Were some of our ancestors vegetarian? Did they eat a low-carb or high-fat diet? Throughout history, there was no “one” ancestral diet . But each iteration shared some common characteristics, and none were similar to the current Western diet.

More and more people suffer from chronic diseases and diet may be to blame

Chronic diseases have reached epidemic levels in developed countries. The incidences of type 2 diabetes, obesity, autoimmune diseases, mental health disorders, and more are increasing rapidly. Six out of 10 American adults have a chronic disease, while four out of 10 have two or more chronic conditions.

According to important archaeological evidence, our ancestors did not develop these chronic inflammatory diseases. And neither are today’s hunter-gatherers. Consider the following examples:

  • The Tsimané people in Bolivia have an 80 percent lower rate of atherosclerosis than the people in the United States.
  • In Tanzania, less than 2 percent of Hadza adults are overweight (compared to almost two-thirds of American adults) and diabetes is virtually non-existent.
  • The Masai in Kenya do not develop cardiovascular disease, despite eating a diet based on red meat, blood and milk.

So what has changed since then and now? When we don’t live or eat like our ancestors did, a mismatch between our genes and the environment allows chronic diseases to come into play. Ancestral health — and an ancestral diet — is the solution to that mismatch .

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution and technological advances, the quality of life has improved in many ways, but our health continues to deteriorate. Although food is only one factor that affects health (movement, sleep and stress are some others), we cannot escape the truth that is in the phrase “you are what you eat”. 

The standard Western diet, veganism, and even vegetarianism are a far cry from what our ancestors ate and what our genes and biology demand. We are basically made to thrive on an ancient diet.

What is an ancestral diet?

The composition of our ancestors’ diets varied widely, depending on geographic location, food availability, and technology. Even the proportions of macronutrients (percentage of carbohydrates, proteins and fats) differed significantly between hunter-gatherer populations. 

But some key characteristics unite virtually all the diets of our Paleolithic ancestors and today’s hunter-gatherers.

Animal products

Our hominin ancestors have been eating animal products for at least 2.5 million years. Animal-based foods are among the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet . 

Some of the nutrients they contain in large quantities are difficult to obtain elsewhere, as the plant versions are poorly absorbed and / or converted. Some of these nutrients include:

  • Vitamin B12 (liver, seafood, red meat)
  • Choline (free range eggs, liver)
  • Iron (red meat, liver)
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) omega-3 fatty acids (cold-water fatty fish)
  • Vitamin K2 (grass-fed butter and eggs)
  • Selenium (fish)
  • Preformed vitamin A (liver)
  • High-quality protein (meat, eggs, dairy)

Importantly, animal products encompass more than just “meat.” Eating from nose to tail best reflects a nutritious ancestral diet. Bone broth and cartilaginous cuts are rich in the amino acid glycine, which helps balance the high methionine content of meat. 

Organ meats, like kidneys and heart, are amazing superfoods. The liver may be the most nutrient-dense food on the entire planet.

Not only are animal products dense in nutrients, they contain more bioavailable forms of many nutrients, including protein, calcium, and iron compared to plant sources.

Starchy and non-starchy vegetables

For our ancestors, the calorie ratio of plant and animal foods varied quite a bit. In a field study of 229 hunter-gatherer groups, researchers found that animal foods provided more than two-thirds of their calories on average, with a range of 26 to 99 percent. 

Only 14 percent of these groupings got more than 50 percent of their calories from plant foods. Contrary to the media description of the “Paleo diet,” vegetables should take up the vast majority of the volume on your plate, as they are not as calorie dense as animal products. 

Even if your goal is for 50 to 70 percent of calories to come from animal foods, plant foods should make up two-thirds to three-quarters of the space on your plate. Plant foods feed your microbiome and aid digestion.

Vegetables are the main source of many nutrients:

  • Vitamin C
  • Carotenoids
  • Polyphenols
  • Flavonoids
  • Plant sterols and stanols
  • Isothiocyanates and Indoles
  • Prebiotic fibers
  • And more

Foods of the ancestral diet: cereals and legumes

Many are surprised to learn that grains and legumes can, in fact, be Paleo. Evidence of the consumption of wheat, barley, and rice dates back thousands of years. But these grains aren’t the ones you’d find in grocery store aisles: rolled oats, flour, and white rice. 

Cereals and legumes contain high levels of antinutrients that bind to nutrients and prevent their absorption in the gastrointestinal tract.

The cultures that consumed these foods first soaked, germinated, fermented, and / or fermented them to break down natural nutrient inhibitors.

Fruits, nuts and seeds

When in season, today’s hunter-gatherers eat wild berries, nuts, and seeds, if geographically available. The fructose in whole fruit, in moderation, is healthy and not as harmful as added sugars in food and beverages.

