The road to ancestral health #1: diet

hunter femaleI can’t deny it: civilization comes with many comforts. And yet, it separates us from who we were long ago: hunters and gatherers living in the middle of nature. In wild surroundings we evolved over thousands of generations. As a result we are genetically optimized to thrive in it. Our superior brains gave us the ability to ‘hack’ nature. Agriculture is a good example: we grow foods on a large scale, because nature can’t provide enough food for large amounts of people. You can even work in an office, not using your hunter and gatherer skills at all, and still have meat on your plate in the evening. We can do all those things, but unfortunately these ‘improvements’ come at a price. Our ‘civilized’ society is young, but we still have the caveman’s genes.

There is a mismatch between our modern way of living and our genetic blueprint, and we pay a high price for it. Diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression, metabolic disease, cancer and other auto immune diseases are more prevalent than ever. Health care costs are sky rocketing. Our modern lifestyle is to blame for it. Every day we are exposed to a variety of unnatural and damaging factors that impact our health. This makes it difficult to identify the causes of our declining physical or mental health. Luckily, a couple of lifestyle changes can greatly benefit people who are willing to try it.

In part 1 of this series of articles about ancestral health, I discuss one of the most obvious factors that influences your health: the diet. Making a few dietary changes can dramatically improve your health and well being. I think the diet is a good subject to start off with, because it can provide you with increased energy that enables you to address other lifestyle changes as well.

Sugar, carbs and grains

Maintaining a healthy blood sugar level is important to insure both physical and mental health. An elevated blood sugar level can eventually lead to dementia, Parkinson’s, diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease. In order to keep it within the limits, avoid products that are high in sugar and refined carbohydrates. Breakfast cereals, bread and pasta skyrocket your blood glucose and are better avoided. Cutting refined carbs and sugars out of the diet, and limiting the intake of unrefined carbs, causes a significant weight loss in most people, even when their fat intake increases. Fat loss, especially in the abdominal area, is a good thing as visceral fat is linked to cardiovascular disease, metabolic dysfunction, diabetes and breast cancer in women.

There is a growing body of evidence that shows that a large portion of the population experiences negative consequences as a result of consuming grains such as wheat, barley, spelt and rye. In fact, over 80% of the population seems to  develop gut inflammation after consuming gluten and 29% of the Americans make antibodies after eating gluten, as it is identified by the body as a potentially harmful substance. This so called non-celiac gluten sensitivity can affect many systems in the body and can cause for instance digestive issues, skin problems such as rashes, brain fog, depression and joint pain. Celiac disease is less common but leads to atrophy and erosion of the microvilli in the  gut, that help absorbing nutrients from the food. This can lead to insufficient absorption of nutrients and leaky walls of the intestines, that allows unwanted proteins to enter the blood. The effects include digestive symptoms, malnutrition, anemia, low vitamin D, osteoporosis, depression and schizophrenia to name a few. The prevalence of gluten sensitivity is worrying, as 55% of the calories consumed in the world, are from grains. Ditching the gluten, is a good way for many people to improve their health dramatically. There is still some debate on whether non-gluten grains like rice or corn are healthy, as they contain phytic acid, an anti nutrient that can prevent you from absorbing minerals from your food. Pseudo grains such as quinoa, amaranth and buckweat are also not necessarily safe to eat on a regular basis as they contain phytic acid, toxic lectins, saponins and protease inhibitors which can cause serious health issues.

A ketogenic diet (high in fat, adequate in protein and very low in carbohydrates) has shown to have beneficial effects on epilepsy patients and the prevention of Alzheimers and Parkinson’s. However, leaving a few unrefined carbs in the diet is fine for most people, provided they come from healthy foods. A list of safe sources of carbohydrates can be found here. Note: as bread and cereal products are high in B vitamins, make sure you get them from other sources such as pork, dark green leafy vegetables, green pea, lentils, nuts, yogurt, cheese, chicken, wild fatty fish, egg yolks, turkey, tuna, poultry, seafood, bananas, grass fed beef and liver. I recommend this handy search tool, to find the foods that are the highest on specific nutrients.

