The best diets are the ones that match the way our ancestors ate. Don’t think cave-man age, just think a couple hundred years ago. For example, breakfast cereal did not exist, but porridge did. Canola and soy oils did not exist, but lard and butter did. Food traditions provided a guide for our eating habits since the dawn of humanity, until now. We in the western nations, especially melting-pot nations such as the United States, have jettisoned our traditions and are now floundering to figure out the best way to eat!
Sally Fallon’s book Nourishing Traditions is the go-to book for re-discovering traditional eating. She discusses the science behind traditional diets and provides a wealth of recipes. Additionally, the proper preparation of foods is covered much more in-depth than this article can ever do!
The following dietary advice can’t replicate all the nuance found in an actual traditional diet. Cultures that still use age-old food preparation techniques follow rules and traditions that are too complex and varied to completely catalog for outsiders to a particular culture. That said, by looking at time-honored eating habits overall, themes emerge. Common examples are the fermentation of grains and the culturing of dairy. Out of the insights from classic food preparation and the avoidance of newly manufactured substances, a modern-traditional diet has been born.
- Organic vegetables, fruits, herbs and spices
- Fermented vegetables
- Meat, eggs, and dairy from pasture raised animals
- Organ meats from pasture raised animals – liver, kidneys, heart, etc.
- Raw or cultured dairy that has not been homogenized
- Cultured dairy includes products like yogurt, cheese, kefir milk, buttermilk, and sour cream.
- Uncultured cooked dairy products that have otherwise had their lactose content significantly reduced are fine and need not be avoided: butter, paneer, mozzarella, etc.
- Pasteurized or otherwise cooked milk can be consumed on occasion, but it’s high lactose content and lack of enzymes, lost in the cooking process, make it difficult to tolerate on a daily basis. Unpasteurized milk is easier to handle and contains more nutrients, though it will still be hard for those sensitive to lactose. Note that raw, unpasteurized, milk must be sourced from farms that raise healthy animals and process milk in a clean environment to prevent contamination by pathogenic organisms. In the modern era, raw milk has become a contentious issue due to possible safety risks. Different states have different rules on the legality of selling unpasteurized milk. You can learn more about the topic and the laws in your state at https://www.realmilk.com/
- Wild caught seafood
- Prepared organic whole grains, pseudo-grains, and their corresponding flours
- Whole grains should only be eaten after soaking, sprouting, or souring followed by cooking. Examples include sourdough bread and raw oats soaked overnight before cooking into porridge
- Corn is an exception to the general rule about grain preparation in that it must be nixtamalized. This is a process where whole corn kernels are boiled with an alkaline substance, typically pickling lime or ashes. After a day of resting, these corn kernels can be used by grinding into a dough (masa) and cooked into tortillas or they can be left whole (hominy) and cooked into posole soup.
- Whole grains rapidly go rancid after being ground into flour. Either buy freshly ground flour frequently, every week or two, or buy grains whole and grind them as needed.
- Prepared organic legumes
- Legumes include beans, peas, and lentils
- This section refers to the mature, dry, legumes. Fresh green beans and peas should be treated as vegetables.
- Legumes should be soaked 12-24 hours and then undergo a long slow cook.
- Soy bean products should only be eaten if properly fermented (traditionally-brewed soy sauce, shoyu, tamari, miso, tempeh, etc.). Un-fermented soy products are toxic.
- Nuts and seeds – Either roasted (in small quantities) or soaked raw nuts / seeds that are then air-dried or roasted (larger quantity)
- Fats: Butter, lard, olive oil, coconut oil
- Decent proportion of raw foods in the diet – Raw foods contain enzymes which aid in digestion and contain vitamins normally destroyed in the cooking process, like vitamin C
- Cooked foods that need cooking
- Foods like grains, legumes, potatoes, and certain vegetables like mushrooms and green beans must be cooked to be fully edible. Do not eat these raw!
- Some foods are much more nutritious when cooked, such as spinach, beets, broccoli, and cabbage.
