The value of eating what your ancestors ate
Everyone understands the intuitive power of eating as our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate for hundreds of thousands of years. Sure, there have been many variations over the eons. Changing climates and human migration patterns determined the culinary landscapes available to our ancestors, and the ratio of animals to plants in the diet varied according to latitude. There wasn’t a single diet to rule them all, but there were patterns and trends that we can surmise and approximate. And we know what they didn’t have access to: the industrial foods of the modern age.
This way of eating works pretty well for most people who try. This is why the Primal Blueprint works, why the Paleo Diet works, and why the alternative (and even conventional) health world in general has increasingly turned to earlier eras to provide guidance and hypotheses on best health practices.
Okay, but what about your younger ancestors’ diets?
Because if you take a look at the world today, you will see an incredible variety. Hundreds of different ethnic groups have all emerged from tens of thousands of years of population migrations and admixture events, as well as bottlenecks and population replacements. In other words, a wide range of environmental pressure cookers created the world we live in today – and some of the major environmental pressures shaping the modern human genome have been dietary changes. While no one has adapted to the modern industrial diet, it seems intuitive that modern humans have adapted to some of these environmental pressures, and that these changes can potentially affect our eating habits today.
Don’t get me wrong: the basic machinery remains – the anatomically modern human who makes insulin, metabolizes fats, carbohydrates and ketones, needs protein and a range of micronutrients – but on the verge, things have changed. And on the fringes, the interesting things often happen.
I am not suggesting that the basic original way of eating is out of date. For what it’s worth, I think it’s still the best foundation on which to eat for most people, and the more “broken” a person is – obesity, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, digestive problems – the further Look at the back for health information.
But once you’ve selected things, you can start exploring the ancestral chain further up – to go from hunter-gatherer to old pastoralist. This has the potential to optimize your physical health by using those unquantifiable compounds that are unique to food, and your mental health by honoring your ancestors. And even if it doesn’t improve your health in any significant way, it is an opportunity to bond with your ancestors.
In my experience, eating the specific foods your direct ancestors regularly consumed resonates in your genome. To the strict calorie counter with a lifetime subscription to the cronometer, this sounds ridiculous, but keep in mind that vitamins weren’t discovered until the early 20th century. Nutrition is still a young field. We know very little. There’s a lot in foods that we’re likely to be missing, and those things might interact with your genes. They could “expect” their genes, even if we cannot yet identify them.
We can predict and analyze some of this. I think back to the time when I had my own ancestors and DNAs analyzed. It turns out I am of Scandinavian descent and some of my youngest ancestors were in Normandy (the part of France settled by the Vikings). Sisson itself is a Norman family name that came to the coast of England with the Norman invasion in 1066.
It also turns out that I need more long-chain omega-3s in my diet because my body is not very good at converting short-chain omega-3s into long-chain “marine” omega-3s. I need to eat more fatty cold water fish – which happen to be some of my favorite foods – to get both omega-3s and vitamin D.. Wouldn’t you know: Both Vikings and Normans ate a ton of fish, including cod (whose livers are incredibly high in vitamin D and DHA) and salmon (which is very high in omega-3s and decently high in vitamin D). Even the pork that my Norman ancestors raised was high in omega-3 fatty acids as the Norman pigs’ diet was supplemented with leftover fish.
It turns out I’m at an increased risk of soft tissue and connective tissue injuries, a likely indicator that I need more collagen and glycine in my diet. Certainly, soups and stews with animal bones and joints and collagen-rich skin were a mainstay of the diet of the Vikings, the Normans, and the European Middle Ages in general. And here I am today, adding collagen to my coffee and even selling the stuff in stores all over the world.
And then there are these strange connections you have with certain foods. It goes beyond hunger, beyond “good taste”. It’s more of a “feeling”, a feeling of connection, of warmth, of “that’s right”. For me, it’s this cold cut leg of lamb with spicy cheddar and a side of raw onion – perhaps the best and easiest lunch ever. Certainly the most satisfying. Why? Do I remember the famous “salt marsh lamb” in north-west France that feeds on the salt-sprayed grasses of the coast? Could it be Fenalår, the Norwegian salt-dried leg of lamb that I remember?
Perhaps the specific foods of your specific ancestors’ ancestors unlock a secret dimension of your health. Probably impossible to measure or ever prove, but what if?
When I look at my genetic inclinations, the eating habits of my Scandinavian and Norman ancestors, and the actual diet I intuitively committed to, they all match. This type of analysis has real value.
If all else is equal, I assume that entire populations have eaten and lived in a certain way due to adjustments to this diet and lifestyle. If a population “engages” in one type of food for a good 1-2 thousand years, there are likely to be adjustments to that diet. We know that natural selection can happen incredibly quickly and that it affects humans just like animals, beetles and bacteria. We have seen specific adaptations to certain foods, such as lactase persistence after the introduction of dairy, and an increased reliance on omega-3 fatty acids in the diet and a decreased ability to synthesize them in populations like Northern Euros who have access to many had fatty cold water fish. They even have the Inuit who have adapted to the arctic food environment by improving fat metabolism and increasing the ability to generate heat from the foods they eat.
Some people find this type of content controversial. In suggesting such a thing, I have made people say that it is wrong to say that there are differences between human populations. Some people fear that it will feed already existing departments. Man, that’s a short-sighted view. I think the opposite is true. This is a way to celebrate our differences and connect with our past. It is really beautiful.
To me, it is far more insulting and limiting to say that we are all identical, copies, interchangeable, fungible. That’s boring and frankly wrong. Anyone with eyes (and taste buds) can look around and find that there are differences in the diet and cuisine of different ethnic groups. These differences are not all arbitrary. There is evidence of real physiological consequences for the metabolism of various foods.
I can explore more of these ancestral and diet interactions in future posts. Right now I would love if you guys think about it.
What kind of foods did your youngest ancestors eat? What did grandma do when you were a kid? What did grandma grow up eating?
Do you see any value in looking at nutrition and health from this angle?
Take care of yourselves.
About the author
Mark Sisson is the founder of Marks Daily Apple, godfather of the Primal Food and Lifestyle movement, and the New York Times best-selling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, which describes how he combines the keto diet with a pristine lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is also the author of numerous other books, including The Primal Blueprint, which is credited with the growth of the Primal / Paleo movement in 2009. After three decades of researching and educating people about why food is the key component to achieving optimal wellbeing, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real food company, the Primal / Paleo, Keto and Whole30 friendly kitchen staples manufactures.
If you’d like to add an avatar to all of your comments, click here!