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Getting healthy eating lessons from…apes?

Brandi Propas is the newest addition to The International Medical Group. She is a registered dietician and her services are a welcome complement to the clinic.

It seems that our ancestors weren’t that far off after all. No, I’m not talking about our great grandparents or even great-great grandparents, but rather those other ones, our primate ancestors. Apes. Turns out they know a thing or two about healthy eating. So much so in fact that researchers out of the University of Toronto have developed a diet based on the eating habits of these tree-climbing mammals.

The premise of this diet, appropriately referred to as the Ape Diet, is that a diet high in soluble fibre (found in oats and barley), vegetable proteins (found in soy) and plant sterols (found in green leafy vegetables, vegetable oils and nuts) can help protect against heart disease by lowering cholesterol levels. Elements of this diet, primarily the high nut and seed content and the focus on plant-based foods, closely resembles the diets of primates, hence the name the “Ape Diet”.

To test this hypothesis, researchers divided subjects into three different test groups. One group followed a standard low fat diet; the second group followed the same low fat diet and also took a cholesterol-lowering drug called lovastatin; the third group followed the Ape Diet and took no cholesterol-lowering medication.

The results showed that the group on standard low fat diet had am 8% decrease in cholesterol levels, those on the ape diet had a 28.6% reduction in cholesterol levels and those in the group taking the cholesterol-lowering medication had a 30.9% reduction in cholesterol levels. These are surprising results: the ape diet had the same effect as the cholesterol-lowering medication.

We need to keep in mind the limitations of this diet: the Ape Diet is very rigid comprising only of nuts and seeds, oats and barley, soy and soy products, leafy green vegetables, vegetable oils and fruit. The diet also requires a lot of careful planning and cooking and, with a fibre content of over 100 grams, compliance to this diet is extremely difficult. So, while we shouldn’t throw out our medications and we should continue to listen to our doctor’s advise, we can heed some important lessons from this research to help improve our heart health through the reduction of cholesterol levels.

The first lesson to take away is to increase the amount of fibre in your diet. Fibre is found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Switching from white to whole grain bread, adding psyllium to cereal, and choosing brown rice over white are all simple ways to increase the amount of fibre in your diet.

The next lesson to take away is incorporating soy into your diet. Soy is high in a compound called isoflavones which help to reduce some types of cancer and heart disease. Isoflavones can be found in soy beans (edamame), tofu and soy beverage. Soy beans or edamame are a tasty snack idea and easy to prepare. Tofu also makes a great substitute for chicken in stir fry dishes.

Adding nuts to your diet is another way to incorporate the Ape Diet into your day. Have almonds with fruit for a snack or add slivered almonds to casseroles and rice dishes. Also switch to olive oil when you cook and use plant-sterol fortified margarine on your toast.

The final lesson to take away from the Ape Diet research is the incorporation of more fruits and vegetables into your day. Take fruit for a snack, always prepare a vegetable with dinner and add veggies to your sandwich at lunch.

Soy, green leafy vegetables and vegetable oil, nuts, oats and barley need to become a regular part of what we eat. Get back in touch with your roots; look to your primate relatives for the answers to a heart healthy life.


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