- Unrefined mineral salt – Mineral salt contains numerous trace minerals including iodine that are necessary for a healthy body. Unrefined salt generally ranges in color from grey to pink.
Fine in moderation
Additionally, some foods are ok in moderation but cause problems when over-consumed. Those in poor health should avoid or limit these:
- Caffeine (coffee, tea)
- Unrefined sugar: Use only for special events or sparingly as a spice, but don’t overdo it! Avoid all sources of concentrated sugar as much as possible. Whole fruit is the one sugar source that can be eaten freely. Sources of unrefined sugar include:
- Maple syrup
- Unrefined cane/beet sugar
- Fruit juice
Avoid manufactured foods
- Vegetable/nut/seed oils – Olive and coconut oils are an exception and have been consumed in large quantities for millennia. A few other oils such as sesame oil were historically used sparingly in certain cuisines.
- Hydrogenated oils
- Un-fermented soy
- Meat, eggs, and dairy from industrially raised animals
- Homogenized milk – Homogenization prevents cream from separating out, but also causes the calcium in milk to be much less bio-available
- Produce grown with pesticides & chemical fertilizers
- Chemical food additives – anti-caking agents, preservatives, artificial colors, artificial flavors, artificial sweeteners, citric acid, etc.
- MSG – The FDA only requires MSG to be labeled as an ingredient if the additive is 100% MSG. There are many ways to manufacture it so that it isn’t completely refined and thus doesn’t have to be labeled as MSG. In fact, a product can be labeled as “No MSG”, yet still contain it! There are many alternative names it goes by, the easiest way to avoid it is to not eat processed foods.
- Incorrectly prepared food – Industrially manufactured foods generally use quick methods instead of the slow fermentation processes required to render the food digestible (fast risen breads, pasta, breakfast cereal, granola, and anything containing bean flours)
- Refined foods – flours, starches, salt
- Concentrated whey protein
- Refined sugar
- Corn syrup
- Agave syrup
- Refined white sugar (granulated sugar, powdered sugar)
- Syrups from other grains (rice, tapioca, etc.)
- Vitamin & mineral additives – It might seem weird to avoid added nutrients, but these are not the same as their naturally occurring counterparts. For one, the laboratory versions often have a different structure than those found in nature. Secondly, without these nutrients existing in their proper biological context, the body has a harder time using them correctly. This can result in some people over accumulating and others not absorbing enough.
Additional impacts on food
Some additional impacts on food today are harder to quantify because while they are in contact with food, they are not directly ingested. However, since chemical compounds can leach into food, I recommend avoiding when possible:
- Plastic packaging and containers
- Non-stick pans
- Aluminum or copper cookware
Other factors on food prep degrade the quality of the food and/or introduce harmful compounds:
- Pressure cookers (including Instant Pots) – These cook foods at a very high temperature, above boiling! This destroys far more nutrients than cooking foods a little longer at a lower temperature.
- Microwaving – Unfortunately, more and more research has come out pointing to microwave radiation causing changes in bio-chemical structures1–3 which differ from those found in traditional heating. I know it’s an ubiquitous appliance now, but it’s a pretty recent invention. The home microwave ovens only started becoming mainstream in the 80’s. Until there’s a study done on the long term affects of eating microwaved vs traditionally heated foods, there’s no way to know for sure what the effects are!
- 1.Porcelli M, Cacciapuoti G, Fusco S, et al. Non-thermal effects of microwaves on proteins: thermophilic enzymes as model system. FEBS Letters. January 1997:102-106. doi:10.1016/s0014-5793(96)01505-0
- 2.Williams JM. Biological Effects of Microwaves:Thermal and Nonthermal Mechanisms. arXiv.org. https://arxiv.org/ftp/physics/papers/0102/0102007.pdf. Published September 28, 2016. Accessed March 17, 2019.
- 3.Lai H, Singh NP. Acute low-intensity microwave exposure increases DNA single-strand breaks in rat brain cells. Bioelectromagnetics. 1995:207-210. doi:10.1002/bem.2250160309