“But Kitavas Eat Sweet Potatoes”

One of the common rebuttals to the Carbohydrates + Insulin => Obesity hypothesis is the case of the Kitavans (Lindeberg S, Nilsson-Ehle P, Terént A, Vessby B, Scherstén B. Cardiovascular risk factors in a Melanesian population apparently free from stroke and ischaemic heart disease: the Kitava study. J Intern Med. 1994 Sep;236(3):331-40). The Kitavans eat ancestral diets with huge amounts of carbohydrates, mainly sweet potatoes.

Low Caloric Density

Part of the answer may be found in the caloric density of Sweet Potatoes. Turns out not it takes a whole lot of potatoes to get in your daily calories. 

One pound of Sweet Potatoes provides 340 calories. The typical Kitavan’s energy expenditure was measured at 2200 calories. To get in 2200 calories in a day that would be more than 6 lbs of Sweet Potatoes. That’s a lot of Sweet Potatoes.

Plus, if you could manage to eat 6 lbs of Sweet Potatoes a day it would only be ~40g of protein over the whole day.

Low Fat Choice

It is also a very low fat choice with 4.4g of fat in the 7 lbs of Sweet Potatoes. It is theoretically possible to be lean on very high carbohydrates but you have to be very low fat at the same time.

This diet isn’t the typical hyper-palatable diet of the west. 

Serum Fasting Insulin Differences

As noted, the Kitavan diet is a common rebuttal to the Carbohydrate Insulin Obesity hypothesis. However, the insulin levels of the Kitavans show that they have much lower fasting insulin levels than Europeans (Lindeberg, Staffan et al. Low serum insulin in traditional pacific islanders—The Kitava study.  Metabolism – Clinical and Experimental , Volume 48 , Issue 10 , 1216 – 1219).

Serum fasting insulin levels were lower in Kitava than in Sweden for all ages (P < .001). For example, the mean insulin concentration in 50- to 74-year-old Kitavans was only 50% of that in Swedish subjects. Furthermore, serum insulin decreased with age in Kitava, while it increased in Sweden in subjects over 50 years of age. Moreover, the age, BMI, and, in females, waist circumference predicted Kitavan insulin levels at age 50 to 74 years remarkably well when applied to multiple linear regression equations defined to predict the levels in Sweden. The low serum insulin that decreases with age in Kitavans adds to the evidence that a Western lifestyle is a primary cause of insulin resistance. 

At best, then, it could be claimed that it is possible to have a low fasting insulin and a relatively high carbohydrate diet and the link of carbohydrates to fasting insulin levels is a central claim of the carbohydrate insulin obesity hypothesis.

Other Dietary Differences

Kitavans also eat a significant amount of fish. There are quite a few other interesting facts about the Kitavan diet (See: Interview with a Kitavan).

The Kitavans eat no grains. Their diet has a lot of tubers.

Seasonality

The Kitavans eat different starchy carbohydrate sources throughout the year. From the Interview above:

In the beginning of the year, we eat sweet potato, cassava and mostly tuna for protein. During mid year, before yam comes in to replace sweet potato and cassava, taro is then ready for harvest. And then yams are ready for harvesting so the food supply is continued on.

Lot of Smokers

An interesting tidbit is that 75% of the Kitavans are smokers and yet they have little to no heart disease. Does that mean we should take up smoking?

More Speculation and Differences

Interesting paper on the subject (Ian Spreadbury. Comparison with ancestral diets suggests dense acellular carbohydrates promote an inflammatory microbiota, and may be the primary dietary cause of leptin resistance and obesity. Diabetes Metab Syndr Obes. 2012; 5: 175–189).

A diet of grain-free whole foods with carbohydrate from cellular tubers, leaves, and fruits may produce a gastrointestinal microbiota consistent with our evolutionary condition, potentially explaining the exceptional macronutrient-independent metabolic health of non-Westernized populations, and the apparent efficacy of the modern “Paleolithic” diet on satiety and metabolism.

Author: Doug

I'm an Engineer who is also a science geek. I was pre-diabetic in 1996 and became a diabetic in 2003. I decided to figure out how to hack my diabetes and in 2016 found the ketogetic diet which reversed my diabetes.

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