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Ancestral Diets: How to Eat Like Your Ancestors and Why

Ancestral Diets: How to Eat Like Your Ancestors and Why

Throughout history, there has been no single ancestral diet, as regions and cultural differences played a significant role in what our ancestors ate. However, each traditional style of eating shares many commonalities that can provide considerable health benefits if applied to our modern lives. Let’s take a closer look at some of the prominent ancestral diets that we know of, how these eating patterns benefit human health today, and the best ways to mimic ancestral eating in our modern world.

What Are Ancestral Diets?

Although there are vast regional differences, most ancestral diets had a focus on lean meat, seafood, foraged fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, and tubers or legumes if available. They also tended to be low in sugar, moderate in fat, and high in fibrous carbohydrates and protein. 

Paleolithic Diet

As the most well-known ancestral eating pattern, the “paleo” diet has seen an explosion in popularity in recent years.

The Paleo diet is based on our ancestors from the Paleolithic era, which lasted from about 2.6 million years ago to around 10,000 BCE when settled agricultural societies came about and ended the era. 

When available, the Paleolithic people got the majority of their protein from wild game, which is leaner than meat compared to their modern-day animal counterparts. Research shows that wild animal meat contains less than 4% fat, compared to 25-30% fat in domesticated meat. 

The Paleo diet also emphasizes fish and seafood (if available to the region), a variety of fruits and vegetables (including wild berries and foraged plants), roots, tubers, nuts, and seeds. 

Unlike the potatoes, yams, and bananas of our grocery stores today, Paleo-era roots, tubers, and fruits were much denser, higher in fiber, and hardly sweet at all, providing a source of energy-dense starchy carbohydrates to get through long cold seasons or periods with low meat intake.

The Paleo diet was not known to consume dairy, legumes, grains, refined flour, or refined sugar, with the only sugar sources being wild honey, fruit, maple sap, and perhaps nectar from edible flowers.

Hunter-Gatherer Diet

The hunter-gatherer and Paleolithic diets have overlapping qualities, but they are not entirely the same. While all Paleolithic people were hunter-gatherers in terms of how they collected food, not all hunter-gatherers fell within the Paleolithic period.

The term "hunter-gatherers" encompasses a broader category of all prehistoric societies throughout different periods and regions, including the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods.

By definition, hunter-gatherers relied on hunting, fishing, and gathering wild plants for their food sources. They were most often nomadic and would move often based on seasonal availability and following food sources.

Like our Paleolithic ancestors, hunter-gatherers also consumed wild game, fish, tubers, roots, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Their prominent plant intake came from foraging for wild mushrooms, berries, and greens, with high dependence on seasonal availability. 

Traditional Inuit Diet

The traditional diet of the Inuit people—indigenous to the Arctic regions of North America and Greenland—had to adapt to the extreme weather and environmental conditions of the Arctic. Therefore, their diet was heavily based on marine mammals, fish, and game meats with very limited to no plant foods. 

Inuit people consumed large amounts of fatty fish (such as salmon, Arctic char, and trout), seal and whale meat, and blubber—the layer of fat beneath the skin of marine mammals that is high in omega-3 fats and helped the Inuit people withstand freezing temperatures.

The Inuit also hunted for caribou and muskoxen, always consuming the liver and other organ meats to get vital micronutrients. When available, they would forage for edible plants, berries, and seaweed, but this was limited.

Traditional Mediterranean Diet

Unlike what many current diet books promote, the traditional Mediterranean diet is actually relatively high in meat and dairy products. And with over 20 countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, you can imagine that the diet of Grecians is vastly different from Slovenians and Moroccans. 

From cured pork and salamis in Italy to lots of lamb in Greece and North Africa, an ancestral-based Mediterranean diet included all forms of animal products—in addition to the seafood, fresh produce, olive oil, nuts, seeds, and herbs that we know on this diet today.

Like most other regions around the world, grains were introduced to the Mediterranean during the Neolithic period (around 10,000 BCE), which marked the shift from hunter-gatherer lifestyles to settled agriculture. After this period, Mediterreanean cuisine was known for incorporating whole grains and legumes into their diet, including lentils, wheat, barley, and millet.

