Royal Society Publishing

Traditional Diet and Food Preferences of Australian Aboriginal Hunter-Gatherers [and Discussion]

Kerin O'Dea, P. A. Jewell, A. Whiten, S. A. Altmann, S. S. Strickland, O. T. Oftedal

Abstract

Until European settlement of Australia 200 years ago, Aborigines lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers all over the continent under widely varying geographic and climatic conditions. Successful survival depended on a comprehensive knowledge of the flora and fauna of their territory. Available data suggest that they were physically fit and lean, and consumed a varied diet in which animal foods were a major component. Despite this, the diet was not high in fat, as wild animal carcasses have very low fat contents through most of the year, and the meat is extremely lean. Everything on an animal carcass was eaten, including the small fat depots and organ meats (which were highly prized), bone marrow, some stomach contents, peritoneal fluid and blood. A wide variety of uncultivated plant foods was eaten in the traditional diet: roots, starchy tubers, seeds, fruits and nuts. The plant foods were generally high in fibre and contained carbohydrates, which was slowly digested and absorbed. Traditional methods of food preparation (usually baked whole or eaten raw) ensured maximum retention of nutrients. In general, traditional foods had a low energy density but high density of some nutrients. The low energy density of the diet and the labour intensity of food procurement provided a natural constraint on energy intake. This, together with the other nutritional qualities of the diet (including high fibre, slowly digested carbohydrate, very low saturated fat, relatively high proportion of the long-chain highly polyunsaturated fatty acids, low sodium and high potassium, magnesium and calcium) would have protected against obesity, non-insulin-dependent diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases, all of which are highly prevalent in westernized Aboriginal communities in Australia today.

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