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Ancestral Diet: Should You Start Eating Like Your Ancestors?

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Melissa Mitri post Reviewer Melissa Mitri post Reviewer
Verified by Melissa Mitri
MS, Registered Dietitian, Former President of CT Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics

Table of Contents

Like most health-conscious people, you’ve probably heard about the ancestral diet and wonder if the approach delivers health benefits compared to more modern diets. 

So, let’s dive into the research to see what the data says. Read on to learn how this approach differs from paleo and how you can improve your nutrition and health.

What Is Ancestral Diet?

Ancestral diets are based on foods our ancestors ate thousands of years ago. The goal is for people to eat whole, nutritious, organic foods as close to their natural state. [1] Because of that, an ancestral diet is not a diet but a mindset or lifestyle.

To those unaware, ancestral eating may seem like a synonym for vegan, plant-based, or carnivore diets, but that isn’t the case. 

Rather than following specific rules or a pre-made meal plan, you approach each day with several principles to help you make the best nutritional choices.

There may also be a geographical rationale behind ancestral diets. [2] Throughout history, people living in different parts of the world have consumed somewhat different foods and have adapted to them.

For example, data suggests that the LCT gene, more commonly found in people from Northern Europe, helps people digest the lactose in milk without experiencing adverse effects. [3] In these regions, dairy farming has become more popular; thus, this population has been exposed to milk products.

Where Does the Idea Come From?

The ancestral diet came mainly because of the adverse health impact of modern Western diets. 

There’s growing awareness of the health problems that could arise from diets based on refined and highly processed foods. This is leading people to seek out healthier, more ‘natural’ eating methods that better align with our health needs.

Common health risks associated with ‘modern’ diets include [4] [5]:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Higher risk of certain cancers

Plus, research on genetic adaptations to region-specific diets, as mentioned above, has sparked interest in health-conscious people.

Ancestral Diet Vs. Paleo

At first glance, following your ancestors’ diet may seem like another way to go paleo. While both emphasize eating foods our ancestors consume, the approaches differ in a few ways. 

Most notably:

Ancestral DietPaleo
Emphasizes foods available to direct ancestorsFocuses on foods available to hunter-gatherers in the Paleolithic era (until 10,000 B.C.)
Considers genetic differences and ancestral adaptationUniform rules for everyone, regardless of genetic background
Prioritizes foods based on region and cultureRecommends similar foods for all individuals
Flexible in food choices and preparation methodsRestrictive, not allowing to eat grains, dairy, and legumes
Includes a broader range of local foodsStrict adherence to pre-agricultural foods
Can incorporate foods eaten in recent centuriesExcludes certain foods deemed incompatible with the paleo lifestyle

What Can You Eat on Ancestral Diet

As discussed so far, ancestral diets differ among people based on culture and region. This nutritional approach emphasizes consuming foods that have been staples in one’s homeland traditionally eaten by previous generations. 

Take an East-Asian ancestral diet as an example. Given the local heritage, people from that region may consume more rice, millet, seafood (including shellfish), soybeans, green leafy veggies, mushrooms, root vegetables, and green tea.

In contrast, an ancestral diet from the Mediterranean region may include olives, various fresh fruits (tomatoes, cucumbers, leafy greens, etc.), barley, wheat, fish and seafood, some poultry, nuts, seeds, and legumes. 

Ancestral Diet: Common Food Groups

1. Meats

This varies between regions, but most diets include at least some meat, including pork, lamb, and beef.

2. Fish and Seafood

Fish and seafood play an important role in ancestral diets. In fact, some researchers suggest that consuming fatty fish and taking DHA (an omega-3 fatty acid) have been vital for developing the human brain. [6]

Populations close to rivers, oceans, and lakes have likely consumed a lot of fish and seafood, given their rich nutritional profile. These foods provide plenty of protein, omega-3 fatty acids, calories for survival, vitamins, and minerals.

These foods include:

  • Salmon
  • Mackerel
  • Sardines
  • Trout
  • Tuna
  • Cod
  • Herring
  • Shellfish
  • Halibut
  • Squid and octopus

3. Eggs, Milk, and Cheese

These have likely become staples in the agricultural revolution because of their rich nutritional profile: quality protein, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals.

4. Fruits and Vegetables

Various seasonal fruits and vegetables have been part of our diet for a long time, some even before the agricultural revolution (during the Paleolithic era).

Examples include:

  • Root vegetables: carrots, beets, turnips, etc.
  • Leafy greens: kale, collards, etc.
  • Fruits: apples, berries, citrus fruits, grapes, bananas, mangoes, peaches, plums, melons, papaya, pomegranates, avocados, figs, etc.
  • Zucchini, squash, and pumpkin
  • Various peppers
  • Mushrooms 
  • Eggplants and tomatoes
  • Onion and garlic
  • Legumes: green beans, peas, beans, etc.

