Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Recent Mummy Findings Not a Guideline For Your Diet



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:


Joseph Starrett (3)

5 comments:

  1. I think this is a very good statement to make. There is no reason to say that we have made no medical advances just because our arteries are equally bad. This information should be an indictment of our already excessive lifestyles; the fact that even with all these medically advances we are not healthier than a culture where the leading causes of death are easily curable today.
    Hunter Alexander (1)

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  2. The fact that our risk for heart disease in our modern world is just as bad as the risk from ancient populations tells us that we are making poor decisions in light of our health, given the extensive knowledge that we now know through science. Getting heart disease has multiple behaviors acting as factors towards its risk. The fact that this article shifts our focus less away from our foods and more towards our other lifestyle habits puts into perspective the fact that health is about the balance of multiple factors.

    Marshall Moini (2)

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    1. I think it is normal human behavior to engage in risky or detrimental behavior (i.e. smoking) despite being fully aware of the risks. Just look at the number of people that still smoke, eat deep-fried food, burn fossil fuels, etc. I'm not saying I don't do some of these things; the fact that I do makes me human. In that regard I am not surprised heart disease is still a huge problem despite our knowledge of behavioral risk factors.

      Joseph Starrett (3)

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  3. From my interpretation, this article suggests just how bad our current dieting habits may be. For example, even with all of the medical advances, better enviroments, and lower stress levels (I can't imagine that our current lifestyles aren't much cushier than the types of lives these people had to endure) are atherosclerosis levels are still as high as they were 3,000 years ago. In other words, our poor dieting habits would seem to offest the improved aspects of our health that act to lower plaque buildup. It would be interesting to know what the diets of these ancient societies consisted of, in order to compare them to our modern diets. I'm sure there is some idea of this in historical research.

    Posted by Sean McDougall (2)

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    1. The diet and lifestyle of the different populations they used probably played a role. For example, only the Egyptian royalty were mummified and they probably had a similar sedentary lifestyle and excessive diet as we often see today.

      Joseph Starrett (3)

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