The ancestral diet is a way of eating that is based on the foods that our ancestors consumed before the advent of modern agriculture and industrialisation. Ancestral nutrition emphasises whole, unrefined, organic, and consciously-sourced natural foods that can be obtained from hunting, fishing, and gathering. The exact composition of an ancestral diet may vary depending on one's genetics, cultural background, & geographical location, however the common principles are to avoid refined sugars, improperly prepared plant-foods, seed oils, and other processed foods that may contribute to chronic inflammation and disease.
When it comes to ancestral nutrition, the ancestral diet was not a single diet, but a diverse range of diets depending on the location, season, and availability of food sources. Some ancestral populations ate mostly meat or fish, whilst others integrated vegetables, fruit, & nuts.
This way of ancestral eating wasn't static, but evolved over time as humans adapted to different environments and learned new skills. We can define the ancestral diet with a guiding set of principles, or ‘pillars’ that we will detail in this article.
What are the Pillars of an Ancestral Diet?
The ancestral eating movement is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Rather, it is a framework that helps us understand how our genes interact with our environment, and how we can optimise our health by aligning our diet and lifestyle with our evolutionary heritage. Some of the principles of ancestral eating are:
PILLAR 1: Eating whole, nutrient dense, anti-inflammatory foods
PILLAR 2: Nose-To-Tail approach to eating meat
PILLAR 3: Avoid refined, highly processed foods & GMO’s
PILLAR 4: Conscious Sourcing
PILLAR 5: Avoid industrial seed oils (AKA Vegetable Oils)
PILLAR 6: Undefined Macronutrients
PILLAR 7: Properly prepare plant foods
PILLAR 8: Mindful eating
Let’s explore what these pillars of ancestral nutrition entail....
PILLAR 1: Eating Whole, Nutrient Dense, Anti-Inflammatory Foods
Eating foods as close to their whole, natural state as possible is one of the core pillars of Ancestral nutrition.
Wholefoods are generally considered foods that have not been processed, refined or had ingredients added to them. They are foods that can be recognised in nature such as meat, fish, eggs, fruits, & non-GMO vegetables. Wholefoods vary in nutrient-density, with the nutrients in certain wholefoods (such as meat & animal products) typically more readily bioavailable for the body to use. The ancestral way of eating encourages prioritising the most nutrient-dense foods.
An elimination approach to ancestral eating is also commonly adopted to remove inflammatory foods from the diet. The most known culprits that aggravate inflammation include refined sugar, gluten, grains, pasteurised dairy, soy, & even certain vegetable groups that contain anti-nutrients such as oxalates, phytates, & lectins that can inhibit the absorption of vitamins & minerals in the body when not properly prepared.
PILLAR 2: Nose-To-Tail Approach to Eating Meat
As far as prioritising nutrient-dense food goes, foods don’t get much more nutrient-dense than organ meats from animals, and especially liver. In fact, gram-for-gram, liver is the MOST nutritionally dense food in existence!
Eating ‘Nose-to-Tail’ means quite literally that; consuming the entire animal from it’s nose to it’s tail! Our ancestors held deep revere for the animal’s that sustained them, respecting their life by not only eating every part, but purposing it for clothing & medicine also, with nothing going to waste.
Whilst muscle meat was consumed, the organ meats & fat were especially coveted. Each organ of the animal contains a unique set of nutritional properties. For example, liver contains high concentrations of Vitamin A, Spleen contains high Heme Iron, Kidney has high amounts of Selenium, & so on. Each organ also carries unique enzymes & nutrients inherent to that specific organ. Many traditional cultures supposed that by eating the organ meat of an animal, this would nourish & support the corresponding organ within our body. Although our ancestors did not have the measuring tools to analyse the nutrients in the foods they were eating, their intuition & observations are now being supported with verified nutritional testing confirming the nutrients in these healing foods.
PILLAR 3: Avoid Refined, Highly Processed Foods & GMO’s
Nearly all food has been processed to some extent, with human’s ‘processing’ food to varying degrees for thousands of years. Whether it was to to enhance nutritional properties, reduce anti-nutrients, or for preservation, our ancestors were integrating traditional natural techniques such as low temp fermentation, drying, freezing, soaking, & grinding.
In contrast, modern day processing commonly involves industrialised methods using high temperatures, chemical intervention & refinement. Ultra-processed foods are formulations made from mostly substances that have been extracted from (multiple) food types and/or synthesized in labs. These processing techniques often reduce the nutritional value of the resulting foods, with many ultra-processed foods fortified with synthetic vitamins that are not best suited for the body.
When selecting food, it is best to seek items with minimal ingredients (& without preservatives & unnatural additives) that explicitly state the processing methods they have undergone, opting for those that have employed traditional & natural techniques.
Genetically Modified Organisms (A.K.A GMO’s) are organisms where their genetic structure has been modified using gene technology to change its traits. Genetic modification of food has become more widespread as the world population grows, yet there is a mounting body of evidence that suggests modifying the genes of natural foods can have detrimental affects on our biology as well as environment they are grown in.
