The Healthiest Diet? Benefits and Drawbacks of an Ancestral Diet

Protein source products including meat, milk and eggs

Some cultures have survived mostly on meat | Source: iStock

With loads of celebrity enthusiasts and an astounding number of blogs dedicated to it, the Paleo diet might just be the trendiest eating plan in the U.S. The basic idea is that we should plan our meals based on what our ancestors ate for the best nutrition. The Huffington Post explained the diet divides foods into three categories: those to eat in abundance, ones that should be eaten moderately, and foods to completely avoid. Things like meat and produce get the green light, while grains, dairy, and legumes are strictly forbidden.

The theory might be flawed, though. There may not be one “best” diet for all people, because the diets of our ancestors varied greatly depending on where they lived. National Geographic explained the Hadza of Tanzania consume nearly 70% of their calories from plant sources, even though they set out to hunt with the goal of catching meat. The Inuit of Greenland, on the other hand, have historically lived off of almost nothing but meat. Regardless of diet, the article said traditional hunter-gatherers didn’t develop the high-blood pressure and heart disease that plague so many people today.

Could planning your meals based on lineage really be the key to finding your ideal diet? More research is suggesting that’s possible, but there are other factors to consider. We’ve outlined some of the positives, as well as some drawbacks, to eating the way your ancestors did thousands of years ago. Time will tell if this diet is the way of the future, or just another silly trend.


healthy diet, vegetables, fish

Plate filled with healthy, natural foods | Source: iStock

1. Fewer Diseases

We know that certain people are at a higher risk for developing diseases based on family history. Trace that family tree back a bit further, and you could find the solution is as simple as changing your eating habits. An essay from Northwestern University explained the rapid change in human lifestyle led to a drastic switch in our diet, but our bodies are still designed to expect the types of foods our ancestors ate. Basically, our pace of evolution can’t keep up with the pace at which our eating habits are changing.

There’s still more research to be conducted, but knowledge of our genetic structure could lead to dietary recommendations long before any negative symptoms from diseases crop up. The National Coalition for Health Professional Education in Genetics (NCHPEG) suggested this information could help tell you which foods will be most beneficial for different genetic variations. Even those susceptible to certain conditions because of their family history might be able to reduce their odds, all through what they eat.

2. Weight Control

Most people think of obesity as an American problem, yet many other countries are in just as much trouble. The Gazette Review revealed the U.S. ranks as number 10 on the list of most overweight nations. We might not be the worst, but we’re far from the best. Many people have sought out different diets to remedy the problem, but results are often conflicting. One person might lose tons of weight on an eating plan, while another experiences weight gain.

It’s possible reverting to a diet your ancestors consumed could be the key to staying slim. Today’s Dietitian examined obesity trends in the U.S. and found that African American women experience the highest levels of obesity of anyone, with about four out of five being overweight. Many traditional African and Carribbean diets are largely vegetarian, and the people are far healthier. The article also said that those who maintained a diet centered around the foods that Africans typically eat didn’t develop the same issues as those who adopted a Western diet.

3. Reduced Processed Food

One thing that’s clear about changing eating habits based on what people were eating long ago is that processed foods are not going to be in the picture. Though many are skeptical of the Paleo diet as a practical way to live, it does discourage sugar and processed foods, which is hardly a bad thing. Prevention reported the trendy eating plan is able to get people to eat more fresh foods while staying away from things that come out of boxes and cans.


Source: iStock

Some say grains are off limits for ancestral diets | Source: iStock

4. Availability

Anyone who’s moved from one state to another has likely noticed that some of their favorite foods are a lot more difficult to find. Going from one country to another multiplies that experience. A Midwesterner of Greek descent is one example: Though many tout the heart-healthy benefits of a Mediterranean diet, seafood isn’t necessarily an option for a landlocked area. At least not fresh seafood. The same is true for ancient grains. While many have begun to seek out these high-fiber foods, Today’s Dietitian explained many, like farro, are difficult to find in the grocery store. Even if people manage to get their hands on a few pounds, most are unfamiliar with the correct way to cook these unfamiliar ingredients.

Looking forward, the problem could get much worse. BBC explained some foods have already gone extinct, such as Old Cornish cauliflower. Most of our crops are planted based on what’s popular, with little attention to diversity. The article went on to explain that continuing to do that could lead to more instances of the horrendous potato famine in Ireland that killed more than 1 million people. It’s not as crazy as it sounds, because some foods are already at risk. Smithsonian reported that bananas are at the top of the list.

5. Personal Taste

Eating traditional foods might instill a bit of nostalgia for some, but not everyone loves the ingredients from their homeland. It’s kind of hard to adhere to the diet that your Italian ancestors loved if you loathe tomatoes. There are ways to sneak healthy ingredients into your favorite meals, but it can be difficult when you’d rather have mac and cheese without the broccoli.

Going with foods that your ancestors picked could also mean leaving out some of your favorite eats, which is a recipe for disaster. Livestrong explained eliminating favorite foods just isn’t practical in the long run. You’ll feel deprived, and might end up overindulging later.

6. Diverse Ancestry

America is a melting pot of many cultures, so that complicates things quite a bit if you’re trying to determine what you should eat based on where you’re from. Trying to peg down the optimal diet is going to be nearly impossible if you have ancestry that traces back equally to people who consumed mostly meat and people who ate nothing but grains and vegetables. Lifehacker pointed out there’s already tons of confusion about healthy eating, and adding another diet to the mix could make it worse.

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