What made the ancient Egyptians Fat and Sick?

This is the transcript for my video of the same title published on July 27th, 2020

What was making ancient egyptians fat? The architect Hemiunu’s statue suggests he was overweight with a serious case of man boobs. National Geographic reported that King Tut had large deposits of fat on his hips and breast-like fat clumps on his chest. And the mummy of Hatshepsut was very fat, and probably had diabetes. It was found as early as 1911 that Egyptian mummies had heart disease.[R] In fact more than half of 43 middle aged mummies examined had heart disease.  What was making them so sick?
We’ll get to that story, but first we need to connect a few dots. 

Imagine you’re going on a date with someone you’re really into. You’ve arrived at the restaurant 10 minutes early because you need to use the bathroom. After some time, unfortunately you lose your battle with constipation, you leave the toilet defeated, and off you go to greet your date bloated and gassy.

Now imagine this uncomfortableness being a common occurrence for 10 years straight except it’s far worse. Your gut is inflamed to the point that you have open wounds and polyps on the lining of your intestines. You get stomach pain and cramps, diarrhea, there’s blood in your stool and you’re often drained tired.
This is a disease called ulcerative colitis, which a 71year old man from was suffering through. His health was pretty bad, he was also taking insulin and pills for his diabetes and high blood pressure. 

What’s interesting about this man is the unconventional diet he used to actually put both his ulcerative colitis and diabetes into remission, which by the way are both diseases thought to not have a cure. What’s also interesting is why his endocrinologist recommended he stop that oddly magical diet and do a different one. 

 I learned about this man after interviewing Doctor Paul Mason of Sydney Australia on Skype. 
…the guidelines by and large do not reflect evidence-based science – they’re distorted facts, they’re not based on science and following them does not lead to optimal health.” -Mason

Dr. Mason shared several surprising and somewhat controversial points, but this 71 year old man’s story happens to back up each of those points.
So, let’s look at the new diet that drastically improved the man’s health, and we’ll look at how it came to be that a medical professional – his endocrinologist would recommend that he go back on the type of diet that probably made him sick in the first place.

So, the 71 year old man’s new diet had plenty of saturated fat, yet his endocrinologist recommended he stop that and eat a diet low in saturated fat. You’ve probably heard a lot about saturated fat by now, but let’s look at the logic and history that led to health professionals making this recommendation

At the time, the logic was based on a flawed hypothesis supported by junk science. And that was what we call the diet heart hypothesis – it was by a guy called Ancel Keys, he was a physiologist and an epidemiologist and he had the hypothesis that serum cholesterol and saturated fat were causally related to heart disease and this was based on some experimental data for instance what happens if you feed rabbits which are herbivorous a high saturated fat diet so clearly this has no relevance for humans at all. And its based on an epidemiological study which has now been well and truly debunked called the Seven Countries Study where he basically cherry picked data from some countries that he liked the results of.” – Mason

Before Ancel Keys released the Seven Countries Study, he first presented a graph in 1953 showing data from six countries found the more fat a group of people ate, the more heart disease they had. It made for a very convincing chart.[R]

However, just four years later in April 1957, Biostatistics PhD Jacob Yerushalmy and Medical Doctor Herman Hilleboe presented a strikingly different chart using the same pool of data that Ancel Keys was using.[R

Their chart showed that the more fat people ate, the less heart disease there was. How could that be?
Well, Ancel Keys didn’t have data for only 6 or 7 countries, there was data for 22 countries. When you look at the data for all 22 countries, there’s no convincing relationship between fat and heart disease. 

Regardless, four years later, a 1961 issue of Time Magazine featured Ancel Keys and explained to the public that eating saturated fat raises your cholesterol and this causes heart disease. At the end of the article it says Keys’ cholesterol was 209. 

That’s funny because President Dwight Eisenhower had a much lower cholesterol of only 165 when he had his heart attack in 1955.

A couple years later, in a 1987 New York times article competing for real estate with a women’s summer suit ad, Famous Heart Surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey said that his 30 years of experience with over 15,000 patients led him to conclude that high cholesterol was not the cause of heart disease.

