Diet as a double-edged sword: the pharmacological properties of food among the Waorani hunter-gatherers of Amazonian Ecuador
Food system and health characteristics were evaluated across the last Waorani hunter-gatherer group in Amazonian Ecuador and a remote neighboring Kichwa indigenous subsistence agriculture community. Hunter-gatherer food systems like the Waorani foragers may not only be nutritionally, but also pharmaceutically beneficial because of high dietary intake of varied plant phytochemical compounds. A modern diet that reduces these dietary plant defense phytochemicals below levels typical in human evolutionary history may leave humans vulnerable to diseases that were controlled through a foraging diet. Few studies consider the health impact of the recent drastic reduction of plant phytochemical content in the modern global food system, which has eliminated essential components of food because they are not considered "nutrients". The antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory nature of the food system may not only regulate infectious pathogens and inflammatory disease, but also support beneficial microbes in human hosts, reducing vulnerability to chronic diseases. Waorani foragers seem immune to certain infections with very low rates of chronic disease. Does returning to certain characteristics of a foraging food system begin to restore the human body microbe balance and inflammatory response to evolutionary norms, and if so, what implication does this have for the treatment of disease? Several years of data on dietary and health differences across the foragers and the farmers was gathered. There were major differences in health outcomes across the board. In the Waorani forager group there were no signs of infection in serious wounds such as 3rd degree burns and spear wounds. The foragers had one-degree lower body temperature than the farmers. The Waorani had an absence of signs of chronic diseases including vision and blood pressure that did not change markedly with age while Kichwa farmers suffered from both chronic diseases and physiological indicators of aging. In the Waorani forager population, there was an absence of many common regional infectious diseases, from helminthes to staphylococcus. Study design helped control for confounders (exercise, environment, genetic factors, non-phytochemical dietary intake). This study provides evidence of the major role total phytochemical dietary intake plays in human health, often not considered by policymakers and nutritional and agricultural scientists.