The Metabolic Atavism Theory

By Michel Montignac

In September 1997, at the Book Fair in Quebec, Canada I was sitting at my editor’s stand dedicating my books when a Canadian man came up to me to ask a question. He was holding the hand of an adorable six-year old girl, A beautiful tiny little doll with thick black hair that framed a sad angel face and charming almond eyes which showed her Asian roots.

-She’s Chinese, her adopted father told me.

She’s been with us for the past six months and we are concerned because she doesn’t eat enough. She doesn’t seem to like the food we serve her!

- What kind of food do you give her?

- Normal food, the same thing we eat!

In fact, the only thing she wants to eat is rice!

I suddenly remember something that happened to me when I was a child and I tell him:

- Imagine that you bought exotic fish. The salesman would probably recommend that you keep the aquarium at, for example, 73.4° Fahrenheit and to feed the fish food suitable to their particular needs. He might warn you that if you decide to feed the same food you give your goldfish, your exotic fish will probably not survive.

- I first want you to excuse me for the comparison and hope you are not offended but your little girl’s problem is of a similar nature. Basically, the only food suitable to a little Chinese girl is the food she has been brought up on, the food she was used to eating before you adopted her, that is, the food her parents fed her, what her ancestors and her people eat.

For millenniums the Chinese people have preserved their traditional eating habits which are perfectly adapted to their climatic conditions, their natural resources, their culture, and their country’s traditions.

In the course of time the human organism has learned to adjust to its own particular environment which is basically the same nowadays as it was in the past.

The human body has developed a specialized system of enzymes which allows it to take full advantage of the food that nature has put at its disposal. Children inherit at birth the genetic legacy that equips them with the specific metabolic atavism suited to their peoples’ eating habits. Those types of foods and eating habits to which they are not accustomed are probably incompatible with their metabolic system and constitute a potential risk to their body’s balance and an eventual health hazard.

During the past millenniums, under the influence of their specific environments, human communities have developed eating habits which differ from one region to another and, à fortiori, from one continent to another. This applies to the Asian people, Africans, North American Indians, Australian Aboriginals as well as the Eskimos.

All of these human groups, which can also be distinguished by their ethnic roots to better highlight their differences, lived for centuries (even millenniums) locked up in their own peculiar worlds and environments. Some retained fairly primary living conditions (Africa, America, Australia, Greenland…) while others developed civilizations (Chinese, Pre-Columbian…) which differed greatly from the civilizations developed during the same historical period in the Mediterranean Basin.

All of them developed their own specific eating habits. Nonetheless, they all had one point in common, the foods they ate had a low potential for raising blood sugar levels. In other words, they were not of a sort to provoke glycemia (high blood sugar levels.)

When a European moves to the US and adopts the local eating habits, which we now know have a negative impact on our metabolism, he also begins to run the risk of developing the « metabolic pathologies », which afflict people in the US, namely, obesity, diabetes and heart illnesses. The fact is that the same causes will always have the same effect. Although the US diet has a higher potential for raising blood sugar, the difference between European and US eating habits is but a matter of degrees. This is why, in the European’s case, it might take a while for these illnesses to develop simply because Europeans, due to the similarities between European and US eating habits, have progressively (for the past 2 centuries) prepared their organisms for a certain metabolic deviation. Asian people, comparatively, are not quite as prepared as Europeans for the pancreatic stimulation provoked by US foods.

Traditional Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Eskimo eating styles contrast noticeably with US eating habits which have a much higher potential to raise blood sugar levels. The difference here is not one of degrees but in the nature of the food itself.

When these peoples arrive in the US and are faced with US foods, their metabolism might react (much like our little Chinese girl in Quebec) by rejecting the unfamiliar foods or it might, as unfortunately often occurs, go berserk after a while of eating foods for which its organism is not prepared.

