Modern times have seen a resurgence in paleolithic diets – for better or worse – as people turn to hunter gatherers for lessons on lifestyle and health.
But we haven’t embraced paleo levels of exercise – and researchers suggest we should pay considerably more attention to our ancestors’ physical activity habits.
Historical records estimate that hunter gatherers, whose survival and transport relied on doing everything manually, accrued more than double, and even triple, the number of daily steps of modern US adults.
In fact, most urban people are less active now than ever before in history.
Whether stone age people were healthier remains debatable because they tended to die young. But they were more likely to be killed by wild beasts and falling rocks than the chronic metabolic diseases that plague modern humans.
Non-communicable diseases are the modern world’s biggest health problem, responsible for substantial limitations in daily activities and 70 percent of all deaths in the US.
Advances in technology have resulted in less physically active lifestyles along with increased sedentary behaviour – and these are not necessarily mirror images of each other.
In other words, many of the ways in which inactivity leads to chronic disease are not the same means by which being active can prevent those diseases – these have different mechanisms of action in the body.
So avoiding sedentary behaviours and engaging in physical activity each have their own distinct benefits.
Broadly, nutrition and exercise physiology expert Frank Booth and colleagues define physical inactivity as “physical activity levels less than those required for optimal health and prevention of premature death”.
Booth and co-authors argue that low activity levels are a primary culprit for most chronic diseases. In fact, they present evidence that being active could prevent at least 35 different conditions ranging from obesity and diabetes to heart disease and depression.
Hippocrates is famously quoted as saying that food is medicine. He also recognised the importance of physical activity.
On the whole, our ancestors’ physical activity levels approximate guidelines set by the World Health Organisation.
For older adults aged 65 and above, WHO recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity throughout the week in bouts of at least 10 minutes – and up to 300 minutes for additional health benefits.
There is a lot of confusion about the paleo diet, and experts point out it is not just one diet: they say there are many different variants.
By and large, paleo diet enthusiasts embrace it as an excuse to eat lots of meat. But Dr Kim Lloyd, CEO of the Paleo Society, told NutritionInsight it’s not a meat-based diet.
“True paleo means eating approximately 75 percent plant-based food, non-starchy vegetables, fruit, seeds and tree nuts with the addition of compassionately reared, free range meat, fish and eggs,” she explained.
Many nutrition experts say the diet’s health benefits are attributed to eating fresh foods and avoiding processed meats and other packaged foods. But they caution against omitting whole food groups like dairy, grains and legumes as suggested by many proponents of the diet.
Combined with regular physical activity, this broad dietary approach – a cornerstone of most traditional diets – is surely a wholesome recipe for longevity and good health.
One in three hospitalised adults in the US is at risk for malnutrition, a major analysis has found. And patients’ poor food intake is having a significant impact on their healing and recovery, compounding their risk of death.
“Nutrition is easily overlooked as healthcare professionals often focus on a patient’s primary diagnosis,” lead author Abby Sauer told NutritionInsight.
“It may come as a surprise to some that when patients don’t get proper nutrition, it can significantly put their health and lives at risk,” she adds, explaining that nutrition is more important than ever when someone is sick or injured.
The researchers screened around 10,000 patients from 2009 to 2015 to assess malnutrition risk and links with mortality.
They found around one in two patients were eating half or less of their meals. This low food intake was linked to higher risk of mortality, and those who ate none of their food had a nearly six-fold higher risk of dying than those who ate at least some.
The findings support previous studies that have identified hospital malnutrition as a global public health problem, including Australian research which also found that this “silent epidemic” affects one in three hospitalised patients.
Despite this growing awareness, it is still not given the attention it deserves.
“Malnutrition can be invisible to the eye and is rampant in US hospitals because it’s not always top of mind,” said Gail Gerwitz, president of nutritionDay, an organisation which was involved in the study.
Loss of muscle mass and strength takes the brunt of poor nutrition, leading to sarcopenia, an age-related disease of accelerated muscle wasting that results in a downward spiral of poor health and mortality.
Some Australian hospitals are taking action by implementing basic malnutrition and sarcopenia screening tools. Relatives can also look for key signs of malnutrition.
These include unexpected weight loss, tiredness, low mood, poor appetite, unhealthy teeth and gums, listless hair and brittle nails, constipation and poor wound healing.
Hospitals and aged care facilities can take several measures to boost patients’ food intake, by using patient-centred service models, introducing mandatory nutrition standards, addressing obstacles to eating like poor dentition, and providing a choice of meals that are tasty and appealing.
