Ancestral Diet 101: What is It and The Science Behind Why it Works

When it comes to finding the perfect diet for energy and longevity, researchers often look to the past. After all, diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and obesity are relatively new. And all of them are considered “lifestyle” diseases caused by the overconsumption of processed foods and a lack of physical movement that plagues the modern world.

But what did our ancestors eat? And would their diets be considered healthy today? The fact is, there’s no evidence of just “one” ancestral diet in the history books. But one thing is certain: none of them looked like the Standard American Diet. And the more we can move away from fast food and fad diets and toward a more ancestral way of eating, the better off we’ll be.

The Rise in Chronic Disease

It’s hard to talk about the ancestral diet without first addressing the consequences of modern food and lifestyle choices. 

Obesity and chronic disease numbers have skyrocketed in the last decade, with 6 in 10 American adults suffering from at least one chronic illness and 4 in 10 experiencing two or more.1

Preventable conditions like pre-diabetes and diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and obesity are at epidemic levels. And autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto’s, and multiple sclerosis are also at all-time highs. 

Chronic disease may seem normal because of rising diagnoses, but it wasn’t always like this. In fact, for a large swath of human history, we lived free of these painful conditions that not only shorten our life spans but are expensive to treat and make us tired and miserable. 

For instance, the prevalence of obesity in the U.S. has increased from 30% to 42.4%from 2000 to 2018. During the same time, severe obesity increased from 4.7% to 9.2%.2

That means obesity-related conditions from heart disease and stroke to type 2 diabetes are also on the rise —all of which are considered preventable.

Our Paleolithic ancestors, however, were largely free of these conditions. While there is some archeological evidence of what our ancestors ate, the best evidence comes from hunter-gatherer communities that exist today:3, 4

  • Type 2 diabetes is almost non-existent in most modern hunter-gatherer communities.
  • The Tsimane people of Bolivia have an 80% lower risk of atherosclerosis than in the U.S.
  • 9 in 10 Tsimane adults aged 40-94 show no risk of heart disease.

What is The Ancestral Diet?

The ancestral diet, also known as the primal diet, isn’t just a food list or an eating plan—it’s a lifestyle. A lifestyle based on the blueprint our ancient ancestors left us: to eat real, whole foods, to move often, and give our bodies plenty of rest.

But since our ancestors’ diets varied so widely depending on geographic location, food availability, weather, and technology, who’s to say what an ancestral diet consists of? It turns out that there are some key elements to every hunter-gatherer diet, regardless of their exact macronutrient ratios and dietary makeup. 

Historically speaking, most of our Paleolithic ancestors had a few things in common, including: 

  • Meat and animal byproducts
  • Vegetables and roots
  • Some grains and legumes
  • Some fruit
  • Some nuts and seeds
  • Possibly dairy
  • Local and always organic when possible
  • No refined sugar, flours, or seed oils

Health Benefits of an Ancestral Diet 

An ancestral diet consists of natural, whole foods with an emphasis on quality and locality. As you embrace a more ancestral way of eating, you’ll naturally avoid processed, sugar-laden foods and highly-processed oils associated with inflammation, heart disease, gut dysbiosis, and more. Here are just a few benefits of eating like our hunter-gatherer ancestors:

Triggers Fat Loss

More than 40% of the U.S. adult population suffers from obesity,5 and most of this has to do with the high caloric mass and low nutritional value of processed foods. 

Highly processed foods can put you on a blood sugar rollercoaster, triggering frequent cravings and even hormone disruption. On the other hand, the ancestral diet is more satiating and nutrient-dense, so you’re more likely to eat fewer calories over time. This can result in fat loss and even help reduce the risk of obesity-related diseases.6, 7

Improves Gut Health

Replacing processed foods with whole, nutrient-dense foods can help strengthen the lining of the gut and improve microbial diversity, leading to a whole host of health improvements.8

While leaky gut (microscopic tears and holes in the gut lining) can trigger autoimmune issues, food sensitivities, inflammation, and more, a strong gut lining is a sign of optimal health and strong digestion. And more microbial diversity contributes to better digestion, a more robust immune system, bone health, brain health, and more.9,10,11

Reverses Metabolic Syndrome

Metabolic syndrome is characterized as a cluster of health markers that increase your risk of other conditions like heart disease and cancer. Those who have three or more of the following health conditions fall into the category of metabolic disease:

  1. Large waist circumference
  2. High triglycerides
  3. Low HDL cholesterol
  4. High blood pressure
  5. High fasting glucose 

In the U.S. alone, metabolic syndrome has reached epic levels, with about one in three Americans suffering from some level of the condition. Luckily, an ancestral diet has been shown to improve blood pressure, waist circumference, cholesterol levels, and more compared to other diets.12,13,14

Lowers Inflammation

It’s well-known that sugar, processed foods, and certain seed oils contribute to chronic inflammation, which can trigger everything from heart disease to depression and other inflammatory conditions. 

On the other hand, ancestral foods like grass-fed, pastured meat and organic produce have been shown to decrease inflammatory markers, improve blood pressure, and positively impact cholesterol.15

Reduces the Risk of Chronic Illness and Increases Lifespan

High-quality, nutrient-dense foods, quality sleep, movement, and lower stress lead to measurable differences in health and lifespan. 

Switching from a Standard American Diet to an ancestral lifestyle can reduce your risk of heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, neurological disorders, mood disorders, hormone imbalances, and more. 

