100 Million Years of Food: What Our Ancestors Ate and Why It Matters Today

By Dr. Terry Willard, Faculty member here at the BodyMind Institute
Blog Website: www.drterrywillard.com
Wild Rose College of Natural Healing Website: www.wrc.net

Every once in a while you come across a book that makes you want to stand up on a high place and shout: THEY’VE GOT IT! Such is the case with Steven Le’s book: 100 Million Years of Food: What Our Ancestors Ate and Why It Matters Today. No, it is not because my middle name is Lee, close to his family name; this book has some great concepts, while being quite fun to read. It takes the reader on many adventures from eating insects in Thailand, to how parasites can contribute to your health. As a Biological Anthropologist, and visiting Professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Ottawa; Dr. Le has travelled extensively, conducting on the street research on diet styles, coming to some interesting conclusions.

I will go through all of his 10 conclusions on diet shortly, but first I would like to point out what for me are his two most important points:

1. What might be good for short term nutrition is not always the best for long term health and longevity. Your diet should vary with your age. Unfortunately, most people are doing it backwards.

2. Eat close to your ancestral type. I have been telling this to my patients for over 25 years. The one thing he missed though is that when I have said this to my patients, they immediately went to their ancestral festival food diet. Great, tiramisu and pasta everyday! I can eat Fish and Chips everyday? This is often on the rich side. We can, and should eat our ancestral festival food, but only at festivals. It is the daily eating habit used on a regular basis that counts the most. It is best to look at your ancestral diet pre-Columbus (500 years ago).

This book takes a more human evolutionary point of view to diet and nutrition:

“Trying to understand human nutrition and health without understanding evolution is like trying to eavesdrop on a snippet of conversation without knowing the context—it makes little sense or can be very misleading.”

At first glimpse it might appear to be a Paleo type diet, which he addresses, but it is somewhat different and better thought out.

Let’s go through his 10 main points:

1. KEEP MOVING “Although daily workouts and self-restraint in eating are commonly touted as the most effective means of avoiding food-related diseases like obesity and diabetes, neither scientific experiments nor an examination of human history supports these recommendations. Vigorous exercise makes people hungrier and often leads to physical injuries, while voluntarily cutting back on calories takes superhuman control and is probably an unnatural thing for humans to do, as our lean and fit hunter-gatherer relations had pretty hefty appetites. Instead, the most important thing you can do is to aim to walk like our ancestors and amble for at least two hours every day (around six to nine miles) or as much as feasible, or sit for a maximum of three hours a day.”

2. DRINK ALCOHOL MODERATELY “Medical experts are generally conflicted over the merits of drinking alcohol because heavy drinking can harm the liver, increase the risk of metabolic syndrome, and increase the risk of violent death. On the other hand, when intake is moderate—two drinks a day for men, one drink a day for women—the health benefits of alcohol for mitigating heart disease and mortality in general are stronger than any known benefit from any other food item, including vegetables, fruits, and fish. That being said, the benefits of drinking alcohol accrue mainly to people over the age of forty living in developed countries, because infectious diseases rather than heart diseases tend to be the main killers in developing countries, and because for people under the age of forty, heart diseases are not an issue, whereas alcohol can exacerbate the risks that younger people face, such as accidents, homicides, and suicides.”

Again we tend to this one backwards.

3. EAT LESS MEAT AND DAIRY WHEN YOUNG “The current mainstream nutritional advice on meat is to eat sparing amounts; conversely, advocates of low-carb diets challenge the low-meat paradigm and assert that people should eat a lot of meat for better weight control and overall health, because starches are fattening and dangerous for heart health. Both sides are close to the truth. Younger people should eat less meat and dairy, because meat and dairy promote faster overall growth via hormones like IGF-1, which is a risk factor for certain types of cancers. On the other hand, for people over the age of sixty-five, eating more meat is likely a good thing, because the cancers that are promoted by meat take a long time to develop, whereas the real risk factors for an elderly person in the developed world stem from frailty and wasting, which may be mitigated by eating meat (dairy is more complicated, due to the high concentration of calcium). The common wisdom advises letting youth indulge in food and exercising restraint in later life, but this is exactly wrong; instead, we should advise younger people to eat meat and dairy sparingly, while people over the age of sixty-five should be encouraged to indulge in the pleasures of meat.”

