The Value of Eating What Your Ancestors Ate

Father and little son cookingEveryone 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.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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13 thoughts on “The Value of Eating What Your Ancestors Ate”

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  1. Excellent post that opens many lines of thought.
    My relatives always talked about coming from Norway, but my genetic analysis placed us in Doggerland, which was at the bottom of the North Sea before a series of ice-age floods (~8200 years ago). This makes sense because Norway, like Britian, was largely covered with glacial ice for much of our biological development.. Doggerland is thought to have been a lush paradise teaming with fish, game, and plants at a time when higher elevation areas were uninhabitable. Hunter-gatherers thrived there, until their world disappeared.

  2. I wonder if this has something to do with *why* metabolizing meat and animal fats is so easy for my body. My stepmom – Wonderful lady, credit to stepmoms everywhere – Can’t seem to metabolize the kinds of rich cuts of meat I can consume seemingly without any effort and without gaining a pound. And that makes sense, because her genetics *are* very different. She’s part Native American to a visually significant extent – In short many of her ancestors are from around here, not deep pastoral Europe like mine probably were.

    1. Yeah, I’ve never had a problem digesting meat either. My Eastern European ancestors were all big meat eaters. That included all types of red meat, white meat, game, smoked meat, sausages–you name it. There was no such thing as Meatless Monday in my family. We never saw much point in that.

      1. Interesting that you mention this. All my ancestors (confirmed thru DNA analysis) were Northern Europeans.

        When I had to abruptly change doctors 3 years ago (my old doctor unexpectedly passed away), the first thing my new doctor did was a full bloodwork panel. At my follow-up appointment, the very first thing my doctor asked me was, “Are you a vegetarian?” Um…NO!!! “Well…how often do you eat meat or animal protein?” At the time, I thought I ate quite a bit by eating meat, eggs, or cheese about three times a week…but when I thought about it later, I really didn’t eat much animal protein, even when I did. My doctor explained that ALL the vitamins I was extremely deficient in would be easily resolved by eating more animal protein.

        So…I made it my goal to increase my animal protein intake. Even though I definitely enjoy meat, etc., it was a bit of a struggle and adventure to expand my eating routine to include more (such as by learning how to prepare a variety of meats to keep it interesting, and batch cooking so I always have healthy protein options). It probably took me about a year to really get my blood levels up without having to take supplements, but this just hit home for me that my body literally NEEDS animal protein! I think this makes a lot of sense when you look at my recent Swiss and Scandinavian ancestry!

  3. Hasn’t there been some recent information about diabetes in ‘South Asian’ populations? I remember an article that included a British and Indian researcher with identical BMIs, one teetering into diabetes while the other was metabolically normal.

    I’m Domesday Book Norman myself. It’s certainly worth considering whether there’s something I should know in that light

  4. For me this is bang on the money.
    I’m of mixed ethnicity Irish Scots on my fathers side, and a typical ‘island’ (Antigua) mix on my mother’s , with Irish west African and and south American genetics.
    I have an abundance of curly ringlets and am light browned skinned so that’s what people see, but I’m basically a brown Celt , I love salmon and pickled or salted fish and oats, would prefer raspberries or blackberries to a pineapple or mango… but am also really happy with hearty stews rice and pulses. Ive never been vegetarian as it has never felt right to me… yet Plain meat and potatoes is boring to me. I think if we listen we are drawn to the diet that we ‘flourish’ on not the one we survive on. I for one am excited to see more on this from you.

  5. This has significant merit. My sister is polynesian from the islands east of Tahiti. Once polynesians have adopted a western diet they are the heaviest people in the world and suffer the highest rates of obesity. My sisters’ endocrinologist told her she needs to eat like her ancestors, which was fish, coconut and breadfruit, for any hope at remaining at a healthy weight. Interestingly, mainland Tahitians lived largely inland and farmed, to stay away from the raids of the more sea-faring islanders. Perhaps their dietary needs are different.

  6. Mark articulates why I’ve gone almost zero plant-food. Unless they are high in carbohydrates, I dislike them. I’m also a fat-trimmer which doesn’t sit well with some members of the zero-carb community, but there are some interesting arguments coming out regarding the relative roles of fat and protein.

    Ancestrally, I’m British Isles. Historically, fruit would have been highly seasonal and relatively tart compared to most modern fruits….. so I figure that some is appropriate, but not the constant supply that refrigeration and international transport supplies.

  7. Except one grandfather who died young of septicemia from a deep wood sliver, all of my grandparents lived into their late 90s. On the surface of it, this would imply that I should emulate them. And I have only a little problem with that. They and their families were poor. Poor in a way that modern folk don’t understand. They did not get to eat the amount or types of meat that they wanted to. They raised their own rabbits and chickens and goats and occasional pig, they kept a great and productive garden, they had fruit trees, vines, and bushes. But they craved, and rarely felt they could afford, beefsteak and roast beef. And from the things they said, it was even worse for their parents.

    I can afford and access more meat than they could. Should I assume that their limitations should be my limitations? Or should I eat the meat that they craved? Should I aspire to a diet limited by poverty?

    I have investigated many foods from my ancestry. However, I still form my diet from the results of my N=1 dietary experiments.

  8. A debt of gratitude is in order for sharing this grand aticle about this. It’s great and extraordinary information.

  9. Most of my ancestry is from southern Poland. From what little research I’ve done, that means meat (duh), freshwater and anadromous fish, cabbage et al., root vegetables, fermented vegetables, forest products (mushrooms, nuts, berries), peas and broad beans, and grains (especially wheat, millet, and buckwheat).

  10. Mark, when you say that natural selection can happen very quickly, humans can adapt to foods, is this not the whole argument behind ‘grains are perfectly fine’? Are you implying that the ability to digest grains also is being selected for over their relatively short history?

    Curious to hear your thoughts since you mention dairy, which I know has been around much longer than grains so I understand lactase persistence.