In all our dietary confusion these days, surely this question is the one we should start with?
Researchers it seems, analyze the tiny details of this and that and very little attention is paid to the big picture…
What is a natural diet for a human being?
To answer this most important question we need to look at our genetic inheritance. In nature, an animal’s biology is exquisitely balanced with its environment. Environments generally change slowly over millions of years and the creatures adapted to those environment have plenty of time to change…
The strongest or best adapted individuals are more likely to pass on their genes and so balance is maintained. So this leads us nicely to the question…
What is our genetic inheritance?
There are two main areas we can look at to answer this question…
Firstly, we can look at our ‘recent’ genetic history, prior to agriculture — only 10,000 years ago (only 333 generations).
This is so recent in genetic terms that we can safely assume that genetically, we are the same today as we were then. This diet is usually referred to as a paleolithic (stone age or paleo) diet, although the name “Paleo Diet” I think is a misnomer and gives the wrong impression — there are still hunter-gatherers today eating this way; the way humans and pre-humans have been eating for millions of years.
Closest living relatives
The second area we can look at is our closest living relatives — primates, who share up to 98% of our genes. The closest being the bonobo and second closest, the more common chimpanzee. Genetically similar species tend to thrive on similar diets so its useful to look at this to give us some clues about our genetic heritage.
Now a lot of people don’t like me comparing humans to apes and of course there are a lot of differences between us and our furrier cousins!
Zoologist Desmond Morris understood the outrage people feel if you attempt to talk about humans as “naked apes” when, in the 1960’s he was attacked by many segments of society for challenging their belief systems. In his book The Human Animal he writes:
What had nudged me closer to my zoological view of mankind were… our closest living relatives, the African Chimpanzees. I was astonished at how advanced they were, at how subtle and complex their behavior was, and I could see how easy it must have been to pass over the threshold from chimpdom to humanity.— Desmond Morris
Without going into too much detail, we can easily see that these two diets contain very similar foods — fruits, vegetation (roots, leaves, flowers shoots etc), nuts, seeds and animal foods of various kinds — insects. eggs and small mammals mainly in the case of the bonobo.
Where the two diets differ is in the quantity of the food types, with pre-agricultural humans using far more animal foods than the bonobo, where they make up only approximately 5% of the diet. But neither diet contains any grain or any dairy products.
Our natural diet
So in answer to the most fundamental question of nutrition…
What is a natural diet for a human being?
…the simple answer is…
- vegetables (leaves, roots, shoots, flowers, other edible parts)
- nuts and seeds
- animal foods (meat inc. organ meats, poultry, seafood, eggs)
That doesn’t necessarily mean we need to exclude all grains and dairy products entirely, we need to tailor the information to both our modern world and our individual needs and philosophies — but they’re not optimal, are not part of our natural diet, and I contend that we would do better to reduce or eliminate these groups. I feel that gluten grains like wheat and barley are best avoided by everyone though.
Many people do not do well with these two foods groups and see remarkable improvements in their health when they’re removed from their diet.
We can also look at the health of living hunter-gatherer peoples. The Australian Nutrition Foundation states:
…among recent hunter-gatherer populations there is an almost total absence of the diseases that afflict so many of us in developed, Western countries. Heart disease, cancer, obesity, diabetes, osteoporosis (chalkiness of the bones) and rheumatoid arthritis (among other diseases) were very rare among the Bushmen, Amazonian Indians and Australian Aborigines until they started to eat Western foods and adopt our lifestyles.— Australian Nutrition Foundation
What can we do with this information? I feel the first step for everybody should be to eat whole foods wherever possible; as close to their natural state as possible.
This is the single most important change you can make, which will in turn avoid the biggest disaster of modern diets: refined carbohydrates. This would certainly be the recommendation of Weston Price — a pioneering dentist who traveled the world studying isolated “tribes” living natural lives.
He also discovered a lack of “Western” diseases caused by modern foods. His book, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration is a sobering read and shows many photos of the beautiful teeth of tribesmen in comparison to the deformed dental arches, crowded teeth and decay of “civilized” people.
Poor dietary choices eat away at the natural vitality we have as children, and we take this as being normal. But if you’re willing to take some steps towards a more natural diet, you may find your kids struggling to keep up with you!
Michael Kinnaird is the author of Happy Guide, the result of a 20 year exploration into what works for health and happiness.
Read Chapter 1 “The Happiness Secret”
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