Editorial reminds us of the importance of looking to our nutritional past to improve our future health

My last post here detailed just a few relatively easy-to-apply lifestyle changes that might make good New Year resolutions. One of them, was to eat a ‘primal’ diet ” essentially a diet based on the foods we’ve been eating the longest in terms of our time on this planet. The record suggests that for the vast majority of our time here we’ve subsisted on a diet made up of animal foods (e.g. meat, fish and eggs), fruit, vegetables, nuts and water. The exact make-up of the diet would have varied according to precise location and environment (e.g. relatively more animal and less plant food further from the equator), but what our ancestral diet most certainly did not contain was piles of grain and dairy products, along with things like refined vegetable oils, refined sugar, artificial sweeteners and processed, chemicalised fats found in many foods including margarine.

Just a couple of days ago in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition was published an editorial which reminds us of the potential importance of getting back to our nutritional roots [1]. In this editorial, the authors make the point that our genetic make-up was selected for behaviours and an environment (including diet) for humans appearing in Africa between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago. Now, since that time, certain adaptations have taken place (e.g. skin colour and the retaining after infancy of the milk sugar digesting enzyme lactase by some of the human population). However, as the authors point out, core biochemical and physiological processes have been preserved [2].

As humans migrated around the globe and cultures changed, the authors argue, our diet and activity changed in a way that made it impossible for genetic evolution to keep pace. The result? Complex degenerative diseases including atherosclerosis (the usual underlying process in heart disease and stroke), several forms of cancer, obesity and type 2 diabetes.

According to the authors of the editorial, few would deny that conventional nutritional advice is not working. And they suggest that what would help would be a more rapid shift in thinking towards a diet that gets us closer to humanity’s biological baseline. They quote a recent scientific paper [3] which asserts that It is difficult to refute the assertion that if modern populations returned to a hunter-gatherer state then obesity and diabetes would not be the major public health threats they now are.

As we enter a new decade, perhaps more than any other time in history do we need a radical rethink of what truly constitutes a healthy diet. For too long now we have been ‘fed’ the idea that the low-fat, high-carb diet is king. The results of this persistent public health message, and our acting on it, appear to have been an unmitigated disaster judging by the soaring rates of obesity and diabetes we’ve seen in westernised cultures.

Enough is enough. There is more than enough evidence, I think, to demonstrate that looking to our nutritional past will be how we can improve our health and the health of future generations.


1. Eaton SB, et al. Diet-dependent acid load, paleolithic nutrition, and evolutionary health promotion. Am J Clin Nutr 30 Dec 2009 [epub ahead of print]

2. Smith E, et al. Universality in intermediary metabolism. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 2004;101:13168-73

3. O’Rahilly S. Human genetics illuminates the paths to metabolic disease. Nature. 2009;462:307-14.

17 Responses to Editorial reminds us of the importance of looking to our nutritional past to improve our future health

  1. Jackie Bushell 1 January 2010 at 9:16 pm #

    This is excellent news. Maybe ‘mainstream’ science/medicine is at long last starting to ‘get it’ about what healthy eating really is.

  2. Ian 1 January 2010 at 9:27 pm #

    I recommend the book “The Diet Delusion” by Gary Taubes. In it he runs through the history and politics of why the high-carb/low-fat advice eventually found consensus, despite the bad science surrounding it.

    How we escape this ridiculous situation, and move back to a true healthy diet, I haven’t the foggiest.

    I’ve tried my best to convince my own circle of friends & family to abandon refined carbohydrates, but since this flies in the face of advice from GPs and the media, I just get humoured.

    So… what to do?

  3. Wuzza Fattie 1 January 2010 at 11:02 pm #

    I’m starting the new year with no particular dietary resolutions. I made a commitment in late June of 2009 to permanently end my love affair with carbohydrates and sweet flavors – natural and artificial. I had 40lbs to lose, and I’m now past the halfway point and an plugging along at a methodical pace. I should reach my goal by the one year mark. You might think that’s too long to wait, that one can be more extreme and accomplish the goal sooner. I formerly held that view, which explains why I have lost and regained weight several times in the past ten years. I’m now eating the way I intend to eat for the rest of my life. This gradual approach has been far easier. I feel less “cheated” when everyone around me eats sweets and floury treats. I’m not temporarily banned from eating that type of food, rather, I no longer eat that type of food. The lessons learned in the last six months are invaluable. I’m not a slave to the scale – I check once a week, sometimes I skip a week or two. Sometimes it goes down, other times it doesn’t. What matters is that I need to go to the clothing store avery month or so and pick out new jeans, since the old ones are getting too loose. 3 inches of waist size on six months – not bad.

