What Did Our Ancestors Really Eat?
Nearly 70% of Americans 20 years of age and older are overweight, with over 35% being clinically obese (1). The need for wellness education has never been greater. But while weight loss and physical health are some of the most popular topics of modern media, we have never been further from good health. Fad diets come and go and accurate information can be hard to find. Better health and the prevention of disease is what most diets aim for but many do not have the full picture. To achieve a balanced diet, complete with the power to fight off chronic disease and burn off excess fat (i.e. weight loss), a closer look at our genetic make-up and the diet of our ancestors must be considered.
A Closer Look into Ancestral Nutrition
Going back about 2 million years, you’ll find our first known ancestors, who lived in what is now termed the Paleolithic Era. This period of time ran until about 12,000 years ago, when rudimentary agricultural methods came into practice. Due to modern archeology, much is now known about the diet of our Paleolithic ancestors, also known as the hunter-gatherers, whose history makes up a large part of our genetic evolution.
A recent study by the British Journal of Nutrition in 2010 shed light on approximate nutrient levels in the diets of Paleolithic hominids. In relation to total calories consumed, their diets were made up of approximately 25-29% protein, 30-39% fat, and 39-40% carbohydrates. These numbers reflect a much different balance of nutrients than most Americans get today, particularly in relation to the generous amount of healthy fats shown in this study. It is important to note that of the fat they consumed, 11-12% was from natural sources of saturated fat (olives, avocado, coconut, animal fat, butter, egg yolks). Another 5.6-18.5% from mono-unsaturated fats (MUFAs) and 8.5-15.2% from poly-unsaturated fats (PUFAs)—both of which can be found in significant levels in our Avocado Oil and Sesame Oil.
Because they fed primarily on free-range meat (as conventional farming had yet to come into practice), the fat they consumed is thought to be close to a balanced 1:1 ratio of omega-3 to omega-6, which modern science has proven to be optimal for prevention of chronic disease (2). Additionally, fishing became popular in the upper part of the Paleolithic era and wild fish supplied an additional source of omega-3 fatty acid, which is naturally anti-inflammatory. They also hunted their meat, picked wild fruits and vegetables, nuts, and seeds (like chia and quinoa), and the prevalence of disease was nearly non-existent.
By about 12,000 years ago, also known as the beginning of the Neolithic Era, our ancestors began to develop basic agricultural practices, which led to the cultivation of grains, seeds, and dairy (4). Keep in mind, these practices will still very pure in nature. They farmed their produce without the use of pesticides or genetically modified seeds. There was no pasteurization of dairy, nor the use of many of the harsh processes by which our food lands in the grocery store today. They sprouted and soaked their grains, and used natural fermentation processes rather than chemicals to preserve their food.
It was not until the last 100 years, a very small amount of time in the grand scheme of things, that industrial processes changed our food dramatically. The Industrial Revolution brought about canning, pesticides, and the over-processing of grains and sugar. More recently, within the last 50 years or so, fast food, TV dinners, and convenience foods entered the picture.
Chronic inflammation and resulting illnesses, like heart disease, alzheimers, arthritis, diabetes, and cancer make up 75% of the today’s healthcare costs in the US. A recent report from the CDC shows the incidence of diabetes, one of the most common chronic diseases of our day and the 7th leading cause of death, as rising from just 1% of the population in the 1950’s to nearly 7% (or nearly 18 million Americans) by 2006 (3). So how does this alarming number stack up against the evolution of our ancestors’ diets?
Epigenetics, or the study of changes in genetic makeup in relation to lifestyle and human disease, show that the dramatic differences between our diet and that of our ancestors plays a large role in both the presence and prevalence of disease today (5). Our increasing need for convenience leads to a corresponding rise in disease. To put it plainly, the further we get from the way we evolved to eat, the poorer our health will be.
Adapting a diet rich in pasture-raised protein sources, carbohydrates from organic produce, nuts, and seeds, as well as moderate, regular consumption of healthy fats from natural fruits and oils, the more we fall in line with what we have naturally evolved to eat for optimal health and wellness.
- CDC Report of 2012, http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/obesity-overweight.htm
- Origins and Evolution of the Western Diet: Health Implications for the 21stCentury, http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/81/2/341.long
- Diabetes is Common, Disabling, Deadly, and On the Rise, http://www.cdc.gov/features/dsdiabetestrends/
- Neolithic Era, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neolithic
- Epigenetics and Human Disease, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15485357