When it comes to knowing what to eat, there is so much confusion these days. Should we go with Vegetarian, Vegan, Paleo, Keto, or some other current diet trend? The answer may lie in more closely following the dietary habits of our ancestors which may be a better match for what our genetics best set us up to metabolize. As the research into our gut microbiome (the genomes of the microbes in our digestive system) continues to expand, it would seem to indicate that consuming those types of foods that our ancestors would have eaten will prove to be the best for disease prevention and optimal health. While many of us have lived in the U.S. for years, and many of our families for generations, our genetics are not that much different than those of our great grandparents which means, even though we now have access to foods from all over the world and a huge variety of modern, processed foods, our bodies and our guts are not necessarily ‘evolved’ to appropriately handle these different foods metabolically.
Across all cultural diets, the one common trend has been that, until very recently in human history, highly processed, food-like substances did not exist. Our ancestors, regardless of where in the world they came from, generally ate food that came almost directly from a tree, plant or animal with minimal processing involved other than perhaps grinding, cooking, or preserving via fermenting, drying, and curing. While traditional diets have varied dramatically in their macronutrient content, from the Inuit tribes in Alaska eating a diet that is 80-85% animal fat and protein and some sub-Saharan African tribes consuming a diet that is at least 80-85% plant-based, these people groups have generally been completely free from metabolic-related disease such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity that are prevalent in the Western world, until introduced to more modern, processed foods, in particular refined wheat flour, white rice and refined sugar.
As the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) more recently, and as Weston A. Price, a dentist who researched how diet was related to dental health in the 1920-30s, discovered in researching people groups around the world, those individuals who are able to more closely mimic their cultural diets have the lowest rates of disease and birth defects. Even those who have eaten a more modern diet for years that begin to re-introduce more of their cultural foods show a significant improvement in overall health, since refined grains, sugars, and modern fats are typically reduced, nutrient density is increased, and absorption of the nutrients consumed seems to be improved. For example, an individual with strong Asian-Indian heritage is likely better served eating the traditional pulses (i.e. millets) and ghee rather than quinoa and canola oil, or an individual with strong Hispanic heritage is likely better off using traditional corn, beans and pasture-raised lard rather than oatmeal and olive oil. Those of us from a more mixed heritage likely have a small advantage in being able to properly metabolize a wider variety of foods however those foods should still come from food sources that are as similar as possible to what humans have eaten throughout history. That means minimizing our intake of refined grain-based carbohydrates and sugars, while eating a variety of nutrient and fiber-dense plant-based foods, healthy traditional oils and fats, along with moderate amounts of quality sources of animal products (wild-caught, grass-fed/pasture-raised) if our religious and philosophical beliefs allow. So the next time you’re trying to decide what to eat, you may want to ask if your great grandparents would recognize it as real food. If so, enjoy!
Dietary Change and Traditional Food Systems of Indigenous Peoples. Kuhnlein and Receveur. Annual Review of Nutrition, Vol 16, 1996: 417-42
Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, Weston A. Price. 1939
Jennifer received her Master’s degree in Exercise Physiology and Gerontology Certificate from the University of Georgia and her undergraduate degree in Kinesiology from California State University, Hayward. She is an ACSM Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist and has completed the Wellcoaches Core Coach Training program. In her 20+ years with BaySport, Jennifer has been providing wellness coaching and programming, fitness center management, personal training, group exercise class instruction, health screenings, and fitness testing. Jennifer previously worked as an exercise physiologist at Duke University’s Center for Living, and was a graduate assistant in the Cardiac Rehab and Adult Fitness program at the University of Georgia. In her free time, she enjoys researching ancestral medicine, playing almost any sport, volunteer work with her church, and enjoying the great outdoors.