One of the most controversial scientific topics revolves around what the ideal human diet is. Many medical experts have differing views on human nutrition and offer to support scientific data to validate their contradictory conclusions. The truth is that the ideal diet does not have to be one of the extremes. Three major dietary approaches have emerged as the most effective in preventing cardiovascular events and leading an overall healthier lifestyle. The first approach is to replace saturated and trans-fats with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. The second is to increase the consumption of omega-3 fats from either fish or plant sources such as nuts.
The third approach involves eating a diet that is high in fruits, vegetables, and nuts. It also means avoiding foods with a high glycemic load which is a large amount of quickly digestible carbohydrates. These broad characteristics and approaches are consistent with the diet that our ancestors evolved eating. That is the diet that our hunter-gatherer ancestors thrived on until the agricultural revolution. Through time our genome and physiology adapted to this diet. However, this diet does vary slightly depending on geographic location, season, and culture. The ideal diet means not consuming all of the ingredients that are processed foods that ultimately do not serve our bodies any nutritional value.
17. You should choose to consume real food in your diet, not synthetic foods.
Our prehistoric ancestors consumed only natural and unprocessed food that was foraged and hunted from their specific environment. This food strategy provided a diet that consisted of lean protein high in fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other beneficial phytochemicals. Compared to the average modern diet, the typical prehistoric diet contained two to three times more fiber. Also, it had between one and two times more polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. The protein intake was also two to three times higher, and the potassium intake was three to four times higher. On the other hand, people had a sodium intake reduction by four to five times. The prehistoric diet contained no refined grains or sugars. The exception was seasonally available honey.
Many would suggest that the ongoing epidemic of diseases such as diabetes and heart disease is at least due in part to the differences between the diet we should eat and what we eat today. In the growing season, they consumed abundant fruits, berries, and vegetables. The only piece that almost all nutritional experts can agree on is increased intake of fruits and vegetables in our modern, everyday diet. We do not fully understand all of the health-promoting components of unprocessed whole-plant foods. Those in favor of the prehistoric diet and all of its benefits encourage choosing real, natural foods.
16. What are the fundamentals of the hunter-gatherer diet and lifestyle?
You might be wondering what the basis or guidelines are of the prehistoric diet. The base is to eat whole, natural, fresh foods. That involves avoiding highly processed and high-glycemic loaded foods. You should consume a high diet of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and berries. There are nutrient-dense and low-glycemic load fruits such as berries, plums, citrus, apples, broccoli, and avocados. It is also recommended that you increase your consumption of omega-3 fatty acids from fish, fish oil, and specific plant sources. It would help if you also kept refined grains and sugars to an absolute minimum wherever possible.
Anyone following a prehistoric diet should avoid trans-fats entirely and limit the intake of saturated fats. It means that you have to eliminate fried foods, commercial baked goods, and most packaged or processed snack foods. On the contrary, increase the consumption of lean protein, such as skinless poultry, fish, and lean cuts of red meat. To avoid high-fat dairy and fatty, salty processed meats such as bacon and deli meats are also recommended. Another fundamental that you should be following regardless of your diet is to drink much water and participate in daily exercise from various activities. Whenever possible, you should try to partake in outdoor activities.
Throughout most of human history, food consumption was linked to energy output. As you might expect, our ancestors expended more energy finding and obtaining food calories than most of us do now. The correlation between energy intake and energy expenditure has changed drastically. Our cravings for calorie-dense foods, including fats, sweets, and starches, stem from our ancestors who sought these foods because they were scarce. However, in the modern world, these cravings can easily overtake us. That is mainly because calorie-dense foods are abundant and inexpensive. Many people become ill due to caloric excess that stems from obesity, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease.
Adding to the issue is that our genome became adapted to an environment in which caloric intake was often sporadic and sometimes inadequate. That promoted the efficient use of energy and storage. It is commonly referred to as the thrifty gene hypothesis. Although genetic adaptation can provide a survival advantage in a scarce environment, it can become a liability if there is long-term excessive caloric intake. Although the key to weight loss is simply the daily consumption of fewer calories than expended, it is easier to moderate your caloric intake in a diet with sufficient amounts of protein and fat.
As you might expect, our prehistoric ancestors exerted themselves daily to secure their food, water, and protection. Although advancements, evolution, and modern technology have made physical exertion optional, it is still imperative to exercise as though our survival depended on it. In a different way, it does. We are still genetically adapted to live an exceptionally physically active lifestyle. Being too sedentary can predispose us to a higher risk of obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and the large majority of cardiovascular diseases. On the other hand, regular exercise helps to decrease the chances of developing all of these diseases.
