Most researchers agree that early Paleolithic humans lived in Africa. It has even been suggested that the bulk of our evolution as homo sapiens occurred in Africa, where our biological needs for certain nutrients such as omega-3 fats, vitamins A and D, and minerals like iron and zinc were established.
Ironically, however, the ‘traditional African diet’ I’m examining today is about as far from what we could call a ‘Paleo diet’ as you can get. That’s because most traditional African meals are based heavily on cereal grains, dairy, legumes, and very little meat.
You might wonder whether it’s even a good idea to look to an African dietary pattern for health lessons. After all, they have notoriously low life expectancies, and although infectious diseases like malaria and HIV/AIDS are by far the largest contributors to poor health in Africa, non-communicable diseases such as hypertension and heart disease are on the rise. (1) But the rural regions of Africa actually provide a great example of how a nourishing whole foods diet can be created even in less-than ideal conditions, and, ultimately, demonstrate how truly adaptable humans are.
Clearly, Africa is a huge continent with a great deal of dietary variation, but there are a few dietary trends that are common throughout many parts of Africa. By and large, the food staples in rural sub-Saharan villages are agriculturally based, with millet, sorghum, maize, cassava, and dairy featuring prominently in the diets of these people. (2, 3) And in the first half of the 20th century, Dr. Weston A. Price found that most traditional African populations exhibited fairly robust health, despite many of their diets being based primarily on cereal grains. (In fact, the healthiest population Dr. Price found, the Dinkas people, had a diet consisting primarily of fish and cereal grains.)
A Diet Based on Grains
Many regions of Africa rely on grains as their dietary staple, most often sorghum, maize, or millet. Western grain-based diets haven’t worked out so well, but most rural parts of Africa have avoided the obesity, heart disease, and diabetes that plague our grain-based society. How do they make grains an acceptable dietary staple?
First off, you’ll notice that none of the staple grains listed are gluten-containing. Wheat is certainly consumed in some areas, but gluten-free grains are consumed much more commonly. However, the key factor to the quality of these grain-heavy diets lies in their preparation methods, including soaking and fermenting. Many of these traditional practices that proponents of the ancestral health movement are trying to re-introduce never went out of style in Africa. Almost invariably, Africans go through extensive preparations before consuming grains, and this has a huge impact on nutrient availability and digestibility. (4)
For people just starting out on a grain-free diet, the concept of ‘anti-nutrients’ in grains and legumes can seem nebulous and unscientific. Conventional sources of dietary information rarely or never mention these significant caveats to the ‘healthy whole grain’ paradigm. But once you start reading peer-reviewed research papers, the topic of phytates, tannins, and other anti-nutrients actually pops up a lot.
For example, a 1997 paper titled Lactic fermented foods in Africa and their benefits concluded that the traditional practice of fermenting grains reduces the amount of tannins and phytic acid present, thus increasing the availability of protein, iron, other minerals, and overall calories. One study shows that fermentation of millet completely eliminates phytic acid and amylase inhibitors, and another shows that fermentation markedly reduces those components in sorghum. In regions where malnutrition is common, especially among young children, fermentation of grains is a vitally necessary step.
Appreciation for Healthy Fats
For many African communities who subsist on a largely plant-based diet, dairy is an important source of fat-soluble vitamins and other nutrients that are difficult to get elsewhere. Sudan in particular prizes dairy, which has been a main component of the Sudanese diet for thousands of years. (5)
In Sudan, milk is usually fermented to make it easier to extract the butterfat, which is then turned into ghee. (Funnily enough, the container in which the ghee is stored is called a butta.) It’s interesting to note that the milk loses its value once the butterfat is extracted; the greatest care is taken not to spill any whole milk, but once the butter is removed, the remaining fermented skim milk is often fed to the animals or just tossed on the ground.
Red palm oil is also a staple fat source, particularly in West Africa. Red palm oil contains a high proportion of saturated fat, as well as vitamin E, beta-carotene, and other antioxidants. (6) The habit of consuming red palm oil or other fats with stews and other meals aids the absorption of nutrients.
Although the conventional recommendation to consume ridiculous quantities of dietary fiber is off the mark, fiber is still important for cultivating healthy gut bacteria. One interesting study from 2010 compared the intestinal flora of two groups of children – one from Burkina Faso, and the other from Italy – and concluded that the high-fiber diet of the African children resulted in a richer and more diverse population of intestinal flora.
The diet of the African children consisted primarily of millet, sorghum, black-eyed peas, some local vegetables, mango, papaya, shea butter, occasional chicken or termites, and breast milk for those aged 2 or younger. The children from Italy ate what the researchers called a ‘typical Western diet.’
Researchers found that the ratio of Firmicutes to Bacteroidetes was significantly different between the two groups. The European children had about 50% Firmicutes and 25% Bacteroidetes, while the African children had about 12% and 75%, respectively. This is noteworthy because the ratio of Firmicutes to Bacteroidetes is believed by some researchers to be a risk factor for obesity.
It’s also interesting to note that the bacteria of the African children seem to have adapted to their high-fiber diet. Just as the gut bacteria of the Japanese uniquely enable them to digest seaweed, the gut bacteria of the children from Burkina Faso are more able to digest the polysaccharides and cellulose from their plant-heavy diet. Levels of propionate and butyrate – two types of short-chain fatty acids produced by intestinal flora – were almost four times higher in the samples from Africa than the samples from Italy. This adaptation enables the African children to derive more nutrition from a diet that might not be ‘ideal.’
I think that traditional African cuisine is a good reminder to not label foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Many people, especially in our world of broken metabolisms and damaged guts, do better without grains, but grains have still supported many communities without deleterious health effects. However, it’s also important to not separate the food from the preparation method. A gluten free muffin made from sorghum flour in the frozen section of Whole Foods is most certainly not the same food as traditionally fermented sorghum gruel.
The different African diets also remind us once again that humans are extraordinarily adaptable, and our food tolerances depend heavily on the environment we grew up in, the environment our ancestors lived in, and the composition of our intestinal flora.