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Stuck on You: Mummies had Plaque too!

Cassie.Rowe's picture

Cassie Rowe, MS, RD, LD/N

I came across a timely article after my last posting about the Paleo Diet; recent research that adds to the bundle of evidence we have already, telling us that people died from heart disease thousands of years ago—meaning it’s not a mere recent phenomenon as we are often led to believe by researchers today. Any guesses as to how we’ve got this info? Mummies. Yep, you read it right. Mummies.

In a study of 137 mummies who were up to 3,500 years old, scientists found that they, too, died from atherosclerosis—even at young ages. Atherosclerosis is hardening of the arteries from plaque buildup which leads to heart disease, including things like aneurysms and coronary artery disease.

I’m not happy that they died (young, might I add) from cardiovascular diseases, but I am glad to see more evidence to highlight the fact that, although we believe our diets may contribute some to this disease’s development, it’s obvious from this study that genetics play a humongous role too. I mean, these guys were eating a “paleo” diet and exercising and were a healthy weight! Blasphemy! (PS, another bit of knowledge suggesting that if you are not happy eating a “paleo” diet, don’t do it—it didn’t save these ancestors!)

How do we know the mummies died from atherosclerosis? Well, interesting things happen when you get a group of scientists together who specialize in different fields… In this case the research team was composed of 19 cardiologists, anthropologists, and radiologists coordinated by a physician at the University of Missouri. They looked at the nicely preserved arteries in mummies from different locales ranging from ancient Egypt to Peru to Alaska using computer tomography (CT) scans. And they found plaque in major arteries all over the body: near the heart, in the neck, and in the legs… yikes! From the paper I quote, “Probable or definite atherosclerosis was noted in 34% of the 137 mummies.” Not a high number, I agree, but the very fact that they were afflicted with what’s been deemed a “modern disease” is pretty darn interesting, if you ask me.

As I mentioned above these Homo sapiens were, indeed, eating some version of a “paleo” diet. The Egyptians in this study were farmers of animals and wheat, as well as beans, cucumbers, pomegranates, and wine. The Peruvians were also farmers, but they grew things native to their area (like corn, sweet potatoes, beans, and hot peppers). The Puebloans were forager-farmers; so they grew corn and squash, but also gathered pine nuts, grasses, and seeds. Finally, the Aleutians (those Alaskan mummies) had a primarily marine diet (lots of omega-3 rich salmon) and supplemented that with berries. These last folks didn’t do any farming. And they ALL got heart disease. Go figure.

I’m not implying that a healthful diet isn’t useful—after all, I am a registered dietitian. My take on this article is different than that. I believe that Americans define food morally, what’s more I think that we are scared of our food. Want proof? I teach an Introductory Human Nutrition class at a local college, and one the assignments I have my students complete is a 3-day dietary analysis. They get numerical values of Calorie and nutrient intakes and then reflect on their findings. By far, the most common theme I see in their papers are along the lines of, “I need to make X changes so I don’t die from X disease”. It’s sad. If you find yourself in the same boat when it comes to the relationship between food and diseases, perhaps you’ll sleep a little better now knowing that heart disease can happen to anyone (or maybe that makes you feel worse). Either way, the same message is here that I’ve written time and time again: enjoy what you eat!

Jeatwell has got some “heart healthy” picks from restaurants near YOU if you’re still looking for them—but there are also lots of other yummy suggestions too!

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