You are likely aware that our current state of nutritional science is at best fair, with a growing set of newer studies casting doubt on established nutritional guidelines.
For example, there are new questions about the wisdom of diets high in carbohydrates and even plant fiber. Similarly, researchers have begun to challenge the advisability of widely-adopted eating programs that encourage meals low in fats, low in meats and proteins, accepting of modern vegetable oils, and agnostic toward processed foods.
Supporting this scientific reversal, recent decades have witnessed growing health problems around the world, many likely driven by our current nutritional standards. An obvious list includes runaway obesity and diabetes, increased cancers, elevated autoimmune and neurological disorders, and reduced physical vitality overall. Often less appreciated is the fact that all this comes amid growing ecological problems from the industrial farming that supplies our typical modern diets. Here, direct and crucial effects include deforestation, habitat loss and displacement, soil erosion and desertification, species extinction, and increasing non-renewable agricultural inputs.
Against this backdrop of uncertain science, and flagging personal and ecological health, there has never been a better time to consider our natural or ancestral human diet. After all, since we are a long-evolved natural species, this diet should be generally beneficial for us and the environment, even if modern science might improve upon it, eventually.
The above Natural Food Pyramid infographic summarizes our ancestral diet, and outlines why this overall approach to eating is apt to be quite healthy, and even optimally so, for both us and the planet. As you can see, this renaturalized food pyramid is very different from ones produced by various government agencies and researchers since the 1970s, in its conclusions and also because it puts our most important foods on top!
Since the Natural Food Pyramid graphic contains ideas that may be unfamiliar or controversial, let me offer a few comments to explain its five food categories and key ideas:
> Pastured ruminants, plus wild animals & fish – ruminants are grass-eating and grassland-dwelling animals. Along with other animals and fish, they are our primary ancestral food and calorie source, and instructively provide a nutritionally complete, balanced, and perhaps optimal diet for us. Ruminants such as cattle and sheep often have a bad reputation ecologically. But as an ancient human food source, the truth is that these animals can be pasture-raised in ways that are entirely natural and beneficial. In particular, the approach can be polycultural or ecologically diverse, self-fertilizing, pest resistant, soil improving, water conserving, carbon neutral or sequestering, restorative to stressed grasslands, ecologically sustainable, and beneficial for rural communities.
> Perennial organic fruits & nuts – these are also foods that we ate naturally or ancestrally, though secondarily and often only significantly when meat and fish were unavailable. Reflecting their natural second tier status, fruits and nuts are often nutritious but are not nutritionally complete. In addition, many people can eat only limited amounts of these foods without experiencing inflammation and related metabolic effects – ranging from mild intestinal bloating and discomfort to chronic autoimmune and systemic health issues. Ecologically, since these foods typically are from perennial or regenerating plants and trees, the production and harvesting of these foods normally does not result in soil erosion, though other environmental effects (such as unsustainable water use) will depend on the type of plant and manner in which it is grown. However, since these plants normally are grown in clusters and not integrally in the environment, as with pastured and wild animals, they are often ecologically displacing.
> Annual vegetables & crops – these generally are newer human foods, many of which first entered our diet in the run-up to and during the Agrarian Revolution, 10,000 years ago, though our ancestors plainly ate some amount of vegetables and starchy plants before this (but limited grains and legumes). Nutritionally, these foods are often similar to fruits and nuts, in that they provide incomplete nutrition and bring risks of inflammation and related effects (though these risks may be greater in this category of foods overall). More significant instead are the ecological health differences between the two categories of plant foods. As with modern fruits and nuts, vegetable foods and staple crops are normally grown in large single-species or monoculture tracts, in a practice called monocropping. But unlike both pasture-raised meats and perennial fruit and nut farming, most vegetables and crops are planted and uprooted annually, resulting in compounding soil disturbance. As a result, these foods are generally far less ecologically sustainable than the above pasture, polycultural, wild, and perennial foods. Key ecological issues from annual vegetable and crop farming include soil impairment and erosion, water runoff and aquifer depletion, carbon de-sequestration, use of artificial pesticides and fertilizers, displacement of local species and ecosystems, and homogenization of our food system.
> Annual-fed animals & fish – these animals are ancestral human foods, but ones raised unnaturally on annual and monocrop foods such as soy and corn. Overall, while the resulting human foods are nutritionally complete, they are also often imbalanced (for example, with altered ratios of fatty and amino acids, hormones, and minerals). While these nutritional issues should be of concern, once again the main shortcoming of these foods is ecological. In essence, they at once share and magnify the ecological issues of annual vegetables and crops raised above. This magnification owes to the fact that animals naturally consume much more food than they produce. As such, annual-fed animals and fish are not only ecologically harmful because of their annualized diets, they are ecologically in efficient too, since we might eat at least some of their foods directly (though not necessarily beneficially).
> All processed foods – most of these foods come in a box or container, have been processed or produced in a factory, are derived from annual agriculture, and involve significant unsustainable resource inputs and accumulated wastes. As this description suggests, they also normally are the newest, least natural or ancestral, and least health-certain group of foods in the pyramid. For this reason, they are best broadly avoided.
These proposals may make perfect sense, or they may seem questionable and against what you have been led to believe. In any case, I hope they will provide useful perspective on the ways you do and might eat, and again from both nutritional and ecological vantage points.
However, regardless of your initial views about my infographic, let me close by highlighting that its nutritional proposals are readily tested. With your physician or dietician’s approval, eating primarily or exclusively from the top of the Natural Food Pyramid, even for as little as a month, will often have dramatic restorative effects on our health and well-being – reflecting the naturalness and general optimality of this overall diet.
If you are intrigued, I would encourage you to explore more natural modern eating, and then perhaps, more natural approaches in other areas of modern life too.
Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.
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