What can we learn about nutrition from the way our ancestors ate? Anthropologists and physicians have studied the diet of our 40,000-year-old Paleolithic ancestors as well as that of modern hunter-gatherer societies whose eating habits are similar to those of prehistoric people.
Our ancestors had to cope with wild animals and infectious diseases. But heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis, diabetes, high blood pressure and breast cancer were almost unknown to them They ate a wide variety of wild plants that were high in fiber and minerals such as calcium. The wild game that was their meat was extremely low in fat: 4 percent compared to the 25 to 30 percent fat of modern domestic meat. They ate little salt, almost no sugar and no dairy products or domestic grains. Yet they were taller and stronger than their modern descendants.
Researchers who looked at the diets of present-day traditional cultures also found clues to good nutrition. Mediterranean people, who live longer and have lower rates of heart disease and cancer than other people, eat large amounts of vegetables, fruits, legumes and grains, with low to moderate amounts of dairy products, fish and poultry, and almost no red meat. They cook with olive oil rather than animal fats.
In rural China, heart disease and cancer of the breast and colon are rare while obesity is almost unheard of, even though the Chinese consume 30 percent more calories than Americans do. Their diet consists almost entirely of grains-such as rice, wheat and millet-and a wide variety of vegetables. Most of their protein comes from soybeans and grains. Only about 15 percent of their calories come from fat.
Lessons from the Past
What do we learn from studying ancient and traditional eating habits? Well, for one thing, when it comes to food, poverty may be a blessing. Traditional cultures simply cannot afford the highly processed foods and highly fattened meats that are harming our health. The whole, unprocessed foods that traditional people must make do with have less salt and fat, no additives or preservatives and are rich in nutrients.
More Plants, Less Meat
Traditional societies all eat a wide variety of nutritious plant food. Although their diet is low in dairy products and often low in protein, they don’t seem to suffer from osteoporosis or other calcium-deficiency diseases. And because meat and animal fat are scarce, heart disease and cancer are rare.
Many Americans are learning to center their meals around pastas, grains and fresh vegetables and to use meat, if at all, as a garnish or seasoning. By cutting back on butter, dairy products and animal fat, we may yet equal the superb nutritional status of our “primitive” ancestors.