5. Herbs and Spices

Herbs and spices have played a significant role in ancestral diets and are popular today because they can enhance flavor and offer unique health benefits. [7]

Here are some popular herbs and spices:

  • Basil, rosemary, peppermint, oregano (Mediterranean region)
  • Cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, cumin (Asia)
  • Garlic and chilies (globally)
  • Thyme (Europe and the Mediterranean)

6. Nuts and Seeds

Nuts and seeds have been another staple in ancestral diets because of their high energy content, nutritional quality, versatility, and easy storage. They also have a satiating effect to fill you up.

Here are some examples:

  • Almonds
  • Walnuts
  • Chia seeds
  • Flaxseeds
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Sesame seeds
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Peanuts
  • Cashews
  • Pecans
  • Pistachios
  • Hemp seeds

Many of these have been popular in Mediterranean regions, the Middle East, Asia, the Americas, India, and Africa.

7. Grains

Grains have been another source of nutrition for our ancestors. Here are some examples based on region:

  • Asia: rice, millet, and buckwheat
  • Americas: corn, quinoa, and amaranth
  • Africa: millet and teff
  • Middle East:  wheat and barley
  • Europe: wheat, oats, rye, and barley

Foods to Avoid

The general rule of thumb for ancestral diets is to avoid foods your ancestors couldn’t access or produce. In other words, you should primarily avoid foods that have become common following the adoption of industrial agriculture and food processing. 

Let’s look at some examples:

  • Processed foods: anything altered from its natural state, such as snacks, ready meals, and fast food, should be avoided.
  • Refined sugars: avoid white sugar, corn syrup, and sweetened beverages (soda, sports and energy drinks, store-bought fruit juice, etc.).
  • Refined grains: products from refined flour (e.g., white bread, muffins, pastries) and similar.
  • Industrial seed oils: corn oil, canola oil, soybean oil, and others.
  • Artificial additives: food colorings, artificial sweeteners, flavor-enhancing agents, etc.
  • Processed dairy: certain cheeses, ice cream, sour cream, etc.

4 Possible Benefits of Ancestral Diet

Focusing on whole and nutritious foods our ancestors consumed and avoiding the highly processed ones lined up on supermarket aisles can offer several distinct benefits. 

1. Improve Overall Nutrient Intake

Consuming a wide range of whole and minimally processed foods makes getting more fiber and all the vitamins and minerals your body needs easier.

2. Supports Digestive Health

Eating many whole foods, including fermented ones, can promote a more diverse gut microbiota, improving your gut health. [8]

3. Could Help With Weight Management

Whole foods are generally less calorie-dense and more filling. Eating them makes it easier to reduce your calorie intake and lose weight.

4. May Lower the Risk of Chronic Disease

A diet based on whole foods supplies your body with the nutrients it needs to protect itself from inflammation and oxidative stress, potentially reducing the risk of disease. [9]

Before moving on, it’s worth noting that ancestral diets are not special or the key to good health and longevity. They simply work because they encourage eliminating highly processed foods and build a diverse diet based on whole foods. 

How To Do Ancestral Diet: 5 Quick Tips

1. Start Small

Changing how you eat takes time. Rather than going on an ancestral diet immediately, make minor substitutions over several weeks.

2. Pick Organic and Local

Since ancestral diets are based on foods previous generations have eaten, the best first step is to focus on local produce––things people in your region have been eating for a long time. Also, go for foods labeled organic and GMO-free.

3. Use Traditional Cooking Methods

Traditional cooking methods include fermenting, smoking, and sun-drying. Also, use fats available to your ancestors, such as olive oil and animal fats.

4. Eat Seasonally

Eat foods that are in season, much like your ancestors have done in the past.

5. Listen to Your Body

There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ when it comes to healthy nutrition. Experiment with whole foods and see what feels good on your digestive system. There are no ‘must-eat’ foods.

So, Should You Try Ancestral Diet?

As a whole, you don’t need to follow an ancestral diet, but you can as a method to improve the nutritional quality of your diet. One significant roadblock could be that it’s difficult to tell who your ancestors were and where they lived in the past. 

Go ahead if you have access to that information and are up for an exciting challenge. It can be a nice way to return to your roots and understand how your ancestors lived.

But, if you’re simply trying to improve your nutrition and reduce the health risks of modern Western diets, try to eat more whole foods and limit your intake of processed ones. 

Check out our list of 20 tips for healthier eating you can adopt without significant changes in your diet.

Bottom Line

Here are some key takeaways:

  • Ancestral diets involve eating as your ancestors did in the past.
  • While similar to paleo, ancestral diets are different and generally less rigid.
  • Ancestral diets can improve your overall nutrient intake, support digestive health, contribute to weight management, and reduce disease risk.
  • To be successful, start small, go for organic and local produce, eat the fruits and vegetables that are in season, and listen to your body.
Disclaimer This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!

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