What happens to your microbiome if you eat the diet of the world’s most ancient hunter-gatherers?
This week, we dive deep into a two-part BBC radio show, the first episode of which was transmitted just this Monday.
The show is a fascinating episode of BBC Radio 4’s long-running Food Programme, entitled Hunting With The Hadza.
The producers label it the oldest food story in the world, and it’s freely available to download and listen to from a link we’ve included below.
The second episode, due next week, will focus on the microbiome of these ancient African tribal people, the Hadza, but thanks to recent posts by two of those involved with the show, we’re delighted to be able to spill at least some of the beans and also to highly recommend checking out the BBC radio shows.
Research by other scientists has shown that the Hadza have one of the most diverse microbiomes in the world – with an incredibly high microbial richness and diversity.
Tim Spector, a professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, was invited by his colleague Jeff Leach to join a field trip to Tanzania during which the BBC show was recorded.
Jeff Leach has lived and worked with the Hadza in Tanzania for a number of years.
They’re one of the very last remaining hunter-gatherer groups in Africa.
Numbering just over 1,000 members, they’ve probably occupied their current territory in north-central Tanzania for thousands of years.
Tim Spector’s goal was to eat the same diet as the Hadza people for three days, while having his microbiome analyzed before and after the experience.
What might change? Could switching to a Hadza diet for just a few days possibly change Spector’s gut microbiome?
Before most people leave home, they check that the lights and stove are turned off.
Tim Spector, though? Well, before setting off, he collected a poop sample.
As one will.
Then after a long flight, followed by a bumpy eight-hour Land Rover journey, scientists and broadcasters arrived at their destination, near Olduvai Gorge.
The next morning, emerging from his securely-zipped tent (he’d apparently heeded the warning about snakes and scorpions), Tim Spector tucked into his first Hadza breakfast – a kind of thick, milky porridge made by mixing the chalky insides of baobab pods with water, then stirring the result vigorously with a stick.
The baobab, pronounced “bay-oh-bab” is often known as The Tree of Life, famous for its supersized trunk, topped by undersized foliage.
Its pods, or fruit, are enclosed within a hard shell, inside of which is that chalk-like flesh, surrounding a giant seed.
Baobab pods are an everyday staple for the Hadza and a source of enormous nutritional value.
Their seeds are fat-packed, their flesh is loaded with vitamins, and they’re rich in dietary fiber.
Tim Spector described his breakfast as “surprisingly pleasant and refreshing,” so much so that he consumed a second mug of it, in case there wasn’t much to eat later in the day.
He suddenly felt very full.
But as the day progressed there was more food, which Spector reported was in abundance all around them.
Wild Kongorobi berries had a refreshing, slightly sweet taste, and contained 20 times more fiber and polyphenols than cultivated berries.
A late lunch was a couple of tubers, dug up and tossed on the fire.
Spector described these as being like tough, earthy celery, and perhaps unsurprisingly didn’t eat too much of them.
It sounds as though not much happens food-wise at Hadza dinner time.
After dark, though, Spector accompanied tribespeople as they hunted for nocturnal porcupines, two 45-pound specimens of which were caught after a couple of hours of digging in termite mounds.
And you thought you had it bad, doing your weekly supermarket run.
After being carefully de-spiked, the porcupine meat was cooked on a fire, then carried back to camp for a communal meal, apparently tasting like suckling pig.
The menus for the following days were relatively similar to Day 1’s, with the exception of protein coming from the meat of the hyrax, an odd furry guinea-pig-like hoofed animal, which is somewhat bizarrely related to the elephant.
A hyrax weighs about five pounds, so it’s definitely not the type of guinea-pig you’d want to keep in a cage in your living room.
We think we love the sound of the Hadza dessert, which Spector describes as “the best golden orange honey I could ever imagine.”
We say we only *think* we love the sound of it, however, since much of its protein and fat comes from larvae still inside the honeycomb.
And like us, you may not be quite so sure about that.
Larvae aside, this honey is considered to be among the most energy-dense food anywhere in nature.
After a mere three days of living like a Hadza, Spector boarded a plane back to London and, in the comfort of his own bathroom, did some hunting and gathering of his own, collecting an “after” poop specimen, to be compared with the “before” he’d sampled in advance of setting off for Tanzania.
Like us, you’ll no doubt be eager to hear what he discovered, once his poop had been analyzed.
Remarkably, with only three days’ exposure to the Hadza diet, Spector’s microbial diversity had increased by an extraordinary 20%, and there were species in his gut that were certainly of African origin, such as the phylum Synergistetes.
However, although this was tremendous news, it took only a few days for Spector’s microbiome to return to just about where it was before his trip.
The effect was therefore profound, but not long-lasting.
Tim Spector concluded that everyone should make an effort to “re-wild” their diet and lifestyle.
We might add, however, that this doesn’t seem to be something you can fix and forget.
Almost certainly, permanent microbiome change probably means permanent lifestyle change.
But perhaps not eating giant hoofed guinea-pigs, eh?