PILLAR 4: Conscious Sourcing
When eating an ancestral diet, emphasising conscious sourcing is paramount! The way produce has been grown or raised directly correlates with its nutritional value and the effect it has on our body. Our ancestors knew the importance of nurturing the land that feeds us, understanding that we are not separate but one in the same; if we nurture the land, the land will provide for and nurture us in return.
So how do we nurture the land? We respect the natural rhythm of our environment by opting for:
- Wild caught
- Regeneratively farmed (not mono-cropped)
- Certified organic
- Locally sourced as often as possible
- Processed with natural, traditional methods
- Traditionally bred crops & meat (No GMO’s)
- Without chemical intervention
Discernment is paramount when it comes to sourcing, and with brand washing all too common these days, it is becoming more difficult to navigate the bull$@%* & to know truly how something is sourced. Learning which questions to ask is key and then directly asking these to the supplier, brand, or producer.
PILLAR 5: Avoid Industrial Seed Oils (AKA Vegetable Oils)
Humans have eaten and cooked with animal fat for as long as history recalls, however in the last century, we’ve seen a demonisation of these traditionally used fats and a shift towards industrial (hydrogenated) seed oils.
So, what qualifies as an industrial seed oil? An Industrial seed oil is a highly processed oil that has been extracted from soybeans, corn, rapeseed (the source of canola oil), cottonseed, and sunflower seeds. The extraction method involves refining, bleaching, & deodorising before they are suitable for human consumption. Firstly, the seeds are heated to extremely high temperatures, then processed with a petroleum-based solvent, deodorized to reduce any off-putting smell once extracted, & finally more chemicals are added to improve the colour of the oil.
So how did we start consuming this toxic waste? As with most societal shifts like this, this change was driven by profits. The origins of seed oils stem from the cottonseed farms in America, where farmers were looking to maximise profits by utilising the ‘run off’ oils from the cotton seeds. Proctor & Gamble entered the picture in the early 1900s and used cottonseed oil for the manufacture of candles and soap, but soon discovered that they could use a chemical process to hydrogenate cottonseed oil into a solid fat that resembled lard. They called this revolutionary new product Crisco, which stood for crystallized cottonseed oil, and they launched a clever marketing campaign that made this product a household name.
Aside from the intuitive knowing that industrial seed oils can’t be good for us given the chemical-laden refinement process they undergo, here are some reasons to avoid them:
- Eating industrial oils raises our omega 6 to omega 3 ratio.
- The polyunsaturated fats in seed oils are unstable and oxidize easily when exposed to heat.
- They contain chemicals and harmful additives.
- They are derived from GMO’s.
- They have been linked to health conditions such as autoimmune diseases, heart disease, gut issues, infertility, inflammation, anxiety & depression, diabetes & more.
More and more people are now discovering the harmful impact of industrial seed oils on our health and are returning to traditional sources of cooking fat, such as ghee, tallow, lard, butter, & coconut oil, especially as part of ancestral diet protocol.
PILLAR 6: Undefined Macronutrients
Macronutrients are carbohydrates, fats, & protein and their ratios are usually an influencing factor in most dietary protocols, however they are not specifically prescribed when following an ancestral diet. Traditional people around the world have been eating in response to their geographical location, and what their direct environment has provided them with, not to a precalculated set of macronutrient principals. Just as our needs change throughout life, and vary dependent on lifestyle factors, so too would our ancestor's macros vary dependent on availability. Whilst some traditional peoples were eating a protein dominant diet (the Masai, Kenya & Tanzania), some had a very high animal fat intake (the Inuit, the Arctic), others were thriving with carb rich coconut products & fruits (Pacific Island Nations).
Many cultures would naturally adjust their macro balance with the seasons, intuitively eating a ketogenic diet during the winter months when certain plants weren’t as available, then eating more carbs in summer to fatten and prepare for the cooler months. Ancestral eating encourages a fluid macro split dependent on your individual needs, biology, & location. There is no hard rule with the macronutrient balance and the individual is encouraged to investigate what foods make them feel best.
PILLAR 7: Properly Prepare Plant Foods
Although often secondary to animal products, most traditional cultures were eating plants in the form of fruit, vegetables, & grains however they were eating them in very different ways to how most modern society eats them today.
Although once common knowledge, most people today are unaware of the anti-nutrients contained in plants in the form of lectins, oxalates, phytates, goitrogens, gluten & tannins. Antinutrients are natural or synthetic compounds that interfere with the absorption of nutrients in the body and are contained in foods such as vegetables, grains, & seeds.
So how were our ancestors eating these foods without any issues? They understood the correct preparation techniques necessary to reduce or remove the anti-nutrients such as fermenting, soaking, grinding, freezing, & drying so that they were not harmful for the body. Once example is found in Australian aboriginal techniques where they understood that grinding toxic seeds on the Morah stone would break down cell membranes & when placed in running water, the toxins would leach out (Science Principles in Traditional Aboriginal Australia – The Queensland Museum Network Blog (qm.qld.gov.au).
These days, we’ve lost connection with these preparation techniques, with many of us eating plant foods that are high in antinutrients causing nutrient malabsorption, leading to undesirable health ailments. An ancestral dietary protocol calls us to investigate these traditional techniques and to employ them when consuming plant foods.
