Chronic disease has reached epidemic proportions in the United States; a shocking one out of every two Americans has a chronic disease, and one in four suffers multiple chronic diseases.1 Despite the untold sums of money that have been funneled into screening, research, and pharmaceutical development for chronic diseases, the rates of these disorders continue to rise and the collective health of our society continues to decline. 

Clearly, the current, conventional medical paradigm is ill-suited to treat chronic disease. But why? The answer is that it fails to address the primary, underlying cause of chronic disease: evolutionary mismatch. Fortunately, we can use ancestral nutrition principles to correct or at least mitigate the effects of this mismatch, thereby creating a foundation for lifelong health.  

Evolutionary Mismatch, Diet, and Chronic Illness

Human beings are adapted to survive and thrive in a specific environment. When changes in our environment take place faster than we can adapt to them, mismatch occurs. This mismatch between our genes and our biology is most apparent in our current dietary habits. 

Human beings evolved on a nutrient-dense diet comprised primarily of meat, fish, fruits and vegetables, roots, nuts, and seeds; this diet provided our ancestors’ bodies with the nutrients they needed to promote optimal gene expression and physiological function. While life has changed drastically since the dawn of human evolution, 90 percent of our genes remain the same today as they were during the hunter–gatherer period (which encompasses most of human history).2

This means that our bodies require the same nutrients that our ancestors consumed to promote optimal gene expression and prevent chronic disease. The sugar-laden, nutrient-depleted, hyper-processed Standard American Diet (SAD) that most people consume today is vastly different from the diet our ancestors consumed. It lacks the nutrients we need for normal gene expression and biological function and thus promotes the development of chronic disease. However, there is a simple solution for correcting dietary evolutionary mismatch: an ancestrally informed, species-appropriate diet. 

An Ancestral Diet Corrects Evolutionary Mismatch and Reverses Chronic Disease

A nutrient-dense, ancestrally informed dietary approach that is closely aligned with our genes and biology can help us correct evolutionary mismatch. In the clinical setting, this diet does what conventional medical treatment cannot: it addresses an underlying cause of chronic disease, evolutionary mismatch, rather than simply managing illness and suppressing symptoms.

While ancestral diets varied depending upon food availability (subject to geographical and climatic factors), there were some common characteristics: foods were eaten in a whole or minimally processed form, and refined, packaged foods did not exist. 

In the clinical setting, the composition of an ancestral diet can be customized for individuals depending on their unique needs; for example, a practitioner may recommend limiting starches for a patient with type-2 diabetes, or excluding nightshades, nuts, and eggs for a patient with autoimmune disease. 

While many clinicians and patients can attest to the beneficial effects of an ancestral diet, we also have a strong body of scientific research supporting the efficacy of ancestral nutrition in the treatment of chronic diseases. Here are just a few of the studies demonstrating the health-promoting and chronic disease-reversing effects of an ancestrally modelled diet: 

  • A Paleolithic diet has been found to significantly improve glycemic control, reduce fasting leptin levels, and lower cardiovascular-disease risk factors compared to a conventional diabetes diet in adults with type-2 diabetes.3, 4
  • A Paleo diet produces greater improvements in waist circumference, triglycerides, blood pressure, HDL cholesterol, and fasting blood glucose than do conventional dietary guidelines in people with metabolic syndrome.5 
  • Ancestral dietary practices, such as consuming bone broth and ensuring an adequate intake of vitamins K1 and K2, can protect against osteoporosis.6
  • A multimodal intervention that included a Paleo diet was found to reduce fatigue and improve quality of life in patients with progressive multiple sclerosis.7
  • In children with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), the specific-carbohydrate diet (SCD), which closely mirrors the Paleo diet, has been found to produce a significant improvement in symptoms.8

Despite what the conventional medical paradigm suggests, chronic disease doesn’t have to be a life sentence. The current conventional medical system cannot successfully cure chronic disease; however, a functional approach that corrects evolutionary mismatch can resolve or, at least, manage chronic disease to the point at which it no longer interferes with the patient’s daily life. Ancestral nutrition represents one significant avenue by which we can sync our modern-day lifestyle with our genes and biology and avoid chronic disease. Most importantly, ancestral nutrition puts the power to heal within the hands of patients. 

Composition of the Standard American Diet vs. an Ancestral Diet

A side-by-side comparison of the nutritional content of the Standard American Diet (SAD) with an ancestral, hunter-gatherer diet makes it clear just how far our modern diet has deviated from the diet that our ancestors consumed.

Standard American Diet

Dairy products, cereal grains, refined sugars, refined vegetable oils, and alcohol make up 72.1% of the total daily calories consumed by Americans.9 

The average American consumes 77 pounds of refined sugar per year.11

The average American consumes 36 pounds of refined vegetable oils, such as soybean and canola oils, per year.13

99% of beef consumed in the U.S. comes from grain-fed feedlot cattle that have been given antibiotics and hormones to promote growth. This method of raising food animals was only adopted 200 years ago and results in meat that is high in total fat, yet low in omega-3 fatty acids. 

The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in the SAD diet averages 10:1.14

The fact that the Standard American Diet is primarily composed of refined carbs means that it is also deficient in many nutrients, including vitamin A, vitamin B6, folate, magnesium, calcium, and zinc.16

Ancestral Diet

In hunter-gatherer societies, energy requirements were fulfilled with wild animals and plant foods. Grains were rarely consumed as year-round staples; if they were consumed, it was in small amounts in a minimally processed form.10 Refined sugars and vegetable oils were nonexistent. 