Health Benefits of Modern-Day Ancestral Diets

Adopting a modern-day ancestral diet is wise for many reasons, providing a plethora of health benefits—especially related to cardiovascular and metabolic health. 

One of the leading benefits of ancestral or primal diets is that they do not include refined sugar or carbohydrates, which we know are detrimental to human health when consumed in excess—which many people in our modern society do.

Research suggests that ancestral diets were comprised of approximately 35% of calories from fat, 35% from carbohydrates, and 30% from protein. Fat calories were predominantly polyunsaturated, with an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 2:1 (compared to today’s ratio of 20:1, suggestive of a more inflammatory state). 

Ancestral diets are also loaded with nutrients that promote health and are often low or missing in the typical American diet, including

  • Preformed vitamin A (retinol): Liver, organ meats, fatty fish
  • Vitamin B12: Liver, seafood, red meat, organ meats
  • Choline: Eggs, liver
  • Bioavailable heme iron: Red meat, liver
  • Omega-3 fats: Cold water and fatty fish 
  • Vitamin K2: Grass-fed butter, eggs
  • Selenium: Fish and seafood 
  • Fiber: Foraged plants, roots, tubers, fruit, nuts, and seeds 
  • Glycine and collagen: From the connective tissues and bones of the animal not commonly consumed (eating nose-to-tail)

    While we can’t study the intricate health details of our ancestors, there are several modern-day hunter-gatherer communities that have been well-researched.

    For example, the Tsimané people in the Bolivian Amazon have the lowest levels of coronary artery conditions of any population recorded to date, including 80% lower rates of atherosclerotic buildup than people in the United States.

    Another often-studied community is the Hadza hunter-gatherers in Tanzania, with metabolic dysfunction being virtually non-existent and less than 2% of the population measuring as overweight (compared to approximately 74% of Americans).

    Lastly, the Maasai of Kenya are not known to develop cardiovascular conditions, despite the fact that their diet is predominantly red meat, blood, and milk—loaded with the very type of fat (saturated) that was demonized in our society for decades. 

    How to Mimic an Ancestral Diet for Better Health

    While you (probably) don’t want to go back to a full-scale hunter-gatherer and nomadic lifestyle, adopting many of the dietary patterns of our ancestors can be incredibly beneficial to health. Here are some ways to mimic an ancestral diet for better health:

    • Incorporate Foraging or Wildcrafted Foods: Wildcrafted foods are plants or herbs harvested or foraged from their natural habitat. Learn how to identify edible plants, mushrooms, berries, nuts, and edible flowers in your local environment, but always be 100% sure of a plant’s identification before consuming it. You can also explore local farmers' markets for seasonal and wildcrafted produce.
    • Seasonal Eating: Foraging is a great way to eat seasonally, which provides plants with optimal nutrition content and promotes sustainability. Learn more about the benefits of seasonal eating here
    • Diverse Protein Sources: Include a variety of meats in your diet—yep, let’s go beyond boneless skinless chicken breasts and ground turkey. Eat game meats if available (hunted yourself, if you prefer) and try different types of fish, shellfish, or eggs. 
    • Minimal Processing: Choose foods that are closest to their original state, reflecting low processing and higher nutrient density. Avoid refined sugar and grains and heavily processed oils (like canola, soybean, vegetable oil, etc.).
    • Herbs and Spices: Include a wide variety of herbs and spices, including wild herbs and greens. Note that many of our ancestors consumed the “weeds” we discard today.

    Your Takeaways

    Our modern society certainly has plenty of advantages over our hunter-gatherer ancestors—but the way we currently eat is not one of them. Adopting a diet similar to that of the Paleolithic-era people has many health benefits, especially in regard to metabolic and heart health.  

    Our ancestors may have lived millions of years ago, but the way they ate can still be a part of our modern lives. Mimic an ancestral or primal diet by eating seasonally, foraging in your local environment (or at your local farmers market), and including diverse protein sources. Aim to consume seasonal and local fruit, vegetables, game meat, diverse protein, fish and seafood, and herbs and spices while reducing or eliminating refined sugar, grains, and seed oils—and watch your health improve. 


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