It seems like every month a new diet or "super-food" is being pushed by the media. Usually the logic behind these diets is rooted in some type of pseudoscience, or a very liberal interpretation of a newly published article. Recently nutrition, health, and fitness news outlets are all offering their own spin on a newly-published study involving heart disease in mummies.
In the study, researchers performed whole-body CT scans on 137 mummies from four ancient populations – Egyptian, Peruvian, Puebloan (southwest America), and Unangan (Aleutian Islands). They analyzed the images for signs of atherosclerosis, or hardening of artery walls due to buildup of cholesterol and fatty-acid laden plaque. This was evidenced by the presence of calcified plaque on the mummies’ artery walls, or if a given artery was not persevered through the years, along the path where it was expected to run. Interestingly, atherosclerosis was found in 34% of 137 mummies: (38%) of 76 ancient Egyptians, 13 (25%) of 51 ancient Peruvians, two (40%) of five Ancestral Puebloans, and three (60%) of five Unangans.
Atherosclerosis has been estimated to affect up to 35% of modern Americans. Wait a minute… So even with our modern diet, full of the countless flaws nutritionists would love to tell you about, our arteries are just as bad as the ancients? As much as I would enjoy telling members of the so called “Paleo cult” that their lifestyle changes have all been in vain, I don’t think we have close to enough information to exonerate the modern diet.
I don’t think the 34% vs 35% figure tells us as much about the relationship between diet and atherosclerosis as some nutritionists and health enthusiasts would like to believe. Instead, it merely points to our incomplete understanding of the causes of plaque-buildup and how it relates to aging and other factors. For example, studies have shown that frequent infection, as well as stress, can lead to increased atherosclerosis. Ancient people obviously had a harder time dealing with infection without modern drugs and medical knowledge. The role of smoke inhalation needs to be addressed too; it's noted in the article that many of the non-Egyptian mummies were exposed to high levels of smoke from non-ventilated cooking fires, a prominent risk-factor in developing atherosclerosis (which is present in the modern world in the form of cigarettes).
In other words, don’t throw out your vegetables and park yourself on the sofa just yet. Although this study has given us new insight towards the development and history of heart-threatening atherosclerosis, it’s not quite the nutritional “get out of jail free” card that many sources are making it out to be.
Credit for picture:
Mummy: Jose and Roxanne
Joseph Starrett (3)