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What We Should Eat: The Ancestral Diet

The debate on the ideal diet for humans is as old as modern science. Dietary recommendations were first written in 1894 in the US, which since have changed significantly. Yet, even almost 130 years later, there is no consensus on the best diet for humans among scientists. Some argue that paleo diet is the best, others present evidence for the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, and last but not least, the low-fat diet proponents stand behind their beliefs almost religiously.

The fact of the matter is that humans are incredibly adaptable to a wide variety of diets, habitats, climates, and ecosystems. People have been living in the deserts, tundra, tropical rain forests, moderate climate forests, highlands, grass steppes, marine shores, and many other environments. However, there is one diet that everyone unanimously agrees is terrible for health – the standard western diet. It’s the cookies, pizzas, potato fries, burgers, sugary soft drinks, ice cream and other highly processed foods that are the bane of health. It is reasonable to say that any diet that will exclude these highly processed foods is beneficial for health! But there is one diet that is truly the master, the king, the mvp of diets. It is the ancestral diet. In this blog post, I will do a deep dive into the science and the experience of modern hunter gatherers to show you exactly why the ancestral diet should be our focus if we are seeking the best health for our bodies.

Our ancestors, as well as modern hunter-gatherers, have had very low rates of chronic diseases that 60% of the people in today’s urban societies suffer from. Some may argue that this is simply because the harsh environments of the past did not allow our paleolithic ancestors to live long enough in order to develop degenerative diseases.

Examining hunter-gatherer societies, however, shows that human life expectancy is 70 years in these environments (https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_2352-1). Low average hunter-gatherer life expectancy is due to high child mortality rate, but once a human made it past the age of 5-10, their death rate is not as high as we would assume.

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What is interesting is that up to the age of 70, hunter-gatherers exhibit exceptional health compared to people in urbanized societies (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9957574/ ). They have significantly lower body fat composition (women 24-28%, men 9-18% compared to 30-40% of modern Americans); diabetes is virtually unheard of; high blood pressure and other cardiovascular diseases have extremely low rates even past the age of 60; and cancer and neurological diseases have similar statistics (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/obr.12785).

This is true across the board for many different hunter-gatherer populations in various parts of the world, both in the past and in modern times. They have vastly different diets, lifestyles and practices, shelter types, exposure to the elements, and contact with the modern society. So, what is the secret?

Raw & Minimally Prepared Foods

The way hunter-gatherers cook food is vastly different from our western temperature- and pressure-controlled cooking endeavors with several steps and dozens of ingredients. Paleolithic meals were not elaborate at all, maybe having 2-3 ingredients at most, and cooked simply on the fire or eaten raw. They also ate foods they foraged that day or the day before. An ancestor may have collected wild oats and soaked them in water to make a basic porridge, cooked hunted game on a fire, and eaten raw berries, herbs, and nuts with that meal.

They obviously did not have highly processed foods mass produced in factories that look nothing like the starting raw ingredients found in nature. Highly processed foods have been linked to numerous health issues such as obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and stroke. Eating foods as close to their natural state as possible is a good rule of thumb to follow when compiling a healthy diet plan for you and your family. This is also called a real or whole foods diet. Read more on that here.

The way hunter-gatherers cook food is vastly different from our western temperature- and pressure-controlled cooking endeavors with several steps and dozens of ingredients. Paleolithic meals were not elaborate at all, maybe having 2-3 ingredients at most, and cooked simply on the fire or eaten raw. They also ate foods they foraged that day or the day before. An ancestor may have collected wild oats and soaked them in water to make a basic porridge, cooked hunted game on a fire, and eaten raw berries, herbs, and nuts with that meal.

They obviously did not have highly processed foods mass produced in factories that look nothing like the starting raw ingredients found in nature. Highly processed foods have been linked to numerous health issues such as obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and stroke. Eating foods as close to their natural state as possible is a good rule of thumb to follow when compiling a healthy diet plan for you and your family. This is also called a real or whole foods diet. Read more on that here.

Diversity of Species as the Main Feature of the Ancestral Diet

Since the dawn of history, humans have subsisted in a wide range of environments, as mentioned before. However, one feature remains common across all hunter-gatherer communities – the variety of species consumed. Nowadays, when we eat our meals, we don’t see a lot of variety day to day on our plates. Many people eat only a handful of types of foods day in day out. Let’s look at the list of species of food that are common in the western diet:

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Animal proteins:

  • Beef
  • Chicken & eggs
  • Pork
  • Cow Dairy
  • Goat dairy

Seafood:

  • Salmon
  • Tilapia
  • Shrimp

Vegetables:

  • Tomatoes
  • Peppers
  • Lettuce
  • Zucchini
  • Olives
  • Squashes & Pumpkins*
  • Avocado
  • Brassicas*
  • Onion
  • Garlic
  • Cucumber
  • Celery
  • Carrots
  • Potatoes
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Radishes

Fruit:

  • Apples
  • Oranges
  • Grapes
  • Peaches & nectarines
  • Kiwi
  • Bananas
  • Mangos
  • Strawberries
  • Blueberries
  • Watermelon
  • Cranberries
  • Cherries
  • Pineapple

Nuts & Grains:

  • Wheat
  • Corn
  • Rice
  • Peanuts
  • Walnuts
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Almonds
  • Pecans
  • Beans*
  • Chocolate

Herbs & Spices:

  • Oregano
  • Rosemary
  • Sage
  • Black Pepper
  • Thyme
  • Hot peppers
  • Nutmeg
  • Allspice

* includes several cultivars

That’s 55 foods. It is generally considered healthy when one consumes everything on this list regularly. On the other hand, hunter-gatherers eat up to 16 times more foods than this list! Paleolithic cultures of the past, as well as modern-day foraging societies have been consuming between 100 and 800 species of foods per year (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2935111/ ). It’s hard for us to even name that many foods!

