The Maasai are a seminomadic tribe that lives in northern Tanzania and southern Kenya. They have traditionally relied on their livestock, mainly cows, for most of their nutritional and other needs. Since the 1990s, some Maasai have begun farming as well, because drought and increased population made it difficult to meet the community's needs through livestock alone. This has resulted in some dietary changes.
The traditional Maasai diet consisted almost entirely of cow's blood and milk, with meat on special occasions. Other foods sometimes eaten by the Maasai include rice, sorghum wheat, peanuts, maize, beans, chapati, peas, bulrush millet, cabbage, kale, potato, sweet potato, cassava, fish, sheep meat and milk, goat meat and milk, dates, raisins and wild fruits and herbs. Fruits are typically available only during certain seasons and mainly eaten by women and children.
The reliance on milk, blood and meat means that Maasai following a traditional diet may consume a whopping two-thirds of their calories from fat as well as 600 to 2,000 milligrams of cholesterol each day. This is more than double that recommended by the American Heart Association. This diet provides significant amounts of iron, calcium, vitamin A and protein. More recently the Maasai have started to consume other foods with more regularity, including cabbage, potatoes, maize meal and rice, which makes their diet more well rounded and lowers the fat and cholesterol content of the overall diet.
Switch to Farming
The Maasai culture traditionally frowned upon farming, because cultivating the land makes it no longer suitable for use in raising the cattle and other livestock the Maasai based their lives upon. Some but not all of the Maasai have turned to farming to improve their livelihoods, however. They grow tomatoes, maize, onions and beans most often. These crops allow for a more varied diet and a source of cash to purchase needed supplies, such as charcoal, grain, beads, school uniforms and cell phones. They also purchase much of their food, with the exception of milk, meat, blood, peanuts and the herbs and wild fruits they can gather. Many Maasai no longer rely mainly on the traditional milk, meat and blood but follow a more conventional Kenyan diet, according to the Food and Agricultural Association.
Potential Health Effects
Diets high in fat and cholesterol can increase the risk for high cholesterol and heart disease. It appears that the Maasai have some genetic differences that allow them to continue drinking milk as adults without lactose intolerance and to limit the cholesterol-raising effects of their diet, according to a study published in PLOS ONE in September 2012. This may be one explanation for the limited number of deaths among the Maasai attributed to heart disease.
Another potential explanation is that the Maasai don't tend to live as long as people in Western countries and die of other causes before heart disease, notes an article published on the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine website. The author of this article points to studies showing clogging of the arteries in Maasai people who had died of trauma to show that the high-fat and high-cholesterol diet isn't healthy.
The Maasai typically walk a lot, getting much more exercise per day than the typical Westerner. This high level of exercise may also in part explain the Maasai's overall health despite eating a high-fat diet, according to an article published on the Science Nordic website, which notes that Maasai adults tend to be less likely to have high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes than other Africans, although some Maasai do have too much abdominal fat.
- Food and Agriculture Organization: The Maasai Food System and Food and Nutrition Security
- ScienceNordic: The Maasai Keep Healthy Despite a High-Fat Diet
- Maasai Association: The Maasai People
- The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine: Hard to Swallow: How Meat Advocates Skewer Science
- Japanese Ministry of the Environment: The Maasai Who Started Agriculture
- Wired: Milk, Meat and Blood: How Diet Drives Natural Selection in the Maasai
- PLOS ONE: Lactase Persistence and Lipid Pathway Selection in the Maasai