The Value of Eating What Your Ancestors Ate
Everyone understands the intuitive power of eating the way our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate for hundreds of thousands of years. Sure, there’s a lot of variation throughout the eons. Changing climates and human migration patterns determined the culinary landscapes available to our ancestors, and the proportion of animals to plants in the diet varied across latitudes. There was no One 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 era.
This way of eating works pretty well for most people who try it. It’s why the Primal Blueprint works, why the paleo diet works, and why, in general, the alternative (and even conventional) health world has increasingly looked to previous eras for guidance and to generate hypotheses on best health practices.
Okay, but what about the diets of your more recent ancestors?
Because if you take a look at the world today, you see incredible diversity. Hundreds of different ethnicities all of which emerged out of tens of thousands of years of population migrations and admixture events and bottlenecks and population replacements. In other words, a broad series of environmental pressure cookers created the world we inhabit today—and some of the most significant environmental pressures shaping modern human genomes 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 those environmental pressures and that perhaps those changes can inform our dietary patterns today.
Don’t get me wrong: The basic machinery remains—the anatomically-modern human who produces insulin, metabolizes fats, carbohydrates, and ketones, requires protein and a range of micronutrients—but it’s in the margins that things have changed. And the margins are often where the interesting things happen.
I’m not suggesting that the basic Primal way of eating is outmoded. For what it’s worth, I think it’s still the best foundation for most people to eat, and the more “broken” a person is—obesity, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, digestive issues—the further back along their ancestral line they should look for health clues.
But once you’ve got things dialed in, you can start to explore higher up the ancestral chain—to graduate from hunter-gatherer to ancient pastoralist. This has the potential to optimize your physical health by tapping into those unquantifiable compounds unique to the food and your psychological health by honoring your ancestors. And even if it doesn’t improve your health in any appreciable way, it’s an opportunity to connect to your ancestors.
My experience is that eating the specific foods your direct ancestors consistently consumed resonates across your genome. This sounds ridiculous to the strict calorie-counter with a lifelong subscription to Cronometer, but consider that vitamins weren’t discovered til the early 20th century. Nutrition is still a young field. We know very little. There’s a lot in food that we’re probably missing, and those things could be interacting with your genes. Your genes might “expect” them, even if we can’t yet identify them.
Some of it we can predict and analyze. I think back to the time I had my own ancestry and DNA analyzed. Turns out I’m of Scandinavian stock, and some of my most recent ancestors were in Normandy (the part of France settled by Vikings). Sisson itself is a Norman surname, one that arrived on the shores of England in 1066 with the Norman invasion.
It also turns out that I need more long-chained omega-3s in the diet because my body isn’t very good at elongating short-chained omega-3s into the long-chained “marine” ones. 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 rich in vitamin D and DHA) and salmon (which is very high in omega-3s and decently high in vitamin D). Even the pork my Norman ancestors raised were high in omega-3s, as Norman pigs’ diets were supplemented with fish scraps.
It turns out that I have an elevated risk for soft tissue and connective tissue injuries, a likely indicator that I need more collagen and glycine in my diet. Sure enough, a mainstay in Viking, Norman, and medieval European diets in general were soups and stews made with animal bones and joints and skin rich in collagen. And here I am today, putting collagen in my coffee and even selling the stuff in stores across the world.
And then there are those strange connections you feel to certain foods. It goes beyond hunger, beyond “tasting good.” It’s more of a “feeling,” a sensation of connection, of warmth, of “this is right.” For me, it’s that cold sliced lamb leg with sharp cheddar and a side of raw onions—maybe the greatest, easiest lunch of all time. Certainly the most satisfying. Why? Am I recalling the the famed “salt meadow lamb” of northwestern France who feed on the salt-sprayed grasses of the coast? Could it be fenalår, the Norwegian salt-cured lamb leg I’m remembering?
Perhaps the specific ancestral foods of your specific ancestry unlock some secret dimension of your health. Probably impossible to measure or ever prove, but what if?
When I look at my genetic proclivities, the dietary habits of my Scandinavian and Norman ancestors, and the actual diet I’ve intuitively settled on, they all match up. There’s real value in this kind of analysis.
All else being equal, I assume that entire populations of people ate and lived a certain way because of adaptations to that diet and way of life. If a population “settles” on a way of eating for a good 1-2 thousand years, there are probably adaptations to that diet happening. We know that natural selection can happen incredibly quickly, and that humans are subject to this just like animals, bugs, bacteria. We’ve seen specific adaptations to specific foods, like lactase persistence after dairy’s introduction, and increased reliance on dietary omega-3s and a reduced ability to synthesize them in populations like Northern Euros who had access to lots of fatty cold water fish. You’ve even got the Inuit, who adapted to the Arctic food environment by improving fat metabolism and increasing the ability to generate heat from the food they eat.
Now, some people find this kind of content controversial. When I suggest something like this, I’ve had people say things like “even suggesting there are differences between human populations is wrong.” Some people worry it will feed divisions that already exist. Man, that’s a myopic view. I think the opposite is true. This is a way to celebrate our differences and connect to our past. It’s beautiful, really.
To me, it’s far more insulting and limiting to suggest that we are all identical to each other, carbon copies, interchangeable, fungible. That’s boring, and it’s frankly incorrect. Anyone with eyes (and taste buds) can take a look around and see that differences exist in the dietary habits and cuisines of different ethnic groups. These differences aren’t all arbitrary. There are hints at real physiological consequences for how we metabolize different foods.
In future posts, I can explore more of these interactions between specific ancestry and diet. For now, I’d love it if you guys gave this some thought.
What kind of foods were your recent ancestors eating? What did grandma make when you were a kid? What did grandma grow up eating?
Do you see any value in approaching diet and health from this angle?
Take care, everyone.