So if we were to take saturated fat for instance, there’s been more than 10 systematic reviews and meta analyses which is where we actually compile all the data together looking at saturated fat and polyunsaturated fat and on balance, they find in favor of saturated fat. Higher saturated fat consumption is not associated with worse health.” – Mason

Another change that helped the 71 year old man fix his health was a drastic reduction in carbs. His endocrinologist on the other hand after seeing his excellent lab results, recommended instead he eat more carbs like whole grains as well as fruit and vegetables.  

This high carb recommendation starts at least as early as 1977 when Dietary Goals for the United States was released to the public thanks to George McGovern.[R, R2] These goals, driven by the idea that fat and cholesterol cause heart disease, recommended reducing saturated fat to just 10% of the diet and raising carbohydrates to 60% of the diet. However, there was plenty of opposition to this at the time. 

And I have pleaded in my report and will plead again orally here for more research on the problem before we make announcements to the american public.” – Dr. Robert Olson

I said to the professor that I was working with – you know, this is not right – animal fat is not causing this and this is not what the data says.” -Biochemist Mary Enig PhD

You know, there were imminent scientists at the time saying this is nonsense, there is no good scientific evidence that either fat or cholesterol y’know is at the root of heart disease.” -Dr. Mary Dan Eades

Back in the early 80’s[S] Luise Light was the leader of a group of top-level nutritionists specifically hired by the USDA to develop an eating guide. After pouring through all kinds of nutrition data with her team, Luise’s guide recommended at most 3-4 servings of grains per day. Not long after submitting the report, she was shocked to see that they made some drastic revisions like increasing the grains from 3-4 to 6- 11 servings a day.[What to Eat, Luis Light, M.S., Ed.D.

As she wrote in her book[S], Luise told her boss, the agency director that these changes would be “disastrous,” and would mean unleashing obesity and diabetes upon Americans. Despite her objections they decided to stick with their version. What was the reason they gave her? Well, it had nothing to do with health – they said that jacking up the grain recommendation would cut costs for the food stamp program. Fruits and vegetables were expensive. Grains were cheap. 

Despite Luise’s protests, In 1991, the food pyramid was released, recommending 6 to 11 servings of grains every day. Even before this though, the original high carb recommendation from 1977 was taking its toll on people’s health. 

If you look at the obesity trends, people started to get fat pretty much right when George McGovern issued his report recommending low fat high carbohydrate diets. We replaced steak and pork chops for pasta, butter with margarine, eggs and bacon for cereal with skim milk and grandma’s all butter cookies for Snackwell’s low fat cookies. And, we became fatter than ever.

Are there any consequences, you know, domino effects of this idea that you should not eat saturated fat, you shouldn’t eat- you should cut the fat off your steaks, you shouldn’t have full fat yogurt, you need to have skim milk… what are the down stream effects of that?” -Joseph to Mason

Well I mean we only have three main sources of macronutrients. Which is y’know carbohydrate, protein, and fat. And, you can only eat so much protein. …and you cut out the fat in the diet, then that really leaves only one thing – that means you have to increase your carbohydrate intake. And, what most people don’t realize is that carbohydrates are literally molecules of sugar joined together. Even the complex carbohydrates, you know the brown rice, the sweet potatoes, the whole meal bread. They are literally chains of glucose – sugar molecules joined together. And when you ingest them, they get absorbed into your circulation – you end up with what we call elevated blood sugar levels. And long term and high levels of carbohydrate consumption, we know are causally associated with a condition called insulin resistance which eventually leads to diabetes. And what’s the problem in diabetes? Well everybody knows, right? It’s having excess glucose – this particular type of sugar in the bloodstream. And, when we eat more carbohydrate, we put more sugar in the bloodstream – that sugar’s gotta come from somewhere, right? So, if I explain this to most of my patients, they’ll often look at me and say so why don’t I stop eating carbohydrate? And you know what? That is the solution, it’s really that simple, this is treating diabetes 101. And yet this concept that carbohydrates are made of glucose, they cause a rise in our blood sugar, therefore they’re not good for us is beyond the grasp of most doctors.” -Mason

Going back to the fat and sick egyptian mummies – what did they eat? Well, as Dr. Michael Eades explains, a modern nutritionist would say the ancient egyptian diet was just fantastic. 

