Simple and pithy, this adage pretty much sums up a healthful approach to nutrition. Our bodies are designed to thrive on a varied diet of whole, unprocessed foods—fresh vegetables, fruits, and herbs; proteins from sea and land animals; naturally grown and processed grains and beans; and fermented foods. Despite regional and cultural differences, traditional diets throughout the world are all based on some combination of these basic healthy foods. These are the foods that humans have evolved eating and that have kept us healthy for eons.
Every calorie we ingest either fuels the inward energy that creates, nourishes, and heals every cell in our bodies, or is used to generate the outward energy that helps us act in the world. In the process of transforming food into inward or outward energy, toxic byproducts are formed that are oxidative and pro-inflammatory. Nutrient dense, healthful foods can efficiently make healthy cells, produce balanced energy, and at the same time reduce the creation of waste byproducts.
It’s only been in the past century—mere moments in our evolutionary history—that we’ve started to consume highly processed, artificially manipulated foods. In only a few decades, dietary habits have shifted dramatically. A large part of the American diet now consists of convenience and fast foods. Foods that are rich in fat, sugar, starch, and salt appeal to our taste buds, and manufacturers know this. Highly processed foods are generally made from low-quality ingredients, and in the case of fats and processed grains, are often rancid. The unfortunate result is that nearly two-thirds of American adults are overweight, and degenerative diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer are more prevalent than ever before in history.
There’s no question that dietary choices provide an important edge in preventing and overcoming illness. But I’ve noticed that many people are confused when it comes to figuring out what actually constitutes a healthy diet. I’m not surprised that people are perplexed. There’s a lot of dietary advice out there, and much of it is contradictory. Should you eat a high-carbohydrate/low-fat diet or a high-protein/low-carb diet? Vegetarian, vegan or omnivore? Gluten free? Dairy free? The possibilities for contradictory advice and confusion are endless. I’ve found that a simple way to cut through dietary confusion is to consider your ancestral heritage.
Although it’s often overlooked, ancestral heritage is an essential component of determining the diet that will keep you healthy. This approach takes into account classic Darwinian principles of evolution and adaptation, natural selection, and genetic mutation. Over thousands of years of evolutionary history, people in different parts of the world developed very specific dietary needs as an adaptation mechanism in response to the unique aspects of their habitats and lifestyles—including climate, geography, vegetation, and naturally occurring food supplies.
For example, people from cold northern regions of the world have historically relied heavily on animal proteins, simply because that’s the primary food source available. Thus, they have radically different nutritional needs than people from tropical regions, where the environment is rich in vegetative diversity year round.
I’m intrigued by the findings of the brilliant scientist Weston Price, D.D.S. In the early part of the 20th century, Price traveled the world and sought out indigenous populations to study their diets and health status. His discoveries were remarkable. Price found the diets of all the indigenous peoples to be tremendously varied, dependent on geography, climate, and the edibles naturally available. He observed that the indigenous people who followed their ancestral diets were robust and healthy. But those who moved to cities and strayed from their traditional diets developed degenerative diseases and dental problems.
Eating more like our ancestors is beneficial for everyone, and provides a good starting point for developing a way of eating that will sustain your health. As a general rule, if your ancestors came from cold climates, you’ll thrive on a diet that contains more animal proteins and fewer carbohydrates. If your ancestors came from warmer climates, you’ll do better with less protein and more carbohydrates.
In all cases, the less processed your food, the better. Avoid added sugars, fake fats, and all chemical ingredients. You don’t want to look like a donut or a marshmallow, so why include them in your diet? Lastly, and most important, is to develop a conscious, sacred relationship with the food you eat. Cultivate a healthy relationship with food by relying on your innate intelligence and your inner wisdom to guide you instead of giving in to momentary emotional impulses.