healthy from history - the Tarahumara

healthy from history - the Tarahumara

photo of tarahumara

The Tarahumara are a small tribe of Native North Americans, most famous for their central role in Christopher McDougall's best selling book "Born to Run". They live in an isolated labyrinth of mountains and canyons in northern Mexico (the Copper Canyons), where their lifestyle has remained virtually unchanged for the last 500 years. (Until the last decade, but that's a different story for a different time.) They've watched from the sidelines as the rest of the West was impacted by the Spanish Conquistadors, the founding of America, the Spanish-American War, the Industrial Revolution, the Gold Rush, the Wild West, and the Modern Era.

Why they're considered healthy

The Tarahumara tend to live into old age, with no instances of our modern diseases, and their geriatric population is able to climb mountains and run great distances with the rest of the tribe.


Their diet consists of 3 primary foods.
  • Corn - either as pinole (where it's ground and mixed with water) or as a beer. (grain, carbohydrate)
  • Chia Seeds (protein, antioxidant)
  • Mice (protein, fat)
  • * Deer, Gazelle (protein, fat) * I can't determine if the present-day Tarahumara hunt these anymore. If so, this would be a 4th primary food.


They spend virtually their entire lives exercising, either as passive or active exercise.
  • Working their fields
  • Village Communication - their closest neighbors live further away than you can see, so just walking next door is a long walk. The next closest village might be 30 or 60 miles away.
  • Running for transportation - they run from village to village. Communication, socialization, competitions, collaborations, warnings of danger. Whatever the reason, they don't think twice about setting out for a 60 mile, 2-day run.
  • Running for sport - their pastime, unlike our slow-moving baseball and our rest-between-plays football, is a game where they divide into teams, then take turns kicking a small ball down the road or path. Except they don't get to a goal at 100 yards; they kick this ball (and run after it) for 24 hours straight, and sometimes longer. Yep - you read that right. They get two villages together, throw a big party, and then play a running-kicking game for 24 full hours.
  • Persistence Hunting - they can run all day long, chasing a deer or gazelle, until it overheats and dies.

What they DON'T do

Sometimes it helps to see another community's traits by what it is they don't do, rather than by what they do. The Tarahumara don't:
  • Eat pre-packaged food
  • Eat fast food
  • Eat foods with any added nutrients, chemicals, dyes, sugars or sugar substitutes
  • Over eat, eat to indulge
  • Watch TV
  • Sit at a desk
  • Sit on a couch
  • Use a computer
  • Target specific ratios of proteins, carbs, and fat
  • Drink sports drinks or power gels while running ultra marathon distances
  • Wear heat gear, moisture-wicking fibers, or modern running shoes
  • Taper before a big game/race. (They'll often run 60 miles to get to the village that's hosting the 24-hour game/race!)
  • Retire
  • Get cancer, diabetes, vascular disease, or any of the rest of the top 10 health risks facing American men

Supporting Documentation

I've cobbled my information together from a number of sources. See the links and videos below for further reading.

Best-selling Book - Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall

Video - 15 minutes - Christopher McDougall speaking at TED.

Quote from above video: "If you read folklore and mythology, any kind of myths, any kind of tall tales, running is always associated with freedom and vitality and youthfulness and eternal vigor. It's only in our lifetime that running has become associated with fear and pain."

Forbes article discussing they have low blood sugar levels (with no prostate or breast cancer), despite eating 80% of their calories from carbs. This means it is possible to metabolize carbs and your body's fat efficiently. 

Men's Health magazine, quoting from Born to Run: "When it comes to the top 10 health risks facing American men, the Tarahumara are practically immortal: Their incidence rate is at or near zero in just about every category, including diabetes, vascular disease, and colorectal cancer."

Wikipedia entry for Tarahumara People

Video - 10 minutes - National Geographic discusses their extraordinary endurance

Tarahumara Recipes - recipes including pinole and chia

Bottom Line

The Tarahumara don't have any of our modern "nutrition", "wisdom", or medicine, and yet they live into old age being active and free from modern diseases. They're a great example of an "eat less, move more" society - proof that you don't need anything fancy, even a program with a fancy name, to be healthy.

To your health,

-Chris Butterworth