Imagine for a moment a relationship with food that springs from
the organic hungers of the body. There are no "forbidden
fruits," there is no philosophy to follow. You can eat when you
are hungry, until you feel full. The food is not hurtful to the
Earth and is very beneficial to your body. You will lose weight
automatically and maintain your ideal weight. You will be
protected from degenerative diseases. Food cravings will become
but a memory, and you will no longer need supplements. The
components of this diet are readily available at your local
supermarket and natural foods store.
Sound like another slick commercial come-on or New Age
panacea? Actually, it's as old and indigenous as we are - as a
species, that is. In its "born-again" form it is variously
called "natural diet," "Paleolithic diet," "Native diet," and
"ancestral diet." I prefer the latter term, as it is
self-descriptive. In sharing recent findings, researchers in
the fields of human nutrition and endocrinology, along with
anthropologists and archaeologists, have been formulating what
they consider to be the ideal diet. They are concluding that
the ideal is the pre-agricultural diet on which our species
evolved. It contains the foods that suit our digestion best and
are least likely of all foods to cause an allergic
Many of us have already been seeking better health through
conscious approaches to diet - vegetarianism, macrobiotics,
food combining, supplement use, and reliance on organic foods
are some of the most popular approaches. And many of us feel
better and have more energy because of them. Yet most of the
people I know are not fully satisfied. They still have food
cravings to deal with, and some struggle with excess weight
and/or chronic health problems. Some of my friends say they
just plain don't feel satisfied from what they are eating.
Our foraging ancestors, and all pre-agricultural peoples,
consumed foods that were easy to gather and edible in their raw
state. They used little more technology than sharpened sticks
and stones to gather their food and processed it minimally, if
at all. Yet their diets were lush with vegetables, fruits,
meat, fish, and nuts. They consumed five to ten times more
fiber than we do, slightly more protein, and more fat.
Their fiber came in part from fruits and non-starchy
vegetables, which made up a larger portion of their diet than
ours, and in part from the quality of their produce. Ours has
been hybridized to increase sugar and starch content, at the
expense of fiber. They consumed better quality protein as well
- more fish, leaner meat, and more nuts.
The dietary difference between us is based on the fact that
our food sources changed dramatically when we became
agriculturalists and herders. As our farm-fueled population
expanded we increasingly supplanted animal protein with
plant-source protein and nourishing plant foods with starch. We
made this shift at the expense of fruits, vegetables, fish, and
nuts (curiously, these are the very foods most health
authorities now urge us to consume!).
The most stark change was an astronomic increase in complex
carbohydrate (starch) consumption. Starch has become the
backbone of our diet, whereas our ancestors consumed
practically none. The only starch available to them was from
tubers and the seeds of wild grasses, both of which were
seasonal, small, and fibrous, making them laborious to gather
and prepare. The same is true of sugars. Their virtually
starch-free diet was the primary reason for their exemplary
health; they suffered virtually no obesity, no diabetes, and no
immune disorders (rheumatoid arthritis, tooth decay,
osteoporosis, and appendicitis).
We can live our entire lives healthily without starch, but
without fat we would become severely ill in a matter of weeks.
We have but one hormone (insulin) to control the spike in blood
sugar level caused by starch; we have four hormones to help
raise blood sugar level, which traditionally remains low when
fed by slowly digested fat. These factors indicate that we are
designed to metabolize fat rather than starch.
Conventional wisdom would have us cringe at the thought of
eating fat and snubbing starch. Fear of obesity and
cardiovascular disease loom like razor-edged rocks before a
rubber raft. But new findings by dietary specialists indicate
that fat does not make fat - starch does. Because we metabolize
fat slowly and efficiently, we burn it quite completely. Starch
breaks down rapidly and floods the system with calories. The
body's inability to burn them off as fast as they come triggers
an immune response, and the body deals with it by dumping the
excess as fat.
It's the quality rather than the quantity of fat we consume
that affects the cardiovascular system. The fats of fish and
wild animals actually help prevent heart disease; they have a
healthy ratio of component oils. Surveys of Native diets
indicate that the higher the consumption of these beneficial
fats, the lower the incidence of many diseases.
Vegetable, seed, and legume oils were not part of our
ancestral diet, so we did not evolve the capacity to healthily
assimilate them. Nut and fruit oils (olive and avocado, for
example), on the other hand, are part of our food history and
Many of us are already familiar with, and practicing,
elements of our ancestral diet. The Atkins and Eades popular
weight reducing diets are based on ancestral diet principles.
