It can be overwhelming to peruse the internet to know what you are supposed to eat to maintain optimal mental and physical functioning for someone your age. It can also feel exhausting to hear another family member rave about their new diet, how it helps them thrive, all while sharing what they are and aren’t eating. Does your internal cynicism feel triggered at the thought? Or maybe you’re knee deep in or recovering from an eating disorder, body dysmorphia, or disordered eating and learning that there is no ‘right diet.’ Would it intrigue you to know just how our ancestors ate before the onslaught of chronic disease in our current society?
What is the Ancestral Diet?
Enter the ancestral diet. Ironically, the ancestral diet is not a diet that we are familiar with today, of which we restrict certain foods to lose weight. Rather, it is a way of eating that our Paleolithic ancestors embodied based on what was available to them. The ancestral diet is a way of eating that goes back to our roots. It is also referred to as the traditional and indigenous diet, or the way our ancestors ate.
When it comes to the history of people, no specific diet was followed. What was available to our ancestors carried on region, generation, and culture. However, there have been some common themes amongst our ancestors that aren’t practiced in the standard American diet.
The reason people are looking into the ancestral diet is because of the lack of chronic disease present with our ancestors. With the economic growth and mass agricultural shift in our food system came obesity, inflammation, and chronic disease that wasn’t previously present. Many people are itching for a simpler, more natural and time-tested way of eating, so they are looking to our ancestors for answers. In this article, I will walk through what wasn’t present in any ancestral diet and what was regularly consumed, despite the variation amongst geographical regions, cultures, and generations.
This Was Definitely Not in Our Food
Preservatives-there were no preservatives that we can’t pronounce. Unless it was preserved with salt, brine, or naturally occurring sugar, food was eaten fresh and had little shelf stability.
Refined sugar-there were no processed foods. Anything that needs to be altered or manufactured didn’t exist. Food was eaten straight from the ground or from the animals that inhabited it. Honey and the sugar that naturally occurs in fruit were a part of the ancestral diet.
Pasteurized food-pasteurization didn’t become prevalent until the 19th century. When typically unstable food needed to be more shelf stable and transported across the country, pasteurization became the answer. When you heat up food through the pasteurization process, you minimize the risk of spreading bad bacteria. However, you also diminish the enzymes, nutrients, and good bacteria that naturally occur and make it easier for us to digest.
This Was in Our Food
Soaked/sprouted/fermented foods-foods high in anti-nutrients, like phytic acid, were soaked, sprouted, fermented, or naturally leavened to break down the anti nutrients. This allowed food to be more bioavailable and therefore more easily digestible.
Flora-our ancestors consumed the plants from the region with which they inhabited, according to the season. A small portion of our ancestors obtained over 50% of their caloric intake from plants (specifically 14%), however it was a part of our ancestors diet. Keep in mind that plants tend to be lower in calories, so consuming a larger amount will still not account for the nutrient-density of the meal as much as animal protein.
Fauna-all traditional cultures consumed some type of animal protein, whether it was fat and protein from land fowl, fish and other seafood, eggs, raw dairy, and even insects. Chalk full of B12, iron, and highly digestible amino acids, animal protein is some of the most nutrient-dense food we have access to and was something our ancestors consumed.
Bone and organs-our ancestors ate organs and made gelatin-rich broth from the bones.
Organic and local-this might seem obvious, but this was only what our ancestors consumed. No pesticides, nothing genetically modified nor altered. Our ancestors were only able to eat what was available to them geographically and in season.
While eating meat and seafood was an integral part of the ancestral diet, you can still focus on an ancestral diet while omitting meat if it is currently not a part of your diet. Avoiding processed food is a great first step. Since almost all of the vegan alternatives have been processed, manufactured, or altered, it is important to stay away from what wouldn’t have been possible for our ancestors. For example, most vegan cheese has been manufactured and all of vegan fake meat has been processed. However, consider making your own tempeh instead (and avoid additives), since tempeh is simply fermented soy beans.
The baseline for the ancestral diet is live food. Therefore, following an ancestral diet is not about specifically restricting certain foods and only consuming others. Because the diet varied across regions and time frames, it would be superfluous to try to be specific. Instead, the ancestral diet is about avoiding things that weren’t available to our ancestors, like refined sugar and industrialized and processed food. If it comes in a box, our ancestors didn’t have it. If it is shelf stable or filled with preservatives and processed additives, our ancestors didn’t have it either.