The Difference between the Diet of Our Distant Ancestors and Our Diet Today

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In the industrialized countries diets have changed remarkably over the past 100 years. This dietary shift, combined with an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, is a major cause of many common diseases-heart disease, osteoporosis, tooth decay, high blood pressure, and diabetes. These disorders, so prevalent now, were rare before the 20th century. For thousands of years, humans adapted to and thrived on a diet radically different from today's diet.19,20 Looking at the diet of our ancestors provides an insight into what foods and nutrients humans were genetically "designed" to consume for good health.

• Our distant ancestors ate a diet consisting mainly of fresh plant foods, including nuts, seeds, roots, wild grains and beans, and fruits. Carbohydrates were eaten as whole grains, and were rich in fiber, vitamin E, and minerals. Refined carbohydrates and sucrose, although practically absent from our ancestors' diet, contribute over half of the energy in today's diet.19,20

• Our original diet was much lower in total fat. Moreover, the ratio of polyunsaturated fat from plant oils to saturated fat from animal products was 3 to 4: 1. In contrast, modern diets contain two to three times more saturated fat than polyunsaturated fat.19 20 Our ancestors ate wild game that was low in total fat (only about 4% fat) but provided rich amounts of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids (see pp. 89). In contrast, today's beef and pork are typically 25-30% fat, but lack omega-3 fatty acids.

• Our ancestors' diet was much richer in vitamins and minerals. It had three to four times as much calcium and magnesium as our present diet, six times the vitamin C content, and much more fiber, vitamin E, and zinc.19,20

• Our ancestors' diet contained about 16 times more potassium than sodium. This ratio has been sharply reversed-modern diets contain four times more sodium than potas-sium.19,20

Clearly, our modern diet is dramatically different to the diet our species was "brought up on." Humans were not designed to thrive on a highly refined, micronutrient-depleted diet rich in simple sugars, animal fat, sodium, and food additives.

Comparison of Paleolithic and current diets

Diet of late Paleolithic man (hunters/gatherers eating 65% plant foods and 35% meat)

Current diet in industrialized Western countries

Total fat intake (% of calories)



Ratio of saturated : polyunsaturated fat

1 :3


Fiber (g/day)



Sodium (mg/day)



Calcium (mg/day)



Vitamin C (mg/day)



Adapted from: Eaton SB. N Engl J Med. 1985;312:283.

Adapted from: Eaton SB. N Engl J Med. 1985;312:283.

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