Even when there were times of caloric excess, hunter-gatherers avoided an unhealthy weight gain partly because they were extremely physically active. Studies show that the best way to maintain weight loss, regardless of the type of diet you follow, is through daily physical exercise. Our prehistoric ancestors partook in various physical activities every day. They would walk and run anywhere between five and 10 miles daily as they hunted for their food sources. They also lifted, climbed, carried, and did whatever else was necessary to secure their food items and protection. There were times where days of exertion were followed by recovery days.
It can go without saying that our world has changed in immeasurable ways in the last 10,000 years. However, it has also been argued that our genes have changed very little while our world is evolving. It is suggested that we only thrive to the best of our abilities in a world with similar conditions in the prehistoric era. However, it is essential to note that that is not really how evolution or genetic expression works. If humans could only thrive in an environment similar to or the same as the one our ancestors lived in, our species would not have lasted very long. There are many ways we have evolved over the past 10,000 years, including our GI tract.
Over the past 8,000 years, a large percentage of people have developed the capacity to consume dairy for a lifetime. As a species, we have evolved a mutation where we continue to produce the lactase enzyme to break down lactose for longer periods than our ancestors could. Our digestive systems have adapted to process a low-energy, nutrient-poor, and high-fiber diet. Our genes produce only the enzymes necessary to break down starch, simple sugars, most proteins, and fats. We can thank the trillions of bacteria in our gut. They have evolved and adapted at a rate much faster than our human genes.
12. What are the advantages of a prehistoric diet?
The prehistoric diet is relatively popular and has some notable advantages for those who choose to implement it into their lives. One of the most significant benefits is that the diet is rich in potassium. Eating a lot of fruits and vegetables works to increase potassium levels. That is important for maintaining healthy blood pressure in addition to healthy kidney and muscle function. The fats that are part of the prehistoric diet are also healthy fats. By consuming moderate amounts of unsaturated fats, including those found in nuts, avocado, and olive oil, you give rise to a nutritional lipid profile.
The prehistoric diet also focuses on high protein content. Proteins are essential for developing various parts of your body, including the skin, muscles, bone, and cartilage. When there are adequate amounts of lean protein in your diet, you contribute to healthy body composition and a lowered insulin response. The diet also eliminates processed foods. This one might seem like a no-brainer. The diet is composed of whole foods, which means that there are minimal salt and sugar consumed. It improves blood sugar and blood pressure levels. That will ultimately reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
11. What are the disadvantages of a prehistoric diet?
While there are many advantages, and the prehistoric diet is relatively popular, it can also be controversial. One of the largest concerns is eliminating entire food groups. That can mean essential nutrients and vitamins are not included in the diet. For instance, people often obtain their calcium from milk, cheese, and yogurt. Those following the prehistoric diet are at risk of inadequate calcium consumption, leading to low bone and tooth density. It will create other health issues. In addition, the elimination of whole grains can mean a decreased intake of fiber which is beneficial to gut health. The diet doesn’t allow for the consumption of legumes, which are helpful in gut health and rich in magnesium and manganese.
Humans today are not genetically identical to their prehistoric ancestors as the prehistoric diet might assume. We have evolved to adapt to our changing environment. The equivalent of today’s prehistoric diet does not account for the wide range of unavailable foods during this prehistoric time. It is also hard to pinpoint other specifics. While we know our ancestors were active, it is near impossible to know exactly what amount and proportions of foods were eaten during that time. It is not possible to fully adopt the same diet as people did in the prehistoric periods. Both animals and plants have evolved since then and are different from what they were 10,000 years ago.
10. Let’s take a closer look at the Turkana people.
Almost 40 percent of adults in the United States are obese. Some suggest it is due to the mismatch theory. It means that the diet that people used to eat is not what it is today. There is research that looks at the people of Turkana where their population has been split. Half of those have adopted a more modern diet, whereas others continue to follow the traditional lifestyle. By looking at their lifestyles and the differences in their diets, scientists provided some insight into the impacts of the differing diets. Researchers looked at 1,226 adult Turkana in a variety of locations. The result was that those still living their traditional lifestyle scored high on all markers for health.
In comparison, those who had moved into the cities and consumed a more modern diet showed poorer health markers. These included higher rates of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. There was a clear correlation between how long those individuals lived in the cities versus those that continued with their traditional lifestyles. Some say that the modern diet hinders the body’s ability to plan for the future effectively. When continuing with a conventional lifestyle, food isn’t abundant. Therefore, the body will instinctively store energy for a later time when there may not be food available. In the modern world, food isn’t scarce, so our bodies do not need to save energy later.
