When we think about the diets of our long-gone ancestors, we might imagine them plucking fruits from trees and hunting down their dinners. Fast forward to today and the ‘ancestral eating’ trend is making waves, promising a return to our roots (both literally and figuratively) for a healthier, more balanced lifestyle.
What exactly is this culinary blast from the past all about, though—and does ancestral eating offer any real health benefits? Here’s a deeper dive into what ancestral eating entails and has to offer.
- ABOUT OUR EXPERT: Annette Synder, M.S., R.D., is a registered dietitian with Top Nutrition Coaching. Dr. Josh Axe, D.N.M., C.N.S., is a doctor of natural medicine, clinical nutritionist, and the co-founder of Ancient Nutrition.
What Is Ancestral Eating?
Put simply, ancestral eating is a dietary approach that draws inspiration from ancient food traditions, including whole-food ingredients and time-honored preparation methods that have been used for millennia.
Consider it a nod to a simpler, more natural way of eating that reflects the diet of our ancestors. Think local, seasonal, and nose-to-tail dining, where all parts of plants and animals are used, meaning little to nothing goes to waste. It’s the original farm-to-table vibe—and it can potentially help you consume more nutrients, slim down, experience enhanced digestion and less inflammation.
The ancestral eating style emphasizes unprocessed foods—such as fresh vegetables, fruits, herbs, fish, meat, organ meats, and seeds—and denounces highly processed ingredients, including many modern foods found in packages, according to registered dietitian Annette Synder, M.S., R.D. For example, refined grains, found in commonly eaten foods like bread, cereal, pasta, and baked goods, are a no-go on this diet.
What’s the core tenet behind the resurgence of an ancestral eating style?
The idea fueling this trend is that our modern diets have strayed too far from our evolutionary roots. Ancestral eating proponents believe the most nutrient-dense, gut-friendly foods come straight from the earth, while ultra-processed, mass-produced foods are thought to be lacking in essential nutrients while simultaneously providing lots of “empty calories,” according to Snyder.
Ancestral diets aim to mimic what our hunter-gatherer predecessors ate. These eating patterns emphasize foods that could have been hunted, fished, gathered, or raised locally by our ancestors. “The rise in popularity of ancestral eating can be attributed to the drive to eat more local foods,” says Snyder. “People want to know where their food comes from!”
In many ways, the ancestral diet approach shares many of the principles of other popular eating styles, such as the Paleo and Mediterranean diets. However, the ancestral eating pattern is somewhat more flexible in that the specifics can vary depending on the region and the specific ancestors one is referring to. It might also include some forms of fermented dairy and sprouted whole grains, while Paleo, for example, excludes all grains and dairy.
Health Benefits of Eating Like Our Ancestors
In general, eating a whole foods-based diet typically results in a high nutrient intake, including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber, shares Snyder. At the same time, it limits the consumption of added sugars, trans-fats, and refined carbs.
For these reasons, ancestral eating may help support weight loss or weight management, metabolic health, digestion, and more, all while fighting inflammation, according to doctor of natural medicine and clinical nutritionist Dr. Josh Axe, D.N.M., C.N.S., co-founder of Ancient Nutrition. Studies back this up, suggesting that humans centuries ago who ate a Paleo diet tended to be slim and had low risk for chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease.
Additionally, advocates for this diet argue that our bodies struggle to metabolize many modern foods and that this contributes to the gut trouble and inflammation at the root of many chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, notes Axe. Returning to a more natural diet can therefore potentially ward off chronic health issues, in part by supporting a healthy microbiome.
Here’s an overview of the main benefits associated with ancestral eating:
- High nutrient density: Ancestral foods provide lots of essential vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and healthy fats that modern processed foods often lack, points out Synder. Interestingly, one study found that when people living in Colombia traded traditional diets for more modern foods, they consumed fewer nutrients and their children faced a greater risk of malnutrition.
- May help lower inflammation: Axe is a fan of an ancestral diet because of its anti-inflammatory effects. Wild-caught and pastured animal proteins, omega-3s from seafood, monounsaturated fats from olive oil, and the many beneficial compounds in fruits and vegetables all contribute to overall better health and support the management of inflammation, he suggests.
- Gut-friendly: The antioxidant-rich foods, fermented foods, bone broth, and high-fiber plants that are considered staples of an ancestral diet promote a healthy gut microbiome and “gut-brain axis,” according to Axe. Meanwhile, minimizing grains and sugars also helps prevent gut irritation that influences mental health, among other things. This explains why research shows that traditional diets are associated with enhanced mental well-being and cognitive health.
- Contributes to satiety: High-fiber veggies, quality proteins, and healthy fats provide lasting fullness, making it easier to control how much you eat throughout the day. Ancestral diets often include a variety of plant foods that are rich in different types of fiber and known to curb hunger. Plus, by limiting or avoiding grains (especially refined ones) and added sugars, an ancestral diet can prevent blood sugar spikes and crashes, Axe notes.
