What is a natural diet for a human being?

Cheeky girl eating a peach.
© Bruce Tuten

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…

Genetic history

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…

  • fruit
  • 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!

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Michael Kinnaird is the author of Happy Guide, the result of a 20 year exploration into what works for health and happiness.

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10 thoughts on “What is a natural diet for a human being?

  1. There is no such thing like “natural diet” for humans, as we’re not part of wild nature anymore. Every organisms evolve and adapt for given diets, not reverse. We’re adapted for modern diet products and saying that we should follow “natural diet” is logical fallacy. Why? Because of appeal to nature fallacy?


    1. Hi Arths. Us humans do have a natural diet — if we didn’t, we’d be the only species on the planet that didn’t. :-) The problem, as you suggest, is that we’re now living outside of our natural environment. We are most certainly not adapted to our modern diet — think fast food, chips, pizza, chocolate… These are unnatural foods for humans and they’re causing no end of problems for us, biochemically. We need vitamins and minerals from fruit, fish and other natural sources to maintain homeostasis and feel good.


      1. What do You mean by “natural diet”? Is cooking “natural” way of eating? Does any animal cook it’s food? Our “natural environment” is now civilization outside wild nature. Like every spiecies on the planet, humans adapted to new environment. This is what You call evolution in biology. Every organism changed via exposure to surrounding factors of environment and so humans did. This is how evolution works – organism constantly adapts based on the principle of survival. Why compare to hunter-gatherer diet? Humans ancestors had different diet dependent on historical era we’re talking about. They were frugivores, scavengers, carnivores and omnivorous. There’s no reason we should prefer one era over others. It’s just arbitrary assumption – more ideology then science based arguments. 10 000 years is lot of time to adapt for grain/dairy based diet. Genetic mutations can occur already during lifespan of first generation exposed to new diet. If we were so poorly adapted to evolution processes we would extinct long ago.


  2. The more compassionate we are the less likely we are to cause suffering to animals and eat meat. Follow your inner guidance instead of looking for validation from sources outside of you to justify a behaviour that in your heart and soul you know causes suffering to other lifeforms and creates discomfort and disharmony within oneself.


      1. The Eskimo’s have gone from igloos to iPods in one generation… besides being a minority of Earths population totaling 60 000 out of 7 billion + beings… hardly going to look at how they eat to ‘survive’ as a clue to living in a modern world.


    1. Nature doesn’t work that way. Besides, plants are also living lifeforms. Just because You don’t see their movements or reactions to damaging them does not mean they aren’t lifeforms.
      You just trying justify the way You was created. The way that nature works. To survive You need to sacrifice other livings. We don’t have other choice, at least if we don’t learn how to use energy of sunlight like plants.


      1. Plants are living life forms and unlike animals they are mostly regenerative, cut off a leaf and a new one grows, cut off a limb and a new one will grow, the fruits are designed to be eaten for that is how the seeds are dispersed, and yes we should be conscious that they are living forms of life and take care to not cause damage or harm were possible. Nature is a reflection of human consciousness, the more compassionate human beings become the more that will be reflected in the natural world. We DO have a choice to not be part of violence towards animals and to walk the path of least harm done for the greater good of our planet. And the energy from the sunlight is passed through the plants to you.. if you care to look into sun-gazing you may find some really interesting information. We live in a reflective world, the changes you want to see on the outside come from the inside, be less violent if you want to see less violence in the world.


  3. This is valuable information that everyone should be practicing daily. There is no reason to be sick if we eat healthy foods.


  4. “…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…”

    Not that I disagree with the nutritional ideas laid out here, but I’m not convinced that they will cure cancer. Cancer is a disease of age. It is not modern or new–we get it because we live much longer than we used to live. These bushmen may be very healthy, but what is their lifespan?


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