The Ancestral Diet (or variations of it) is quietly becoming more popular…but does that mean you should eat like a caveman?
That doesn’t mean adopting poor table manners and spit roasting a freshly caught mammoth over the fire you patched together with flint and straw, but should you be eating what your ancestors ate? After all, the human body evolved in a world without Pop-Tarts and Cheetos.
If you’re reading this article, and clearly you are, then you’ve probably heard of the Paleo Diet, the Mediterranean Diet, the Vegan Diet, and a whole bunch of others, no doubt. But what about the Ancestral Diet?
With more and more people recognizing the damage to health that regular consumption of highly processed food contributes to, people are looking to the past for inspiration for a healthy diet.
But it begs several questions: What did our ancestors eat? How is it possible to even know? Was ancestral health any better than our own? Is ancestral eating safe? What are the benefits of eating an ancestral diet? What counts as ancestral food nowadays?
Fear not, dear reader, for in this article, we’ll explore the evolution of the human diet, from our paleolithic ancestors all the way through to the modern human diet. We’ll also look at what foods to eat if you want to get started and how to safely get off processed food.
Let’s crack on.
What Is the Ancestral Diet?
The Ancestral Diet is an umbrella term that typically describes sustenance based on wholesome, natural, organic, and unprocessed traditional foods that can be harvested directly from the earth, lakes, rivers, and oceans from hunting, gathering, and fishing.
Obviously (as one should hope you can tell from the name), ancestral eating means following a nutritional plan based on what your ancestors ate.
Of course, depending on who you are and where you’re from, and how far back you’re tracing, your ancestral diet can vary greatly, some being almost exclusively based on meat consumption, some more like the plant-based diet.
Paleo Diet vs. Ancestral Diet
What’s the difference between a paleolithic diet and an ancestral diet? Technically, the paleo diet is just one form of ancestral eating that focuses on eating foods around in the Paleolithic era.
Paleo followers try to only eat foods available before modern agriculture, which developed around 10,000 years ago. Although similar, the ancestral diet differs in being more locally focused and determined by one’s own genetic ancestry.
You don’t have to eat like a caveman if you follow an ancestral diet; instead, it really relies on eating what is natural, organic, and seasonally available. Ancestral eating isn’t strict. You can even eat foods that appeared after modern agricultural development, including dairy, grains, and healthy fat.
Modern Diet vs. Ancestral Diet
One of the best ways to determine if an ancestral diet is healthier than a modern one is by paying attention to what modern indigenous people around the world are eating today. And, the evidence would appear to support the theory:
Studies of foragers like the Tsimane of Bolivia, the Arctic Inuit, and Tanzanian Hadza have found that these peoples traditionally didn’t develop high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, diabetes, or cardiovascular disease.
While the human body didn’t change that much between 2.6 million years ago to the start of the agricultural revolution- the theory goes that our genes haven’t had enough time to adapt to farmed foods (which we’ve been eating only for around 10,000 years or so).
This worldwide shift to processed food is mainly responsible for the obesity epidemic and a rise in associated diseases. Could this be avoided if more of the world’s population ate more locally seasonally produced fruits and vegetables and exercised a little more?
Benefits of the Natural Human Diet
Ancestral diets focus on whole foods and avoid harmfully processed and industrialized modern foods, which fuel various diseases. It also can support:
Weight loss: junk food, sugary snacks, and drinks are empty calories that can lead to unhealthy weight gain. These are totally absent from traditional human diets.
Lower blood pressure: reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Better heart health: hunter-gatherer societies have lower LDL cholesterol levels than their Western counterparts.
Improved gut health: high in fiber-rich foods, the early human diet may promote better digestion and microbiome diversity.
Lessen chronic inflammation: refined sugar and grains and seed oils add to chronic inflammation. Inflammation has been linked to chronic diseases such as diabetes, obesity, neurological disorders, and mood disorders.
Did Our Ancestors Eat Meat?
Yes. While vegans and vegetarians might wish to think otherwise, very few ancestral diets would be meat-free.
Meat was an essential source of protein in many areas. Some scientists argue that meat-eating was crucial to survival and helped us evolve bigger brains. By consuming calorie-dense animal products like red meat, organ meat, bone marrow, and healthy fats, our ancestors, Homo erectus, were able to take extra energy from their environment and help fuel their energetically expensive brains.
Others argue that our ability to cook food allowed us to extract the extra energy our big brains require. Whether one or both of these ideas is true, what’s clear is that digesting less bulky vegetable fiber allowed early humans to have much smaller guts which freed up energy for the brain.
Either way, modern-day hunter-gatherers around the world continue to value meat highly as part of their nutritional intake, but (with the exception of Arctic Inuits, who get 99% of their caloric intake from animals) remain reliant on plant-based food.
The Hadza and Kung bushmen of Africa, for example, fail to get meat more than 50% of the time they go hunting, which is a pretty standard success rate. And even after the domestication of animals and farming developed, meat wasn’t a daily occurrence for most people in most places.
They want meat, sure. But what they actually live on is plant foods.– Amanda Henry, Evolutionary Anthropologist
Before you go rubbing your vegan friends’ noses in it, just because our carnivorous forefathers have eaten red meat for two million years doesn’t mean it’s recommended.
