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Nutrition » Diets » Ancestral Diet: Going Back To Our Roots

Ancestral Diet: Going Back To Our Roots

ancestral diet

Everything Wrong With A Modern Diet

You are what you eat. Your choice of food can significantly affect your life and health, especially if it is not correct. That is why a lot of people believe that most of the current health problems that people experience all over the world are the result of an unhealthy diet. But who is to blame in this situation? Since unhealthy food is cheaper in general, more accessible, and popularized nowadays, people choose to have a huge hamburger and soda for lunch, instead of buying more expensive organic foods and eating a nutritious well-balanced meal.

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Growth of popularity of fast and processed foods, which are rich in empty calories provided by unhealthy nutrients such as refined and simple carbs and saturated and trans fats, led to the increase in the rates and chances of various chronic diseases including type II diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular diseases, and others (14). These rates were significantly lower in the past, which makes people wonder whether the ancestral diet is the key to optimal health.

Can consumption of what your ancestors ate make you healthier and reduce the chance of modern health issues? In this article you will find out more about what an ancestral diet is, what does ancestral eating look like, what do ancestral diet foods include, and what are the benefits of the ancestral diet.

What Is An Ancestral Diet?

As may be clear from its name, the ancestral diet is a nutritional plan which is based on the foods that your ancestors consumed. It may confuse some people and lead to questions such as “Is ancestral diet vegetarian?” The answer is no, but you may try following a vegetarian variant of this dietary plan. 

The regular ancestral diet includes wholesome, natural, unprocessed and organic foods, such as vegetables, fruits, meats, healthy fats, nuts, and seeds, and recommends avoiding industrial, heavily processed foods, sugar, fat, alcohol, and others. It emphasizes the consumption of food to which your ancestors would have had reasonable access. This means that you need to consider seasonal and regional food differences.

So, the ancestral diet may vary depending on what region you came from. If your ancestors lived in a cold region and consumed primarily meat, fat, and dairy, your body is probably better adapted to these foods and accepts them better than some others. That is why, people who decided to stick to an ancestral diet should have a better understanding of evolution, history of food, and their history.

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What Is The Difference Between Paleo And Ancestral Diet?

Now, a lot of people tend to compare the ancestral diet with the Paleo diet and wonder if there is a difference between them. The Paleo diet or the Paleolithic diet is a nutritional plan which focuses on eating foods that were around in the Paleolithic era. It is based on foods that were available before the modern agriculture development around 10,000 years ago, which include unprocessed foods that people could hunt or gather, such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, lean meats, and fish (9).

Although this set of food is similar to that of an ancestral diet, one of the differences here is that the ancestral diet is more locally focused. Ancestral eating doesn’t mean that you should eat what people ate in ancient times, it means eating what is natural and organic, no matter what century it was consumed in. That is why it allows you to eat even the foods that appeared after modern agricultural development, such as dairy, grains, and others. 

Ancestral diet is not a strict nutritional plan, with a set of unbreakable rules to which you should adhere. This dietary plan is very flexible, and its main principle is to eat healthy, organic foods. With that being said, let’s take a closer look at what foods may be the right option for you.

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Ancestral Diet Foods

Although it is recommended that you stick to the foods that your ancestors could personally have access to, the most important thing here is not on what to particularly eat but what to avoid, which is modern, processed, and industrialized food. First things first, let’s take a look at what is NOT on the list of ancestral food.

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What to avoid?

  • Vegetable oils, such as soy, corn, canola, cottonseed, and others
  • Refined sugar
  • Processed soy and fake meats
  • Refined, packaged products

Besides the above-listed foods, you should also limit the consumption of the following:

  • Alcohol products
  • Processed wheat products
  • Fat-free or low-fat products
whole-foods ancestral diet
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What to eat?

