Research & Education

Hunter-Gatherer Diets and Gut Biome in Children

Hunter-gatherer diets have grown in popularity owing to numerous health benefits researchers have linked to these types of diets. The Paleo diet is one of the most well-known variations of hunter-gatherer diets. It’s nearly inarguable that diet quality plays a role in health, and equally undeniable that compared to more traditional diets, the foods and food products we consume now are increasingly processed, more heavily dependent on refined grains and industrial seed oils, and are preserved with synthetic compounds that are completely novel to the human food supply. Owing to the commercialization of agriculture, monocropping, and mass-production of meat animals, even “natural” plant and animal foods may be less nutrient dense than those our ancestors consumed. A downward spiral in general health and wellbeing has paralleled the dramatic changes during the transition from ancestral diets to what we currently consume.

The hunter-gatherer diet focuses on foods that can be caught, hunted, foraged, and gathered on land or at sea. It is characterized by wild meats, fish, berries and fruits, nuts and seeds, tubers, and vegetables. They’re free of added hormones, genetic modifications, and other biochemical manipulations in widespread use in food production today.

Many of the health benefits of the hunter-gather diet are rooted in its influence over the human microbiome. Modern diets have curtailed microbial diversity, whereas populations that still consume a hunter-gather diet have been shown to possess robust, healthy, well-diversified microbiomes. Establishing a healthy microbiome begins in infancy, with the first foods offered; however, the microbiome of a child continues to mature and change over time. It was previously believed that the microbiome was fairly mature by 3 years of age, but recent studies have challenged that theory, including a study by the American Society for Microbiology, which showed rapid changes in the microbiome of children up to age 7 when they visited a rainforest Amerindian village and exchanged their traditional urban diet for the village’s hunter-gatherer style diet. These changes were not noted in the adults of this study, indicating that a child’s microbiome is more fluid and more easily influenced by dietary changes. In this same study, after only 16 days of consuming a hunter-gather style diet, a survey of samples from multiple body sites including fecal, oral, nasal, and skin samples revealed microbial populations that more closely resembled those of the native village children.

A diversified microbiome is important to a child’s future health. Early development of inflammatory bowel diseases (IBDs) including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, as well as colorectal cancer, is rising. In fact, the incidence of IBD peaks in young adulthood and its prevalence continues to rise in children. The gut microbiome is a key player in the development of these inflammatory intestinal conditions and its composition and diversity during childhood is considered a strong preventative measure against developing IBDs. Further, the microbiome environment during childhood can positively or negatively influence the epigenetic expression of IBDs.

Childhood obesity is another serious global childhood health issue rooted in the microbial environment of the child. Insufficient microbial diversity in an infant and child’s gut alters macronutrient metabolism to favor lipogenesis and decrease normal appetite regulation, and results in low-grade inflammation, all of which may contribute to overweight and obesity. Studies have confirmed the gut microbiota composition between obese and non-obese children is significantly different.

Even various learning and cognitive problems in children are being linked to a lack of microbiome diversity early in life. The trajectory for autism spectrum disorders is frightening, and alterations in the composition of the gut microbiome, particularly in early childhood, may be one risk factor for these conditions. The gut microbiota influences brain function through the neuroendocrine, neuroimmune, and autonomic nervous systems, as well as its ability to modulate DNA methylation patterns and antioxidant homeostasis.

A healthy, well-diversified gut microbiome in childhood appears to set the stage for various aspects of physical and mental health later in life, and diet is a major contributor to microbial diversity. Diets high in refined carbohydrates and processed foods are known to contribute to dysbiosis and a microbiome deficient in both quality and quantity of beneficial bacterial strains. Contrast this with a Paleo-style diet, composed mostly of whole, unrefined foods, which support microbial diversity. The microbiome of children is highly adaptable. The exact composition of a diet should be tailored for individual situations, but with regard to the safety of the whole family following a Paleo diet, one thing is certain: no child ever suffered from a refined sugar or cottonseed oil deficiency.   

By Nicole Spear, MS, CNS


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