PILLAR 8: Mindful Eating
Mindful eating is the final pillar of the ancestral diet, meaning to practice eating in an intentional and purposeful manner. Our ancestors would spend a significant amount of time hunting, gathering, growing, & preparing their food. Food was often a ritualistic practice, interwoven into societal structures and part of a symbiotic stewardship of the environment.
When following an ancestral diet, it is encouraged to relish the ritual of food preparation and slow the process of eating. A slowed & mindful eating practice helps us to not only assimilate the nutrients by aiding digestion but encourages us to connect with the journey & the story of the produce, deepening our gratitude & appreciation.
What are Some of the Benefits of Ancestral Nutrition?
BENEFIT 1 – MAINTAIN HEALTHY WEIGHT
Ancestral nutrition helps you to maintain a healthy weight by reducing your intake of refined carbohydrates and sugars, which can spike your blood sugar and insulin levels and promote fat storage.
BENEFIT 2 – REDUCE INFLAMMATION
Adopting an ancestral diet can help lower inflammation by avoiding foods that trigger an immune response, such as gluten, dairy, soy, and industrial seed oils. Chronic inflammation is linked to many health problems, such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and autoimmune disorders.
BENEFIT 3 – IMPROVE GUT HEALTH
Choosing ancestral diets helps to improve your gut health by providing a diverse range of prebiotic fibres, probiotics, and fermented foods that nourish your beneficial gut bacteria and protect your intestinal barrier. A healthy gut microbiome is essential for digestion, immunity, mood, and metabolism.
BENEFIT 4 – OPTIMAL NUTRITION
Ancestral nutrition can provide you with optimal nutrition by focusing on nutrient-dense foods, such as organ meats, seafood, eggs, seasonal fruits, and properly prepared vegetables. These foods contain high amounts of protein, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals that support your body's functions and prevent deficiencies.
BENEFIT 5 – MORE ENERGY
Ancestral nutrition will provide you with so much more energy! This is thanks to the multitude nutrients in organs, removing inflammation from the gut, balancing blood sugar which can all result in better sleep, more energy.
What Studies Support Ancestral Nutrition?
The Paleo (Palaeolithic) diet is one of the diets most commonly linked with the concept of ancestral nutrition. The Paleo diet is a way of eating that closely reflects that of which humans ate in the Paleolithic era and is one of the most prolifically studied to date, with many studies supporting the aforementioned health benefits. For example, a randomised controlled trial found that a paleo diet improved glucose tolerance, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and waist circumference compared to a standard diet in patients with type 2 diabetes. Another study showed that a paleo diet reduced markers of inflammation and oxidative stress in healthy volunteers. A meta-analysis of 11 trials concluded that a paleo diet was more effective than other diets for weight loss and cardiovascular risk factors.
It is also worth mentioning the carnivore diet, another variation of ancestral eating which has gained traction in recent years. The carnivore diet is the ultimate elimination diet, encouraging a removal of all inflammatory foods and a focus on meat & animal products only. Whilst studies in this area are still being established, interest is growing in the many anecdotal health benefits that adherers to the diet are experiencing. Harvard recently completed an epidemiological study of 2029 participants in which found that most participants reported improvements in chronic medical conditions, general health, and aspects of well-being such as energy, sleep, strength, endurance, mental clarity, memory, and focus. It will be exciting to watch studies progress in this space.
A less commonly known ancestral eating protocol s the ‘Paleo Ketogenic Diet’, a diet coined by the Hungarian medical facility, Paleo Medicina. This is essentially a variation of the Carnivore Diet which emphasises very fatty cuts of meat, organ meats, & bone marrow. After an initial period of elimination, the protocol allows the purposeful reintroduction of a limited amount of properly prepared plant foods that will not irritate the gut. Following the principals of this diet puts the body in a therapeutic state of ketosis which the facility is using to treat patients presenting with various degrees of chronic diseases (such as autoimmune diseases). The Paleo Medicina facility is most noteworthy for the mounting body of clinical data they are producing indicating the positive health benefits of following this protocol.
One clinical study shows the effect of the Paleo Ketogenic Diet on treating Crohn’s disease, in which the diet was able to reverse the cluster of symptoms and abnormalities associated with the disease.
Is the Ancestral Diet Only About Nutrition?
Ancestral eating and ancestral nutrition is not only about food. It is also about adopting a holistic lifestyle that supports our well-being on all levels: physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual. Some of the ancestral health habits we should be re-visiting are:
- Getting enough sleep and following a natural circadian rhythm
- Moving our bodies in diverse and functional ways
- Spending time outdoors and getting adequate, yet safe sun exposure
- Breathing deeply and managing stress effectively
- Connecting with ourselves, others, and nature
- Embodying a sense of purpose and meaning in life
How to Find More Information
There are many incredible groups exploring various approaches of ancestral eating and ancestral nutrition. Some of the most noteworthy are The Western Price Foundation & Paleo Medicina. These two resources are a wealth of information (both anecdotal and lab-based studies) about ancestral ways of eating and a great place to start your journey exploring this way of eating.