Now, to the foods that you can eat on an ancestral diet. As mentioned before, you may want to stick to the indigenous cuisine of your direct ancestors, but you don’t have to limit yourself with only prehistoric foods. You can consume any type of healthy food, as long as it is organic and natural, and eaten traditionally. Here are the foods that your ancestral diet meal plan can include:

  • Organic fruits and vegetables
  • Wild seafood
  • Grass-fed, wild animals
  • Pastured chicken and eggs
  • Grass-fed full-fat dairy products
  • Healthy traditional fats like lard, butter, olive oil, avocado oil, etc.
  • Fermented foods

All ancestral food is natural, seasonal, and is mostly processed at home by you. It doesn’t have multiple ingredients and is usually a single, whole ingredient itself, like fish, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, etc. Let’s take a closer look at each category of ancestral foods:

Animal products

It may be surprising and contradict the common idea spread by the media, but research shows that a bigger part of the calories which hunter-gatherer groups consume comes from animal food, rather than plant-based (10). The meat was a part of the diet of hominids even 2.5 million years ago (6). Animal foods are among the most nutrient-rich foods. Some of the components that are abundant in animal products are difficult to get somewhere else, because their counterparts of a plant nature have less bioavailability (4), meaning that they are poorly absorbed or converted. These nutrients include the following:

  • Heme iron
  • Vitamin B12 (16)
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) omega-3 fatty acids
  • Choline
  • Vitamin K2
  • Selenium
  • Protein (18, 11)

It is important to keep in mind that animal food is not just meat and fish. Since the ancestors didn’t waste food, they always were eating almost every part of what they caught or hunted. Such an approach provides for a more nourishing and healthy diet. For example, bone broth and cartilaginous cuts are filled with amino acid glycine, which helps to balance out the high methionine content of meat (5). Organ meats, which are often referred to as “superfoods”, are very rich in nutrients such as (2):

  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin B
  • Copper
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin E
  • Iron
  • Vitamin K
  • Magnesium
  • Phosphorus
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Vegetables

Although the dominant source (65%) of energy in the diet of hunter-gatherers was an animal product (15), vegetables also played a very important role and took up the large majority of the volume of the meal. Vegetables are not as high in calories as animal products but are still nutritionally dense. They feed your microbiome and promote better digestion. Vegetables also offer a vast plethora of other health benefits, including better heart health, reduced risk of cancer and type II diabetes, weight loss, optimal gastrointestinal health, and many others. They are a prime source of many essential micronutrients. Some of the most health beneficial vegetables that you can consume on the ancestral diet include (21):

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If you want to stick to a vegetarian version of the ancestral diet, here are some of the protein-rich vegetables for you to include to your menu (13, 19):

  • Asparagus
  • Watercress
  • Spinach
  • Cauliflower
  • Mustard greens
  • Collard greens
  • Chinese cabbage
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Artichoke
  • Corn
  • Potato
  • White mushrooms
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Fruits, Nuts, and Seeds in moderation

These are often seasonal, and some of them may not be available geographically, but fruits, nuts, and seeds are also an important part of a well-balanced ancestral diet. The fructose from whole fruit is healthy and may be a great option for those who have a sweet tooth. The type of fruits that you may consume varies regionally. You can do some research to find out which fruits, nuts, and seeds your direct ancestors ate or just consume in moderate amounts. These are the following:

Fruits (17):

nuts
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Nuts (20):

  • Peanuts
  • Almonds
  • Pistachios
  • Cashews
  • Walnuts
  • Hazelnuts

Seeds (1):

  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Pomegranate seeds
  • Flax seeds
  • Hemp seeds
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Sesame seeds
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Grains and Legumes

Grains and legumes have long been consumed by people all over the world, but not in the way that most people eat them now. The industrially baked goods, and other processed grain products that are part of a modern diet are often considered to be the root cause for lots of health issues, including obesity and weight gain, acne, and type II diabetes.

However, if you want to follow an ancestral diet as closely as possible, you don’t necessarily have to give them up completely, rather prepare them differently. For example, you can try to follow a long tradition of sourdoughs and sprouting, which often makes grains more easily digestible and their nutrients more readily available. Fermented, soured, or sprouted grain dishes are filled with enzymes and vitamins, and the process of preparation neutralizes a lot of phytic acids which can interfere with the absorption of nutrients (22).

