The Maasai Paradox

What you need to know:

  • This man is feasting on raw bone marrow, and is likely to accompany it with a gulp of cholesterol-rich milk. Yet, like many in his community, he is unlikely to contract heart ailments. What’s his secret?

It is quite alarming to learn that deaths arising from heart diseases are increasing at a faster rate in developing countries such as Kenya than in Europe and America. It is estimated that, nine years from today (in 2020), out of every ten people dying from heart diseases worldwide, eight will be from developing countries.

Most of these heart diseases are strongly linked to consumption of foods high in unhealthy fats such as saturated- and trans-fats. Saturated fats are often found in dairy products such as milk, cheese, butter, cream, and fatty meat.

High consumption of milk, which is a dairy product, has been positively linked to heart diseases. Paradoxically, the rural Maasai eat a lot of fat from milk and meat, yet show no signs of heart diseases.

As early as 1960s, food scientists and other health experts exposed a concealed secret that, although the Maasai population consumed, predominantly, repulsively unhealthy foods consisting of milk, meat and blood, they exhibited no signs of cholesterol that clog arteries. The absence of the dreadful cholesterol translated to very low or absence of heart diseases among the Maasai.

The other astounding and well known fact is the French Paradox. Over the years, many studies highlighted a puzzle: French diet contains large amounts of butter, cream, and other foods rich in artery-clogging, ‘unhealthy’, saturated fats, but there was a very low prevalence of heart diseases among them.

What surprised scientists was that the French didn’t diet, didn’t spend hours panting at the gym like their European and American counterparts, yet they remained super healthy.

The French Paradox was coined by Dr Serge Renaud, a scientist from Bordeaux University in France. In 1992, Dr Renaud made a quite interesting scientific observation that death rates among the French arising from heart diseases were lower than their counterparts who consumed similar high levels of saturated fats. He went on to make a bold and controversial statement that moderate alcohol consumption helped the French against heart diseases.

This claim has so far been debated in and out of academic set-ups, and remains contentious. Renaud even sat in an American television studio and declared that the low number of deaths due to heart diseases among the French was due to drinking of wine in small amounts.

Rural Maasai maintain their subsistence lifestyle as pastoralists. Like most of such populations, their biggest health problem is under-nutrition, infectious diseases, sanitation and child mortality. Amazingly, they are relatively free of what is bothering the modern man.

Although high consumption of fat milk is associated with high risk of heart diseases, the rural Maasai consume milk as the single most important component in their diet, giving them 66 per cent of their 2,500 kilocalories per day. Despite surviving on this rather unhealthy diet, they are not victims of hypercholesterolemia, a condition characterised by high levels of dangerous cholesterol in the blood.

When researchers discovered the low incidences of heart diseases among the Maasai, they embarked on in-depth studies to establish the basis. Between 1960 and 1980, there were several publications unravelling the Maasai Paradox.

All these studies narrowed down to nothing out of another planet, but three simple reasons that any Tom, Dick and Harry can emulate. It is actually not very clear why many ignore them:

Physical exercise: The wonder drug: Life is sweet in the absence of physical tiredness. This is not the case with rural Maasai though. For them to enjoy a decent meal, they have to till their usually very small gardens (if any), walk into the forest to look for firewood, and walk their livestock for pasture.

To take pleasure in a cooked meal at home, they have to make long round trips to fetch water. All these tiring physical activities have been hailed as contributory reasons to why rural Maasai never complain of heart diseases.

Health wise, the benefits of physical activity are enormous, particularly the burning of calories. Consumed food provides energy to the body, and this energy is measured in calories. If too much energy-giving foods, such as carbohydrates, are consumed, the excess is converted into fat and stored in the body.

This fat is sometimes stored in the form of an unwanted layer lining the inside of the pipes (arteries) that carry blood from the heart, which leads to narrowing of the diameter of the arteries, causing the heart to overwork while pumping blood.

The recommended daily energy intake is approximately 2,500 kilocalories for men and 2,000 kilocalories for women. Any excess calories above these are converted by the body into fat. A sure way of avoiding this is to burn the calories through physical activity.

The rigorous physical activities of the rural Maasai can burn up to 2,400 kilocalories per day, which is phenomenally three times higher than the energy that an inactive urban Maasai and Bantu can burn. When a rural Maasai is burning up to 2,400 kilocalories in a day, a sedentary urbanite burns just 890 kilocalories.

This means rural Maasai can exhaustively burn any excess calories consumed from milk and meat fat. Actually, it is claimed that inactive Westerners and some of the urbanites in developing countries need to walk 19 kilometres more per day to burn the same amount of calories as the rural Maasai.

Traditionally, most other African communities enjoyed very low or absence of heart diseases simply because they lived in rural areas and their pre-occupation was like that of the rural Maasai; to go out and look for food. This involved physical and manual activities such as chasing antelopes and gazelles for meat, cutting firewood, digging, and carrying heavy loads .

Thanks to technological advancement and the invention of cars and motorcycles, people are no longer physically active. The mobile phone and the Internet are good technologies, but their convenience has eliminated that magical, rigorous exercise of walking that could help burn calories and cut heart diseases.

Miraculous herbs: After walking a round trip looking for food, the Maasai usually enjoy it in style. They spice it up either by adding herbs, leaves, barks or roots of certain plants. These additives act as flavouring, stimulants and, sometimes, as medicine.

The additives contain chemicals that are thought to play a significant role against heart diseases. Among the many herbs added by the Maasai to their foods include the bark of the magic gwarra, locally known as olkinyei; branches of Jacket Plum (oldimigomi), root and bark of East Africa green heart (Olsokonoi), and thorn mimosa (Olkiloriti).

A comprehensive study by Mc Gill University, Canada, examined 19 plant food additives used by the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania in relation to their possible role in lowering cholesterol. The findings were startling, a very big percentage (82 per cent) of the Maasai food additives screened were found to contain potential chemicals that lower cholesterol, including polyphenols, phytosteroids, water soluble dietary fibres, antioxidants, flavanoids and saponins.

Based on the strength of the known biological activities of the identified chemicals, it is very possible they play a full-size role in lowering the rate of coronary heart diseases among the Maasai.

High-fat/low-carbohydrate versus high-fat/high-carbohydrate diet: Due to the low level of farming activities and income, the rural Maasai eat low amounts of carbohydrates, especially the processed types such as white rice, white maize meal, cakes, breads, etc. If at all they eat them, these carbohydrates are boiled and not fried. This translates to a diet high in milk and meat fat with a small amount of processed, energy-giving foods (carbohydrates).

Low-carbohydrate diet may not attract the attention of the reader quiet easily, but when compared with the diet of urbanites, including urban Maasai, it abruptly dawns that this is a decisive factor. Urban Maasai show comparable signs of cholesterol and heart disease with Westerners, who consume equally high amounts of processed carbohydrates and high-fat foods.

The diet of developing countries’ urbanites is composed highly of processed carbohydrates such as white rice, white maize meal, potatoes, bread and other white wheat flour products. Most of these processed carbohydrates are ether baked or fried making them dreadfully high in fat. If not fried, they are consumed with stew made up of fried vegetables or fried meat.

Arimi is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute of Food and Health, UCD, Dublin, Ireland. His website is