Diet – Where your ancestral heritage is important

Surely we must have adapted to agriculture by now? The answer is no and sort of yes to that question. It depends on what your ancestral heritage is or how long you have been exposed to agriculture.

Let’s take dairy.


This map shows the distribution of lactose intolerance. Note that the exceptions in the US are Native Americans and African Americans – whose heritage introduced them to dairy very late. If you are Asian, milk is not part of your heritage either.

This map shows the spread of agriculture in the west. It’s not that long ago.

Evolution takes time to make an impact – if at all. It must have taken a very long time for humans to evolve to eat mainly meat For instance, Chimps love meat but cannot eat much of it. If they do, they get ill. Chimps, like early hominids, have a very large digestive system that is designed to process raw veggies and powerful jaws and teeth designed to chew for hours. About 8 hours a day. It took maybe a million years for our ancestors to adapt to cooked food and meat. As a result they also changed their physiology. We lost 1/3 of our gut and all those big teeth and jaw muscles.

In the next series of posts we will explore how your ancestral heritage fits into the modern diet. In summary:

  • If you are from the Middle East you will have the best adaptation to wheat – But remember that the wheat we have today is a 50 year old modern strain with an exceptionally high gluten content. It is not the old wheat. You will also lose your adaptation in middle age
  • If you are from Northern Europe, you will have the best tolerance for dairy. But again, if you live in the US where growth hormone in cows is permitted, you are not drinking even your parents milk. You also will lose this tolerance in middle age.
  • If you are from Northern China, you will have a good tolerance to wheat with all the provisos – if you are from Southern China and Asia you will have a strong tolerance for rice. Again as you age and if you select very processed rice, you will lose this.
  • If you are from Asia and Southern Africa and America you will have a low tolerance for all dairy.
  • If you are from a recent Hunter Gatherer heritage, Inuit – First Nations – you will have no tolerance for Agriculture.
  • None of us have any tolerance for highly processed industrial food.

More here is Thesis 47

This entry was posted in Ancestry, Constraints, Context, Diet, Environments, Evolutionary Novelty, Forces of Natural Selection, Physiology, Population, The Science, Theses. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Diet – Where your ancestral heritage is important

  1. Joe Graves Jr. says:

    You need to be careful about using the term “race” when applied to anatomically modern humans. You are conflating socially defined “races” as used by lay people with biological races (which our species does not have) in this post. Human genetic variation is best understood through isolation-by-distance, which means that geographically contiguous populations share more alleles in common than populations that our more distant from each other. There are no discrete breaking points in this distribution which indicates that any attempts to define biological races by genetic variation is arbitrary. I describe both the history of fallacious ideas about the biological race concept in humans is a series of publications, but the reader can get a good sense of the biomedical implications of this in:

    Graves, J.L., The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium, Rutgers U. Press, 2005.
    Graves, J.L., The Race Myth: Why We Pretend Races Exist in America, Dutton, 2005.

    and from the perspective of evolutionary medicine:

    Graves, J.L., Evolutionary v. Racial Medicine: Why It Matters, in Race and the Genetics Revolution, Columbia U. Press, 2011 (out soon.)

    The point of thesis 47 is to describe how an individual’s ancestry determines whether they may have allelic variants which are more or less susceptible to the agricultural diet. Given that the grasses are temperate plants, any populations that evolved in non-temperate zones would be less likely to handle the agricultural diet well and more likely to benefit from switching to a paleo-diet. From the map displayed, this means that Finns, indigenous Australians, Sub-Saharan Africans, and many others fit into this category. This however is describing ancestry and not “race.” These are not the same thing (as well explained in Graves 2011.)

  2. Tupira says:

    This article is too simplified. It only allows for quite homogenous backgrounds and geographic locations. What happens when you are of over several generations mixed heritage which have settled in regions of the new world which are now recognized for dairy and cattle farming in recent history for example?

    • robpatrob says:

      Yes it is simple but it does make the point that heritage is a key part of this. Most people can look back and have at least a general idea of their heritage and take some guidance. The complexity as you point out is that many of us are more mixed that we even know about. I posted this as a general guideline.

      Evolution of this type does not take place in several generations unless early death is part of the process. It takes a much much loneger time to adapt to a non immediately lethal novelty.

      To be specific – no one is adapted to the industrial diet. Even those of us who are quite well adapted to the agricultural diet, tend to lose this in middle life. Why chronic disease is so prevalent.

      So no matter who you are and where your heritage, if you wish to avoid chronic disease and if you wish to live a healthy and active life, giving up grains and legumes and dairy will help you do this.