Dairy

If you already consume dairy products and want to follow an ancestral diet, it is recommended that you continue to eat and drink them in their purest form. Stick to full fat and raw dairy, including cheese, milk, yogurt, and others. You should choose organic and grass-fed dairy products. Avoid low-fat and nonfat versions, as they are processed and not as nutritious and digestible (22).

Health Benefits Of An Ancestral Diet

The ancestral diet focuses on whole foods and bans harmfully processed and industrialized modern foods, which fuel various diseases. There are a lot of health benefits of an ancestral diet, most of which are the same as of a Paleo diet. Here are some of them (9):

  • Weight Loss

The modern diet is one of the main causes of high overweight and obesity rates. Junk food, sugary drinks, sweets, and other sources of empty calories could lead to weight gain, without offering any benefits to your health. Ancestral diet is well-balanced and, overall, more filling, which results in lower energy intake and weight loss. 

  • Improved Gut Health

A healthy gut is one of the keys to overall wellness. Following the ancestral diet may add to the microbiome diversity. Due to a great amount of fiber-rich foods, this nutritional plan promotes better digestion, which in turn, carries other health benefits.

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  • Lower Blood Pressure and Better Heart Health

High blood pressure is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. An ancestral diet may not only help you lower your blood pressure, but also lower the level of bad LDL cholesterol, thus reducing the risk of heart disease even more.

  • Decreased Inflammation

One of the main factors that contribute to the chance of chronic diseases is inflammation. This process is natural and often occurs in your body. However, when it turns into chronic inflammation, that is when the tables turn. Refined sugar and grains, and seed oils add to chronic inflammation. That is why if you exclude them from your diet, as an ancestral diet recommends, you could notice inflammation decreasing and thus lower the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, obesity, neurological disorders, cardiovascular diseases, mood disorders, and others.

ancestral diet

How To Start Following An Ancestral Diet?

Like any other nutritional plan, an ancestral diet requires certain modifications and adjustments in your current diet. You may need a certain amount of time to get used to these changes. So, here are some tips on how to gradually transition to a whole-foods ancestral diet:

  • Start visiting your local farmers market;
  • Gradually substitute every food that you eat with its organic version;
  • Establish contact with local farmers by searching them up on the internet or entering a buying club in your area;
  • If you live in a house, start growing a small backyard garden;
  • Start cooking your meals, instead of eating out;
  • Simplify your food by reducing the number of ingredients and spices that you use for one dish; and
  • Stop buying prepackaged food.

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Best Ancestral Diet Recipes

If you have decided that you want to try following the ancestral diet, and your doctor or dietitian approved this idea, you could start even today. If you still hesitate and feel like without flavor enhancers, tons of sugar, and a long process, your meals will be plain and boring, it is time to change your mind. These simple, but nutrient-rich and delicious recipes will make you immediately include them into your ancestral diet meal plan.

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Baked Salmon with Fennel and Tomatoes

This super tasty, protein-packed, and easy to prepare ancestral dish is a perfect option for dinner. It is low in salt and carbs and provides you with a great amount of healthy fat. Here is the nutritional value of 1 serving of this baked salmon with fennel and tomatoes (3):

Calories: 398; Carbs: 5 g; Fats: 25 g; Protein: 37 g

Ingredients for 1 serving:

  • 1 salmon fillet (about 6 oz (170 g)
  • 1 medium fennel bulb
  • Zest and juice of half of a lemon
  • Half of a cup of cherry tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon of chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 teaspoon of olive oil

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 160-180°C (320-356°F). 
  2. Trim the fronds from the fennel, roughly chop them, and mix with parsley and lemon zest.
  3. Cut the fennel bulb in half and then each half into 3 wedges.
  4. Cook the fennel in boiling salted water for 10 minutes, then drain well.
  5. Spread the drained fennel over a shallow ovenproof dish, then add the tomatoes.
  6. Drizzle with olive oil and bake for 10 minutes, before nestling the salmon among the veg, sprinkle with lemon juice and bake for 15 more minutes.
  7. Scatter over the parsley and serve.
what is an ancestral diet
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One-pan Summer Eggs