- Environmentally sustainable: By eating locally, seasonal foods, you have a much smaller carbon footprint than you would when fully immersed in the globalized food system, which is dependent on GMOs, pesticides, and preservatives, Snyder says. This eating style also supports local economies and producers, making it a much more sustainable way of eating for people and the environment.
Dos And Dont’s Of Ancestral Eating + Exactly What To Eat
Ready to eat like your ancestors did? There are four hallmarks of ancestral eating to follow, which include:
1. Eat Only Whole Foods
Synder recommends focusing on pasture-raised and grass-fed meats and organ meats, wild-caught seafood, and fresh, organic produce that pack a big nutritional punch.
She and Axe are also fans of bone broth-based soups, healthy fats (think olive oil, avocado, coconut oil, seeds, and nuts), and herbs and spices (such as turmeric and ginger) that can also contribute important nutrients to your diet and amp up the flavor of your food.
Generally, ancestral diets exclude or limit grains, legumes, conventional dairy, and refined salt, sugars, and oils, says Axe. These ingredients have unfortunately become widespread in the modern food supply, so read food labels to understand what you’re consuming. One helpful swap to make is to switch out refined vegetable oils for butter, ghee, or animal fat.
Synder points out that when ingredients like grains and milk are consumed as part of an ancestral diet, preparation methods matter. “Dairy foods are typically selected from grass-fed sources, are full-fat, and are unpasteurized/raw and often fermented, making them easier to digest. Grains are often organically grown and sprouted for the same reason,” she points out.
2. Eat Locally
“The makeup of ancestral diets was determined by where people lived,” says Synder. “For example, if living near a large body of water, there may have been more seafood consumed. If living in a more agricultural land-locked area, there may have been more red meat. Essentially, they ate what was locally available and seasonal.”
Seek out foods grown nearby that are in-season, such as produce sold at farmer’s markets. This maximizes freshness and nutritional quality while also decreasing resources needed for shipping and packaging. “Get to know the local scene, and make connections with growers and producers in your area—if not at a farmers’ market, then search online, such as on Facebook,” suggests Synder.
3. Eat Seasonally
Eating seasonally takes advantage of a region’s natural crop cycles. In-season foods pack the most vitamins and minerals, plus they tend to taste the best, too, suggests Axe.
Synder agrees: “Often, the foods we buy in the grocery store have been picked before they are ready, artificially ripened, and travel long distances in all manner of conditions—all factors that could negatively affect nutrient density and taste.”
Growing your own food is another great way to eat both locally and seasonally. “Try your hand at gardening,” suggests Synder. “Even small spaces could house a hanging tomato plant or a window box herb garden. There are great tips online for maximizing the use of any spot you have, or you could take a gardening class at a local library or community center.”
4. Follow a ‘Nose-to-Tail’ and Sustainable Approach
Another must-do in ancestral eating is to make an effort to use every edible part of an animal, like bones for broth and organ meats for nutrition, suggests Axe. This honors the animal fully and limits waste. Try to incorporate organ meats like liver once or twice per week, he adds.
You can also preserve ingredients including dairy milk, fresh fruits, and vegetables by fermenting them, such as by making yogurt, sauerkraut, or pickles. This extends their shelf lives significantly.
Supplement Your Way to Success
While a healthy diet should be your top priority, supplements can also play a role in helping to optimize how you feel and function. Glandulars, collagen, bone broth protein, and cod liver oil are all examples of supplements that fall into the ancestral eating category, according to Synder and Axe. These supplements can further boost your intake of beneficial amino acids, fats, and enzymes.
1. Bone Broth Protein or Collagen Protein
Simmering bones into broth breaks down collagen for easy absorption, says Axe. In addition to making your own bone broth, collagen powder supplements also provide steady collagen peptides that have been shown to support joint, gut, skin, hair, and nail health. Of course, be sure to vary your protein intake from different whole sources and use these powdered options to supplement healthy foods, Snyder notes. Ancient Nutrition’s flavored Bone Broth Protein is easy to add to all sorts of recipes, while The Vitamin Shoppe brand Unflavored Grass-Fed Collagen Peptides slip into everything from coffee to soup undetected.
2. Beef liver or glandular supplements
Liver is one of nature’s most nutrient-dense superfoods—but if you’re not a fan of eating liver and organ meats, Axe suggests taking them in capsule form. (These are sometimes called glandulars.) Organ meats and glandulars are very high in iron, vitamin A, B vitamins, and zinc that may be missing from modern diets, explains Axe. A couple of options to consider: Vital Proteins Grass-Fed Beef Liver and Ancient Nutrition Organs Blend.
3. Cod liver oil
Traditionally used in Scandinavia to support general health, cod liver oil is exceptionally high in omega-3 fatty acids, and also contains immunity-loving vitamins A and D3. “If you struggle to get exposure to sunlight or don’t have access to local seafood or cold-water fish, supplementing with cod liver oil is a way to meet your needs,” says Synder. Try The Vitamin Shoppe brand Cod Liver Oil, which provides 1,100 milligrams of omega-3s, plus 450 IU of vitamin D and 4,500 IU of vitamin A.