In some cases, dairy can be part of an ancestral diet

Maybe dairy is definitely not Paleo or ancient in the traditional sense. Lactase persistence, or the ability to digest lactose in dairy products into adulthood, didn’t emerge until about 10,000 years ago. 

However, full-fat pastured dairy is rich in many nutrients, including vitamin K2, which is difficult to obtain, and can be part of an age-old diet if well tolerated . This is an example of how a more modern food can match our genes.

Organic and local food

Our ancestors did not describe food in these terms, because all their food was “local” and “organic.” But with the advent of concentrated animal feed, pesticide and antibiotic farm operations, today we have to assume that food is not organic or local unless explicitly labeled as such .

Organic and sustainable agriculture and agricultural practices produce products that are richer in micronutrients, more economical and environmentally friendly, and lower in pesticides and other toxins. That is what our ancestors ate.

No sugar, flour, or refined seed oils

No ancient diet or modern hunter-gatherer diet contained refined sugar, flour, or seed oils. Together, these “Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse” promote excessive eating and inflammation , which is the root of all modern diseases.

Unfortunately, vegetable oils and sugar together make up 36 percent of the standard Western diet. In addition, these foods are practically devoid of nutrients.

Adapting your Paleo template

Humans are complicated creatures, made up of billions of cells (and trillions of microorganisms!) That require approximately 40 different micronutrients for normal metabolic function. 

Because the diets of our ancestors varied quite a bit, today’s healthy primary diets also vary to take into account individual needs and sensitivities.

This is why the term Paleo “template” is used instead of “diet.” Humans vary in genetic makeup, gene expression, health status, activity level, goals, and more.

Individual dietary needs will differ between a 20-year-old male athlete, an 80-year-old woman with light activity, and a 2-year-old toddler.

Five benefits of an ancestral diet

The indisputable benefits of an ancestral whole foods diet have been demonstrated by studies comparing hunter-gatherer diets and / or modern Paleo diets with modern diets such as the standard Western diet, vegetarian and vegan diets, and diets recommended by associations. national health.

1. Longer life expectancy

It is a common myth that our Paleolithic ancestors lived only to be 30 years old. In these studies, shorter life expectancies were strongly influenced by higher infant mortality rates, lack of antibiotics, emergency medications, and more. 

In fact, anthropologists report that if modern hunter-gatherers survive infancy, their life expectancy averages between 68 and 78 years, quite similar to ours. 

And without the development of a chronic illness, those later years were probably of a much higher quality than most older people experience today. An ancient diet combined with the benefits of modern medicine will likely lead to a much longer life / health than the current average.

2. Weight loss

Ancient diets are generally more filling, which leads to reduced calorie intake and contributes to weight loss . 

Although low-carb and ketogenic diets are all the rage, a Stanford study showed that, on average, people who cut back on added sugar, refined grains, and processed foods lost weight over 12 months, regardless of the proportions of macronutrients.

3. Decreased inflammation

Refined sugar, grains, and seed oils increase chronic inflammation and lead to chronic disease. In contrast, age-old diets that eliminate these foods and instead focus on nutrient-dense whole foods, including plant and animal products, have been shown to lower inflammation levels .

4. Reversal of metabolic syndrome

Metabolic syndrome affects one third of American adults and is characterized by having at least three of the following five markers:

  • Large waist circumference.
  • Hypertension.
  • High fasting glucose.
  • Elevated triglycerides.
  • Low levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol.

In clinical trials, ancestral diets outperform other diets recommended by national health organizations like the American Heart Association. 

Several studies ranging in duration from weeks to two years show that a Paleo diet improves blood pressure, body weight, waist circumference, triglycerides, HDL cholesterol, and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol.

5. Better gut health

Good gut health, which encompasses the integrity of the gut wall, diversity of microbiomes, and more, is linked to better overall health. A 2019 study found that people on modern Paleo diets had highly diverse microbiomes.

Studies in ancestral populations that consume both animal and plant foods reveal greater microbial diversity compared to people who follow an industrialized diet. Acellular carbohydrates, like refined flours and sugars, wreak havoc on the gut microbiome .

An ancestral diet reduces the risk of chronic diseases

Following an ancestral diet ensures consuming a variety of nutrient-rich whole foods, with which our biology and health thrive . The measurable health benefits of an ancestral diet, from decreasing inflammation to improving microbiome diversity, reduce the risk of chronic disease, including:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Diabetes and obesity.
  • Neurological disorders.
  • Mood disorders.

By Dr. Eric Jackson

Dr. Eric Jackson provides primary Internal Medicine care for men and women and treats patients with bone and mineral diseases, diabetes, heart conditions, and other chronic illnesses.He is a Washington University Bone Health Program physician and is a certified Bone Densitometrist. Dr. Avery is consistently recognized in "The Best Doctors in America" list.

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