Another protein-rich dish is one-pan summer eggs, which is a perfect seasonal breakfast choice. It will provide you with a pack of nutrients, while the delicious taste will elevate your mood for the rest of the day. One serving of one-pan summer eggs contains the following (8):

Calories: 169; Carbs: 7 g; Fats: 13 g; Protein: 12 g

Ingredients for 1 serving:

  • 1 egg
  • One large courgette, chopped into small chunks
  • Half of a cup of halved cherry tomatoes
  • 1 teaspoon of olive oil
  • Half of a crushed garlic clove
  • A few basils leave to serve

Directions:

  1. Heat the oil in a non-stick frying pan and add the courgette chunks.
  2. Fry for 5 minutes, constantly stirring until they start to soften.
  3. Add the tomatoes and garlic and cook for a couple more minutes.
  4. Stir in a little seasoning, then make a gap in the mix and crack in an egg.
  5. Cover the pan with a lid or sheet of foil, then cook some more until the eggs are of desired consistency.
  6. Scatter over a few basil leaves and serve.
ancestral diet recipes
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Rosemary Chicken With Oven-roasted Ratatouille

This colorful dish is a real celebration for your taste buds. The tender chicken balances out the juicy and rich vegetables, resulting in an ultimate delicious nutrient punch. One serving of this dish can offer you the following (12):

Calories: 288; Carbs: 11 g; Fats: 11 g; Protein: 37 g

Ingredients for 1 serving:

  • 1 skinless, boneless chicken breast
  • Half of a courgette sliced into half-moons
  • A quarter of eggplant cut into chunky pieces
  • A quarter of a cup of halved cherry tomatoes
  • 1 bell deseeded and roughly chopped yellow bell pepper
  • Half of a teaspoon of finely chopped rosemary, plus 1 small spring
  • A quarter of a crushed garlic clove
  • 3 teaspoons of olive oil

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 180-200°C (350-390°F).
  2. In a large roasting tin, toss together the courgette, eggplant, and pepper, with half of the chopped rosemary, half the garlic, 2 teaspoons of olive oil, and seasoning.
  3. Spread the mix in an even layer and roast in the oven for 20 minutes.
  4. Meanwhile, mix remaining garlic, rosemary, and oil.
  5. Slash a chicken breast 4-5 times with a sharp knife, brush over the prepared oil mix, season, and chill for 15 minutes.
  6. After the vegetable mix has cooked for 20 minutes, stir in the tomatoes.
  7. Make space in the roasting tin and nestle the chicken breast amongst the vegetables.
  8. Place a rosemary sprig on top of the breast and cook for 18-20 minutes more, until the chicken is fully cooked and the vegetables are lightly caramelized.
  9. Serve and enjoy.
ancestral diet recipes
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Heart Helper Smoothie

This heart helper smoothie is a great option for breakfast or snacks. Like any other smoothie, it is extremely easy to make. It is filled with health-boosting nutrients like vitamin C, potassium, manganese, folate, and others. One serving of this smoothie provides (7):

Calories: 88; Carbs: 19 g; Fats: 0 g; Protein: 2 g

Ingredients for 1 serving:

  • 2 small raw beetroots, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 1 small apple, peeled, quartered, and cored
  • 50 g (oz) blueberry
  • 1 tablespoon of grated ginger
  • A cup of water or to desired consistency

Directions:

  1. Put all the ingredients in the blender.
  2. Blend the mix until smooth.
  3. If the outcome is too thick for you, add more water and blend again until the desired consistency is reached.

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Conclusion

Have you ever imagined what your life would be like if you lived in the past? If that happened, you would have had to stick to an ancestral diet and eat minimally processed foods, without flavor enhancers, lots of added sugar, and other popular food components nowadays. And that would be times healthier than the modern diet, which encourages the consumption of junk food and increases the risk of various health problems.

