Nutrition Research Reviews

Research Article

Australian Aboriginal plant foods: a consideration of their nutritional composition and health implications

Janette C. Brand-Millera1 and Susanne H. A. Holta1

a1 Human Nutrition Unit, Department of Biochemistry, University of Sydney, NSW and CSIRO Division of Human Nutrition, Adelaide, SA, Australia

Abstract

For at least 40–50 000 years, plants played an important but supplementary role in the animal-dominated diet of Australian Aboriginal (AA) hunter-gatherers. New knowledge of the nutrient composition and the special physiological effects of their foods provides another perspective in the current debate on the composition of the ‘prudent’ diet and the diet on which humans evolved. In the present paper we have calculated the average nutrient composition of over 800 Aboriginal plant foods (in total and by food group) and highlighted the differences between these and modern cultivated foods. The data enable us to calculate the absolute contribution of plant foods to total food and nutrient intake of traditional living AA. If plants provided 20–40% of the energy in the diet (the most likely range), then plants would have contributed 22–44g protein, 18–36g fat, 101–202g carbohydrate, 40–80g fibre and 90–180mg vitamin C in a 12500kJ (3000 kcal) diet. Since all the carbohydrate came from plant foods, the traditional AA diet would have been relatively low in carbohydrate (especially starch) but high in dietary fibre in comparison with current recommendations. Over half the carbohydrate could have been in the form of sugars derived from fruit and honey. The low glycaemic index of their carbohydrate foods, however, would generate a relatively low demand for insulin secretion and this characteristic may have protected AA from a genetic predisposition to insulin resistance and its consequences (non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus, coronary heart disease, obesity). The dietary pattern and active lifestyle of recent hunter-gatherers such as AA may be a reference standard for modem human nutrition and a model for defence against diseases of affluence.