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Did Our Ancestors Eat A More Nutritious Diet Overall?

What role does proper nutrition play in regaining our ancestral health?


By Robert Oliva

We live in a paradox. Our lives are easier, more convenient and abundant, but yet we suffer from serious and growing degenerative diseases. Our abundant lifestyles do not support the physical bodies we have inherited from our Paleolithic ancestors. In Part 1 I discussed the role fitness plays in combating modern illnesses. Here I will discuss the role proper nutrition plays in regaining our ancestral health.

What Is The Current State Of Our Health?

The situation is not good.

According to the CDC:

  • About half of American adults (47%) have at least one of the following major risk factors for heart disease or stroke: uncontrolled high blood pressure, uncontrolled high LDL cholesterol, or are current smokers.
  • Seven of the top 10 causes of death were chronic diseases. Two of these chronic diseases—heart disease and cancer—together accounted for nearly 48% of all deaths.(1)

According to the American Autoimmune and Related Disease Association some 50 million Americans suffer from autoimmune diseases like Hashimoto’s, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and Crohn’s disease.(2) About 600,000 people die of heart disease in the United States every year–that’s 1 in every 4 deaths. (3)

The International Diabetes Federation has declared “the battle to protect people from diabetes and its disabling, life-threatening complications is being lost.”(3)

paleo perfect diet

Seduced By Our Instincts?

Rather than looking for some new scientific solution to our predicament, it may help to look back at our Paleolithic history. Evolution has provided us with all that we need to thrive. Oliver Selway in his Instinctive Fitness – A Re-evolutionary Approach to Diet and Exercise (4) puts it this way way:

“We shouldn’t be vainly searching for something ‘new’ to fight heart disease, obesity and diabetes. Instead we should simply look back to where we came from and re-discover what made our ancient ancestors supremely fit, healthy and disease free.”  (p.276)

Unfortunately, the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions, while giving us so much, have thwarted essential human instincts. These instincts include craving sweet, salty and fatty foods. Humans evolved to seek out these rare foods and store them as energy. Most foods eaten by our ancestors were fibrous and bitter.  In contrast, sweet, salty and fatty foods are now super abundant.

We are eating the foods evolution intended but in amounts beyond the body’s ability to cope. Food manufacturers discovered this inherited tendency and exploited it fully. Obesity rates, as a consequence, are soaring in the United States and throughout the world.

The result of this overabundance is a vast increase in lifestyle diseases. Daniel Lieberman, Professor of Biological Sciences at Harvard, in his seminal book The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease (5) gets at the root causes:

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“Chief among these is that what matters is not only how much we eat but also what we eat and that our bodies are inadequately adapted to cope with relentless supplies of excess energy…”  (loc. 4231)

Fat, Salt, Sugar & Abundance

What food manufacturers discovered is that people desire foods high in sugar, fat and salt. We are stimulated by these foods and want more. This creates a vicious cycle of craving valueless foods that displace the natural foods needed to supply the macro and micro nutrients essential for health.

David A. Kessler, the Harvard-trained doctor, lawyer, medical school dean and former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, in his book The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite (6) holds that “…when the mix is right, food becomes more stimulating.  Eating foods high in sugar, fat and salt makes us eat more foods high in sugar, fat, and salt.” (loc. 238)

A serious consequence is that we overeat.  Junk food activates the brains reward system (the hypothalamus), initiating an addiction like process. Processed foods are designed to awaken our need to seek gratification through food. What this has this led to, according to Dr. Stephen Guyenet, (7) a neurobiologist and obesity researcher, is Americans eating 363 more calories each day than in 1960 with a dramatic increase in obesity and chronic disease.

Simply put, we have two problems: eating too much food and eating the wrong kinds of food.  This is not related to a lack of individual will power, it’s based on our seduction and manipulation by industrial food manufacturers.


What Can We Do To Alleviate The Situation?

One possible solution is to take Oliver Selway’s (4) advice and look at our Paleolithic ancestors’ diet.  But how can we know what people ate so long ago?

Archeological research has demonstrated the content of ancient diets through bone analysis. A review of archaeological evidence by M P Richards of the Department of Archeological Sciences at the University of Bradford in the UK has demonstrated that “bone chemistry, especially isotope evidence provides direct evidence of diets…” and “…studies of Upper Paleolithic modern humans in Europe have…indicated the significant importance of animal products in the diets…” (8)

Where Does This Leave Us?