Industrial seed oils

Another major threat to our health is the consumption of industrial seed oils like corn oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil that were never part of our ancestral diet. You were probably told these oils are health promoting, maybe even by your doctor. Yet science shows us quite the opposite; I personally avoid them like the plague. Industrial seed oils are high in omega 6 fatty acids, which can cause inflammation in the body.  In fact, elevated levels of omega 6 fatty acids are linked to all inflammatory diseases, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis and osteoarthritis, obesity, asthma, cancer, psychiatric disorders, metabolic syndrome, autoimmune problems and many other diseases. Omega 6 fatty acids are widely implemented in the diets of most people. If you care about your health, make sure you get rid of your industrial seed oils and your margarine.

Whereas saturated fats such as butter, coconut oil, lard and palm oil don’t go rancid easy, the opposite is the case for unsaturated fats (in particular polyunsatured fats). Exposure to heat, air or light speed up the oxidation process. Most industrial seed oils are polyunsaturated (they stay fluid even in the fridge), and are already rancid before you buy them. Because of the industrial deodorization process rancidity of these oils cannot be smelled. Cold pressed monounsaturated fats such as olive oil actually do have a smell, and are usually sold in dark bottles to protect the oil from getting exposed to light induced oxidation. Rancid fats cause free radical damage to the body which leads to inflammation, premature aging, liver damage, immune disease, cardiovascular disease and even cancer. Because polyunsaturated fats oxidize fast when exposed to heat, they are extremely inappropriate to use for cooking. Use saturated fats instead, as they are chemically stable, and generally heat resistant. They include real butter, lard, tallow, but also for instance cold pressed coconut- and palm oil. Make sure to get rid of processed foods. They are bad for lots of reasons and often contain sugars, bad fats and harmful additives. Stick with the whole foods instead.

While our intake of omega 6 fatty acids is generally too high, our intake of omega 3 fatty acids is usually too low. It’s important to keep a healthy balance between both types of fatty acids, as they compete for the same conversion enzymes.  The ideal ratio of omega 6 versus omega 3 fatty acids is about 1:1, but there is quite some margin, 4:1 is usually not inflammatory yet. However, in today’s Western diet the average omega 6:3 ratio is somewhere between 10:1 and 20:1. In fact, NSAIDs like aspirin, ibuprofen and  naproxen block the production of arachidonic acid caused by the pro-inflammatory effects of Omega 6. Examples of foods with a high omega 6:3 ratio include roasted seeds and nuts, grain fed meat, farm raised fish and grains. Instead, increase your intake of omega 3 fatty acids by eating grass-fed meats, seafood and wild caught fatty fish. Supplementing with a good quality cod liver oil is a smart idea not only because it’s high omega 3 content, but also in order to obtain a healthy level of vitamin A and D. Plant sources of omega 3 are less effective, because they are harder for our bodies to convert.

GMO’s

GMO’s, or Genetically Modified Organisms, make up a large portion of the American diet. 80% of packaged foods in America contain GMO’s. Crops such as soy (avoid this!), corn, cottonseed and canola, are real GMO cash cows. Various feeding studies in animals have resulted in tumors, increased brain size, birth defects and reproductive problems. Although the long term effects of consuming genetically modified foods on humans are unknown, labeling of GMO’s is not required in the USA and Canada, whereas many other countries take a more cautious approach. By being not transparent to consumers where there food comes from, governments expose their inhabitants to potentially devastating health effects. If you want to know how GMO companies do business, this documentary is an excellent introduction. After watching it, you will understand why I advice everybody to stay away from GMO’s as much as possible.

Food Allergies

In this article I don’t discuss in detail the health problems that food allergies or sensitivities can cause. It is an important subject though: foods that are beneficial for most people, can cause harm when you’re having a specific allergy. Common food allergies include wheat, soy, fish, peanuts, eggs and milk and common intolerances include gluten, dairy, food additives and sulfites. A more in-depth discussion on this issue can be found here.

If you’re not on a health promoting diet yet, I hope you think of this article next time you do the groceries. Think of the foods that are considered to be health promoting but are actually mayor contributors to chronic disease. At the same time, you may recall the beneficial properties of foods that are generally considered to be bad, such as butter. Cheers!

Categories: Evolution, Food, Health, Other

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