The basic ancient egyptian diet had some plant oils, they also fished and ate some fowl and had the occasional serving of red meat, but the diet was mostly carbohydrates, primarily bread. They also had fruits, vegetables and honey. As explained in a paper in the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, “The most important food of the egyptians was bread.” In fact the Egyptians were nicknamed Artophagoi which means eaters of bread.[R

You can find several figurines depicting people grinding wheat, as well as art depicting people harvesting wheat or preparing bread. Egyptians with their bread based diet were essentially following the 1991 USDA food pyramid.
Some people have argued that well it was only the rich who could afford to be mummified or have statues made of their fat selves made and only the rich could afford to buy and eat many saturated fat containing animal foods …so that’s why the mummies hard heart disease.

However, scientists have a really interesting way to determine what ancient people ate called stable isotope analysis. By looking at how much of an isotope of Nitrogen called Nitrogen 15 is in the bones of a person or animal, and then comparing that to the Nitrogen 15 content of plants in that area, they can tell whether an animal or person’s diet had more meat or more plants in it. 
Dr. Eades explains that this kind of stable isotope analysis found that the egyptians got only 29 to 19% of their protein from animal sources – not only was most of their protein coming from plants, but their diet as a whole was mostly grains and plants, which means very little saturated fat. The researchers described it as being close to a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet.[R] And, as this paper explains, there was a surprising lack of difference in the stable isotope composition between social classes, meaning everyone, rich or poor, was eating a generally high carb low saturated fat diet.[R

I remember when I was planning on doing a low carb diet, a couple of people were saying you can’t just cut a whole food group out, you can’t just not eat pasta, not eat bread… you need carbohydrates. Is that true – do we, is there a biological requirement for dietary carbohydrate?” -Joseph to Mason
So I will say right now and I’ll say it explicitly. There is no need for dietary carbohydrate. In other words, the theoretical minimum consumption of carbohydrate that is consistent with good health is zero. Now this doesn’t mean that some tissues in our body don’t need to use carbohydrate – they don’t need to use glucose – which is a carbohydrate. But it means we don’t need to eat it because if our body needs it, it can make it. It can make it from certain amino acids, it can make it from the glycerol backbone which forms the triglyceride type of fat, so we do not need to eat carbohydrate – the notion that we need at least 130 grams of carbohydrates a day to support or neurological function is based on nothing but junk science. So, I will again say we do not need to eat dietary carbohydrate, it is not an essential nutrient.” -Mason

That might be shocking to hear that the requirement for dietary carbohydrate is zero. Yet, again this 71yo man’s case proves the point: his diet had virtually zero carbohydrates. His diet was in fact an all meat diet – no carbs, no grains, no fruits, not even vegetables. I know that for some of you, saying an all meat diet cured this man’s diabetes and ulcerative colitis might sound like I just said you could cure eczema and baldness by eating Elmer’s glue. 

But bare with me for a moment and let’s look at it in terms of what he’s not eating. As Dr. Paul Mason explained, not eating carbohydrate would be good for lowering his blood sugar which would improve his insulin resistance and improve his diabetes. In fact, the endocrinologist even acknowledged in the report that the reason he wouldn’t need his diabetes medication metformin is because the reduction of carbs improved his blood sugar. 

But this man had a painful, constipating bowel condition, yet we all know fiber is good  for our bowels, it’s good for pooping. Yet, this man’s new, no fiber diet healed his bowel condition.