Current nutritional research is supporting the idea that eating a diet that is lower in carbohydrates and has ample amounts of animal protein and fat is healthy and can stem the development of obesity, cardiovascular disease and potentially other degenerative diseases. Many media outlets, including Medpage Today (9) and the New York Times reported recently on a randomized trial by Dr. Bazzano of Tulane University that showed cutting down on carbs was more effective in reducing cardiovascular risk and promoting weight loss than eating a low fat diet. This was a ground breaking study.  The low carb group had a reduction in nearly every marker for cardiovascular disease. Those eating low carbs:

  • Lost more weight
  • Had higher HDLs
  • Lower triglycerides
  • Greater decrease in C-reactive protein

See the Authority Nutrition website for a discussion of dozens of studies supporting the efficacy of a low carbohydrate diet (LCD).

What Might A Healthy Diet Look Like?

Given the current state of scientific nutritional research and the archaeological record, it seems safe to say that a relatively low carbohydrate diet with high protein and fat levels is healthy for us. Although we can’t mimic exactly what our ancestors ate, the low carb diet comes close enough.

low carb salmon

Let’s look at what we need to eat.

Low glycemic vegetables, fish, meat (not processed meats), eggs, nuts and seeds, dairy products (full-fat), non-gluten grains and some tubers (sweet potatoes, etc.), some fruits such as berries and apples. Legumes can be eaten in moderation. Use olive oil for salads and light sautéing with avocado oil for frying. Sesame oil is also a good choice.

Make every attempt to purchase grass fed meat and organic vegetables and fruits.  The nutritional quality of organic foods is far superior to those conventionally grown. Be mindful of mercury and other toxicities found in available fish supplies (Salmon and sardines are perfect).

What To Consider Avoiding

Eliminate processed foods to the extent possible. If it was made in a factory, don’t eat it.

Cut down or stop eating high glycemic foods, such as low quality fruit juices, sodas, etc., gluten based grains (wheat, barley and rye), Omega-6 vegetable and seed oils, trans fats, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils (read the labels). I would eliminate artificial sweeteners and low fat products (skim and low fat milk).

Keep in mind that you need to experiment with foods to find out which are good for you and which are not. Each of us is an individual. One size does not fit all.  Not everyone can flourish on a low carbohydrate diet.

No need to diet!

By eating low carb you will decrease the number of calories you take in and decrease the processed and high glycemic carbs that induce weight gain. You will not have to count calories while using this approach. There will be no need to diet. Coupled with the fitness plans discussed in Part 1, you will have begun the process of regaining robust and dynamic health naturally.

For a complete discussion of this issue access Chris Kresser’s blog: http://chriskresser.com/7-things-everyone-should-know-about-low-carb-diets.

Here are some good nutritional resources for low carb lifestyles and losing weight:





Please consult your health provider before making changes in your diet or activity levels.

In Part 3, I will discuss how modern stress compromises our health and the steps that can be taken to secure our genetic well being.


  1. http://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/overview/#sec1
  2. http://www.aarda.org/autoimmune-information/autoimmune-statistics/
  3. http://www.idf.org/sites/default/files/attachments/WDD_news_round_up_2013.pdf
  4. Selway, O., Parker, C. Instinctive Fitness – A Re-evolutionary Approach to Diet and Exercise. (2013). Columbus Publishing Ltd.
  5. Lieberman, D.  The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health and Disease. (2013). Pantheon Books.
  6. Kessler, D. A. The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. (2009). Rodale Books.
  7. Guyenet, S.  [Ted,HarvardLaw – Stephan Guyenet – The American Diet.(2012, February 4). The American Diet.Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HC20OoIgG_Y
  8. Richards, M.P. (2002) Meat Consumption: Evolution and Progress.  European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 56 (12). 1270-1278. Retrieved from: http://www.nature.com/ejcn/journal/v56/n12/index.html
  9. Walsh, Nancy. “Low Carb Beats Low Fat for Weight Loss, CV Risk.” Medpage Today. 2 September 2014. Retrieved from http://www.medpagetoday.com/Cardiology/Prevention/47447

This article was originally published at Ready Nutrition™ on September 13th, 2014

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