True to Our Roots: Traditional and Ancient Diets

Annemarie Colbin, Ph.D., explains how we can incorporate our ancestor's diets and eating habits to live healthy lifestyles.

In honor of NGI's 40th anniversary, the school dug into its archives to find some standout articles written by Natural Gourmet Institute founder, Annemarie Colbin, Ph.D. This series celebrates her teachings on food, science and nutrition, which are now more prominent than ever in the better food movement. Annemarie was a true visionary: inquisitive, intuitive, relentless, progressive and thoughtful. In the late 1970s, she recovered important facts about food that humanity seems to have misplaced – namely, that what we eat directly impacts our well-being, our communities and our planet.

The Natural Gourmet Institute is now Health-Supportive Culinary Arts at the Institute of Culinary Education.

The article below was written by Annemarie for Free Spirit Magazine in the April-May 2007 issue. 

There has been a lot of talk about the “Paleolithic diet” and the problems with grains, as more and more people become allergic to wheat and gluten. Let’s take a look at what our native ancestors ate in ancient times. In northern North America, it often was moose, caribou and other animals, fish, berries, the bark and buds of trees, moss and plant roots. Animal flesh was dried and stored; plant foods were dried, pulverized, and made into cakes to be eaten straight or cooked. Further south, fruits and nuts, and then cultivated plants such as corn, beans, and squash were added to the game and fish. Buffalo meat was a staple on the Plains. In what is now the western United States, mice, rats, reptiles and insects were widely consumed. The harvest was often not very successful. Around the Gulf of Mexico and Florida, the climate offered a wider selection: wild fruits, berries, nuts; cultivated grains and vegetables; game, [and] fish from fresh and sea waters (DeVries, 1952; Price, 1979).

On the west coast of South America, natives consumed a great deal of fish, dried fish eggs, and kelp. A great many vegetables were cultivated by the Incas, including potatoes, squash corn, beans. Further inland there were wild fruits, berries, and the like. Animal flesh included the llama, the alpaca, the guanaco, the guinea pig, wild boar, and birds. In the Amazon basin, there were tropical fruits such as oranges, limes, melons, grapes, plantains, bananas, guavas, and pineapple. Also, green plants, nuts, carob, yucca and yams, wild honey from hollow trees, fresh water fish, water fowl, eggs, wild deer, and other animals. On the pampas, the Patagonians dined on guanaco, buffalo, and some roots. Around Chile, there were figs, pomegranates, peaches, grapes, strawberries, as well as cultivated pumpkins, yucca, beans, and corn. In Tierra del Fuego, it was mostly fish, small animals, and birds. Foods were cooked, dried, roasted, or sometimes lightly seared over the fire; in many cases meat was eaten uncooked.

Native Americans got their protein from animals that lived on wild plants, which are rich in nutrients and antioxidants. Food was always fresh. It was generally consumed within a day or two of being secured. If grain was used, it was ground and made into bread on the same day. Fruits or vegetables may have been sun-dried for preservation. Animal food was generally consumed immediately. All native groups used fire in some form, and preparation of foodstuffs was aimed at improving digestibility, as high-fiber foods can be difficult to digest without some grinding or softening. Hunter-gatherers ate as much as 3 pounds of plant foods daily, which were higher in minerals and calcium than modern cultivated plants.

Dairy foods were not used in traditional hunter-gatherer societies. Weston Price was a dentist who traveled all over the world and studied the teeth and general health of 11 societies, often comparing the traditional with the modernized. He found only two native societies that were herders and consumed milk products: the isolated Swiss and the Masai. The proportion of plant to animal foods varies widely from one group to another, ranging from 80:20 in Tanzania, to 50:50 in the Paraguayan forest, to 10:90 in the Northern American Arctic (Eaton, Shostak, and Konner, 1988). Most (73%) of the worldwide hunter-gatherers derived at least half of their subsistence from animal foods (hunted and fished), whereas only 13.5% of worldwide hunter-gatherers derived at least half of their subsistence from gathered plant foods (Cordain et al., 2000). Insects are consumed by many tribal populations, and are a considerable source of calcium, about 82 mg per 100 grams (L.B. Page, J.G. Rhoads, J.S. Friedlander, J.R. Page, S. Curtis, “Diet and Nutrition: in J.S. Friedlander, ed., The Solomon Islands Project. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1987:55.88).

What can we learn from this? Most clearly, traditional societies ate fresh, natural, whole, real food, with their natural fats. They ate what was available in their environment, from both plants and animals, and did not consume any refined grains, concentrated sweeteners, canned foods, or artificial ingredients. This point may be a good thing to keep in mind when modern humans go foraging in supermarkets and grocery stores. Let’s then search out the fresh vegetables, organic whenever possible; naturally raised meats, fowl, and wild fish; whole grains for those who can digest them; fruits in season — much as I love blueberries in the summer, they don’t taste good to me in the winter – and avoid as much as possible the frozen, the canned, the packaged and the prettified stuff that passes for food these days. In other words, let’s eat to please our DNA.

This post was originally published by the Natural Gourmet Institute. Learn more about today's Natural Gourmet Center.

References: Cordain, L., Miller, J.B. Eaton, S.B. Mann, N., Holy, S.H., & Speth, J.D. (2000). Plant-Animal Subsistence Ratios and Macronutrient Energy Estimations in Worldwide Hunter-Gatherer Diets. Am J Clin Nutr, 71 (3) , 682-692. DeVries, A. (1952). Primitive Man and His Food. Chicago: Chandler Book Co. Eaton, S.B.M., Shostak, M., & Konner, M.M.P. (1988). The Paleolithic Prescription: A Program Diet & Exercise and a Design for Living. New York: Harper & Row. Price, W. (1979). Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. La Mesa, CA: The Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation, Inc. Speth, J.D. (1991). Protein Selection and Avoidance Strategies of Contemporary and Ancestral Foragers: Unresolved Issues. Philos Trans R Soc Long B Biol Sci, 334 (1270), 265-269; Discussion 269-270.

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