If eating better is one of your goals for the New Year, you’re probably considering adopting guidelines from the popular Mediterranean diet, becoming a vegetarian or, perhaps, following Paleo diet recommendations.
But, here’s something you’ve likely never thought about: modeling your eating on a traditional, rural Tanzanian diet.
In fact, new research is showing that the traditional diet of those who live in rural Tanzania causes less inflammation and a healthier composition of bacteria and fungi in the gut as compared to a typical Western diet.
And that could help us all prevent many “lifestyle diseases.”
While Tanzanians in urban centers eat similarly to Westerners, rural Tanzanians largely stick to more traditional foods. And according to a recent study published in February 2021 in the science journal Nature Immunology and conducted by scientists from Radboud University Medical Center in the Netherlands, the LIMES Institute at the University of Bonn in Germany and the Kilimanjaro Clinical Research Institute in Tanzania, that could be the reason why urban Tanzanians have more inflammation than the country’s rural citizens. The researchers believe that the urban dwellers’ more hyperactive immune systems—credited to their diets—contributes to the uptick in noncommunicable diseases in urban Africa.
More than 300 Tanzanians participated in the study, some of whom live in the city of Moshi and some in the countrysides. The science team found that while the urban residents had no health issues and were not ill, they still had activated immune systems that were producing more inflammatory proteins, increasing their risks for lifestyle diseases, such as cardiovascular disease.
Meanwhile, people from rural areas were found to have greater levels of flavonoids (phytochemicals that inhibit inflammation and tumor growth, strengthen the immune system and help form detoxification pathways) and other anti-inflammatory substances in their blood, attributed to their traditional diets. Flavonoids are found widely in plants.
Tanzanians in rural areas traditionally eat mainly plant-based foods high in fiber and fermented products. An important meal for them is ugali, a porridge made from corn or millet. They also eat a lot of spinach and other vegetables, whole-grain cereals and different types of beans. Bananas are often on the menu, and they even brew banana beer. Meat is eaten at most once a week. In contrast, those living in urban centers consume greater amounts of processed foods and saturated fats, mirroring the standard American diet.
A seasonal change in immune system activity was discovered, too. In the dry season, which is the time of harvest in the study’s area, the urban people had less activated immune systems.
Notably, these findings go along with a follow-up study, published in Nature Communications in August 2021, where researchers looked at the intestinal flora of rural and urban Tanzanians and those of Dutch people. They saw major differences in the composition of gut flora. Tanzanians in rural areas had the fewest bacteria associated with inflammation, and the Dutch had the most. Tanzanians in big cities were in between, but closer to the Dutch.
It has been known for some time that a Western lifestyle and eating habits lead to chronic diseases. When rural Tanzanians move to the big cities, their diets change. They encounter Western products, fast food and a lot more meat. But it’s not only what they eat that changes; it’s how they prepare it. In the countrysides, people cook the food; while in the cities, they often switch to deep-frying. In addition, rural residents eat a lot of unprocessed grains, while those in the city buy more processed foods, such as white rice (without the bran, germ and husk).
The consequences of such a changed lifestyle are huge. In Tanzanian cities, there has been a rapid increase in Western diseases. In the past, infectious diseases—such as HIV, malaria and tuberculosis—were a major problem. Now, more and more lifestyle diseases are seen, as well; such as cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes and obesity.
Of course, rapid urbanization is ongoing; not only in Tanzania, but also in other parts of Africa. The migration from the countrysides to the cities and the increase in the number of lifestyle diseases is putting a heavy burden on urban health-care systems. It is hoped that by encouraging city residents to stick to traditional plant-based diets, this development can be slowed.
These findings from Africa are also relevant for Western countries. Urbanization took place a long time ago in most of them. The research in Tanzania is being conducted in a population that is right in the middle of this change, giving us new insights into the role of lifestyle on health. By studying populations at different stages of urbanization, researchers have a unique opportunity to improve their understanding of how diet and lifestyle affect the human immune system.
Most of us have heard that the standard American diet is not the way to eat for optimal wellness. So, when trying to achieve your New Year’s resolution to eat more healthfully—and anytime you want to keep your immune system in check—be sure to opt for a diet of real, whole foods, starting with ample high-fiber and nutritionally-dense fruits and vegetables; whole grains; and clean sources of protein, such as plant-based meat and animal meat produced by growing animal cells outside of an animal instead of inside a factory farm or slaughterhouse.
Let’s vow to make 2023 better for our own health and that of the whole planet.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,