ABCs of the Ancestral Lifestyle

Introduction

The primal/paleo/ancestral lifestyle is a template applied in a modern context, subject to individualization and customization, according to many factors, including one’s health profile, age, ancestry, climate, community, gender, stage in life, stress levels, geographic location. Incidentally, this is not unlike the French concept of terroir, whereby similar factors contribute to the flavors, textures, and aromas of an artisan wine or cheese. Regardless of these differing factors, we all share the same physiology and anatomy, including our digestive, endocrine and organ systems as well as the fact that our mitochondria, ancient bacteria now a part of our cells, produce our energy. (See the paragraph below entitled “ We Are More Alike Than We are Different.”) The primal/paleo/ancestral lifestyle is an acceptance of these systems as they are and an attempt to nurture them optimally, in ourselves and our children, by returning to the rhythms and habits with which our bodies evolved over the millennia.

These interconnected guiding principles of an holistic, ancestral lifestyle informed my selection of recipes and major themes in The Bordeaux Kitchen book and this blog, and, more broadly, the decisions my family and I make and how we live our lives. Below are detailed explanations, ordered alphabetically to give some structure for easy reference, weaving together the tenets and strategies of this lifestyle and philosophy, as I have learned and interpreted them. I hope they will be useful to you.

If it is too much to take in all at once, just read one paragraph a day and observe how it compares or contrasts with your life and what steps you could take in a new direction. Like everything in life, it really is one step at a time.

“Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” Gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826)[1]

“We are what we eat … Therefore, if we do not know what we eat, there is great risk of not knowing what we are.”Claude Fischler, Sociologist, France, 1998.

The Bordeaux Kitchenbook and this blog are my attempt to capture these French recipes and traditions before they are lost, and to revitalize them with a new understanding of our responsibility to steward the Earth and its creatures, forests, grasslands, gardens and oceans in a way that honors them, our ancestors, our descendants, ourselves.

What I discovered while living in Bordeaux and learning form French cooks, chef, farmers and winemakers while at the same time learning from doctors like Catherine Shanahan (who wrote the Foreword to my book), scientists and health professionals, was that the food we eat and how we procure it, prepare it and share it is the very definition of health itself. The closer we are to understanding our food, where it comes from, how to prepare it and share it, the better we are able to understand ourselves and the world around us and to achieve good health.

A mainstay of the primal/paleo/ancestral lifestyle that I encourage in The Bordeaux Kitchen is the focus on mindfully eating fresh nutrient- and sensory-dense, seasonal, organic or wild-caught food. If you aren’t already doing so, I invite you to try eating minimally processed, unrefined food in a relaxed state of mind with family and friends, much as the French have done for generations.

What does it mean to eat like our ancestors? Science shows that regardless of our unique social or environmental conditions, we all share the same physiology and anatomy, including our digestive, endocrine and organ systems. The study of epigenetics suggests that what we eat, and how we move (or don’t), among other lifestyle choices, influences gene expression (called “epigenetics”), which in turn triggers outcomes related to our health, including disease. Evolutionary biology gives us a window into the conditions that appear to have best suited, or enabled the survival of, our Paleolithic ancestors. We would be wise to honor this knowledge in choosing the foods we were designed to eat. Excellent references for this lifestyle, now in updated form, are The New Primal Blueprint(2016) by Mark Sisson and Primal Fat Burner (2017), by Nora Gedgaudes. (For a list of other major works of the Primal-Paleo-Ancestral movement from the past two decades, see the Resources and Further Reading section in The Bordeaux Kitchenbook.)

Incorporating what we have learned about our Paleolithic or Stone Age ancestors’ 2.5 million year history – from they what they likely ate to the conditions that may have led to their survival – can help us to selectively navigate the pressures of our modern world. A modern lifestyle which focuses on eating more natural, whole, unprocessed food and on increased movement, along with reduced stress and improved sleep habits, may substantially improve our overall health outcomes – precisely because these habits honor our biology and the evolution of our species. Incorporating the wisdom of our ancestors suggests that we:

  • Eat a diverse range ofnutrient- and sensory-dense, organic and local foods in season.
  • Consume sustainably grown or raised, grassfed, or wild-caught sources of animal protein, and unrefined foods and fats, while actively avoiding the refined seed oil fats in margarine, canola oil, safflower oil, sunflower seed oil, etc.
  • Consume pasture-raised (also called “grass-fed”) animals “snout-to-tail” (including offal, or organ meats).
  • Avoid refined sugars, out-of-season fruit, and artificial sweeteners.
  • Avoid less nutrient-dense, potentially pro-inflammatory foods, such as grains and legumes, (which contain lectins and phytates – anti-nutrients that are part of a plants’ natural defense mechanism and, if not organic, are generally grown using glyphosate, an antimicrobial used as an herbicide and dessicant/ripening agent that disrupts our gut microbiome and is associated with antibiotic resistance[2]), in addition to certain proteins such as gluten or gliadin, (some of which can be harmful to humans, especially when eaten as refined flours, too frequently, or when improperly prepared.
  • Support the natural rhythms of digestion by eating slowly, and maintain consistent, adequate sleep habits essential for proper rest and recovery.
  • Move often throughout the day and practice mindfulness or awareness of your emotional and physical state for optimal health.
  • Minimize lifestyle stress and exposure to toxins when possible (including those from processed food, artificial light, and electro-magnetic radiation).