4. EAT TRADITIONAL CUISINE “While some food writers like Michael Pollan, Dr. Daphne Miller, and Sally Fallon Morell advocate eating some versions of traditional diets, most mainstream nutritionists are leery of traditional diets, which tend to be moderate in fat, cholesterol, and/or salt. I advocate traditional diets for three reasons: 1) In studies, traditional diets typically do at least as well as nutritionist-approved low-fat, low-salt diets in maintaining health. In part, this is because the functions of dietary fat, cholesterol, and salt throughout the body are numerous, while nutritionists have necessarily devoted their limited time and resources to narrow views on the harmful effects of these substances. 2) Traditional eaters didn’t bother with scientific studies; they cooked and combined food in ways that maximized their health. The older the cuisine, the better: Five-hundred-year-old-cuisines are a good starting point, because at that point industrially processed foods had not yet made significant inroads into people’s diets. 3) Traditional cuisines were moderate in fat, cholesterol, and/or salt and therefore tasted good; thus getting ourselves to stick with these diets is not difficult. The Mediterranean diet (olive oil, bread, nuts, goat cheese, fish, red wine, pasta, vegetables) is perhaps the most widely known and touted traditional cuisine these days, but many other traditional diets, from American southern and Mexican to Japanese, Okinawan (sweet potatoes, fish, vegetables, soybean), and Australian Aboriginal (kangaroo, crocodile, wild plants and fruits, tubers, honey), have been found to be superior to modern diets in mitigating chronic diseases like cancers and type 2 diabetes.”

5. EAT WHAT YOUR ANCESTORS ATE “In societies where people lived on particular diets for hundreds or thousands of years, their bodies gradually became adapted to these diets, acquiring enzymes to process starches, in the case of Europeans and East Asians; to process seaweed, in the case of Japanese; and to process milk, in the case of northern Europeans, pastoralist African and Middle East groups, and northern Indians. High levels of calcium may be a risk factor for prostate cancer in populations that had little exposure to dairy. If your ancestors didn’t consume much starch or dairy, neither should you. The take-home message: Eat what your ancestors ate.”

6. EAT SUSTAINABLY “Unfortunately, when we eat meat and fish cheaply, we do so by passing on the environmental costs of pollution and plant-cover degradation to future generations. The best way out of this mess is to eat more of the plants and animals that are adapted to our local environments and decrease our reliance on foreign, poorly adapted plants and animals. In many parts of the world, there is an abundance of plants and animals that people used to eat but later generations became squeamish about. In North America, acorns, deer, bear, moose, beaver, fish, waterfowl, and insects used to provide valuable sustenance, but European immigrants to the region rejected or forgot about these foods; . . . That’s a shame, because wild plants and animals are generally better nutritional choices—for example, the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids is higher in wild foods—and more environmentally sustainable. . . In the Americas, insects used to be a huge part of the ancestral diet because there weren’t any big domesticated mammals around; they’re still popular in much of the developing world. Insect protein is palatable. In Thailand, they can’t import enough crickets to satisfy their demand. Pound for pound, insects consume fewer calories than mammal livestock because insects are cold-blooded. They also suck up less water and emit fewer greenhouse gases than livestock. Also, if you’re worried about animal cruelty, the nervous system in an insect is far less developed than in a mammal.”

7. GET AS MUCH SUN AS YOUR SKIN TYPE REQUIRES “Our ancestors were continually exposed to the sun. The most obvious manifestation of this is our body’s dependency on skin exposure to sunlight to produce the correct amount of vitamin D. It’s true that skin cancer is an opposing risk, so rather than getting burned on the weekend or hitting a tanning booth, the best thing to do is to spread out your exposure to the sun throughout the year and throughout the week, which allows people with tanning skin types to develop protective natural tanning. . . . Solar radiation likely has an effect in reducing the risk of various types of cancers, such as breast cancer. Popping vitamin D pills or eating vitamin-D-rich food is not a great solution because scientists don’t know how much vitamin D is required by the human body, or even if vitamin D is the main benefit from solar exposure; moreover, getting too much vitamin D may boost the risk of certain cancers, including prostate and colon cancer.”

