What is Ancestral Eating?
Updated: Jun 16
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Ancestral eating is very simply, eating like our ancestors. Not like a “caveman”, but our actual, more recent ancestors. People groups who ate unprocessed, unmodified whole foods, local to their region. Ancestral eating means avoiding processed foods, including foods that have been genetically modified.
This way of eating focuses on local and nutrient dense foods. It means eating head to tail, meaning all parts of the animal that can be consumed are consumed (organ meats, bone broth, and the more gelatinous cuts of meat). Ancestral eating is EXCELLENT for the human body, and leads to overall good oral and physical health! It’s really all about getting back to the basics of food.
This post will not be a complete overview of ancestral eating. There is a lot of nuance, and a lot to learn about here. I’ve compiled a list of 5 books that led me to ancestral eating. See that list here.
Much of my understanding of ancestral eating comes from Dr. Weston A. Price. Dr. Price was a dentist who set out to study the oral health of people groups, untouched by the Western food system. He studied a wide range of people groups from all over the world. What he found was that people whose food system was untouched by Westernization were very healthy. These people had beautiful, straight, healthy teeth (and a resulting wide airway passage), and were free from the common diseases that were affecting the modern world. Price’s research findings can be found in the book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. There is also a cookbook called Nourishing Nutrition based on the health principles Price proposed.
Today’s food system
After steadily rising since the 1950s, life expectancy dropped for the first time in 2020, and dropped again this last year, bringing the life expectancy of 2022 down to the same level it was at in 1996!
Today, ⅛ children have asthma.
⅙ children have a developmental delay.
⅙ children have a mental health disorder!
In 2000, the autism rate in children was 1 in 150. Today, it’s 1 in 44!
Obesity in children has TRIPLED since 1970.
The current health of US citizens is frankly dismal. Most everyone walking around now is overweight and/or chronically fatigued and/or struggling with mental health.
This is not the way humans have always lived, and it’s not the way we are supposed to live! A dozen different arguments could be made to answer the question “why?”, BUT, I would argue it’s our food.
Next time you’re in the grocery store, look around at other people’s carts. How much of the food in the cart is whole food? Whole food, meaning unprocessed, un-modified? Very little in my experience.
Our food system has changed DRASTICALLY in the last 50 years!
Today, much of the food on the grocery store shelves is highly processed with added seed oils, colorants, and preservatives. Our fruits and veggies are genetically modified and sprayed with pesticides. The animals that produce meat and dairy live in terrible conditions and are fed a steady diet of G.M.O., corn, and soy, and then given antibiotics and hormones to keep them growing and live long enough to slaughter. Staples in our diet, like flour, have been so modified and processed that it’s stripped of all the good nutrients. Iron flakes are added in to “enrich” our baked goods, supplements, and some drugs like birth control pills, which our bodies cannot actually properly absorb.
It. is. a. Mess.
So what do we do? How do we grocery shop?
Try to buy organic or straight from the farmer (with good farming practices). Meats should be from healthy animals, with diets appropriate for their species (not corn and soy). See my post here for Why Buy Organic. Cows and sheep are ruminants, therefore grass-fed beef/lamb is the best. Chickens are foragers, so look for free-range chicken. Study your area. What animals are local to my area? Here in Tennessee, we get plenty of deer and turkey, so I’m always looking for friends who are hunters to fill my freezer! Grow it yourself! See my article here for 5 Vegetables to Grow to Reduce your Grocery Bill.
It can take some time to find a good farmer with good farming practices. It took us nearly a year to find someone we trust! Start at your local farmer’s market. Don’t be afraid to ask questions: “Do you ever use growth hormones or antibiotics ever?” “What are the animal’s living conditions?” “What is the diet of the animal?” And etc. If you can, visit the farm! I have been to farms to see cows confined to stalls in small, very dirty barns. The farmer was shoveling grains and supplements into small pails in front of their noses. There was a small pasture behind the barn, but let me emphasize SMALL! The cows were crowded, and they were at least a foot deep in muck! It’s good to visit to see the conditions for yourself. Healthy cows produce meat and milk that is healthy for humans. Nothing is more reassuring than seeing chickens roaming free and cows and sheep on green pasture!