    I’m excercising daily (or nearly daily – I’m not enslaved by it). One day I’ll do a stretching routine, the next day I do a weight-training regimen. The former makes the aches and pains of nearly 50 years of life nearly disappear; the latter has provided functional strength, attractive muscle tone (according to my wife ;-)), and a steady metabolism.

    Don’t start a weight loss regimen today. Decide that what appears to be normal in our respective societies is normal only to those who wish to live short, painful, and regretful lives. Rather, invoke a new normal. Live, eat, and excercise as though you are the picture of health. You’ll eventually begin to look like that picture. It’ll take longer than you’d prefer, but it’ll last a lifetime – an improved lifetime at that!

  4. Dennis Mullins 1 January 2010 at 11:11 pm #


    I agree with the principle that we should all be eating a ‘Primal’ diet. However I do not think it is very practicable as modern foods are not the same as our early ancestors ate.

    Fruit has been selectively bread to increase sweetness, unifomity and resistance to spoilage at expense of flavour and at expense of nutritional value. Salad vegetables are grown hydroponically rather than in natural earth – tomatoes these days have zero flavour for instance – no experiments have been done to compare nutritional value (as far as I am aware) but my intuition is that those grown in natural earth are much much more nutritious.

    Many farmed animal foods (including red meat , poultry and fish) have similar problems – fed on unnatural foods in unnatural conditions with growth promoters and other chemicals and often ill and needing anitbiotics. Again my intuition is that these are nowhere nearly as nutritious as natural primal animal foods. I am not criticising all farmed animal foods but unfortunately it is quite difficult to identify whether individual pieces of meat/poultry/fish come from animals fed on a natural diet

    Nuts and seeds have also been selectively bred though the impact on nutritional value is not clear to me.

    So what can we do ? I think that to minimise risk of malnutrition one should select organic foods wherever possible and in the case of animal foods prefer the most natural foods available such as fish from the sea (even this has mercury risk), wild game and meats such as grass fed lamb and beef if one can find them. Also consume a wide variety of veg, fruit and nuts /seeds from many different sources to maximise the chance of getting some that are highly nutritious.

    I think the healthiest diet would include vegetables (5 portions and day), fruit (3+ portions a day), nuts, seeds and legumes every day, some animal protein (sea fish , wild game. vension. grass fed lamb or beef possible orgnanic poultry, eggs) every day – also spices and herbs (such as ginger, garlic, turmeric, cinnamon, cumin) every day as well as some wholegrains other than wheat (such as oats, rye, brown rice etc). Of course one should avoid refined and processed foods

    Your advice on how we can really implement a primal diet would be much appreciated.

  5. Margaret Wilde 2 January 2010 at 12:32 am #

    The main difference, in my opinion, between ‘then’ and ‘now’ food is that ‘then’ it was low sodium and high potassium, and ‘now’, in the developed world at least, for most people it is high sodium and low potassium. And this change has been very marked and very rapid in the last decade or two, especially for people who eat a lot of processed food.

    Coupled with the sodium/potassium shift we have the huge increase in the taking of prescription drugs, many of which, e.g. corticosteroids, HRT, tricyclic antidepressants, anti-psychotics and many more, have sodium retention/water retention as a common side-effect. Thus fluid retention, i.e. weight gain, is the inevitable consequence when these drugs are taken at the same time as even a very modest salt intake. – Ergo obesity…

  6. Chris 2 January 2010 at 12:42 am #

    I think it is very much about critical mass, John. There exists a critical mass of commercial expediency that continues to propagate erroneous or only partially valid knowledge and practice. Also the mass of true free thinkers is relatively small. Here’s a quote from Rick Potts (1);

    “The problem is that no topic could be more prone to the present agendas and often mythical influences that serve particular interests and creeds-economic, political, moral, or religious. People formulate the way they think about world in their accounts of its’ origin. they relate their idea of interaction weith the world, with nature and with other human beings, in these same accounts. Origin is a bold statement of relationship and expectation.”

    I’m only part way in to Potts tome about the relationship of human evolution to earthly evolution and ecological instability but so much is resonating with me. Potts illuminates the cascade of interdependency between Planetary evolution, species evolution, diversity, human evolution, sociological evolution, and even economic evolution.
    In the above quote Potts is highlighting the impediments to objectivity in ‘mapping’ and describing the origins and evolution of humanity. He could just as easily be accounting for the resistance of the mainstream to consider the past and human dietary evolution for what the contrasts with present day diets may have to say about chronic disease.

