Background to the Tokelau migrant study A traditional diet versus a Western diet
I love walking through organic shops and discovering new products. A while back I discovered Amanprana coconut oil and started using it for stir-frying veggies. Based on a friend's suggestion, I now use the same coconut oil after my shower. It makes my skin blissfully soft. Tip: I hold the container under the hot shower water so the oil melts and it's easier to rub on.Elise Crombez, Belgian top model and presenter, Belgium
The Tokelau islands were discovered by the Englishman John Byron. Tokelau is made up of 3 coral atolls: Nukunonu, Fakaofo and Atafu. In 1841 the US conducted a census and the general health of the Tokelauans was assessed, it being found that they were a healthy and happy people. Their diet consisted primarily of coconuts and fish. Between 1841 and 1863 many Tokelauans were captured as slaves and the population declined. Other foods, such as breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis), chicken and pork were introduced from the nearby Polynesian islands. Tokelau has been a part of New Zealand since 1925, with the government creating a migration plan for the 1,870 inhabitants in 1963. By 1971 half of all Tokelauans were living in New Zealand, with the remainder still on the islands.
Two aspects make the 14-year Tokelau migrant study (1967-1982) a unique one.
Firstly, the Tokelau Island Migrant Study was one of the best-documented migrant studies ever. The multidisciplinary study that spanned 2 decades involved numerous doctors determining a great many parameters: from a very one-sided traditional diet through to a Western lifestyle and eating habits.
The study is also very interesting because the inhabitants of Tokelau ate a vast amount of coconuts, and between 54% and 62% of their calories were derived from the fruit. Coconuts are very rich in fat, 92% of which is saturated fat. Every meal they ate included coconut in one form or another – young coconuts with a good proportion of coconut juice as a drink, grated ripe coconut or ground into coconut cream, baked coconut with the high-carb breadfruit or dried coconut flesh as a snack and coconut blossom sugar as a sweet.
The saturated fat of coconuts is good for you, according to the Tokelau migrant study.
The Tokelauans may well consume the most saturated fat of any population group in the world. For scientists, a study conducted on Tokelau could provide the proof needed that the portion of (saturated) fat in a diet contributes to cardiovascular diseases, but the results of the various components of this large-scale migrant study demonstrated – much to the surprise of the researchers – the contrary.
Between 1960 and 1982 there was a gradual increase in food imports by boat, including items such as refined sugar, flour, sweetened foods in cans and low quality canned meat. Due in part to their relatively high cost, these products had little impact upon local diets, and in that period the calorie intake from Western food in Tokelau rose from 2% to 14%. But the Tokelau migrants in New Zealand adopted Western food much more readily – a larger proportion of refined sugars and carbohydrates, much more red meat and chicken and greatly reduced amounts of coconut and fish.
Cholesterol has nothing to do with saturated fat: the proof is in the pudding!
A follow-up study was conducted in the wake of the Tokelau Migrant Study that was performed between 1967 and 1982, which showed that cholesterol levels among the islanders on Tokelau were normal and healthy (5.2 mmol/L on average), despite the fact that 52% of their calorie intake was from saturated fat. The Tokelau Migrant Study consequently proved that there was no link between saturated fat and raised cholesterol levels.
The cholesterol values of the Tokelau migrants in New Zealand were also compared to those of the islanders back home. The ratios of the so-called good and bad cholesterol were better on Tokelau than they were among the Tokelauans in New Zealand, even though the fat intake of the latter group was significantly lower.
Note: The recommendation of the Health Council to obtain a maximum of 8 to 10% of your calories from saturated fat is not based on any scientific evidence whatsoever (but is the result of, among other things, lobbying by Unilever, a margarine manufacturer).
The digestives tracts of the Tokelau islanders worked perfectly.
Constipation was a very rare occurrence on Tokelau. On average they had 2 bowel movements a day, and their intestinal functioning was better than that of the Tokelau migrants in New Zealand.
Tooth decay and the Western lifestyle and diet.
The findings of Dr Weston Price between 1920 and 1930 were confirmed by the Tokelau Island Migrant Study) between 1968 and 1982. The Western lifestyle and diet are the biggest cause of tooth decay. As the Tokelauans adopted a more Western diet, the quality of their teeth declined dramatically. High-fibre food and coconuts and breadfruit were gradually replaced by refined sugar and white flour, with the result being that in the 15-19 age group tooth decay increased eightfold (from 0-1 tooth to 8 teeth), while it quadrupled in the 35-44 age group (from 4 teeth to 17 teeth), and this in a period of just 35 years. Tooth decay was measured using the number of filled, missing or bad teeth.
The conclusion of the Tokelau study was that saturated fat derived from extra virgin coconut oil is great for your cholesterol levels, your digestive tract and for reducing tooth decay.
Source: Jamie Scott, Coconut and starchy vegetable consumption in the Pacific Islands; cholesterol, coconuts and diet on Polynesian atols: a natural experiment: the Pukapuka and Tokelau island studies. Stephan Guyenet, Whole Health source, 4,1,2009, the Tokelau Island Migrant Study: Background and Overview.
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