won over millennia that is foreign to me. Let us look more closely at the carbohydrates in their diet. These were said to be from the zamia palm, seeds and nuts (primarily wattle seed), fruits, nectar, honey and tubers.
Sugars: Nectar, Honey and Fruits
Nectar from plants like the Banksia was seasonal at the flowering time. The nectar would obviously form a seasonal treat or snack in their diet- much like when Europeans suck on a honeysuckle.
There was no organised cultivation or production of snack products. As you might imagine too, just like these available for all Australians at my local supermarket, such snack treats would not form the mainstay of their diet.
Honey is a product of the concentration of nectar by bees. Unlike the European bees that arrived with settlers, most Southwest Australian bees are solitary and small. You just don’t get the same prodigious quantities of honey from them. Australia’s honey producing stingless native ‘sugarbag’ bees are not native to South Western Australia.
The fruit the Nyungar ate is typified by the native peach or ‘Quandong’. It is the size of an oversized grape and has limited meat. In fact, the ones in this picture are quite luscious compared to ones I have found in the wild. The ones I have seen have very thin flesh and a large nut with an oily kernel eaten roasted. It is a bit like a macadamia with a root beer flavour.
The Quandong has a short season of about a month over Summer in each locale ripening progressively from North to South in range over four months. It is also a small parasitic tree depending on specific compatible host trees, so both the fruit and the tree are not plentiful. The quandong is high in vitamin C but not overly sweet. If you can gather a sufficient quantity (an undertaking of some effort) and then combine with sugar, it makes a pleasant jam. Eaten fresh, the Nyungar would have had a tart treat.
While sugars were undoubtedly sought after, you would defy credibility if you were to maintain that the traditional Nyungar diet had any substantial sugar. It is recorded that the Nyungar collected nectar mixed with water for a sweet drink and also fermented it into an alcoholic drink (called Gep). Without bees to do the work, you can be assured that even when such seasonal pursuits were possible, they were well below the WHO stretch target of 5% of calories from sugar. You can be fairly sure that due to local availability and seasonality, most days would have no sugar intake at all.
Starches: Wattle, Tubers and Zamia
Wattle seed was probably the dominant seed that was eaten. In season it was ground and made into cakes cooked on an open fire and qualifies as the primary Nyungar grain. It would have been typical of the seeds that the Nyungar ate. Nutritionally, it was very high fibre (54%), and with a net carbohydrate content of 10.5%, 20% protein and about 6% fat, it is a very low carbohydrate grain compared to wheat (~70% carbohydrate).
Tubers were the last and probably most significant of the starches, and the Nyungar diet had a varied number. While I can find no nutritional analysis for these plants, it is important to remember that they were opportunistically collected, seasonal and never farmed or selected to improve the size and nutritional content. It is also a factor that tuberous plants tend to be found inland in the forests, and not on the coast.
Zamia: Carbohydrates or Fat?
Unlike other groups in Australia, the zamia palm is said not to have been eaten by the Nyungar for its more starchy seed, but instead for the poisonous oily macrocarpam which was specially treated to make it safe to eat. Contrary to what may have been assumed, to the Nyungar this was valued as a fat and not a carbohydrate source- much like the oil palms of the tropics.
Nyungars were not Vegans
The major part of the Nyungar diet, as written in many sources, was animals, eggs, birds, fish and grubs. As previously linked:
Traditional foods from this region varied but included emu, kangaroo, possum, goanna, fresh water crustaceans (maron and gilgies), bardi grubs from under the bark of eucalyptus trees or in the roots of mallee trees, wild duck, mallee hen eggs taken from the mound where multiple eggs were found and fish for people who lived on the coast permanently or in different seasons. Everything edible on an animal carcass was consumed, including organs such as the liver, kidney, brain and intestines.
It is evident through their preference for eating the oily zamia palm and other accounts of meat eating that they did seek fat although it was also not a high-fat diet. Fat would have been mostly from animal sources, and most wild sources from meat are not as high in fat as the domesticated ones that we now eat.
A Paleo Diet?
