The path to better health and well-being may be found by eating like your great-grandparents.
Nutrition researchers are exploring the value of eating according to our ancestral diets versus the modern western diet. Numerous studies are finding a strong association between higher consumption of modern industrialized food with a greater risk for the more serious chronic diseases of today – i.e. obesity, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and even cancer. Many of these prevalent diseases were unheard of even a century ago.
If we are better off by eating like our ancestors did, what do we have to do and how easy is it to make this switch? Also, whose ancestral diet is the best?
Defining Ancestral Diets
I would like to start off by saying once upon a time, I ate a lot of junk food. I was the typical Canadian kid who loved Pop Tarts, Kraft Dinner, ketchup chips, and other processed foods. This was about as far away as my great-grandmother ate as you can get. She would not have even recognized many of the things I ate as being food. “What is a ‘POGO’?” I can hear her ask.
So, to understand what an ancestral diet is, all you have to do is ask yourself, “Would my great-grandparents have recognized what I am eating as food?” Or as bioanthropologist Stephen Le notably remarked, “avoid foods invented in the last 100 years.”
However, I understand it can be hard to find clarity through all the diet and processed food industries’ noise. Not to mention our taste buds have been hijacked by these processed foods that are specifically engineered to induce cravings and overconsumption through a combo of sugar, salt, fat, and various flavour agents. And the biggest thing blocking us from clarity is…ourselves. What we eat and how we eat become well-ingrained habits that are challenging to change, but not impossible.
How Easy is it to Eat Like Your Great-Grandmother?
It can be easy to eat like your great-grandmother did with practice and time, which is the saving grace in this. Just as we developed these poor habits, we are able to develop new healthy habits through repetition. The neural pathways in our brains are constantly evolving. Our minds are not fixed, they are plastic – flexible well into adulthood. If we ate a certain way for years, we can cultivate new healthy habits in its place. Also, we can retrain our taste palates (read my blog post Taste Training to learn more).
You can start small and make gradual changes to your diet over time. Studies have shown that even small healthy changes in food consumption patterns result in positive changes in blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels.
Once you experience these positive effects, you will become more confident in your choices, which will grow these good habits within you.
It is also important to understand that many of our food choices are based on childhood experiences. If we had negative memories from eating cabbage in our youth, we may still hold onto this memory and thus find it difficult to eat our greens as adults. If we were rewarded for good behaviour with candy as children, we may carry this association of sugar equalling reward for years afterward.
With this acknowledgement of past associations and beliefs we hold, we can take a first major step in breaking these old out-dated patterns.
Whose Traditional Diet is Best?
Is it necessary to track down our ancestral lineage to eat exactly what they ate? What if our maternal and paternal ancestors had different ethnic origins? If your great-grandmother was from Northern Greece and your great-grandfather was from Southern Japan, what foods are you supposed to eat?
It is not necessary to figure out your ancestry to eat well. There is not a lot of evidence suggesting that you need to eat according to your specific family heritage. Really there is no single traditional diet that is the best. All these longstanding regional cuisines contain well-balanced dishes that are suitable in sustaining people's nutritional needs. That is why they work. They contain plenty of fresh, local, in-season foods in their natural whole state or prepared using well-established methods. They also include fermented foods (e.g. kefir, sauerkraut, and tempeh), which helps create balanced gut flora that is vital to our health.
And if you find that you cannot tolerate dairy or wheat, that does not necessarily mean these foods were absent from your great-grandparents’ diets. It very well may be that modern processed versions of these foods are contributing to the issue. Therefore, seek out whole foods as often as possible and those that are minimally processed or made by traditional methods.
We Need to Be Willing and Open
We have thrown so many other things into the mix, from fad diets and body-image issues, to disordered eating patterns and other neuroses, that we have confused ourselves about what healthy eating is. Ultimately, the whole point of why we eat is to nourish our bodies. Simple as that. We do not need to be so anxious about what we eat or obsess about nutrient or calorie content. On the contrary, we should cultivate pleasure in eating well and savour the flavours, textures, and aromas in our meals. It is about approaching food with less guilt in general.
Our food habits are not final and fixed. They are adaptable and open, if we are willing to try.
Now, through practice and conscious choices about what I am eating, I have grown to enjoy pasulj (Serbian bean stew) and other traditional dishes my great-grandparents would have made. This contributes to me feeling a greater sense of well-being than I have in years.
I am taking the steps to eliminate the confusion and finding satisfaction in simple real foods. I know this is possible for you too.
Share your thoughts about this post in the comments section below.
References (and my many thanks to):
Manuel, Juan, et al. “Effect of Substituting Usual Lunch Modernized Meal with Traditional Based Meal on Biochemical Parameters in Young Women.” Wulfenia Journal, 6 Apr. 2017, www.researchgate.net/publication/315799612_Effect_of_substituting_usual_lunch_modernized_meal_with_traditional_based_meal_on_biochemical_parameters_in_young_women.
Subramanian, Sarmishta. “Eat Like Your Grandma.” Maclean’s Magazine Online, 30 Jan. 2016, www.macleans.ca/society/health/eat-like-your-grandma-why-you-should-skip-the-kale-salad/.
Tucker, Rebecca. “Your First Job When Eating Is to Nourish Yourself.” National Post Online, 10 Feb. 2016, nationalpost.com/life/food/your-first-job-when-eating-is-to-nourish-yourself-how-two-new-books-use-history-to-explain-and-possibly-fix-our-modern-relationship-to-food.