December 05, 2013

But the Tarahumara ain't Paleo!

The Tarahumara people (or Raramuri, as they refer to themselves) live in the mountains of Mexico, a landscape that allows neither car nor horse to traverse. They get from place to place by running, and running a lot.

They’ve been known to run for stretches lasting 24, 48, and as long as 72 hours, on a diet of corn meal and chia seeds, and they don’t seem to suffer from any of the maladies that plague Western civilization. And by maladies, I mean the heart disease/obesity/hypertension/diabetes epidemic of the sedentary and injuries like stress fractures and shin splints that affect ultramarathoners.

The ultramarathoners sometimes get upset with them, but mostly when the Tarahumara beat them in races. I’d be mad too if I got beat by someone who kept stopping for smoke breaks. The structure of their diet and training practices seem to be at odds with the hunter-gatherer model off of which the Paleo Pillars are based. So how are they so healthy and fit?

To explore this, we’ll set up a hypothetical comparison between the 7 Paleo Pillars and the Tarahumara. 7 Tarahumara Pillars

Food: Macronutrients break down into about 13% protein, 9% fat, and 78% (!) carbohydrate, mostly from corn and beans.

Fitness: legendary for their ability to run great distances, quickly, over rocky and treacherous terrain, the Tarahumara build themselves into incredible aerobic machines. Their minimalist shoe design (a strip of rubber and some twine) and forefoot strike running mechanics help prevent common running injuries.

Sleep: though notorious for sometimes partying into the early morning hours before a multi-day race, they are more likely to stop and sleep whenever they feel like they need rest, either during the evening or in the middle of a run.

Community: the native language of the Tarahumara contains a word, “chabochi,”  that refers to everyone else who is not Tarahumara. Everyone. It’s not an insult, but they definitely live as a tribal family in groups, and “chabochi” implies that they have a strong communal feeling towards other Tarahumara.

Sunlight: living in Mexico as part of a migratory tribe probably means they get at least 15 minutes of sunshine every day. Or they might just catch up on their quota every time they go for a 2-day jog.

Stress/Mental Health: Most interviews and relayed firsthand experiences make it seem like they’re all pretty content.

Water: on long runs, the athletes refuel with a chia seed smoothie-like drink called “iskiate.” Sounds...good. And it’s sparked a chia seed demand in parts of the endurance community. As you can see, the surface information looks like it’s at odds with the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. It's a mostly grain diet, distance running, non-regimented sleeping.

All would point away from the ancestral health model. But the community, sunlight, and mental health pillars (and probably the water pillar) are all in agreement with the Paleo ones. Some might argue that those are the most important aspects of optimal well-being. Plus, the Tarahumara eat mostly homegrown corn, arguably one of the most benign grains, so it’s a far cry from doughnuts and whole wheat toast. They also run a whole lot.

They run more than you, more than your trainer or coach, and more than your most hardcore marathon buddy, so they are probably well adapted to use carbohydrate as fuel.

While not quite Paleo, the Tarahumara may be doing a better job of following the Paleo Pillars than us. What about you? Are there things you do that are less than Paleo, but work well for you? What shouldn’t work for you that does? Or what should work for you but doesn’t?

Nik Hawks


Nik Hawks helps run the show at Paleo Treats. Fascinated by humans in all their strange glory, Nik is harnessed in and pulling hard in pursuit of excellence with the rest of the PT Crew. Enjoy!

Too much reading...
How about dessert?

Too Much Reading...How About Dessert?

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