      • Tupira says:

        Thanks for the reply. I do understand your point and that of several other scientists/dieticians/biologists supporting this paleo style diet, especially within regards to severe insulin exposure, obesity, fats and starch addiction. But unfortunately, given our transatlantic lifestyles and the fast changing, non-seasonal routines to which we are having to adapt every day makes it very difficult not to look upon any diet as some sort of “religion” as it is not only a question of modifying food choices but entire hardwired eating and social habits within our brains. Is the human brain capable of sustaining an artificially self-induced hunter gatherer lifestyle in an unstable, highly stimulated and overly saturated environment? Eating is no longer exclusively a necessity to human survival, it is a social, professional, networking activity and the variety of foods to which we have been exposed regardless of ancestry over generations is not always a harmful thing. There are many nutritious qualities to foods such as sourdough bread i.e. lactobacillus culture, (raw) honey etc. I were to try to adopt to my background of northern & Mediterranean European, African and South American “first nations” I would not even know where to begin. Native Americans are said to be intolerant to things such as alcohol, yet highly sugared tropical fruit and even coffee would have been available. On the other hand dairy would have been present amongst my Europea/African ancestors and so would agriculture.

      • robpatrob says:

        Has not eating always been a social process for humans? We are the only primate who shares and eat socially. I think this is in fact key to the future. As more of us eat differently, we create a market for a new food system. As more of us do this we change society??

        Do not all human social systems also rely on the food system for their design? HG’s have a social context based on no property, mobility etc. Ag societies have to have property and so have to contro ownership and so have elite hierarchies. The new food system and economy will go Peer to Peer and be networked. Many small joined in a vast network – this then will change everything

        The “new” food system is already here but in tiny form. It is based on fitting animals and plants back into their evolutionary settings – such as pasture beef and permaculture. As more of us adopt this way of eating – so the food system will adapt to meet the demand for “real food”.

        I think that in this context – this is much more than a diet. When you factor in PEAK OIL, you can see that a new food system is inevitable.

        You also raise the excellent point about bacteria in food. Part of the wider Ancestral Diet movement puts gut flora at the centre. Part of the modern world is that we try to remove bacteria. Anti biotics arte like an atom bomb that kills all. So many of us eat food – such as fermented cabbage, kombucha, yoghurt – that puts the flora back. Fermentation was a key process for millennia.

        This view then has a twist for dairy. No one other than the milker of the cow ate fluid milk in the past prior to refrigeration. Milk was turned into cheese or yoghurt or kefir. Even butter was cultured. Raw honey is packed with bacteria and life.

        I am thinking that “Real Food” is alive.

        Thanks for chatting – gets my poor old brain working

  3. Tupira says:

    You’re welcome, I have huge interest in this topic especially from personal experience and your generic doctor’s attitude of prescribing drugs in a shot and treat the brain separately from the body, so I have starting going through your posts. A food revolution is definitely inevitable as more and more of us become immigrants or even (to put it closer to the hunter gatherer model) nomadic migrants but over much larger distances and having access to foods from the opposite side of the planet. But as we are seeing so much more now with bringing back ancient vegetable crops and livestock to avoid the dangerous epidemic consequences of industrial farming can already make a difference.

    Good work

  4. robpatrob says:

    And the new food system drives a new financial system that matches it – here is a sketch that I have done that shows how this is starting to work out.

  5. Paul says:

    I have read and listened to all of your information. Thank you very much for providing this free valuable resource. I am 58 years old and of Irish ancestry. My ancestors came to Canada from Ireland in the 1840’s. Can I eat cheese?

    thanks Paul

    • robpatrob says:

      Michael is stricter than I and would say no – the purists don’t eat dairy. As an Irish person, you will be better adapted to dairy than most but by middle age, we all lose this.

      But in the scheme of things – the key is to not eat grains and legumes and ALL processed foods. The other is to ensure that your gut flora is healthy. If you keep to this, a bit a cheating with a bit of cheese, which by fermenting loses most of the lactose and has healthy bacteria, is probably not going to hurt

  6. Pingback: Your Feet And Toes Tell Your Heritage | A Nutritional Makeover

  7. Loved this post. I studied Anthropology in college so I really got to dig deep into a lot of evolutionary biology and food culture. I was born and raised in America but my parents are from India, and over the years my body has become intolerant to rice and wheat, the very foods my ancestors ate. I blame GMO foods for sure for wreaking havoc on my GI system. It’s the whole reason why I had to go on a 60-Day Detox Cleanse.

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