The question of what to eat has plagued Americans since the first conquistadors hit the shores and started rounding up and eliminating the only people who actually knew what was meant to grow and be eaten here. Historical accounts show the first colonists living in abject terror of the foreign foods of Native Americans, believing that if they began eating the strange corn, squash and beans around them then they would literally turn into Indians. As a result, many of them starved trying to grow their old-world crops in America. Now, hundreds of years later, the colonizers’ descendants are looking to the past in search of a solution to the countless health problems that plague consumers of American food. They’re calling it the ancestral diet.
The principles of “ancestral eating” are simple enough: foremost among them is the elimination of all processed foods, industrially produced seed oils and refined sugar. From there, things get murkier. For example, some internet experts on the topic claim that dairy is not ancestral as humans have ingested milk for only 10,000 years.
Since the Paleo movement exploded over a decade ago, men in particular have gravitated to these diets for many reasons. Vegetarian diets are often filled with phytoestrogenic soy that makes them understandably unappealing to men (very few males desire to grow breasts). One could also psychoanalyze a little bit and surmise that many men feel emasculated by current socioeconomic and political conditions and associate the words “paleo” and “ancestral” with the call to an older, truer hunter-gatherer manhood. Some part of me suspects that a lot of these consumers are the same people who have to be told by Jordan Peterson to make their beds and stop eating any plants.
Never before has a generation of males been solely responsible for the gathering and preparation of their own food. Historically, women played a crucial role in deciding what families would eat. And since many women now (especially those on the leading edge of nutrition influencing) gravitate more toward “plant-based” diets, it makes sense that men would look for alternatives to meal plans primarily comprised of soy and beans. With no sensible women to help them, it is unsurprising that men on a mission to eat meat might go a little crazy and avoid eating any plants at all.
As unsurprising as the ancestral eating trend itself is the emergence of those keen to make a ton of money from it. Brian Johnson, the entrepreneur-influencer known as the Liver King, currently faces a $25 million class-action lawsuit after lying about being on steroids. His accusers claim that his “ancestral tenets” of eating copious, disrespectful amounts of raw beef liver, spleen and pancreas were unrealistic and couldn’t be followed unless his followers bought products like desiccated cow-brain pills from his highly profitable company Ancestral Supplements.
Non-industrialized cultures from all over the world, from Africa to Russia, cherished organ meats as a sacred delicacy; some groups, such as the Plains Indians, consumed them raw in small amounts. Liver, especially from beef and bison, is high in fat-soluble Vitamin A, B12 and K2, folate, iron, choline, copper and other essential nutrients that most of us are woefully deficient in. Conventional vitamins do not contain nutrients in their fat-soluble forms and are poorly absorbed by the human body. Organ meats and egg yolks (also promoted by Brian Johnson) are truly nature’s superfoods, but eating pounds of raw liver weekly is both impossible for most people and probably dangerous: Vitamin A toxicity is a real concern for people who over-supplement.
Pre-industrial cultures prioritized animal foods for their nutritional density, and likely avoided our current onslaught of chronic illnesses by not consuming seed oils or refined sugars. They also did not subsist exclusively on raw meat. These ancient diets varied dramatically by climate and culture. There doesn’t seem to be much Western interest currently in ancestral Japanese diets, which consist of a lot of mineral-rich seaweed, fermented soy and fish broth. The problem with our ancient-diet revival fads is not that they are necessarily dishonest, but that there are kernels of truth in all of them that are taken to absurd conclusions and extremes by hustlers and cranks.
The injury which explains our newfound obsession with “primal” food is that many of us don’t have a cultural connection to any food that isn’t highly processed or filled with seed oils. The people who devised the food pyramid and tell us what to eat are liars. Lobbyists for agricultural oligarchs, they have systematically decimated small farms and the availability of fresh vegetables while ushering us into an era of corn-sugar cereals, soy byproducts and seed oils that are actually toxic to the human body and the environment.
As nutrition renegade Ray Peat has explained, “Fifty years ago, paints and varnishes were made of soy oil, safflower oil, and linseed (flax seed) oil. Then chemists learned how to make paint from petroleum, which was much cheaper. As a result, the huge seed oil industry found its crop increasingly hard to sell.” You can see where this is going — the foods enshrined in the American diet are industrial byproducts.
Seed-oil consumption on such a massive scale is very new to the human diet, and all of these oils contain large amounts of an Omega-6 fat called linoleic acid, which, in the amounts we eat, has been directly linked to inflammation and obesity. At this point there’s no denying the link between our food system and skyrocketing rates of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
We are often met with two extreme solutions. The first, advocated by Bill Gates and the chief operating officer of Beyond Meat, who bit the flesh off someone’s nose, is to go entirely “plant-based” and save the environment from the methane gas cows produce. By plant-based they actually mean eating soy-derived machine sludge that “bleeds” red dye and is produced in factories that have been shut down for bacterial and mold contamination. The other extreme is something like Brian Johnson’s Liver King prescription of cow-brain pills, raw spleen, and steroids.
Somewhere in the middle of all this lie the teachings of Weston A. Price (1870-1948), an anthropologist and dentist who spent his professional life researching the dental and maxillofacial health of cultures around the world. His photos show non-industrialized Swiss, Eskimo and other children whose diets of nutrient-rich foods like fish, liver and raw milk, he concluded, led to robust health and no tooth decay. His photos of American and English children, however, don’t look so great: ghastly tooth decay, rickets, pellagra, goiter and other nutrition-related illnesses plague their little bodies, leaving Dr. Price to conclude that there was something seriously wrong with industrial diets high in white sugar, white flour, and processed seed oils. He constructed diet programs for children and adults suffering from tooth decay, which included raw milk, grass-fed butter high in fat-soluble vitamins, cod liver oil, muscle meats, egg yolks and liver. His patients consumed no sugar, white flour and certainly no seed oils, which were widely available during Price’s time but were not yet the focus of his foundation’s research. Price’s work was so far ahead of the curve that he is credited for discovering the function of Vitamin K2, which assimilates minerals into the body and protects against tooth decay.
From an anthropological perspective this all makes perfect sense. The most tragic and heartbreaking examples of what a dramatic shift from true ancestral eating to the American diet of white flour, seed oils and white sugar looks like can be found on most Indian reservations, where rates of Type 2 (insulin-resistant) diabetes, obesity and cancer are sky-high. Thankfully, there is movement among many tribes to establish “food sovereignty” by reintroducing climate-appropriate community gardens, hunting, and a spiritual approach to eating.
With common sense and determination, it is more than possible to eat well and re-establish the health of the soil, which grows the plants the animals we eat for meat themselves eat. The most enlightening class I ever took was on Native American food systems; it documented the way ancestral peoples were able to consume nutrient-dense animal foods and plants in tandem, a concept unthinkable to males who won’t eat a single fruit or vegetable.
It might be time the nutrition seeker looks at what our actual American ancestors ate, as opposed to the caricature diets of carnivores like Joe Rogan or Mikhaila Peterson. And if you do happen to find yourself in the wonderful world of Weston A. Price and his teachings, I recommend taking the advice of the Weston A. Price Foundation’s president Sally Fallon Morell with a grain of salt. Her disavowal of all vaccines and EMF radiation are so impassioned they might be enough to turn the most sensible of us into a chemically-sensitive recluse living in mortal fear of garlic and cell phones in Sedona.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s February 2023 World edition.