Once we are aware of this, we can understand a certain number of things like for example why affect African-Americans suffer three times more obesity and diabetes problems than whites in the US. If we look at films like « Gone with the Wind » we will notice that by the time of the Civil War, just one or two generations after being brought to America, Scarlet O’Hara’s slaves were already portrayed as being overweight.

Similarly, the great majority of people in the US who are extremely overweight (400 pounds, 600 pounds or more) are on the whole individuals with non-European ethnic roots: Amerindians, Eskimos, Haitians… whose metabolisms have been forced to assimilate in a very short time what normally takes an organism hundreds of years to learn and which, as a result, have literally imploded.

When the Conquerors reached the New World the alcohol they brought wreaked havoc on the Indian populations. While a European could drink a whole bottle of Vodka and still function, an Indian with just one glass of vodka could easily fall into an ethylic comma. An average Russian nowadays, for example, can drink a liter of Vodka and still manage to think and do what he has to do. Common sense would probably explain this by saying that Russians are used to drinking, well this is also happens to be the scientific explanation for the diverging reactions.

If American Indians not only got drunk but were often quite sick after drinking small doses of alcohol, it was most probably because they were not used to drinking but mainly because their metabolism was not equipped with the specialized system of enzymes required to decompose alcohol. As a result, alcohol was pure poison for their organism.

Russians, for example, have a millennium-long tradition of high alcohol consumption and have thus developed the corresponding metabolic responses in the form of enzymes which can decompose quantities of alcohol way above the doses tolerated by the average European, who also has a 6 to 8000 year-old alcohol tradition (alcoholic metabolic atavism). We might wonder at the fact that European women cannot tolerate as much alcohol as European men (twice as much as women). The scientific explanation behind this is that they are not equipped with the same amount of enzymes; in their case they have 50% less alcohol-degrading enzymes than European men. This difference is also explained by the fact that women have not been drinking alcohol as long as men have.

In Antique Civilizations, notably during Roman times, women were not allowed to drink alcohol. In more recent history, women only began drinking during the Versailles era in the 17th century and they basically only drank champagne. Modern-day women’s enzymatic deficit is thus the result of the female metabolic atavism which is itself the outcome of the way women have consumed alcohol throughout history.

If Indians and Aboriginals cannot drink even a small glass of alcohol without the risk of getting very drunk, this is, like we said, because this “foodstuff” is incompatible with their metabolism.

If this is so, why should he have to put up with a hyperglycemic diet when his metabolism, that of his ancestors, has never had to respond to (learnt to cope with) these extreme demands? We should not be surprised when he develops severe pathologies as a result.

Public Health Officials in industrial societies, as well a nutritionists, would do well to try to put the available information to better use instead of faithfully waiting for the pharmaceutical industry to develop a miraculous ‘pill’.

Why are we looking for answers in the wrong places when we basically have all of the information we need to point people in the right direction?

In 1962, researcher J.V. Neel, developed and interesting theory on the « thrifty genotype». According to this theory, primitive man, considering the numerous shortages endured by his ancestors, should necessarily have become genetically prepared for when food was abundant. Neel holds that the « thrifty genotype » was what allowed the people who developed it to build fats rapidly when they had the chance to eat and to withstand times of famine. Today’s primitive communities could well be the descendants of those survivors. They would be naturally equipped with the famous “thrifty genotype” which had saved their ancestors’ lives, and which condemned them to illness and death now when they ate ‘normally’.

In order to prove this theory, in 1971 a study was carried out in Tribal Communities in the US. The number of calories in a traditional Indian diet was compared to the amount of calories in the average American’s diet. The idea, according to official scientific hypotheses, was to prove that the “thrifty genotype” only functioned when passing from a poor diet (low in calories) to a high calorie diet. To their surprise, they found that both diets contained more or less the same amount of calories.