The Turkana study can show us several things to further our understanding of our environment, diet, and genetic makeup. Overall, the majority of prehistoric diets did not have processed foods the way we do now. Processed foods are so easily accessible and at any time. The modern-day diet is extremely processed, and in turn, it has a heavy direct impact on our overall health and wellbeing. Processed food does not offer much nutritional value. In fact, some of it provides absolutely none. It tends to be higher in salt, calories, fat and has less fiber and nutrients. The lack of nutritional value can cause problems within our bodies.
Our prehistoric diets did not have access to the processed foods that we do now. Their diets were certainly unprocessed. The theory is there is an evolutionary mismatch. With how quickly technology and food have evolved and transformed, our bodies have not had the time to adapt. The different additives and chemicals that are now common ingredients in our food might not be doing the best things for our bodies. The Turkana research showed us that while things are different, things should work to be shifted more towards our prehistoric diet. You should consume organic fruits and vegetables, grass-fed animals, and healthy natural fats.
Without agriculture, our prehistoric ancestors did not grow any grains. They might have come across a few stalks of corn growing in the wild, but there certainly wasn’t any bread or crackers. Sugar was also rare. There was no milk as the animals hadn’t been domesticated yet. Without question, our ancestors were hunters and gatherers. They might score on a big animal such as a buffalo or deer now and then, but it was primarily smaller animals such as squirrels. The animals weren’t fat. In fact, they were scrawny because they also had to hunt and gather their own food too.
Modern-day meat is usually fed on grain to make it fat. If you think about it if the grain is used to fatten the cow, how do you think it impacts your body? The meat that our ancestors used to forage and hunt on their own doesn’t exist anymore. Although you can purchase grass-fed meat, it is not as common and can at times cost more than the grain-fed. The fruits also differ. Modern fruit has been bred and fertilized into lumps of fructose that lack fiber. They might get some berries, nuts, or a small apple in the prehistoric days, but nothing like we have now. Instead, they focused on gathering vegetables and roots.
7. How do our bodies differ from that of our ancestors?
Since our prehistoric ancestors had to hunt and gather their own food, they were likely hungry most of the time. A few might have lived in an environment where food was plentiful, but it was the exception and not the normal. The majority of people had to endure long periods of famine. When you have to live and not know when or where your next meal will come from, your body tends to hang on to every calorie. Their bodies would hang on to fat because they did not know how long they would need it. Their bodies naturally would keep as much as possible to protect themselves, although it was rare there was ever too much.
Our prehistoric ancestors also consumed higher amounts of fiber. Many of us nowadays do not get nearly enough fiber. The foods are higher on the glycemic index and are too refined. That has the potential to cause constipation. Our prehistoric ancestors would gather vegetables and roots, including the stems, to avoid constipation. Consuming vegetables like asparagus, beets, and lettuce helps keep you filled up and un-constipated. A bonus is that your glucose levels are more likely to remain regulated. It is vital to make an effort to find rich sources of fiber to maintain optimal health. Be sure to check the food items to make sure it is not too refined which will have an unintended impact.
6. How do monounsaturated fats contribute to a healthier lifestyle?
As part of their diet, monounsaturated fats made up roughly half of the total fat in most hunters and gatherers’ diets. Monounsaturated fats are essential as they work to reduce cardiovascular risk, especially when chosen in place of starches and sugars. Nuts are a great source of monounsaturated fat that you can incorporate into your daily life. When you are looking for a quick snack to grab on the go, nuts are a perfect choice. Similarly, hunters and gatherers relied on nuts because they were easily accessible. They were also calorie-dense and highly nutritious. It didn’t take as much energy or effort to gather them versus hunting an animal for protein.
It is essential to be careful because nuts are high in calories. Therefore, eating too many can impact weight gain. The calories in nuts typically are 80 percent from fat, but most of this is in the form of healthy monounsaturated fatty acids. Other studies have shown that nuts can reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Consuming nuts provides nutrients such as vitamin E, folate, magnesium, copper, and zinc, which are cardioprotective. Studies suggest that replacing saturated fat with monounsaturated fat would result in a 30 percent reduction in risk. The next time you are looking to incorporate some healthy monounsaturated fats, try grabbing a handful of nuts.
Our prehistoric ancestors drank water almost exclusively. Some studies suggest that at least five water glasses a day are associated with a lower risk of coronary heart disease. It might be because water can displace calorie-dense beverages such as sugary sodas when consumed consistently. In addition to washing out some of the sugar, the water provides sufficient hydration that your body needs. When we think of our bodies and adaptation, water is the beverage we were adapted to drink. Evidence would suggest that it should remain the principal drink of choice.