There is no need to travel back in time to change that, as you can try eating what your ancestors ate even today. An ancestral diet is a nutritional philosophy, which advises you to minimize the consumption of industrialized, processed foods, and encourages you to eat natural, organic whole foods, which your direct ancestors used to eat. You should consume seasonal, local foods, which were minimally or not processed at all. It is recommended to eat anything that can be obtained by hunting or gathering. You can buy organic food in specialized stores, on local markets, or even grow it yourself in a garden. The above-presented recipes will make sure that your ancestral diet meal plan is nutritious, filling, and delicious. Keep in mind that before making any adjustments in your current nutritional plan, you should consult a dietitian.

If you are interested in healthy meal plans, you may be curious about other methods of supporting your body health. Supplement a proper meal plan with some exercise and take up this 20 Min Full Body Workout at Home.

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!

SOURCES:

  1. 9 Seeds You Should Be Eating (2019, webmd.com)
  2. Are organ meats good for you? (2017, medicalnewstoday.com)
  3. Baked salmon with fennel & tomatoes (2008, bbcgoodfood.com)
  4. Bioavailability of iron, zinc, and other trace minerals from vegetarian diets (2003, academic.oup.com)
  5. Elevated homocysteine levels and risk of cardiovascular and all-cause mortality: a meta-analysis of prospective studies (2015, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  6. Environment and behavior of 2.5-million-year-old Bouri hominids (1998, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  7. Heart helper smoothie (2014, bbcgoodfood.com)
  8. One-pan summer eggs (2008, bbcgoodfood.com)
  9. Paleo diet meal plan: A simple guide (2019, medicalnewstoday.com)
  10. Plant-animal subsistence ratios and macronutrient energy estimations in worldwide hunter-gatherer diets (2000, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  11. Protein – Which is Best? (2004, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  12. Rosemary chicken with oven-roasted ratatouille (2010, bbcgoodfood.com)
  13. The 10 best vegetables for protein (2020, medicalnewstoday.com)
  14. The Hidden Dangers of Fast and Processed Food* (2018, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  15. The paradoxical nature of hunter-gatherer diets: meat-based, yet non-atherogenic (2002, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  16. The prevalence of cobalamin deficiency among vegetarians assessed by serum vitamin B12: a review of literature (2014, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  17. Top 12 healthful fruits (2019, medicalnewstoday.com)
  18. Values for digestible indispensable amino acid scores (DIAAS) for some dairy and plant proteins may better describe protein quality than values calculated using the concept for protein digestibility-corrected amino acid scores (PDCAAS) (2017, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  19. Veggies That Pack in the Protein (2019, webmd.com)
  20. What are the most healthful nuts you can eat? (2018, medicalnewstoday.com)
  21. What are the most healthful vegetables? (2018, medicalnewstoday.com)
  22. What is Ancestral Eating? (2014, psychologyofeating.com)
Nikki Midland

Nikki Midland

Nikki is an experienced writer who specializes in nutrition, weight management and overall health. Due to her personal struggles with weight in the past, she has also developed a keen interest in fitness and exercising. Nikki believes that since she started doing sports, not only her body, her whole life has drastically changed for the better. Nikki has a great passion for helping people achieve their weight loss goals. She stands firm in her belief that tackling challenges is the only way to become a better version of yourself that is why she urges her readers to never give up.

Jovial Paul

Jovial Paul

Jovial is from Dubai, and is a Head EMS Instructor/Fitness Manager/Nutrition Consultant for REMS Fitness. He is certified by the Gold’s Gym Fitness Institute and Registered as a Gym Instructor.
Jovial specialises in HIIT training, Rehabilitation/injury recovery, Strength and Conditioning, Kickboxing, Body Weight Training and Weight Training, and practices each discipline himself. His approach is to focus on improving his clients’ lifestyle by motivating them and setting an example.

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