    As you say, and have brought to our attention, the paleoanthropological view upon human dietary evolution is seductive and melds well with much epidemiological evidence. However, those converting to that view are not yet sufficient in number to count as a critical mass of opinion sufficient to counter the money resting on the old order. Nutritionists represent the converted, but if the mainstream also converts then Nutritionists lose their distinction.

    Energy is the key. It took a while but Solar Energy would have a role in the symboigenisis of self replicating molecules. Solar Energy would drive profligacy and diversification of plant species until the evolution of plant species would attain a critical mass. Herbivores then evolve, then carnivores, and finally a dominant pig headed, myopic (short-sighted) omnivore to interfere with natures’ order. Energy as a feature of human dietary evolution was likely a reinforcement loop in the evolution of human intelligence, behavior, and social development. Human dietary evolution provided the opportunity for economic evolution, energy has fueled economic development, and economic evolution has attained a maturity where it is agreeable to poison people with energy dense carbohydrates, then manage the symptoms with developmentally costly drug therapies.
    Humans have become self-predatorial. If we weren’t, and providing we could share the (desirable) fruits of our labours equitably, then we could have a lot of time on our hands; which is the more scary? I think opinion and counter opinion will persist a while longer. At least the existence of a counter culture is a refuge for those that seek one. No doubt energy will precipitate the next big change to humanity.

    (1) Humanity’s Descent; The Consequences of Ecological Instability, Rick Potts, 1996, Avon Books. (Link to Amazon.com)

  7. ant 2 January 2010 at 2:01 am #

    I agree with Chris, how to break the powerful economic feedback loop between “Big Pharma” and “Big Farmer” is one the most important issues now facing humanity.

  8. Bo 2 January 2010 at 5:35 pm #

    Going back to a primal diet makes complete sense but i just wondered how this would work if you are a serious exerciser – how you would refill your glycogen stores for recovery and whether the carbs in fruit and vegetables alone would do the job ? I don’t seem to be able to combine the two without feeling over tired?

  9. Brian Abbott 2 January 2010 at 7:45 pm #

    The fact that foods are organic doesn’t mean they have optimal amounts of vitamins and minerals in them. In fact, accrding to one researcher, whose name was on a tape I sent to some-one and that was lost en-route back to me)
    revealed that in the 1930s a US Congressional committee ordered an investigation to discover if the foods available were nutritious. Aparently it was discovered that most of the farm soils in the USA were deficient in minerals, especially selenium. The reason givenfor this deficiency was that farmers were paid for the amount of food they produced not for the quality of the food produced. Therefore whilst farmers had an incentive to add nutrients to the soil or animal’s diets l that would increase the yield, they didn’t have any initiative to put back the minerals that had been taken out with each harvest( about 4 Ibs of minerals per acre per harvest apparently, which makes you wonder how much was the soil delted of minerals over say 200 years of farming.) However, farmers know that they have to give minerals to their cattl;e etc, because, unlike mineralk deficiencies in the soil, in animals the deficiency is soon revealed. This Conressional commitee suggested that steps be taken to remedy this deficiency, but nothing was done. It is suggested that this mineral deficiency in our food, whih applies in europe too, may have some responsibility for the diseases than modern man suffers. Whewnevr I hear so called diet experts, doctors and food standards organisations say that you don’t need to take mineral and vitiman supplements, all you need is a good diet , including 5 veg / fruits a day, I always ask myself: Have they tested the foods sold in our shops to see if they have suffiecient minerrals and vitamins in them? Have they tested farm soils to see if they contain optium amounts of minerals and vitamins? I very much doubt if they have. And now our neoliberal, dictatorial EU, being awaare of the interests of drug companies and food manufaturers, is going to make it as difficult as possible for us to obtain the mineral and vitamin supplements that some of us believe make up for for deficiencies in our diet diet and keep us well. I say: Defeat Codex Alimentarius and all the other EU legislation that wants to control what we eat and what we take!

  10. Brian Abbott 2 January 2010 at 7:50 pm #

    Sorry about the spelling and grammar mistakes in my last posting. I was in a hurry.Now I have to apologise, which shows that more haste does end in less speed.

  11. Thras 2 January 2010 at 11:20 pm #

    It is a fairly good argument that people should eat what they evolved to eat. We can probably only marginally improve on such a diet.

    However, the devil is in the details.

    First of all, your ancestors are different than everybody else’s ancestors. Different groups had different ancestral diets. The genes for lactose tolerance have been around for 8,000 years (the original mutation was probably Indo-European). 95% of the people in Denmark and Sweden are lactose tolerant. An entirely separate mutation gives 90% of the Tutsi lactose tolerance. Lapps have a gene that helps them digest meat better than their southern neighbors. Agriculture began in the Middle East 10,000 years ago, but Amerindians in North America have only been doing it 1,000 years. Beer dates back 8,000 years but non-farming peoples have no tolerance for it: look at FAS incidence, for example.