In the mid 1980s, a team of agricultural technicians made up of young Pima Indians from Arizona heard about Glycemic Indexes. They found out that several interesting experiments had been carried out in Australia which, as reported in a scientific journal, had reversed diabetes and obesity among Aboriginals by lowering the glycemic incidence of their meals thanks to a return to their low-GI traditional diet.

They soon understood that the difference between modern American food and their traditional foods was basically a matter of nutritional value. In particular, the amount of soluble fibers contained in desert plants (like ancestral corn) which served to store water after the short rainy seasons or even morning dew. These fibers are precisely what make for low Glycemic Indexes in certain foods.

Aboriginals rapidly grasped the close tie that exist between spectacular increases in obesity and diabetes (50 to 80% of them suffered these ailments) since they had abandoned their traditional diets for « pale faces » dietary habits rich in sugars and refined cereals with high GIs and almost totally lacking in fibers. Average American dietary habits were sure to throw the Indians’ insulin secretion mechanism totally off course particularly since it had never had any demands made on it by secular Aboriginal eating habits with a low glycemic potential.

In 1991, a first test was successfully carried out at the Phoenix Indian Hospital with 22 healthy Indian volunteers who followed two diets in a row, both with the same amount of calories. First the Pimas’ dietary habits of the 1870s and secondly, the Circle K (this is the name of Arizona’s most popular food store) diet: low on fibers, rich in refined flours and lots of sugar and saturated fats. The result was edifying. Doctor Swinburn, who directed this study, was able to show that American food with its high potential for raising blood sugar levels was, in view of the Pimas’ metabolic atavism, the determining factor behind obesity and diabetes in their tribe and that by going back to their traditional dietary habits (amounting to the same calories) the Pimas could reverse these two pathologies.

Certain specialists might not want to bother with what we have to say. They might think that it has all been known before. The question is, if this is so, why is it that experts have not shared this knowledge so that people can act on it.

Years back when people finally became aware of the fact that smoking was a health hazard for both smokers and non-smokers and that it caused cancer, Health Authorities developed information and education campaigns and today there are less and less cigarette smokers.

Twenty-five years ago, when people in the States realized that the US population had reached a suicidal rate of heart illnesses, Health Authorities took the bull by the horns and promoted prevention ads. Regardless of the fact that these ads could have been much more informative, the positive results show that when people are given the basic knowledge, they act accordingly. Even if there is still a long way to go to before people act in knowledge, the first steps have already been taken.

As concerns obesity and diabetes —two of America’s ills of the times— there are still no coherent and effective public campaign proposals and this is only logical if we consider the fact that Americans have not yet identified that the determining factor behind these ailments is a dietary model with a high potential to provoke hyperglycemia.

When we see the pressure which can be exerted by the agro-food industry on the highly-respectable FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and how, in 1986, the FDA « forgot » that sugar was harmful, we can assume that the US will still have to wait quite a while for the direly needed prevention campaigns in this field. The time when Americans, and the rest of the world with them, will be publicly informed on the health risks of eating at Mac Donald’s (or similar fast food places) and drinking Coke are apparently still but the dream of knowledgeable nutritionists and health experts.

The real problem nowadays regarding what we eat and which concerns us all is globalization. We need to be prepared so that we might cope.

On the eve of the French Revolution, and several centuries later, eating habits in Europe were the result of the coming together of different cultures. Europeans had diversified their diets without losing the nutritional quality of their dietary mode and European eating habits were still not of the type to provoke glycemia.

Unfortunately, this does not hold true nowadays. At a nutritional level, globalization has brought with it eating habits and foods with a high potential to raise blood sugar levels and the repercussions are becoming more and more obvious worldwide. The WHO (World Health Organization) speaks of an international epidemic, and rightly so, since this health hazard (junk food) is affecting the world at large.

The only way to avoid the ensuing illnesses is by reverting this tendency through knowledge and prevention, beginning with ourselves, our children and the people around us. We must start to adjust our eating habits to the admirable mechanism which has been bequeathed to us by our ancestors: our metabolic atavism.

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