Is eating like our ancient ancestors the key to unlocking maximum health, happiness, and vitality? 

On the credit side of the ledger, the “ancestral diet” movement encourages eating a lot of nutritious foods like meat, fish, eggs, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, and it discourages the consumption of highly processed fare and potentially harmful chemicals like artificial sweeteners

A hop on the good foot. But then there’s the bad thing. 

All formulas of “evolutionary eating” involve purportedly-principled-but-actually-arbitrary restrictions that make your diet more cumbersome and less enjoyable (“only eat fruits and vegetables that are in season,” “don’t eat grains, legumes, or dairy,” “never eat vegetable oil,” etc.).

That is, while the lists of what you’re supposed to eat are mostly reasonable, there’s little scientific evidence to support the exclusion of what you’re not supposed to eat: 

  • Dairy products are a good source of calcium, protein, vitamin D, potassium, magnesium, zinc, and several other vitamins, and research shows that they can improve bone health, muscle mass, strength, and weight management
  • Whole grains have been shown to reduce inflammation in the body and decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer, and even reduce mortality. 
  • Non-soy legumes decrease total and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels and are a good source of protein, carbohydrate, and fiber. 
  • Vegetable oil isn’t unhealthy per se (the details matter).

Moreover, all of the popular “caveman diets” don’t even represent what early humans actually ate, and even if they did, the rationale for adopting them is fundamentally flawed. 

Ancestral advocates often claim that our primitive predecessors were primarily hunter-gatherers, with an emphasis on hunting, but a plethora of research says otherwise. 

For example . . .

  • A study conducted by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology reported that the diet of our early human ancestors, dating from about 2 million years ago, consisted almost exclusively of leaves, fruit, wood, and bark—similar to chimpanzees today.
  • A study conducted by the University of Calgary found that the diet of ancient Africans (going back as far as 105,000 years) may have been based on the cereal grass sorghum.
  • Research conducted by the Center for Advanced Study of Hominid Paleobiology shows that the European Neanderthals ate starchy grains, nearly 44,000 years ago. 
  • Researchers from the Italian Institute of Prehistory and Early History also found that grains were regularly eaten by our Paleolithic ancestors. Their findings suggest that processing vegetables and starches, and possibly even grinding them into flour, goes back as far as 30,000 years in Europe. 
  • Scientists at Oxford University identified tuber in the enamel of a 3-million-year-old Australopithecus tooth, suggesting that even pre-humans may have eaten potato-like vegetables.

We can also look to present-day hunter-gatherer tribes whose customs and lifestyles have remained unchanged for centuries. 

The most extensively studied tribe is the Hadza tribe from central Tanzania, Africa. Since the Hadza group resides in the tropical forest, their diet mainly consists of tubers, berries, meat, baobab (a type of fruit), and honey (with honey being the most important). 

The Maasai tribe is another relevant example, and studies show that their diet is still based around milk and blood from cows and soups derived from herbs and also contains berries and other wild fruits and honey.

Another hole in the “prehistoric preeminence paradigm” is early humans probably weren’t as healthy as many people think. 

In one 2016 study conducted by scientists at Georgia Institute of Technology, researchers studying ancient human genomes found that hereditary disease risks were similar for ancient and modern-day humans. 

There was also evidence that ancient pastoralists (farmers whose diet mainly comprised vegetables and dairy products) may have had healthier genomes than hunter-gatherers and that genomes from the recent past are likely healthier than genomes from the distant past. 

For instance, the overall genomic health of the Altai Neanderthal (early humans from a region of Siberia) is worse than 97% of present-day humans, and Ötzi, the “Tyrolean Iceman,” had a genetic predisposition for gastrointestinal and cardiovascular disease.

So, to summarize, atavistic eating gets a lot right for the wrong reasons and a lot wrong for the wrong reasons (marketing).

(If reading this has got you thinking ancestral dieting isn’t right for your circumstances and goals, take the Legion Diet Quiz, and in less than a minute, you’ll know exactly what diet is right for you. Click here to check it out.)

+ Scientific References