“Well, on the topic of carbohydrates, what about fiber, isn’t that a carbohydrate that’s good for you – it’s good for your digestion…?” – Joseph to Mason

Well, technically yes, Well yes it is a carbohydrate but no it’s actually not that good for you and that’s going to surprise a lot of people. So the definition of fiber is that it’s an indigestible carbohydrate – indigestible as far as your body goes, it can’t be absorbed or broken down by your body. And there’s a lot of myths surrounding fiber… It only comes from plant foods, and it’s often thought that it can prevent and treat constipation which is the most common belief around it and it would surprise a lot of people to know that there’s an absolute parcity of studies that actually support that. So, to my knowledge, there’s been no randomized controlled studies on the effects of fiber on the symptoms on constipation. And I say that very precisely – so the symptoms of constipation means things that bother people – things like pain and bloating and bleeding. So, there has been some evidence that shows that having fiber can actually increase the bulk of your stool. There have been some studies that show that having fiber can actually increase – well, reduce the transit time, meaning things transit through the intestinal tract a little bit quicker. But when you have a look at the symptoms that patients come and ask me about – they say:‘doc I’ve bloating – it hurts. I’ve got pain.’ Y’know,‘I have some bleeding, can you help me?’ There’s been no evidence at all that demonstrates that fiber is beneficial. In fact, when we have a look at the best available evidence on this – there was an experimental study that was performed in 2012 and subjects with constipation found that complete elimination of dietary fiber – that is, an intake of 0 grams of dietary fiber led to complete improvement in all the symptoms of constipation in 41 patients. So, this is absolutely staggering. The statistical significance of this study was through the roof. And, these people were compared to people on various other levels of fiber intake from high fiber to moderate fiber and low fiber diets and you could see a clear dose response relationship between the symptoms of constipation and the amount of fiber intake. And when you think about it logically, so, what is constipation? So effectively constipation is trouble passing fecal matter. You’re trying to pass something through a small hole. So, is it really logical that making that something bigger is going to make it easier to pass through a small hole? When you think about it, that’s like adding more cars to a traffic jam and expecting the traffic to suddenly clear… it just defies logic.” -Mason

Many people can handle tons of fiber in their diet,  but some people just can’t process fiber as well, and in fact we shouldn’t expect high fiber to be the norm for humans. 

If you dig into our evolutionary past, you’ll see that our gut shrank significantly around the time that we got these huge brains.[R] The brain is a very energy expensive organ, so we needed to make things more efficient. To achieve this efficiency, the gut shrank. And the idea is that this happened as began hunting animals for nutrient dense meat and energy dense fat. More calories and more nutrients in a smaller package means we can sacrifice all that gut real estate and use resources on building a huge brain. 

The reason gorillas for example have these gigantic bloated bellies is because they are packing their guts with difficult to digest fiber all day. Gorillas have a huge colon that is specifically for fermenting fiber to produce short chain fatty acids. These fatty acids are an energy source. In this way, a lowland gorilla will get 30-60% of their energy needs just by fermenting fiber in their big colon. The human digestive tract shrunk so much that the small human colon on the other hand can only provide at best 2-9% of our energy needs from fermenting fiber.[R]

“I guess this raises another important point – we’ve often put plants up on a pedestal as being uniquely nutritious and uniquely healthy and yet they do contain things like oxalates, and phytates and tannins that actually impair nutrient absorption – they’re literally called antinutrients and they can cause these other problems within the body, so y’know, we have a look at wheat based products and we know that gluten actually increases what we call intestinal permeability in everybody. Now, people with celiac disease are more susceptible to the side effects because of the degree of intestinal permeability that they already start with, but everybody is vulnerable to these.” – Mason

Now I realize how blasphemous it sounds to question the greatness of plants. But oddly enough this 71 year old man went on a diet that had literally no plants and his health dramatically improved. In contrast many people do fine with tons of plants, look at vegan triathlete rich roll for example. He seems to be doing pretty well. But plants do have substances in them that not everyone can handle. You wouldn’t give wheat bread to a celiac patient, you wouldn’t give a peanut to someone with a peanut allergy. Some people are very sensitize to oxalates – a compound found in many plant foods for example leafy greens. Sally Norton had been struggling with chronic pain, fatigue and other mysterious symptoms for 30 years since the age of 12. She finally went on a low oxalate diet – simply cutting out unsuspecting plant foods like spinach and almonds finally resolved these terrible problems she had been struggling with for decades. 