Plus, it’s a common myth that most of our ancient ancestors only lived to 30 years old.16 In fact, child mortality rates bring the average lifespan down dramatically. Most experts believe that an ancestral diet and lifestyle, along with advances in emergency medicine could exponentially increase lifespan today.

Ancestral Food List

It’s tough to know exactly what our ancestors ate, but if you abide by the tenets outlined above, you’ll be well on your way to lowering inflammation and your toxic load and feeling better fast. Here’s a more comprehensive list of what foods to add to your ancestral diet: 

What to Eat

The bulk of any ancestral diet is always made up of whole, unprocessed foods. Fill your plate primarily with the following foods and you’ll be well on your way to better health.

  • Meat: organic, grass-fed, or wild-caught beef, bison, elk, venison, lamb, pork (organ meats are great too: Liver, heart, spleen and tongue!) 
  • Poultry: organic, pastured chicken and turkey
  • Eggs: organic, pastured eggs
  • Fish and shellfish: wild-caught, low-mercury salmon, tuna, halibut, trout, shrimp, scallops, lobster, etc.
  • Vegetables: organic leafy greens, broccoli, cabbage, zucchini, peppers, carrots, etc. 
  • Starchy vegetables: potatoes, sweet potatoes, and winter squash
  • Fruits: organic apples, organges, grapes, berries, bananas, etc. 
  • Nuts and seeds: almonds, walnuts, macadamias, pistachios, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, chia, flax, and all-natural nut and seed butters
  • Healthy fats: grass-fed butter and ghee, coconut oil, avocado oil, extra virgin olive oil, lard
  • Some milk alternatives: unsweetened almond, coconut, cashew, and hemp milks
  • Spices and herbs: organic basil, cumin, cilantro, sage, rosemary, cinnamon, clove, etc.

What to Eat in Moderation

Unlike strict Paleo diets (which don’t include dairy), and the keto diet (which bans most carbohydrates), the ancestral diet allows certain, high-quality foods in moderation —even if your ancestors didn’t have access to them.

  • Coffee and tea: unsweetened coffee or tea 
  • Dairy: raw or organic full-fat dairy, including unsweetened yogurt, and full-fat cream or milk
  • Legumes: legumes are allowed when they’re soaked or sprouted, including lentils, various beans, and fermented soy
  • Natural sweeteners: honey and real maple syrup
  • Dark chocolate: 70% cocoa content or higher (preferably organic) and low in processed sugar

Occasional Indulgences

Another tenant of an ancestral diet is the occasional indulgence. Enjoy the treats on the list during the holidays or special occasions, but not every day.

  • Alcohol: organic, low-sugar red or white wine, and low-carb, low-sugar spirits or hard kombucha
  • Cheese: raw or grass-fed goat’s, sheep’s, or cow’s milk cheeses like feta, gouda, cheddar, blue cheese, etc. 

Foods To Avoid

When it comes to foods to avoid, the ancestral diet is similar to the Paleo diet to a point. The main goal is to avoid inflammatory foods like highly processed foods and oils, sugar, and most processed grains.

  • Processed foods: chips, processed breads and tortillas, pretzels, crackers, fast food, energy bars, frozen dinners, other highly processed convenience meals
  • Sugar and high fructose corn syrup: candy, pastries, cake, cookies, all forms of processed sugar, soda, fruit juice, ice cream, etc.
  • Artificial sweeteners: aspartame, sucralose, saccharin, acesulfame potassium, cyclamates, etc.
  • Grains: whole (unsoaked) grains, refined grains, bread, pasta, muffins, bagels, pancakes, cereal, etc.
  • Refined vegetable and seed oils: canola oil, cottonseed oil, safflower oil, grapeseed oil, soybean oil, etc.
  • Trans fats and hydrogenated fats: any foods containing partially hydrogenated oils, margarine, shortening, etc.

How to Get Started on an Ancestral Diet

The good news about an ancestral diet is that it doesn’t feel as restrictive as many other popular diets out there. You don’t have to count calories, track macros, or weigh your food. And the main requirement is that you find the highest-quality, organic foods possible, which isn’t just fun —it makes food taste better.

Here are the top tips for getting started and sticking to your new ancestral diet plan: 

  1. Detox your kitchen: Once you decide to go ancestral, it’s best to rid your pantry and fridge of any processed foods and sugar. Donate what you can and toss the rest to avoid tempting snacks and “cheat” meals. Your willpower will only get you so far.
  2. Find your local farmer’s market: The best way to get excited about an ancestral diet is to start exploring local meat and produce purveyors. Opt for more seasonal eating, and restrict your food shopping to a 100-mile radius when possible.
  3. Research local farmers: If the markets are closed, you can still research local farms and ranches. This is a great way to form a more intimate relationship with your food.
  4. Cook more meals: Cooking at home ensures that you have control over your ingredients and the quality of your cooking oils. Eating in is always a healthier option and can save you money, too.
  5. Plan your meals: Meal planning and batch cooking may not sound exciting, but it can be a life-saver, especially when you’re first starting out. 

The Takeaway

An ancestral diet is a modern answer to the very modern problem of increased incidence of obesity and lifestyle-related diseases. Proponents of this diet recommend cutting out processed foods, sugars, seed oils, and excess grains and opt for more fresh, whole foods to lower inflammation, improve gut health, and much more. 

The best part is —adopting an ancestral diet doesn’t have to feel difficult. And because it can include things like minimal whole grains, legumes, and dairy, many people prefer it over stricter diets like Paleo and keto.

If you’re looking for a nutrition blueprint that lets you enjoy your favorite foods all while transforming your health, then the ancestral diet is definitely for you.