Heavy meat consumption increases saturated fat and cholesterol levels, increases atherosclerosis, and the risk of cancer and heart disease in most populations.
So, What Did Our Ancestors Eat?
It really depends where you’re from.
What bothers a lot of paleoanthropologists is that we actually didn’t have just one ancestral diet.– Leslie Aiello, President of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research
Many traditional diets survive to this day:
- Indian Jains have been following a vegetarian diet for generations.
- Malaysia’s Bajau people, who live almost exclusively on the water, have an understandably fish-heavy diet.
- The Arctic Inuits have an infamously meat-intensive diet
- “Blue-Zone” diets of the Mediterranean or Japan have changed very little in centuries, consisting of a healthy mix of plant food, oily fish, olive oil, fermented foods, raw food, animal fat, etc.
- Some populations have been eating grains for at least 100,000 years; others struggle with a lower tolerance.
The point is that what makes an Ancestral diet is not what is in it but rather where it’s from. However, if you want to follow ancestral eating, here’s some guidance:
Animal foods are among the most nutrient-dense on Earth. Organ meats like kidney, liver, and heart are packed and loaded with bioavailable nutrients. Many animal products have high amounts of certain nutrients that are difficult to get elsewhere, such as:
- High-quality protein (meat, eggs, dairy)
- Vitamin B12 (liver, seafood, red meat)
- Choline (pastured eggs, liver)
- Iron (red meat, liver)
- DHA, EPA, and omega-3 fatty acids (oily fish)
- Vitamin K2 (grass-fed butter, pastured eggs)
- Selenium (eggs, fish)
While the types and amounts of vegetables would differ from era to era and place to place, and a large portion of calories came from meat, vegetables still should take up ample space on the ancestral diet plate.
Vegetables are prime sources of many nutrients such as Vitamin C and carotenoids, polyphenols, flavonoids, isothiocyanates and indoles, prebiotic fibers, and more.
Healthy vegetables to add to your diet:
- Spinach: over half your RDA of Vitamin A, 100% of your Vitamin K, and high in antioxidants.
- Broccoli: if it looks like a tree, it’s good for thee. High in potassium, manganese, and folate.
- Carrots: high in beta-carotene and antioxidants, may reduce lung and prostate cancer risk.
- Garlic: bad for vampires, good for you. Well-known for its many medicinal properties.
- Brussel sprouts: nutrient-dense, with all the same goodies as broccoli, plus some kaempferol.
- Kale: often hailed as a superfood, this dark green leafy vegetable packs a nutritional punch.
- Green peas: spotting a pattern? The green stuff is good for you! Apart from boogers. Avoid those.
- Ginger: is it a vegetable? Who cares? It was good for the ancients and it’s still good today.
- Asparagus: is it its detoxification power that makes your pee smell?
- Sweet potatoes: delicious and preventative of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and more.
We could go on, but if you’re serious about following your ancestor’s eating patterns, it’s important to look into your genetic ancestry, and then look at the foods that were available in their geographical location prior to the agricultural revolution…you’ll need to do some homework!
Grains and legumes
Grains and legumes may, in fact, be part of a pre-agricultural diet. Evidence for wheat, barley, and rice consumption dates back many thousands of years.
However, they wouldn’t be processed or refined as you find them in supermarkets. Cultures that ate these foods first soaked, sprouted, fermented, or leavened them to make them edible.
Fruit, nuts, and seeds
Wild berries, fruits, nuts, and seeds, would make up a decent proportion of any past diet but crucially would only be available as part of a natural growth cycle.
Fructose from whole fruit, in moderation, is healthy and not harmful, and, chances are, our ancestors only got to gorge on fruit for very brief windows when it was fresh off the tree. In our modern diet, it’s actually the overconsumption of fruit juices rather than whole fruits that can lead to health problems.
Dairy is definitely not a part of the caveman or paleo diet…have you ever tried milking a wild buffalo?!
However, it can be a part of the ancestral diet, depending on whether you think 10,000 years is enough time to adapt to digesting milk products.
Humans are odd in that they are the only mammal to persist in drinking milk as adults and from different species no less (which is probably preferable to the alternative – although there is an underculture of weight-gain enthusiasts who are adult breast milk drinkers).
This is because in all mammals (humans included), we only produce lactase, the enzyme capable of breaking down lactose (the sugary goodness in milk) when we are babies or very young children.
In essence, we’re all lactose intolerant, but, as the most adaptable organism on the planet, homo sapiens found a way. And by persisting in drinking animal milk, many of us are able to make good use of the nutrients found in dairy products. Others have a flatulently more challenging time of it.
Organic and local
If there were two words that sum up the ancestral diet, it would be these: organic and local.
Regardless of their historical era or geographical location, our ancestors didn’t have concentrated animal feeding farms, grain-fed livestock, pesticides, or antibiotics.
They didn’t have airplanes and refrigeration systems that could transport fruits and vegetables worldwide to ensure they were “in season” all year round.
They had what was available in their local environment and were at the mercy of the seasons. That’s what our ancestors ate.
No refined sugar, flour, or seed oils
Unfortunately, this trio of modern additives constitutes a large part of the standard American diet and could be a significant factor in inflammation, contributing to many chronic health ailments.
It’s debatable whether the human body has even evolved to deal with them. They’re often nutritionally empty, and no ancestral or modern-day hunter-gatherer diet uses them.