Is Eating Like Your Ancestors Good for Your Heart?

Blending evidence and evolution to uncover a heart-healthy diet.

from Cut Your Cholesterol

If you capture a wild animal for a zoo, what kind of diet do you feed it? Something like what it ate in the wild, of course. So why shouldn’t a good human diet follow the same theory?

The diet the hunter-gatherers ate is the diet we’re genetically programmed to consume, the one humans ate for 99.6 percent of their time on earth. While it varied depending on geographic area, the basic breakdown looked like this:
1. Up to 30 percent of calories from protein.
2. Between 45 and 60 percent of calories from carbohydrates (all complex carbohydrates high in fiber).
3. Between 20 and 30 percent of calories from fat (primarily unsaturated).

Our ancestors certainly ate meat, when they could get it, suggesting that meat by itself is not a bad thing. But the meat they ate came from wild game, not cows penned into small spaces, chickens raised in miniscule pens, or pigs crowded into corrals. Because that game grazed in the wild or on grasslands, its meat had more of the beneficial unsaturated fatty acids, called omega-3 fatty acids. Today, because most animals raised for meat are fed diets high in processed feed — instead of grazing on grass or being fed the grains, nuts, seeds, and algae critical for the formation of omega-3 fatty acids — they contain very few of these essential nutrients. Also, wild animals have a low total fat content: around 5 percent of calories, compared to the 30 percent found in today’s corn-fed domestic cattle.

Because they ate every bit of the animals they killed, including the bone marrow, liver, and other organ meats, our ancestors got quite a bit of cholesterol — even more than is found in the typical American diet. They ate lots of eggs (sometimes raiding the nests of birds), and those who lived by the sea consumed a great deal of shellfish, all high in cholesterol. But you can bet they didn’t have cholesterol levels off the chart. (How do we know? For one thing, modern hunter-gatherers and indigenous peoples of preindustrial societies don’t have high cholesterol.) That’s why a successful diet doesn’t focus on limiting your intake of cholesterol. While the evidence is still mixed on whether or not we can simply ignore dietary cholesterol altogether, particularly in people at high risk for heart disease, there is increasing evidence that when your overall diet is good, the cholesterol in your food has little impact on the cholesterol in your blood.

So perhaps we can learn something from our heart-healthy predecessors!