Obesity in ancient Egypt
Ten or twelve years ago we wrote in Protein Power about the data contained in the vast amount of ancient Egyptian mummies. We pointed out that several thousand years ago when the future mummies roamed the earth their diet was a nutritionist’s nirvana. At least a nirvana for all the so-called nutritional experts of today who are recommending a diet filled with whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, and little meat, especially red meat. Follow such a diet, we’re told, and we will enjoy abundant health.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work that way for the Egyptians. They followed such a diet simply because that’s all there was. There was no sugar – it wouldn’t be produced for another thousand or more years. The only sweet was honey, which was consumed in limited amounts. The primary staple was a coarse bread made of stone-ground, whole wheat. Animals were used as beasts of burden and were valued much more for the work they could do than for the meat they could provide. The banks of the Nile provided fertile soil for growing all kinds of fruits and vegetables, all of which were a part the low-fat, high-carbohydrate Egyptian diet. And there were no artificial sweeteners, artificial coloring, artificial flavors, preservatives, or any of the other substances that are part of all the manufactured foods we eat today.
Were the nutritionists of today right about their ideas of the ideal diet, the ancient Egyptians should have had abundant health. But they didn’t. In fact, they suffered pretty miserable health. Many had heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity – all the same disorders that we experience today in the ‘civilized’ Western world. Diseases that Paleolithic man, our really ancient ancestors, appeared to escape.
The press has been filled with reports of the recent discovery – thanks to DNA analysis – of the mummy of Queen Hatshepsut, who ruled Egypt for around 15 years 3500 years ago.
According to the New York Times, Hatshepsut’s mummy is that of an obese, diabetic 50 year old woman with bad teeth. All the conditions that nutritionists today would have us believe would be prevented by Hatshepsut’s diet. It certainly didn’t work for her. And she is not a special case – most Egyptian mummies show the same disorders, especially the bad teeth. The skeletal remains of Paleolithic man, who consumed a meat-based diet, showed strong, perfect teeth. Bad teeth are the hallmark of carbohydrate consumption.
Here is an X-ray of Hatshepsut’s mouth. You can see cavities, lost teeth, and evidence of severe tooth abscesses, which had to have been miserably painful.
Hatshepsut’s statue pictured to the right shows her in her idealized form. I’m sure most of the Egyptian graphics and statuary of the time represented people in a thin, healthy state instead of the shape they were really in. Based on the mummy data many ancient Egyptians were obese, which is clearly not represented in their contemporary artistic renditions. If one were to look through on issue of Cosmopolitan or GQ or virtually any magazine to day and look at the people in all the ads, one would think no one is obese now. Which clearly isn’t the case. I suspect that the ancient Egyptians intuitively figured that thin and trim people were more attractive than obese ones and created their pictures accordingly.
One other interesting aspect of Hatshepsut’s mummy is that it appears that she died from metastatic cancer. Cancer has been tough to find in mummified and skeletal remains, leading most researchers to assume that the rates of cancer today are driven by environmental contaminants that weren’t present in ancient times.
The moral of this tale of ancient poor health is that a whopping load of carbs – even non-refined carbs – didn’t do Hatshepsut a whole lot of good, and they don’t do us much good either irrespective of the bleatings to the contrary by today’s nutritionists, who are woefully unaware of the history of the high-carb diet.