High protein, high energy meals are the first line of defence to prevent or address malnutrition and promote healing. This can be achieved by adding extra cream or butter to food. Where necessary – especially with poor appetite – supplements can be used between meals to boost protein and calorie intake.
Many older adults don’t eat enough to meet their nutritional needs, and this can impact their healing and recovery from injury.
In support of this, a 2-year pilot study has shown that giving one extra meal a day to older adults who were hospitalised with hip fractures halved their risk of dying.
The study, conducted by the NHS in the UK, was instigated after staff noticed that patients with hip fractures struggled to get enough nutrients. In the program, nutrition advisors across six sites brought food from the hospital’s canteen and sat with patients as they ate their extra meal.
As a result, mortality rates fell from 11 to 5.5 percent, and medical authorities are considering whether it should be introduced countrywide.
Often, busy staff overlook patients’ food intake, noted chief orthopaedic surgeon Dominic Inman. Commenting on the findings to The Telegraph, he said, “If you look upon food as a very, very cheap drug, that’s extremely powerful.”
Hip fractures are the most common, and most serious type of fracture in Australia, with new fractures resulting in 50,900 hospitalisations and 579,000 bed days throughout 2015-16.
The health of adults over 50 often rapidly declines after a hip fracture, exacerbating poor outcomes. For three months after fracturing a hip, older adults are at five to eight times greater risk of dying, and one in three adults over 50 dies within 12 months.
Aside from that, a hip fracture can sorely impact mobility, independence and quality of life, and many patients are transferred to another facility for ongoing care.
Falls can be prevented by maintaining good muscle mass and strength. Failing that, patient outcomes after a fall can be improved with rehabilitation aimed at getting them moving as soon as possible, and with good nutrition.
Malnutrition, although widespread, is often overlooked, so it is important to be aware of the signs.
Addressing this, Queensland researchers have tested a patient-centred food service model in a public hospital setting and showed that it increased patients’ energy and protein intake – key requirements for healing and preventing malnourishment.
The model has been used in private acute care settings for 15 years. It revolves around providing room service to patients on demand – so they get to choose what they eat and when. (Who wants dinner at 5pm if you’re not ready for it?)
This food revolution was led by Sally McCray, who says, “This innovate model demonstrates the importance of patients being able to order flexibly, both in terms of the type of food items that patients feel like eating, as well as ordering food at a time of day that they feel like eating.”
The researchers showed that, not only can it improve nutrition intake, it also results in happier patients and reduced food waste.
It affects about one in three older adults, it’s debilitating, it fast-tracks mortality, and finally it is gaining greater recognition.
Sarcopenia Australia Day was officially launched just last year in July 2018 by the Australian Institute for Musculoskeletal Science, the University of Melbourne and Western Health to increase awareness, detection and treatment of this muscle wasting disease.
In November 2016, Sarcopenia was dubbed the “‘new’ disease on the block” by SBS news, shortly after it was recognised by the World Health Organisation and given its own ICD-10 (International Classification of Diseases) code in October that year.
Its label as a disease may be new, but the condition certainly isn’t.
Irving Rosenberg first devised the term sarcopenia (sarx = flesh; penia = loss) in 1988 to describe the disease, saying, “no single feature of age-related decline (is) more striking than the decline in lean body mass.”
Despite this, the disease didn’t gain traction until more recent years. Professor Gustavo Duque from the University of Melbourne is pushing for greater recognition of the condition.
He told SBS news that “People progressively lose the capacity to do the things that they usually do and they don’t know why.”
The disease is “to muscles what osteoporosis is to bones”, but doctors are often unaware of the condition, he said.
It can be particularly tricky to detect if patients are not visually wasting away; low muscle mass can even coexist with obesity.
Some muscle wasting is normal with ageing, but thousands of older Australians have accelerated muscle loss, leading to increased risk of falls, fractures, and hospitalisation.
And it affects more than just muscles. Muscle mass makes up more than half of overall body tissue, and so far research suggests its degradation has widespread ramifications including poor wound healing, increased risk of insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, poor lung function and even breast cancer.
Diet and exercise become increasingly important as we age, and our body’s ability to repair and regenerate muscle is not what it used to be.
Physical activity helps to maintain muscle mass and strength – especially resistance training. But any activity can help, even small, regular movements or 15 minutes of cardiovascular exercise can promote muscle growth.
The importance of protein cannot be underestimated. Protein has numerous functions for maintaining the body’s metabolic processes and is important for maintaining lean muscle mass and healthy bone density.
Other nutrients can also help, including Vitamin D, creatinine supplementation (combined with resistance training), and minerals such as magnesium, selenium and zinc.
Importantly, the best results come from combining movement with good nutrition for stronger muscles and better, longer quality of life.