Traits of Hunter-Gatherer Diets

Hunter-gatherers serve as wonderful models for examining the food habits of humans.  Not only has hunting and gathering been practiced since long before anatomically modern humans appeared, but the people that practiced this method of food acquisition represented some of the healthiest people on the planet (those that were still consuming their traditional diet and had ample space to practice their diet and lifestyle).  Noting the absence of facial deformity (e.g., narrow faces, crowded and/or crooked teeth, impacted wisdom teeth, distorted bite), low incidence of dental caries, and virtual absence of chronic diseases that plague those living in urbanized countries, they serve as a role model for health.  Note that the traits presented below are for Homo sapiens sapiens that were observed practicing their traditional diet.

One feature of hunter-gatherer lives that some believe demonstrated they practiced a poor diet was life span.  Though it is known that some groups lived only to their 50s, these people were not the rule (i.e., most lived longer lives).  For example, the indigenous of northern New England were documented to live into their 70s (and did so without the importation of food from around the world and without using pharmaceutical drugs).  Longevity should not be used as the sole criterion of measuring the health of a diet.  I would argue that well-formed children are more important than an extra decade of life.  Placed in the context of resource use by urbanized countries, is it really surprising that life extension occurs when some groups use more than their share of the world’s raw materials? (Remember, the US possesses approximately 4% of the world’s population but uses 25% of the world resources.) 

These ten essentially universal traits of hunter-gatherer diets are presented to bring some context (and truth) to modern dietary dogma.  ANY DIETARY RECOMMENDATIONS GIVEN TO HEALTHY ADULTS THAT STAND IN CONTRADICTION TO THESE TRAITS SHOULD BE CONSIDERED SUSPECT.  Such recommendations would be considered new (i.e., experimental) dietary advice.  And in many cases, such advice can be documented to have detrimental effects to human health and jeopardize creating healthy, well-formed children.  For example, the USDA recommends limiting saturated fat in the diet due to its alleged role in cardiovascular disease.  Given that all wild people have consumed saturated fat in their diet and lived free of cardiovascular disease, this indicates this recommendation is flawed.  For another example, many Paleo Diet authors staunchly advocate the cessation of eating any and all grains.  The fact that a number of groups utilized them as a staple (and produced healthy, well-formed children) indicates this advice is incorrect for all people—we should be asking the questions (1) what kinds of grains were consumed and (2) how were they combined with other foods in the diet.  We can apply this hunter-gatherer filter to much of the dietary advice provided by nutritional experts with similar results.

You may believe this filter lacks usefulness for contemporary people; however, it is highly relevant.  Remember, you are derived from hunter-gatherers and have similar nutritional needs based on a shared evolutionary history.  Put another way, what do you consider the natural diet of the gray wolf?  You would probably not answer commercial dog food, which is what is usually fed to the domesticated version of the wolf—the household dog.  Using the same reasoning, domesticated people are not appropriate examples of what the natural diet of the human is.  With modern processing and storage equipment, global transport, and forms of plants and animals that are of recent creation (i.e., farmed foods), contemporary people are able to depart from many of the universal elements of the diet practiced by humans for most of their existence (usually with evident, detrimental health effects).

The ten traits of hunter-gatherer diets follow.

1. Omnivory.

All cultures consumed plant and animal foods (as well as fungi and bacteria).  The proportion of kinds of foods was dependent on location and season.  Those living in the far north consumed diets that were very rich in animal foods (though they did not eat exclusively animal foods).  Ominivory assured that the people received not only a diversity of nutritional elements, but also received the active forms of certain vitamins and essential fats (e.g., vitamin A, vitamin D, DHA omega-3 FAs), resulting in a much higher vitamin and mineral intake than contemporary people.

