Hunter-Gatherer’s Diet

(From the December 2009 The “G”Note)

Although this is not specifically about the Gonstead work, nutrition and diet has been part and parcel of the Gonstead technique and the growing wellness movement. There is a rising awareness that the “standard Western” diet is neither life-sustaining nor environmentally sustainable. Hamburgers, fries, milk shakes, sodas, and potato chips are not ideal vehicles on the road to health. Cardiovascular and chronic degenerative disease have become the norm. Researchers have begun looking at the health and diets of ancient, pre-agricultural people and modern day hunter-gatherer tribes in inaccessible areas and at our physiology. What they have found is what many of us have realized: we have not evolved to the point where high fructose corn syrup, trans-fats, and the wonders of modern food chemistry are healthy alternatives to what our forebears ate. We are physiologically not much different from our Stone-Age forebears. In addition, annual plants in monocultures might be the most destructive practice that human being have done to the planet. It destroys ecosystems, alters the climate, and leads to conflicts. Organic monoculture farms that raise annuals have a negative effect on the environment as well but are an improvement over conventional farms that use synthetic fertilizers and highly toxic inorganic pesticides. Factory farming of animals is an atrocity, both environmentally and in its cruelty to animals. Following the article are resources that you can study.

Two names figure greatly in the study and application of the diets of our pre-agricultural ancestors, S. Boyd Eaton and Loren Cordain. They have used the terms “paleolithic” or “stone age” to describe the hunter-gatherer diets. In chiropractic, the ICA Wellness Certification program, based upon the books by Dr. James Chestnut, has been introducing chiropractors to these two researchers-authors and the “paleolithic” diet.

What is called the “stone age” diet harkens back to the pre-agricultural past, over 10,000 years ago. Before we settled in fixed areas to grow we gathered edible vegetation and hunted animals and insects. The diet was varied and seasonal.

What did and do hunter-gatherers eat? Of course, the specific foods varied widely depending upon the locality—those who lived by the sea would eat different foods from those who lived far inland on savannas or on mountains. There were seasonal variations and times of plenty and times of shortages. There were general consistencies in their diets. One can surmise a lot based upon modern hunter-gatherers and the coproliths and remains of ancient human sites. For one, the diet was low in grains. It consisted of whatever edible vegetation, fruits, and nuts they could gather in season. They ate whatever animal, insect, or grub they could get. Organ meats and bone marrow were important sources of nutrients and proteins. Their diet was around 19-35% protein, 22-40% carbohydrates, and 28-47% fat compared to the typical U.S. diet of 15.5%, 49%, and 34% respectively). (Cordain 2002). Their diet tended to exceed the FDA minimum daily allowances for vitamins and minerals (Eaton 1997). We have a hybrid gastrointestinal sytem that is similar to that of carnivores. Ancient hominid and human sites show remains of animals. We, unfortunately, cannot process cellulose as we do not have a ruminant GI tract. We are physiologically designed to be omnivores as Pollan and Keith have pointed out.

What do we eat?

Grains should be minimized, in particular, the common grains, such as, wheat, oats, rice, and corn. Most grains have a high glycemic index. Grains can impair Vitamin D synthesis. The disturbance in the acid/base balance may lead to bone loss as a couple of studies have suggested (Paleo Diet July 2006). Wheat has a protein called wheat protein agglutinin (WPA). It is a lectin. Lectins are proteins which, unlike other proteins which must be broken down before being absorbed through the gut, can pass through the gut wall and enter the bloodstream whole. Lectins are found in grains, peanuts, legumes, and tomatoes. WPA replaces a growth factor in the epidermal growth factor receptor that is important for Vitamin D synthesis and can therefore cause Vitamin D deficiency (Paleo Diet May 2006).

Many people are able to regain and maintain health on well thought out vegetarian diets. Whatever your dietary direction, vegetables of all sorts, fruits, and nuts should make up a major part of your diet and be the major source of carbohydrates—they were 65-70% of the sustenance of foragers (Eaton 1997). People on a diet high in fruits and vegetables has been found to have better bone density to controls (Cordain 2006). Fruits and vegetables also create a more alkaline serum level which helps to maintain acid/base levels (Cordain 2006). This is important for bone health. The high acidity of the modern diet exceeds the ability of the homeostatic mechanism to buffer it (increased allostatic load) and leads to chronic acidosis which is thought to result in many modern diseases (Paleo Diet July 2006).

Saturated fats comprised a small part of “Stone Age” diets. For people who require or prefer animal protein in their diet, meats should be from animals that are free range and eat grasses. Naturally grazing animals tend to be lean and also have higher ratio of n-3 PUFA to n-6 PUFA than grain fed animals. Cattle fed grain rather than grass have severe disturbances in the acid/base balance which causes serious GI tract damage due to fermentation in their gut (Keith 2009). Fish are best if lower on the food chain as those higher up have been found to concentrate mercury and other toxins. In pre-agricultural times, there was obviously, no dairy products.

Dietary fiber intake, largely from plant sources, was many times greater than that of the average American and somewhat similar to modern hunter-gatherers and rural Africans (Eaton 1997).

Salt was rare in their diets. In ancient times, salt crystals were a very valuable commodity to be used sparingly and should be used sparingly now as well.

What do we need to do? We should both increase physical activity and decrease intake of high energy (e.g., foods with high glycemic indices) foods. Foods should have high levels of vitamins and minerals and a greater percentage of n-3 PUFA (omega-3) to n-6 PUFA. The typical American diet has an extremely high percentage of n-6 to n-3.

The majority of agriculture should be sustainable, more naturelike, perennial polyculture. With the size of the world population, it is probably unrealistic to convert more than a small percentage of all agriculture from annual monoculture.

Eat well and thoughtfully.

Loren Cordain’s web site:
Cordain L. The Paleo Diet Update. March 2006; 2(1).
Cordain L. The Paleo Diet Update July 2006; 2(2).
Cordain L, Miller JB, Eaton SB, et al. Plant-Animal Subsistence Ratios and Macronutrient Energy Estimations in Worldwide Hunter-Gatherer Diet. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2000; 71:682-692.
Cordain L, Eaton SB, Miller JB, et al. The Paradoxical Nature of Hunter-Gatherer Diets: Meat-based, yet Non-atherogenic.