Oxalate poisoning is actual something farmers have to deal with[R]. They have to prevent their herds from eating too many oxalate containing plants. The animals can develop issues as serious as kidney failure from this. 
Humans are told the brassica Kale is a superfood, but ranchers caring for a herd of grazing animals are told to beware of the health risks of Kale.[R]
Now personally, I find that I get a little queasy every time I eat too much spinach, but I suspect I’m not as sensitive to oxalates as certain people. The point is to say we shouldn’t expect all people to perfectly be able to  handle all plants. 

“When we actually have a look at a lot of the nutrients in plant foods, we have to have a look at biological value. So if we take iron for instance, we get heme iron from animal foods and we get non heme iron from plant based foods like spinach but there’s really no comparison in terms of how effective they are – able to be utilized by the body. So non-heme iron in spinach is very difficult for our body to actually assimilate and to deal with. And we see this across the board – we have vitamin A, that comes in different forms and the form of vitamin A we have from animal foods is so much more biologically useful than what we get from plant foods.” -Mason

Then, we’re often told this or that fruit or vegetable is chock full of this or that nutrient – leafy greens have folate and calcium, carrots have choline, avocados have vitamin B6, beans have iron, nuts have zinc, mushrooms have riboflavin. That’s great, but an egg yolk has all of those. 

Sometimes the vitamins in plants aren’t what we think they are. For example, people think carrots have vitamin A because they refer to the beta carotene in carrots as vitamin A, but the reality is that that beta carotene needs to be converted in the human body into vitamin A. So, take a look at my Mom’s blood test. 

Her beta carotene level is very high where her Vitamin A is actually in the low range. What’s going on? Well, again beta carotene in plants isn’t vitamin A. How well you convert that beta carotene into actual Vitamin A depends on your genes. Some people say carrots are a good source of vitamin A, but at least when it comes to my Mom and probably myself, carrots are not a good source of vitamin A. 

“We’ve got in our head that plant based foods are more nutrient dense and essentially more nutritious than other foods and if we don’t have a side of vegetables or fruit on our plate, then we must be missing out. The simple fact is that is not the case. Animal foods are more nutrient dense than plant based foods…”-Mason

By the way, aside from those other nutrients I already mentioned, an egg yolk also has Vitamin A, I mean actual vitamin A. It doesn’t need to be converted.
Not to mention egg yolks also have vitamin D, and E, and Thiamin and B12 and Pantothenic acid and Betaine and phosphorus and selenium. Oh wait but we’re not supposed to eat eggs, especially not egg yolks because of cholesterol…
So, to recap, this man went on an all meat, that is- high saturated fat, no carb, no vegetable diet. This strange diet mysteriously healed his diabetes, ulcerative colitis and high blood pressure. Despite the drastic health improvements though, his endocrinologist recommended he go back on a high carb reduced fat diet and limit his red meat consumption. Essentially the recommendation was to do the opposite of the diet that solved his health problems. Fruits and vegetables are perfectly fine for most people, but it was surprising to me that the endocrinologist didn’t at least investigate why the new low carb high fat high protein diet was so effective and instead gave him the same high carb low fat diet advice that people have heard since the 1970’s.

This wave of bad advice and close mindedness seems to stem entirely from Ancel Keys diet heart hypothesis – the idea that saturated fat causes heart attacks. This poorly supported idea is still taught as fact to doctors today. 
You were saying that essentially the foundational teaching that people are given when they are on their path to become a medical doctor – they are taught this right, that the diet heart hypothesis is correct and this is what causes heart disease?” -Joseph

This is accepted as fact. Certainly it was when I was in medical school and I was actually provided with some of the curriculum notes from a local university here a couple of years ago, and I was quite surprised to see the lipid heart hypothesis still going strong, so unless things have changed in the last 2 years and I am almost certain that they have not – then that would be the status quo today. 
Here’s the problem: If you start to understand the root biochem, the root cause biochemistry of all of this, you then have to understand that saturated fats are not dangerous for our health and then the whole house of cards falls down. I think in a way, this – the situation we’re in with such atrocious dietary guidelines could never have occurred if doctors had a better understanding of biochemistry.” – Mason

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