2. Raw and Cooked.

They ate a mixture of raw and cooked foods.  Even in tropical locations, where fires were not required for heat, fires were maintained for cooking.  Some plants were consumed raw, others required cooking to detoxify them.  In addition to cooked animal foods, some portions (or the entirety) of animals were eaten raw.  This dietary trait ensured that heat-sensitive nutrients were acquired in the diet.

3. Full Utilization.

They consumed a larger portion of the animal than contemporary people, eating marrow, organs, fat, roe, and other parts (when possible).  Such utilization of the animal meant they did not consume the relative amount of lean muscle meat that contemporary people do.  Modern practices in urbanized regions focus on consumption of what is essentially the least nutritious part of the animal.  The full utilization of the animal by hunter-gatherers also means they received a higher proportion of lipids in the diet than many contemporary people. 

4. Plant Diversity.

They ate a large number of plant species, incorporating a great diversity of kinds in their diet.  For example, in temperate regions, well over 100 species were consumed throughout the year (this figure is much higher in subtropical and tropical regions).  The exact species were dependent on location (a function of many attributes, including latitude, elevation, proximity to large water bodies).  These included fleshy fruits, seeds, tubers, greens/shoots, grains, nuts, and flowers.  No highly modified species were consumed by hunter-gatherers (i.e., the plants were wild forms; seedless, high-sugar, low-fiber plants were not utilized in the diet). Gluten-free grains were consumed (to varying extents) by a large number of hunter-gatherers living in temperate and warmer climates.

5. Food Processing.

They often employed specific processing techniques to reduce toxins, remove or deactivate antinutrients, and initiate breakdown of the foods (promoting improved digestibility).  Food processing was a very important detail of the diet, and examples exist where toxic plant species were used as staples (i.e., the plants were toxic raw).  Food processing techniques included cooking, drying, soaking, leaching, and diluting.

6. Seasonality.

They ate seasonally (except for stored foods) and many foods were not consumed year-round (e.g., eggs, sweet fruits; details dependent on location) because they were not available.  This limited the potentially harmful effects of any food that can be consumed in excess today.  Some people had access to a variety of plant foods year-round, while others were extremely limited and relied extensively on animal foods.

7. Food Refinement.

They utilized relatively simple means of refining the foods, including (but not limited to) grinding, drying, cooking, and soaking.  They did not produce highly refined foods that had certain microscopic components removed.  For example, though they did grind nuts and grains to produce flour, but they did not remove the bran prior to grinding (a method that produces white flour).  As such (and along with other details of their diets), there was no need for artificial ingredients or nutritional supplements. 

8. Lipids.

There was no social fear of certain kinds of fats.  Saturated fats were consumed and were important components of their diets.  The ratio of the essential fatty acids omega-6 and omega-3 were consumed at approximately 1:1 to 3:1 ratios (most contemporary humans in urbanized countries consume a ratio between 8:1 and 24:1).  They consumed far less polyunsaturated fats than contemporary people, not utilizing the tremendous volume of plant seed oils (e.g., corn, soy, cotton, safflower) that contemporary people ingest.  Further, the plant seed lipids were ingested with the food intact (i.e., not extracted), so the polyunsaturated fatty acids were protected from exposure to oxygen and sunlight, features that create oxidized fats that are damaging to cardiovascular health.

9. Simple Sugars.

Sweet, mono- and disaccharide sugars were part of indigenous diets (aside from fructose in fruit).  Foods such as sugar and syrups (made from tree sap) and honey were highly sought after and specialized techniques and tools were employed to collect such foods.  Reports exist of certain groups consuming large amounts of such foods during periods of the year and (in some cases) these foods were stored for later use.  Of course, such foods were not separated from their nutrition and contained vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

 10. Salt.

Unrefined salts were used when available to indigenous groups.  These were sourced from mineral deposits, springs, and oceans.  In some cases, plant ashes were collected and used for their salty flavor.  Halophytic plants were also gathered for the salt content and eaten alone or used to season other foods.  Refined salt (sodium chloride) was not part of the diet.