Sugary drinks such as sodas and energy drinks are regularly consumed in today’s society. When we stop at a restaurant or the gas station, many people choose to indulge by grabbing something other than water. However, sodas and energy drinks are calorie-dense and do not contain nutritional value. In fact, they have contributed to the rise in obesity and even insulin resistance. In addition to sodas and energy drinks, many flavored fruit juices are filled with sugar. Instead of consuming a fruit drink, you should try to eat the whole actual fruit rather. At least you will get a little bit of fiber.
Many of our prehistoric ancestors obtain just under half of their food through animals. Many of them lived in temperate climates and were faced with winters that caused their plant-based food to be unavailable. Early humans adapted to these conditions by eating meat, organs, marrow, and fat from animals during the winter months. Prehistoric people were relatively free of the signs and symptoms of cardiovascular disease. During those times, wild game flesh was only between two and four percent fat by weight. It also contained high levels of monounsaturated fats. For comparison, fatty grain-produced domestic meats contain 20 to 25 percent fat by weight, and most of it is in the form of saturated fat.
Wild game meat is not widely accessible today, and many people do not prefer its taste. The modern-day alternative is to choose animal protein sources low in saturated fat, such as skinless poultry, fish, eggs, and lean cuts of red meat. It is less about the amount of meat eaten and more so about the composition of the meat. The cooking methods can also help to determine the health effects of this food on the body. Scientific evidence shows that meat consumption is the reason for the risk of cardiovascular disease. Instead, the risk is secondary to high levels of saturated fat typically found in the meat of modern, domesticated animals.
Now that you know the cardiovascular risk comes from the composition and preparation of the domesticated animals, you have to pay close attention to the types of meat you are consuming. Diets that are high in lean protein can work to improve lipid profiles and overall health. When preparing and cooking meat from domesticated animals, you should be sure to take the time to trim any visible fat from the meats and also to allow the fat to drain when cooking. If you cook and consume lean animal protein at regular intervals, it can help improve your ability to feel full for longer periods.
In addition to helping you feel full for more extended periods, the lean animal protein will improve insulin sensitivity and help facilitate weight loss. At the same time that lean meat provides all of those health impacts, it also nourishes your body with many essential nutrients. Highly salted and preserved meats can also contain carcinogens. The lean, fresh meat cooked appropriately is a healthy and beneficial component of a varied diet. That, combined with a high intake of vegetables and fruits, will help ensure a balanced diet to reduce the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
Trans-fatty acids are in tiny amounts in the fat tissues of all ruminant animals. However, due to how food has progressed, the intake of trans-fatty acids has increased remarkably. That is because of their presence in commercially prepared foods. They are synthesized when the hydrogen is applied to edible oils under high pressure and temperature in the presence of a catalyst. The hydrogenation of edible oils is typically done in the prepared food industry to prolong shelf life. You often see it in commercial baked goods such as cookies, crackers, donuts, and processed snack foods. It means that trans-fatty acids are in those snacks that we often crave.
You often find trans-fatty acids in other items, including shortenings, most kinds of margarine, and all of those deep-fried foods. Recently trans-fatty acids have been identified in many brands of commercially available canola oils. Trans-fatty acids lower HDL, or good cholesterol levels, increase LDL or harmful cholesterol levels and improve cardiovascular disease and cancer risk. Studies have shown that by replacing trans-fatty acids in our diets with the same amount of natural and unsaturated fatty acids, there is as large as a 50 percent decrease in risk of coronary heart disease. The next time you consider grabbing that deep-fried snack, maybe you should go for some nuts, which can serve much more nutritionally.
Many of us know that providers recommend we eat more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats. Perhaps you were even having that one-on-one conversation with your doctor. Those recommendations are the foundation for many of the healthy diets that are often discussed and encouraged. Among them is the prehistoric diet. We know what we should do as individuals, but it is usually not looked at in the bigger picture. It means that by altering our lifestyles and providing education to those around us, we can help lower obesity and decrease the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
Consider the Turkana population, for example. Those that remain in rural areas where they are clinging firmly to their traditional ways and diet have shown a decreased likelihood of developing health issues. In comparison, those that moved to industrialized areas where food options were quickly accessible displayed an increase in weight and risk of health issues. We might have longer lifespans compared to our ancestors. However, people can attribute it to the developing medicine that can help when we do develop health issues due to a poor diet. It can be difficult for some to admit that their diet played a role in their medical problems when it can take a while to develop. Be aware of what you are consuming and its impact on your health, both short and long-term.