8. GET SAFE GERM/PARASITE EXPOSURE “If you suffer from hay fever, food allergies, or other common immune system disorders, you can likely lay part of the blame on lack of sunlight (see the previous point) and the massive hygiene drive that started roughly one hundred years ago. Because our ancestors evolved with constant exposure to parasites like bacteria, viruses, and scores of tiny invertebrates, our immune systems are dependent upon parasitic exposure to calibrate properly, just as our teeth require hard foods, our feet require solid contact with ground, and our eyes require copious natural sunlight to develop properly. But parasites are no laughing matter, because many kinds of parasites can and will gladly finish us off; . . . Other options include spending more time in rural settings such as farms and traveling to developing countries.”

I suggest here eating fermented foods is a great compromise.

9. COOK AT LOW HEAT “When a side of beef is roasted, a slab of salmon seared, a sliver of bacon fried, or a cube of tofu sautéed, a chemical process known as the Maillard reaction results in delicious browning of the cooked food (similar to caramelization). However, fatty or protein-rich foods cooked under high heat generate AGEs (advanced glycation end products). AGEs are also produced naturally in the body, but the concentration of circulating AGEs can be elevated through intake in industrialized diets. Like teenage pranksters, AGEs wreak havoc by binding to cell receptors, cross-linking and hence changing the shapes and functions of body proteins, and generally promoting oxidation damage and inflammation. Possible adverse health effects of AGEs include hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), anemia, Alzheimer’s disease, cataracts, cirrhosis, bone brittleness, muscle stiffness, loss of grip strength, slower walking speed, kidney disease, type 1 and type 2 diabetes, and lowered life expectancy. Concentrations of AGEs can be altered enormously by different cooking techniques. Raw foods contain the fewest AGEs. Cooking using traditional, low-heat methods (boiling, steaming, stewing) produces slightly elevated levels of AGEs. High-temperature, dry methods of cooking (broiling, roasting, deep-frying, grilling) and food processing rack up the greatest yields of AGEs. Noxious AGEs are also highly prevalent in hamburgers, soft drinks, crackers, cookies, pretzels, doughnuts, pies, Parmesan cheese, pancakes, waffles, and other processed foods.”

10. REMEMBER: FAD DIETS DON’T WORK “Foods are one of the few things that we can easily alter in our lifestyles, and it’s commonly believed that foods comprise the basis of our health—i.e., “You are what you eat.” Not surprisingly, people gravitate toward various kinds of miracle diets and “superfoods” in the hopes of achieving a quick fix to health problems like obesity, diabetes, and cancers. However, eating more meat, or more dairy, or more fruits and vegetables, or more raw food, or less fat, or following any other dietary alteration has rarely provided relief from chronic diseases. There are two reasons for this lack of a quick dietary fix: 1) Our bodies are designed to thrive on a wide variety of foods, in the form of time-tested traditional diets. 2) The major factor underlying chronic disease is disruption in our physical lifestyles, particularly the absence of movement, so adjusting our diets to compensate for the lack of physical activity rarely achieves our desired goals. The final message: Eat good food, keep moving, and let your body take care of the rest.”

Of course, I would always add two more things to the program:

1. Cleanse or Detox on a regular basis (2 – 4 times a year) like our ancestors did.

2. Eat lot of fermented foods, which Dr. Le does go into.

Bottom line is get the book and read it. You might find yourself going back to it time and time again. A must for anyone who want to keep current with nutrition and health concerns. And the dialogue goes on. . .

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Dr. Terry Willard

For over forty years, Terry Willard, Cl.H.,Ph.D., has studied the medicinal properties of plants. He is recognized as one of North America’s leading Clinical Herbalists. He appears regularly in the print and electronic media as an exponent of responsible herbal use. He is the past-president of the Canadian Association of Herbal Practitioners, a professional member of the American Herbalist Guild and in the Canadian Health Food Association’s Hall of Fame. Dr. Willard is the author of twelve books on the subject of Herbs including the pivotal Wild Rose Herbal Series – a series of three textbooks written to educate herbalists. Two of his books, Mind-Body Harmony and Dr. Willard Flower Essence: Emotional Alchemy and Spiritual Evolution, have been particularly popular with the general public.