Hunter-gatherers consume such an incredible variety year-round from fishing, hunting, and collecting plants in the wild around their communities. At one sitting, they may only eat a few foods they could find that day. However, they eat what is in season in that particular month, and this constant rotation of available foods contributes to their overall healthy diet. Many of the present-day hunter-gatherer communities also cultivate certain grains, vegetables, fruit and berries that are a part of their diet. They may plant some food producing trees near their communities for easy access.

By contrast, in western urbanized societies, we only consume foods that are cultivated. Therefore, we are limited only to the foods that are suitable for cultivation and long shipping. Everything that is quickly perishable or that is not easy to cultivate is excluded from supermarkets and even farmers markets. If you add soil depletion from overfarming to the equation, you end up with a very poor choice of foods that are not very rich in nutrients. This in turn affects our bodies in very negative ways.

Here are the consequences of eating a diet that is poor in variety and nutrients:

  • Allergies
  • Weak immune system
  • Chronic diseases
  • High blood sugar and pressure
  • Fatty liver
  • Weak kidneys
  • Brain fog
  • Fatigue
  • Dependence on coffee
  • Overweight
  • Mental disorders and low mood

Moreover, the overflowing abundance of foods at our urban supermarkets is extremely misleading! The mountains of food that many of us take home every week give us a false sense of variety. If you look at the ingredients of processed foods, most of them are made with only a handful of raw ingredients – wheat, corn, soy, rice, beef, chicken, pork, cheese, eggs, lettuce, potatoes, and tomatoes. How many people do you know that eat only these 12 foods their entire lives?

Another issue is that many different types of plants belong to single species! For example, there are 21 cultivars of brassicas, Brassica oleracea, among which are cabbage, brussels sprouts, kale, collards, broccoli, cauliflower, etc. Another one is Cucurbita pepo which includes zucchini, acorn squash, yellow squash, and pumpkin. Various beans and peppers also belong to single species. Dairy is a whole food group of dozens of products such as yogurt, cheese, milk, cream, cream cheese, sour cream, kefir, butter, and many others made from the milk of a single species! These numerous choices in stores create an illusion of variety, when they all count as just a handful of species. So, when counting how many foods you consume per year, find out their Latin species name, and see how many are the same!

How can we add variety to our diets? I also think this begs another related question, how do we cook this new unknown variety? An excellent way to broaden our diet choices is to look up other countries’ traditional foods! Indian, Chinese, Korean, Cajun, Middle Eastern, Jamaican, German, Russian, Japanese, and many other world cuisines are rich in local ingredients that are still easy to find in the US due to their popularity.

Another amazing way to add variety is grow you own food! There are many more types of foods we can grow in our gardens than we can buy even at farmer’s markets. When you are growing your own foods, you are also in control of the soil conditions, and you can enrich your garden with amendments such as rock dust, humates, biochar, compost teas, which all increase nutritional value of the soil, and in turn make the foods you grow more nutrient dense than conventionally farmed ones.

Finally, we can simply go back to our hunter-gatherer roots and forage edible berries, mushrooms, game, and vegetables out in the wild. Foraging is a fascinating whole new world of collecting and preparing free food that mother nature provides us! And even if you just go on a trip to harvest one or two foods, that’s already two new species you’ve never been exposed to! In addition to that, wild grown foods in healthy ecosystems have many times more nutrients than cultivated varieties. So, even if you just go collect wild blueberries (or buy in the store or farmer’s market), that will add significantly more nutrition to your diet. I recommend looking up foraging resources for your state or specific region.

Before you are able to implement these strategies, remember that our regular supermarkets are still a good resource for us to widen our dietary options. There are foods that many of us rarely buy such as capers, artichokes, chia seeds, jicama, etc. that will add variety only with a simple detour into an isle you’ve never been to. Foraging our own grocery stores for obscure delicacies can be a whole adventure!

Another factor that contributes to hunter-gatherer health is physical activity. Hunter-gatherers engage in 6-10 hours of physical activity per day. They walk several miles per day, stand, squat, and may sit down for a chat while knitting, weaving, making ceramics, or preparing food. Some wild foods require processing such as peeling, thrashing, or shelling. We can also add physical activity in our daily lives by standing instead of sitting at our desks, doing projects on the floor, sitting on exercise balls. Avoiding chairs in creative ways may significantly improve our well-being and mood! Going for a walk twice a day for 30 minutes is another good practice that also increases dopamine.

Mother nature is a rich resource for our health with thousands of medicinal and edible plants and animals. Our ancestors thrived in environments that were in harmony with wild ecosystems, and I believe we can reap the gifts of those environments even in our modern urban homes. We have the advantage of hygiene, technology, and comfort, but everyone of us can benefit from getting in touch with our wild side.

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Mark Spenser |

Mark Spenser is a local NY resident and an avid geek. When he's not rediscovering his island state, he enjoys spending time at TechPhlox and review latest tech's world products and news. You can follow him on Twitter @MarkSpenser

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