Local and seasonal foods
Our ancestors ate foods local to their area and ate foods within the season they grow.
Imagine you live right where you are now, but cannot rely on the grocery store for food. Look around. What’s available to you? What can you grow? What can you raise or hunt? What can you preserve or store away for winter?
Our human bodies, just like every other body living on this earth, are designed to live and thrive in its local environment!
Eating local foods is not just better for the environment, but also healthier for our bodies. Locally grown food retains more nutrients as it can be eaten sooner after it’s harvested. Oftentimes, the foods have been tampered with less genetically as they don’t have to travel as far or be stored for as long.
Eating seasonally is important for this reason. Food grown and harvested in the appropriate season is healthier, and so healthier to consume. Eating seasonally is also usually tastier and more budget-friendly. I’ve come to love the great diversity of eating local and seasonal foods! For example, here in Tennessee, we get a huge flush of figs and then about a month later persimmons. These foods are hard to find in the grocery store because they do not store or travel well. But they are a delicious, tasty treat when picked and eaten fresh. Each season brings its own bounty of food to be enjoyed, and I find myself eating a greater variety of foods because of it!
Our ancestors focused on nutrient-dense foods
Most whole foods are nutrient-dense. Processed foods are devoid of many nutrients, or artificial nutrients have been added in (which our bodies cannot absorb as well). Ethically raised beef, pork, sheep, chicken, and turkeys are nutrient dense. Wild-caught fish, shrimp, clams, and other sea life are packed full of nutrients! And of course, organic fruits and vegetables are crammed full of nutrition. However, our bodies can absorb nutrition from some foods better than others. For example, cooking vegetables makes it easier for our bodies to absorb the nutrients. The protein in animal foods is so much easier for our bodies to absorb than protein from plant foods. Plant-based sources of protein often lack a few of the essential amino acids that make up protein, meaning, our body cannot absorb or use the protein consumed. Check out my article on 6 Reasons I Stopped a Vegan Diet.
A few foods could be considered superfoods in the ancestral eating world. These are bone broth, milk, eggs, and organ meats (of course from animals ethically raised).
Bone broth contains gelatin and collagen that our bodies thrive on, but we are not able to get in muscle meat.
Milk and eggs are a complete nutrition source. An egg is everything a chick would need to develop, and milk is all the nutrition a calf would get for the first few months of its life, so both are CRAMMED with all the nutrition these animals would need!
Organ meats, such as cow liver, contain an incredible amount of nutrition, such as A, B vitamins, and C vitamins, zinc, copper, iron, and more! Organ meats are hard to beat nutritionally. I like to sneak them into foods like tacos. Consuming liver is how Native American tribes would keep from getting scurvy in the winter months. After a deer was taken down, they would cut the liver up into tiny pieces and give a piece to each member of the tribe. The benefits of this organ were understood.
See my post here for 5 Superfoods to eat to prepare for pregnancy!
Focusing on nutrient-dense foods consequently means head-to-tail eating, meaning all parts of the animal that can be consumed are consumed. Most people today eat only muscle meat and miss out on the wide nutritional profile that the other parts of the animal offer. Organ meats, bone broth, and the “undesirable” cuts contain more vitamins, minerals, collagen, gelatin, and a wider diversity of amino acids. It’s also less wasteful.
Today, healthcare costs are at an all-time high, while life expectancy declines. My guess is, our food system is to blame. Today’s processed, modified foods are just not good for us. Eating an ancestral diet simply means getting back to the basics of food.
My personal favorite part of an ancestral diet is it's not restrictive. It may seem that way at first, cutting out processed and modified foods, but it's really not! Instead of buying processed cinnamon rolls from the grocery, make your own at home. Use organic flour instead of conventional, organic maple syrup instead of white sugar, and other organic ingredients, and make it sourdough, so that the grains are fermented and easier for the body to handle and absorb! I regularly eat pizza and ice cream! I just make it from scratch, using whole ingredients. After a bit of practice, cooking and eating this way is not difficult. See my post here for how to avoid processed foods!
See my post here for Ancestral Eating Meal Prep Tips and Tricks!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this article. Please let me know in the comments if you have tried eating an ancestral diet. What was your experience?