What is the ancestral diet and is it right for you?
by Georgina •7 minutes read
Last updated: 24 Jul, 2023
Variety is the spice of life. However, in this modern, globalised age, are we too spoiled for choice? With a world of cuisines at our fingertips, have we lost touch with how we should truly be eating? Advocates of the ancestral diet believe we have.
The key to improving our quality of life may be to give modern foods a miss and copy the ancestral eating patterns of 500 years ago. Before the distinction between ultra processed, processed and organic foods, there was just food. Nutrient dense, locally grown and free of pesticides, our ancestors ate very differently to how we do today. But do the diets of the past still make sense for us today?
What is the Ancestral Diet?
The ancestral diet can take many forms. It is non-specific, unlike the keto diet for example, which prescribes specific low carbohydrate and macronutrient consumption. Instead, it is individual to each in a different way. The common focus between each person's ancestral diet plan is that it focuses on the locality, seasonality and cultural heritage of food. For example, someone from cold Norway may consume more meat, dairy and healthy fats. Whereas someone from warm Mexico may consume more grain, legumes and vegetables. Rather than emphasising what you should eat, it more so emphasises what you should avoid.
These namely being:
- Refined grains
- Refined sugar
- Processed soy products
- Artificial flavours, sweeteners and colourants
- GMO’s (genetically modified foods)
- Additives and preservatives
- Industrial seed oils (including canola, soybean and margarine)
And in general, recommending eating more:
- Organic meats, poultry, eggs and dairy products
- Seasonal fruit and vegetables
- Fermented foods (eaten often by our ancestors due to their long storage life) - high in vitamin k2
- Wild seafood
- Unrefined fats
- Ancient grains (including wheat, legumes, rice, beans and barley)
How is it different from the Paleo Diet?
Despite the ancestral diet sharing many similarities to the paleo diet, the differences that separate them are significant. The main difference being how far back they look. The Paleo diet revolves around the promotion of foods available during the Palaeolithic era (dating from 10,000 BC, all the way back to 3 million years ago). Whereas the ancestral diet looks to our closer ancestors' consumption practices for inspiration. It promotes foods grown and consumed locally before the industrialisation of the food process and globalisation disrupted our millennia old eating patterns.
Though, there is some difference of opinions on how far back in time we should go in order to form the basis of the ancestral diet. Doctor Kilts, despite making a distinction between the ancestral and the paleo diets, suggests we should look back further than our recent ancestors and focus on the diets of early humans instead. Back then our diets were predominantly carnivorous and high in fat, when there was a variety of large fatty animals roaming the earth. Before we hunted the megafauna and others into extinction and began introducing grains and low-calorie fruits and vegetables into our diets.
Whilst there is no one single ancestral diet, there must be some consensus on what time period we should base our diets on. If we wish to look back to our earliest ancestors who lived condensed across a smaller portion of the continent, their more similar diets will end up differing little from the foods promoted under the Palaeolithic diet. We must also take into account that in that time span of at least 10,000 years, with the birth of modern agriculture, our bodies have evolved and adapted. What suited the human body 1 million years ago, may not suit it today. And with increasing scientific study into the dangers of carcinogens in red meats over recent years, the high consumption of animal products proposed under the paleo and keto diets can no longer be safely recommended in a world where so many other aspects of modern life also increase your risk of cancer.
Even if someone were to heavily prioritise organic white meats instead within their own ancestral diet, recent studies suggest that organic meats do not necessarily diminish their potential for carcinogenic damage due to the animal intake of persistent organic pollutants. That’s why, if looking to begin an ancestral diet, it would be best to base your inspiration around pre-industrial consumption patterns involving various food groups, rather than trying to go too meat heavy.
Why the Ancestral Diet?
It is clear for all to see that the modern diet has failed us. Lacking the density and macronutrient quality of an ancestral diet, today's consumption habits revolve around heavily processed foods, rich in empty carbohydrates, industrial seed oils and refined sugar grains.
We have seen a dramatic spike in inflammatory diseases since the time of our recent ancestors. These “diseases of civilisation”, including cancer, obesity and diabetes, were essentially non-existent amongst hunter gatherers. With 3 out of 5 people now dying from inflammatory chronic diseases, it is easy to guess why people have begun to instead look to the past for dietary advice. For thousands of years, even after the introduction of modern agriculture, humans were “consuming whole, unprocessed local and seasonal foods” says dietitian Dr Anika Rouf.