    So your particular ancestral group matters when figuring out your “primal diet.”

    Now, what time period are we talking about? Here’s where Briffa and a lot of the primal types are really off base. We are *not* fine-tuned for the diet we ate 50,000-100,000 years ago. The genetic evidence is pretty clear. Gene studies show that evolution has been sped up considerably in the recent past, the last 10,000 years or so. The rate of new gene variants for Europeans and Chinese peak at around 5,500 years ago. For Africans, 8,500 years ago. Bigger populations (more mutations) and the environmental changes brought about by agricultural have greatly sped up evolution.

    You should probably be eating the diet that your ancestors have been eating for the last few hundred or last few thousand years. That’s what you’re fine-tuned for.

    Now, what if you don’t descend from a single ancestral group? What if their diet wasn’t very constant? Well, you’re screwed. But eat right and exercise, avoid refined carbs, and you’ll probably live a good stretch.

  12. Jamie 2 January 2010 at 11:21 pm #

    People need to be not so literal in their interpretation of following Paleo/Primal diets. Yes the ‘natural’ foods available today are likely different to those available 100000 years ago. But what is your choice? Eat as close to nature as you practically can within what is available today, or eat the processed rubbish that is available?

    There seems to be an attitude that because you can’t get crab apples from the supermarket, or that nuts are somehow different from the way they used to be, that there really isn’t much point in following any of this.

    And yes, while we all might have a differing lineage, if we go back far enough, that lineage starts to converge. Even within different ethnic groups consuming different foods, the patterns are still the same. And it is those patterns that matter in terms of eating for our genes.

    Bo – you do need to make some adjustments to eating if you are undergoing regular athletic endeavours. Prof Cordains Paleo for Athletes is a good start. Do a Google search for the Paleo for Athletes primer.

  13. David Brown 3 January 2010 at 8:29 am #

    I used to think excessive sugar intake was the major dietary indiscretion driving the current epidemic of chronic disease. However, after watching this 37 minute presentation by Dr. Bill Lands, I’m beginning to wonder if sugar and omega-6 fats aren’t about equally to blame for the poor health of modern man. http://omega-6-omega-3-balance.omegaoptimize.com/2009/11/10/why-omega6-fats-matter-to-your-health.aspx

  14. Dennis Mullins 4 January 2010 at 12:57 am #

    Sugar and Omega 6 are two sides of the same coin. Both are the result of refining and processing of natural whole foods in particular cereals. Free sugar , including such things as HFCS, is extracted from grains such as corn and others. Omega 6 oils are extracted from grains, particularly corn, as well as seeds and nuts. Animals are fed on refined grains, making them fat – high in Omega 6 at expense of Omega 3.

    If one eats only natural plants foods (not refined or processed) and wild or ‘naturally farmed’ animal foods, the whole problem of sugar and Omega 6 (as well as almost all other health risks !) disappears. In a natural diet there is no free sugar – the only sugar is the sugar embedded in the structure of fruits and some vegetables , all of which are very healthy to eat as whole natural foods. Similarly there is no excess of Omega 6. The only Omega 6 is from nuts and seeds (which are very healthy to eat as whole foods) together with Omega 3 in good ratios in flax and walnuts for example. Similarly wild game and sea fish, also very healthy to eat, are low in total fat and what fat they have is favourable in Omega 3’s.

    In conclusion the only problem is the refining and processing of cereals and other plant foods, whether consumed directly by man or consumed by animals which man subsequently eats. Only humans and animals fed by humans get fat and unhealthy !

  15. Jamie 4 January 2010 at 1:43 am #

    I guess it is human nature to reduce a problem down to one or two aspects as this is easier to cope with (and from a Big Pharma point of view, it is easier to offer the pharmaceutical solution). But many of our modern ills are part of a perfect storm that consists of too much sugar, too much omega 6, not enough omega 3, too much salt, not enough vitamin D, not enough physical activity, etc, etc.

    Thanks for the omega 6 link!


  1. Fukushima Daiichi, Japan, Part 2 – Ten life-saving things you may not know about nuclear contamination | The Living Systems Revolution - 4 April 2011

    […] First of all, it will help prevent damage from radiation poisoning, and/or recovery from it, if for general health support (but steering clear of contaminated foods) we adopt an ancestral diet similar to the one advocated by a very interesting and well-informed author that Kevin introduced me to some years ago, Dr John Briffa. […]

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