Food combining and macrobiotics, the underlying principle of
which is to eat what is naturally and seasonally available in
your area, include ancestral approaches. However, in keeping
with our cultural tendencies, we import "macrobiotic" foods,
thereby negating the principle of eating locally.
Because the ancestral diet is not a philosophy or set of
principles, but a list of foods our pre-agricultural ancestors
ate, recently-evolved food crops upon which agricultural
society are based are not included. Grains, legumes, and dairy
foods, for example, often are major components of our present-
day diet. But they played negligible roles in our ancestors'
nutrition. Grains and legumes (and most tubers) have toxic
properties, which protect them from being eaten. They were not
consumed by our ancestors and we cannot digest them properly.
Notice that corn, wheat, legumes (which include soy and
peanuts), and milk are our most common food allergens.
Forty percent of our adult population shows some allergic
response to dairy. Wheat and corn allergies are common. Legumes
give most of us at least minimal digestive disturbance, and
some legumes are rendered digestible only through processing.
Many more of us, while not diagnosed as allergic to these
foods, still have stressed immune systems - the instigator of
Our systems are stressed by these "indigestible" foods
because we have not yet adapted to the onslaught of starch that
agriculturalism has imposed upon us. We are only 400 or less
generations removed from our foraging ancestors, and
genetically, we're virtually identical to them. Our bodies want
what they ate. (Our pets suffer from these foods as well, and
for similar reasons. The cancer rate in dogs is skyrocketing,
and dogs are afflicted with some of the same autoimmune
diseases that visit us.)
So how do we reestablish our old diet? Let's visit our
aboriginal past and experience a hypothetical day's meals:
Upon rising we sate our early hunger with a quick and easy
meal of the blueberries and juneberries growing in the meadow
before us, then round it out with a handful of nuts from our
stores of last autumn. By late morning our appetites return,
drawing us to the succulent fish roasting over the fire. While
we were making rush mats for a lodge, two of our kin brought
the fish up from our traps in the river, and gathered greens
for the lunch as they made their way back. This morning the
children, instructed by the women, set snares and deadfalls in
the thicket just east of camp. Shadows now stretch across the
valley - their signal to check the traps. Within minutes they
are back with two lizards and a jackrabbit (the women and
children generally provided more of the protein than did the
men) to add to the flowers and mushrooms they gathered earlier
in the afternoon. We look forward to an evening feast!
Of course in this day it is not practical for all of us to
return to a fare of wild foraged foods. Our lifestyles wouldn't
allow that, nor would our crowded Earth. But we can follow the
principle with the foods available to us. Obviously, we're
looking at an entirely new concept in food shopping! But don't
let that dissuade you; the diet is quite easy to replicate
without altering your food procurement routine. The following
guidelines should help get you started.
- Shop the edges of your food store. There you'll find the
ancestral foods - fruits, vegetables, fish, and meats. The
taboo processed foods - grains and beans - are conveniently
sequestered to the middle aisles.
- Buy organic, or even biodynamic, when possible, and
choose free-range over grain-fed beef. It ain't wild, but
it's the next best thing.
- Choose foods edible in their raw state, even if you plan
to cook them.
- Select foods and proportions within the guidelines of the
Ancestral Food Pyramid.
- Seek out new foods. The more varied your diet the more
interesting and satisfying it will be and the more
broad-based will be your nutritional support.
- Choose fish that is not pond raised. They are fed soy
mash and do not compare nutritionally with their wild
counterparts. Ocean salmon, for example, have twice the omega
3 fatty acids of their pen-raised kin.
- Eat a significant portion of your food raw or lightly
- Change your diet slowly to allow your intestinal flora to
adjust. If you have any trouble (diarrhea, bloating, gas),
eat greens for a couple days, then slowly add meat, nuts, and
fruit, in that order.
- Incorporate some wild foraged foods.
Remember that what we eat and how we eat it is not a
failsafe formula for health; it is only a component. We need
clean air, clear water, and a lifestyle low in stress. We need
the nourishment we gain from healing, sustaining relationships.
Perhaps, eventually, we can gain these lessons from our
ancestors as well. For now, we'll have to make do with their
wisdom about food.