Now the increase in these ‘diseases of civilisation’ (also including acne and high blood pressure) is not solely caused by diet. The clue is in the name, many aspects of modern life have contributed to the surge in obesity and chronic inflammatory diseases we have seen since the 1970’s. But whilst we may be unable to switch our low-movement jobs, or halt the processes of pollution, we can make changes to our own eating habits.
More than just physical
Beyond the physical benefits of an ancestral diet, Native American advocates suggest that it can re-strengthen the spirituality of native peoples worldwide, who were forcibly severed from the roots of their cultural cuisine by colonisation. By returning to eating organic, wholesome indigenous foods dependent on earth's natural cycles, some believe that it can strengthen their spiritual bonds to their ancestors, due to the foods' higher vibrational frequency.
Following the ancestral diet can also serve as a means of reclaiming power. When colonisers invaded the America’s, in order to bring the native population under control, they targeted their food source, the buffalo. Millions were killed in only a few years, making a population, unused to farming, dependent on the invaders for food. By switching back to the consumption patterns of their ancestors, some Native Americans believe that they can reclaim their tribal food sovereignty, increase their spirituality and improve their health once again.
Now it is important to note that an ancestral diet may not be suited to everyone. If you are someone from a colder region whose people traditionally consumed diets high in fatty meats but you have moved to sunny Italy. Then it would be best to take into consideration both your body's evolutionary physiology and your current climate. A high fat diet meant to provide your body energy to keep you warm, may make you feel overheated and sluggish in hotter regions.
Additionally, in today's day and age we have a better understanding of the nutrients our bodies need than our ancestors did, thanks to modern science. Back in the day, people were often malnourished, not consuming enough vital nutrients and vitamins. So, it would be best not to follow your ancestors' eating patterns to the letter. Whilst the UK did not traditionally grow or consume citrus fruits, we must still make sure we are consuming a sufficient intake of Vitamin C. As the ancestral diet does not take into consideration a person's precise vitamin and mineral needs, it is best to follow a diet plan based on your own blood chemistry.
It is important to be aware of the potential risks of any diet, especially if you are concerned that, based on your ancestral history, that diet may be lacking in certain vital nutrients or food groups. Based on your own body, or if you have moved abroad, an ancestral diet may not be suited to everyone. It is always best to proceed with caution and seek professional guidance before making any drastic changes.
In conclusion, is the Ancestral diet a perfect guide on how to eat? No. But it doesn’t pretend to be. Functional Medicine Practitioner and Dietitian Marieke Rodenstein from the Nutrition Practice says it is important to remember that the ancestral diet is not a rigid ideology that must be followed to the letter. It is flexible and guides you more on foods to avoid, then which foods to necessarily eat. But even the list of what to avoid is not a set of fixed, unbreakable rules. You can still eat the occasional donut. Rigidly categorising foods into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ can increase anxiety towards food and amplify eating disorders.
There is no perfect diet but if you are someone looking to reduce your risk of inflammatory diseases, increase your spirituality and reclaim your food sovereignty, or to reduce your carbon footprint by shopping for locally grown foods, then the ancestral diet may be right for you.
- Ancestral eating: Should you take meal inspo from your elders? - https://www.houseofwellness.com.au/health/nutrition/ancestral-eating
- Ancestral Food-Ways - https://www.wellforculture.com/ancestral-eating
- The Ancestral Diet: What it is, Benefits, and How to - https://www.doctorkiltz.com/ancestral-diet/
- Consumption of organic meat does not diminish the carcinogenic potential associated with the intake of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) - https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25893622/
- Tribal Food Sovereignty Advancement Initiative - https://www.ncai.org/initiatives/partnerships-initiatives/food-sovereignty
- Diseases of Civilization – Cancer, Diabetes, Obesity and Acne – the Implication of Milk, IGF-1 and mTORC1 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6362881/#:~:text=PMID%3A%2030774725-,Diseases%20of%20Civilization%20%E2%80%93%20Cancer%2C%20Diabetes%2C%20Obesity%20and%20Acne%20%E2%80%93,Milk%2C%20IGF%2D1%20and%20mTORC1
- Ancestral Diet - What is it and What Are the Benefits? - https://www.nutritiondiagnostics.com.au/blog/ancestral-diet-what-is-it-and-what-are-the-benefits
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