10 Apr Ancestral Nutrition – An ancient solution to a modern problem?
Our ancestors kept a big secret and I know what it is.
I call it a secret because the majority of people don’t seem to know a whole lot about it but knowing it could possibly help to alleviate the global problems of chronic disease and illness. That’s quite a big statement, I understand, but to me the secret is pretty epic. And here it is: our species evolved over 2 million years ago and for 66,000 generations, our ancestors lived free of modern disease. Imagine that just for minute: a world without autoimmunity, cancer, depression and dementia? It almost sounds like a Utopian science-fiction film.
Research suggests that major changes in our diets have taken place over the last 10,000 years but our genes have not changed all that much and are still similar to our ancestors during the Paleolithic period 40,000 years ago (1). It’s undeniable that our ancestors ate a much simpler diet of whatever they could hunt, fish or forage and didn’t have the luxury of stepping into the local corner shop for a snickers and coffee when they needed a pick me up. Could this difference be part of the reason why are we getting bigger and sicker than ever before? And how do we unlock the answers our ancestors had for the holy grail of living healthy, disease-free lives?
According to Pedro Carrera-Bastos team from Lund University in Sweden, it is unfortunate mismatch “between our ancient physiology and western diet and lifestyle that underlies many so-called diseases of civilisation, including coronary heart disease, obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, epithelial cell cancers, autoimmune disease and osteoporosis (2).” Somehow we changed from healthy and vital to stressed, overweight and sick. Now it is time for us to go back to our roots and live like our ancestors did.
How food has changed
Food and nutrition science has revolutionised the foods we eat today allowing them to have a longer shelf life, a nicer colour, be extremely palatable and create appealing textures but this distortion of food is not done with your health in mind. Even the addition of artificial trans fats found in processed foods, as widespread research has shown, has been linked to cancer, heart disease, obesity, depression and other inflammatory diseases (3, 4). The prevalence of processed, refined, cheap sugar appealing to our sweet preferences for when food was scarce is capitalising on our evolutionary preferences and leading us down a sweet path to bitter health concerns (5). This is something that we really need to think about.
The increased intensity of farming and use of pesticides on the landscape and increased antibiotic use for the animals we eat has introduced a huge change to the way in which we grow and consume food. Even though Ireland is one of the lowest users of antibiotics in Europe and has relatively low levels of intensive farming methods (6), they are still practiced here and a threat to our health and the health of the animals that are raised in these unnatural and sometimes poor conditions. Another mismatch that seems very far removed to what we evolved to do: hunting wild animals that foraged from the land for what was in season.
How we life now is very different to our ancestors:
But it’s not just our diets that have changed, this misalliance has crept into our everyday lives. It seems daily demands on our health have now become “normal” but although they may seem habitual to us, they are certainly not routine to our DNA. Things that you may not even consider like:
- Staying up late watching TV, laptop and phone screens
- Sitting for hours on end and lack of movement
- Constant and chronic stress
- Loneliness and lack of social connection
- Eating highly processed, nutrient poor foods some of which do not even exist in nature like; MSG, GMO, artificial sweeteners and trans fats like hydrogenated fats that our bodies now have to deal with, break down and excrete.
These situations create stress in the body echoing this divergence between us and our ancestors. Even modern day hunter-gatherers, according to Pedro Carrera-Bastos et al have superior health and physical fitness with lower blood pressure, lower BMI, better vision and stronger bones to name a few examples and this can be seen in these populations throughout the world including: the Kitavans in Papua New Guinea, Aboriginal Australians, the Inuits in Alaska, Canada and Greenland and more.
So how do I apply the ancient principles to my life to improve my health?
OK so going to bed at sunset, never eating a donut again and hunting and foraging for food doesn’t sound all that appealing and a little far fetched in this day and age but it’s the principles of how our ancestors lived and ate that can inspire us. Not just to help deal with and recover health but also to ensure we are thriving and living fulfilled lives.
Let’s face it, we are not the same as our ancestors and live in a very different world than they did but we cannot ignore that chronic diseases are on the rise and we are sicker than ever before. The burden of chronic disease is rapidly increasing worldwide and worrying trends are beginning to emerge showing that not only are they affecting a large percentage of the population but they are also appearing earlier in life. By 2020, it has been projected that chronic diseases will account for almost three-quarters of all deaths worldwide and here’s the kicker: chronic diseases are largely preventable (7). Adopting the principles of an ancestral diet eating the best, cleanest, most nutrient-dense foods available to us is the biggest take home message from this blog article.
So how can we learn from them to help us to live disease free lives?
Here are my top 5 tips for you:
- Just eat real food – not processed or with artificial additives or excess sugar just good quality, organic free range meats where possible, fish, vegetables, fruit and drinking clean water,
- Manage stress in whatever way is meaningful to you be it yoga, exercise, meditation or watching a comedy
- Move your body at every opportunity
- Sleep for 8-9 hours per night
- Explore real interactions with others that make you feel good
Let’s just eat real food and let’s spread this information and help others to recover their health. It is my mission to share how our ancestors maintained excellent health and how we can incorporate aspects of their lives into ours. Food along with lifestyle change has the power to heal and to prevent disease. Simply returning to a diet and lifestyle that incorporates eating real food: good quality, organic free range where possible meats, fish, vegetables and fruit, drinking clean water, moving our bodies at every opportunity throughout the day, managing our stress, creating real social connections and sleeping for 8-9 hours a night are the real way to ensure good health. The secret is out people, we’re going back to our roots!
- Simopoulos, A. (2002). The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids. Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy, [online] 56(8), pp.365-379. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0753332202002536.
- Carrera-Bastos, P., Fontes, O’Keefe, Lindeberg and Cordain (2011). The western diet and lifestyle and diseases of civilization. Research Reports in Clinical Cardiology, [online] p.15. Available at: https://www.dovepress.com/the-western-diet-and-lifestyle-and-diseases-of-civilization-peer-reviewed-article-RRCC.
- de Souza, R., Mente, A., Maroleanu, A., Cozma, A., Ha, V., Kishibe, T., Uleryk, E., Budylowski, P., Schünemann, H., Beyene, J. and Anand, S. (2015). Intake of saturated and trans unsaturated fatty acids and risk of all cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes: systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. BMJ, [online] p.h3978. Available at: https://www.bmj.com/content/351/bmj.h3978.
- Mozaffarian, D., Aro, A. and Willett, W. (2009). Health effects of trans-fatty acids: experimental and observational evidence. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, [online] 63(S2), pp.S5-S21. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19424218 [Accessed 10 Apr. 2018].
- Johnson RJ, Segal MS, Sautin Y, Nakagawa T, Feig DI, Kang DH, Gersch MS, Benner S, Sánchez-Lozada LG. (2007). Potential role of sugar (fructose) in the epidemic of hypertension, obesity and the metabolic syndrome, diabetes, kidney disease, and cardiovascular disease. Am J Clin Nutr. Oct;86(4):899-906. Available at:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17921363
- Farmersjournal.ie. (2018). Irish use of antibiotics in livestock among lowest in Europe. [online] Available at: https://www.farmersjournal.ie/irish-use-of-antibiotics-in-livestock-among-lowest-in-europe-280282.
- Who.int. (2018). WHO | 2. Background. [online] Available at: http://www.who.int/nutrition/topics/2_background/en/.
*The information given is considered general advice and should not be used in place of professional medical expertise or treatment.