Putting this diet into modern terms, it would be pretty close to what people call a ‘Paleo Diet’. No dairy, but with eggs, meat and fish as available with limited vegetable content as could be foraged. Looking at the descriptions of Prof. O’Dea’s work and the descriptions above, most Nyungar would probably be on a high protein (say 75%) low fat (say 15%) and low carbohydrate (say 10%) diet with inland Nyungar probably eating more tubers for some more carbohydrates.
The actual composition would be subject to the seasonal and local availability of the carbohydrate sources like tubers; it would have been at times, a ketogenic diet- particularly if the hunt and forage were insufficient.
With so few carbohydrate and fat rich foods, there is no doubt that the Nyungar would have prized fat and carbohydrate foods as high energy sources. This is likely to be why they took the time and trouble to detoxify oily zamia palm fruits.
The Cause is Apparent
We have looked at some of the past research and taken a look at the likely composition of the Nyungar diet. It should be fairly obvious why the Nyungar would suffer from insulin resistance, obesity and diabetes when fed a Western diet. Even if you disregard the similar opportunistic diet that they ate while migrating to Southwest Australia they have had more than 1,500 generations to adapt to the low carbohydrate, low-fat food in their country. We have given them three to five generations to adjust to a high carbohydrate, high-fat Western diet. The effect of our dietary advice has tripled obesity since the 1970s for all Australia. It even gives us the diabetes epidemic that Australia now faces. No wonder the Nyungar have been so severely affected by it.
I am of Northern European descent. My ancestors have had over one hundred generations to adapt to a higher carbohydrate diet made possible through agriculture, but even that is not long enough. No wonder I developed diabetes in my forties while some Nyungar get it in their twenties. Doesn’t that make perfect sense?
The Australian Dietary Guidelines
Even if the diet that Australians ate was exactly to the Australian Dietary Guidelines (essentially low-fat with 45 to 65% of energy from carbohydrates with multiple meals spread throughout the day), it still is far from their traditional diet of one main meal, low in carbohydrates, after the hunting and foraging were completed.
Now we hit the great conceit. You see with all of our science and technology we have worked out that the ‘perfect’ diet for Australian humanity is expressed in the Australian Dietary Guidelines. The Nyungar and other groups should eat our perfect diet born of science because to do otherwise would be to deny them health. It would be discriminatory to have them follow a different diet.
If I were to espouse their original low-carb, low-fat, high protein diet, people would say: “Yes but in their primitive way of life they died young”. To that, I would say: “That is why we have modern medicine including antibiotics, sterile surgery, vaccinations, pre and ante-natal care, effective drug therapies and more”. Further, as obesity and diabetes were completely unheard of on their traditional diet, no-one would likely die of diabetic complications, suffer diabetic induced cardiovascular disease, diabetic blindness, kidney failure and amputation. Isn’t that what we are seeking to fix?
No one is suggesting that the Nyungar must go back exactly to their traditional diet and lifestyle. There is no reason though why healthy eating of similar composition to their traditional diet cannot be recommended. It is not, though. In fact, the diet that I am on is denied as an option for the Nyungar by Diabetes Australia and Diabetes WA. My diabetes effective low carb healthy fat diet would be pretty close to their traditional diet. It is safe, maintainable and gives me normal blood glucose that means I will avoid diabetic complications.
Most importantly, it has reversed my diabetes.
Calling it Out
No Facebook groups are helping the Nyungar, or other groups achieve low carb weight loss and curing their diabetes as the Nigerian ladies have achieved through self-organisation. Our First Australians are depending on not-for-profits who are failing them.
Advice from Diabetes Australia for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander’s with diabetes may include the call to eat more bush tucker, but it is otherwise much the same as for all Australians. In particular, it does not suggest limiting, total carbohydrate. The CSIRO has recently proven this to be effective, and actually, Prof. O’Dea’s studies also showed its efficacy some forty years ago. It seems unfortunate that it was not a favoured message of the nutritionists either now or then.
This issue has to be called out, and so I am doing so. To continue pushing the Australian Dietary Guidelines for people with diabetes, and in particular for the First Australians like the Nyungar, is tantamount to Australian Dietary Genocide. It is making us all, white fella and black fella, very very sick.
My next post will examine this issue further.