Studies of present-day hunter–gatherers have found that they consume around 4.4 pounds of sugar per year, and that this sugar comes from unprocessed foods such as raw honey.12

Refined vegetable oils are a product of industrialization and mechanization and were not a part of ancestral diets. 

Hunter–gatherers ate wild animals that grazed freely on grass and other plants; this resulted in meat with a healthier lipid profile and fewer toxins than that of modern, domesticated animals. 

The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in hunter-gatherer diets is estimated to have been between 2:1 and 3:1.15

Plant and animal foods consumed by hunter-gatherers have been found to contain markedly higher levels of vitamins and minerals than their domesticated, processed counterparts.16

References

1. “Chronic Disease Overview.” Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. 28 June 2017. Web. https://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/overview/index.htm

2. Williamson SH, MJ, Clark AG, Payseur BA, Bustamante CD, Nielsen R. “Localizing Recent Adaptive Evolution in the Human Genome.” PLoS Genet 3.6 (2007 Jun): e90. http://journals.plos.org/plosgenetics/article?id=10.1371/journal.pgen.0030090

3. Jönsson T, Granfeldt Y, Ahrén B, Branell UC, Pålsson G, Hansson A, Söderström M, Lindeberg S. “Beneficial Effects Of A Paleolithic Diet On Cardiovascular Risk Factors In Type 2 Diabetes: A Randomized Cross-over Pilot Study.” Cardiovasc Diabetol 8 (2009 Jul 16): 35. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19604407

4. Fontes-Villalba M,, Lindeberg S, Granfeldt Y, Knop FK, Memon AA, Carrera-Bastos P, Picazo Ó, Chanrai M, Sunquist J, Sundquist K, Jönsson T. “Palaeolithic Diet Decreases Fasting Plasma Leptin Concentrations More Than A Diabetes Diet In Patients With Type 2 Diabetes: A Randomised Cross-over Trial.” Cardiovasc Diabetol 15 (2016 May 23): 80. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27216013

5. Manheimer EW, van Zuuren EJ, Fedorowicz Z, Pijl H. “Paleolithic Nutrition For Metabolic Syndrome: Systematic Review And Meta-analysis.” Am J Clin Nutr 102.4 (2015 Aug 12): 922-32. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/early/2015/08/12/ajcn.115.113613

6. O’Keefe JH, Bergman N, Carrera-Bastos P, Fontes-Villalba M, DiNicolantonio JJ, Cordain L. “Nutritional Strategies For Skeletal And Cardiovascular Health: Hard Bones, Soft Arteries, Rather Than Vice Versa.” Open Heart 3.1 (2016 Mar 22): e000325. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27042317

7. Bisht B, Darling WG, Grossmann RE, Shivapour ET, Lutgendorf SK, Snetselaar LG, Hall MJ, Zimmerman MB, Wahls TL. “A Multimodal Intervention For Patients With Secondary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis: Feasibility And Effect On Fatigue.” J Altern Complement Med 20.5 (2014 May): 347-55. https://www.dovepress.com/multimodal-intervention-improves-fatigue-and-quality-of-life-in-subjec-peer-reviewed-article-DNND

8. Suskind DL, Cohen SA, Brittnacher MJ, Wahbeh G, Lee D, Shaffer ML, Braly K, Hayden HS, Klein J, Gold B, Giefer M, Stallworth A, Miller SI. “Clinical and Fecal Microbial Changes With Diet Therapy in Active Inflammatory Bowel Disease.” J Clin Gastroenterol 2016 Dec 27. Abstract only. Print release date 2018. http://journals.lww.com/jcge/Abstract/publishahead/Clinical_and_Fecal_Microbial_Changes_With_Diet.98120.aspx

9. Cordain L, Eaton SB, Sebastian A, Mann N, Lindeberg S, Watkins BA, O’Keefe JH, Brand-Miller J. “Origins And Evolution Of The Western Diet: Health Implications For The 21st Century.” Am J Clin Nutr 81.2 (2005 Feb): 341-54. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15699220

10. ibid.

11. Desilver D. “What’s On Your Table? How America’s Diet Has Changed Over The Decades.” Pew Research Center. 2016 Dec 13. Web. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/12/13/whats-on-your-table-how-americas-diet-has-changed-over-the-decades/

12. Cordain L, Eaton SB, Sebastian A, Mann N, Lindeberg S, Watkins BA, O’Keefe JH, Brand-Miller J. “Origins And Evolution Of The Western Diet: Health Implications For The 21st Century.” Am J Clin Nutr 81.2 (2005 Feb): 341-54. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15699220

13. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/12/13/whats-on-your-table-how-americas-diet-has-changed-over-the-decades/

14. Kris-Etherton PM, Taylor DS, Yu-Poth S, Huth P, Moriarty K, Fishell V, Hargrove RL, Zhao G, Etherton TD. “Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids In The Food Chain In The United States.” Am J Clin Nutr 71.1 Suppl (2000 Jan): 179S-88S. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10617969

15.Cordain L, Watkins BA, Florant GL, Kelher M, Rogers L, Li Y. “Fatty Acid Analysis Of Wild Ruminant Tissues: Evolutionary Implications For Reducing Diet-related Chronic Disease.” Eur J Clin Nutr 56 (2002): 181–191. http://www.nature.com/ejcn/journal/v56/n3/full/1601307a.html

16.Cordain L, Eaton SB, Sebastian A, Mann N, Lindeberg S, Watkins BA, O’Keefe JH, Brand-Miller J. “Origins And Evolution Of The Western Diet: Health Implications For The 21st Century.” Am J Clin Nutr 81.2 (2005 Feb): 341-54. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15699220

17. ibid.