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How the Food Industry Hooks Us
Michael Easter reveals food lessons from a tribe with the healthiest hearts ever recorded by science in his new book, Scarcity Brain.
In this excerpt from his new book, Scarcity Brain, Michael Easter reveals the food lessons from a tribe with the healthiest hearts ever recorded by science.
The engine of the three-foot-wide, 30-foot-long hardwood peque-peque boat barked as we left Rurrenebaque, Bolivia. Grey clouds hanging above the jungle canopy filtered the rising sun.
I’d been traveling for 36 hours. Twenty-four by plane from Las Vegas to La Paz. Twelve down spastic, single-lane, vertical dirt roads to get to this jumping-off point into the Bolivian Amazon.
Next, we’d run this canoe six hours deep into the Amazon. Eventually, I was told, the village of people I’d come to meet, the Tsimane tribe, would rise from a foggy riverbank. Whether the Tsimane know it or not, they’ve managed to achieve mythic levels of health. They’ve seemingly solved one quirk of a grand problem reaching its tentacles into too many aspects of our modern lives. In 2017, researchers discovered that the tribe has the healthiest hearts ever recorded by science.
We can’t understate the importance of this. Cardiovascular disease is, by far, the number one killer of Americans. In America, cardiovascular disease kills about half of us—one person every 34 seconds. Even the young are at increasing risk. About 30 percent of all heart attack patients today are between 35 and 54 years old. Now 40 percent of all people who die before turning 70 die of cardiovascular disease. Exactly 44.7 percent of American women above age 20 have some grade of cardiovascular disease.
The tribe also seems to avoid Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and all the other maladies most likely to kill us. Their success goes back to what they eat. But what they eat, at some point in a day of eating, gives the middle finger to every popular diet we’ve been sold and told is the key to health, longevity, and a body you could put on a magazine cover. It’s not paleo, vegan, keto, plant-based, low-carb, Mediterranean-style, or any of that.
What Leoncio and the 20,000 other Tsimane scattered throughout the Amazon eat even upends the nutritional research and advice of some of our most venerated academic institutions. Even the American Heart Association would think twice about giving it a full stamp of approval. And yet …
When I finally arrived to stay with the Tsimane, they welcomed me with a meal. It was a chicken we killed, a pile of white rice they grew yards away, a few vegetables picked out of the jungle, and plantains baked in their skin.
As we ate, I asked them what they eat. For protein, they eat red meat they hunt, and fish they pull out of the river. Then one of the Tsimane men began muttering fruits and vegetables—some I knew, along with obscure others that will likely become the next “superfood” marketed to gullible Americans like myself.
“Mucho vegetables?” I asked. The Tsimane man just shrugged. “Eh, poco.” A little, he said. In a full day, he eats about as many vegetables as we might in a single salad.
Then he admitted that they eat chocolate and sugar. The Tribe grows the cane. Harvests it, juices it, then dries that juice into sugar and uses it to sweeten juices and foods. The same goes for chocolate. One doctor claimed that sugar is eight times more addictive than cocaine and will kill you quicker. No one from the tribe appeared strung out or clinging to life.
Of course, they aren’t eating a lot of added sugar. We probably wouldn’t either if we had to personally grow, harvest, and process every gram we ate.
But all those foods are just a fraction of the Tsimane diet, they told me. Maybe a third of it. The tribe leader then started talking about the bedrock foods that keep him and his family alive and well. The ones they eat most.
And if there’s one thing modern internet diet gurus seem to agree on, it’s that these foods are “no good”, “very bad”, and “terribly awful”. They’re the type of basic foods that would send Paleo diehards, Keto zealots, “clean” eaters, and Gwyneth Paltrow and all her GOOP followers into anaphylactic shock.
They’re basic staple carbs. The ones we’re told are “bad.” White rice, potatoes, corn, etc. One scientist who analyzed the Tsimane diet told me about 70 percent of what they eat is comprised of these carb-packed, boring foods.
So why, then, are they so healthy?
In the late 1990s, Kevin Hall, a researcher at the NIH, was finishing his PhD. Cardiovascular disease had dropped from a high in the 1950s because people were smoking less. But over the last couple of decades, it has been picking up as obesity grew.
When I spoke with Hall, he told me, “Typically, nutrition science focuses on trying to understand the molecules in the food—the carbs, fats, protein, fiber, sugar, sodium saturated fat, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera—and how the body processes those individual nutrients and whether higher or lower values of any of them is healthier.” Hall had famously discovered, for example, that there’s no difference in weight loss between low-carb and low-fat diets so long as a person eats the same amount of calories.
But in the early 2010s, a group of scientists from Brazil began arguing that, as Hall told me, “We were thinking about it all wrong. The group said that the individual nutrients within the food aren’t important or even interesting. They said that the healthfulness of food is really about the extent and purpose of its processing. They said that ultra-processed foods are what’s driving obesity and cardiovascular disease.”
Hall was skeptical. But he wanted to see if there was any “there” there.
“So we brought twenty people into our lab, and they stayed with us for a month,” said Hall. “And we gave them three meals and a box of snacks every day and simple instructions to just eat as much or as little as they wanted.”
For half the month, the participants’ meals and snacks were a standard American diet filled with ultra-processed foods. For the other half, they were what the Tsimane might eat—single-ingredient foods.
“The two diets were matched for the amount of calories, carbs, fat, sugar, sodium, protein, and fiber,” said Hall. Hall and his team tracked, weighed, and logged every morsel of food the participants ate.
If you give a human a cookie—or cheeseburger or royal blue yogurt or mashed potatoes injected with butter and cream and topped with thick salty gravy—we will eat more and more of those foods until we fatten up and die of heart disease. If you give a human plain yogurt with some berries—or plain potatoes, lean meat, or rice—we will eat just enough of those foods. We’ll be less likely to fall into a scarcity loop of food.
The people in the study didn’t so much eat the junk diet as pound it. “The people on the ultra-processed diet ate five hundred calories more per day and they gained weight and body fat,” said Hall. But when they ate a Tsimane-like diet, “they spontaneously ate less and lost weight and body fat.”
The possible explanations go back to the scarcity loop - the serial killer of moderation.
“We found that people ate the ultra-processed meals a lot quicker,” said Hall. This could be because the Tsimane foods led the participants’ brains to pump out more of a hormone called PYY, which reduced their appetite. They also decreased a hormone called ghrelin, which made them hungry. The unprocessed foods even took more work to physically chew. The ultra-processed diet, meanwhile, did the opposite. It cuts those natural brakes that help us find enough.
So what accounts for the rise in obesity and its heart-stopping side effects?
By the 1970s, food was engineered with the scarcity loop to lead us to eat food faster everywhere. And we ate it more often. The Tsimane foods, meanwhile, don’t contain elements of the scarcity loop.
The rest of the book, Scarcity Brain, shows all the ways the scarcity loop has invaded and changed our lives, leading us into habits we often regret. It’s affected how we eat, buy, think, and spend our time and attention. This loop is embedded in some of the most influential technologies and intuitions determining the course of our lives. Right now it’s in social media, health trackers, dating apps, finance apps, the gig work economy, the rise of sports betting, the news cycle, and our food, financial, and education systems.
But the book also offers solutions. Behavioral research going back to the 1950s shows that one of the only ways to stop a bad habit—especially around eating—is to disrupt the scarcity loop.