I explore these concepts in more detail in the A to Z list below, under the assumption that what worked for our Paleolithic ancestors, in terms of a diet rich in plants as well as animal protein and fat, and an active, physical lifestyle, alongside a keen awareness and utility of their environment, is similar to what our minds and bodies require today. The Paleolithic Period, also known as the Old Stone Age, ran from approximately 2.5 million to 12,000 years ago (roughly the start of the Agricultural Age). This era represents both the earliest period of human development (of the Homo genus), as well as the longest period of our history. Genetically speaking we are not so different from our Paleolithic ancestors. The good news is that in spite of modern influences that at times, dishonor our primal roots, some cultures, such as the French, still maintain elements of our ancestral dietary and lifestyle habits that are worth exploring and emulating, for our health’s sake as well as, I would argue, the planet’s sake.

The A to Z list below provides the vocabulary connected to the  concepts, along with references from which I have learned and found useful in my years of research. Our opinions may or may not differ on each subject. This is my attempt to create awareness for issues that might otherwise be glossed over, under the pretext that conventional wisdom already has it all covered. I would rather challenge that conventional wisdom and find new avenues to explore, edging readers toward the possibility of a paradigm shift, to which many might at first, as I was, be averse. Let’s just give it a try.

[1]Brillat-Savarin was one of the first if not the first to promote a low-carbohydrate diet, noting that all animals, including humans, grow obese on sugar and white flour in his 1825 book The Physiology of Taste.

[2]Watch MIT’s brilliant Stephanie Seneff talk about glyphosate at the 2018 AutismOne conference: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OL9mr599hb0

Nora Gedgaudes, author of Primal Body, Primal Mindand Fat Burner, remarked in her talk at the Ancestral Health Symposium in Boulder, Colorado, in August of 2016, that “that while we are technically all omnivores but does not necessarily mean that everything goes, or that pseudo-wisdom of everything in moderation. ‘How much of anything metabolically dysregulating or inflammatory or disruptive to your endocrine or immune system or even potentially auto-immune provoking do you want to enjoy in moderation? Are you really that healthy and symptom-free?…We all will choose moments of some compromise in life, but I think these moments need to be chosen really carefully and very consciously…Eating for joy does not necessarily mean that everything goes…There are fundamental principles of anatomy and physiology that apply to each and every one of us as human beings, and from there we extrapolate… As human beings we are all way more alike than we are unalike…We all share, for instance, a hydrochloric acid-based digestive tract that’s designed to make optimal use of animal-sourced food, (including animal fats, by the way), and not a fermentative-based digestive tract that’s designed to make optimal use of plant foods. We can certainly make some use of plant foods, but they can’t supply us with absolutely everything that we need to be optimally healthy on their own…There is not a different digestive design between any one person or another…We all have the same basic skeletal structure and tissues, hormones, neurotransmitters. We all share the same kinds of organs and the same type of unique brain…the same complement of appendages…we all have a blood pH that ranges very narrowly between 7.35 and 7.45 and we all have and rely upon these minute intracellular fat burning factories called mitochondria…and our cells all make energy through something called the Krebs Cycle…that breaks down fat and/or glucose for generating the energy that fuels our human machinery.”[3]

[3] To view the YouTube video of Nora Gedgaudes Ancestral Health 2016 Symposium talk, held in Boulder, Colorado, August 2016, “Is There One Universally Foundational Diet?” see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8k5QixWL0fU&index=14&list=PLbhWKPDKXIEBBybYcY_jUQGE7S0KLgH5S

Our Great-Grandmothers or the Pre-Agricultural Era?

How far back exactly is “ancestral”? Do we mean our great-grandmother or our pre-historic ancestors? The answer is: Both. In the case of the recipes in this book, I mean traditional dishes passed down over generations calling for fresh, seasonal ingredients and which are mostly free of sugars, grains and legumes. (3-footnote). The recipes in The Bordeaux Kitchen steer clear of industrially-refined “foods” and oils (such as canola, cottonseed, safflower, sunflower, soy, and “vegetable” oils) and recommend instead animal fats from pastured animals (including butter, fat from fowl, lard and tallow), fish, herbs, pressed olive oil, coconut oil, ground root or nut flours of chestnut, cassava or walnut, spices, meat and cheeses from grassfed animals, sea salts, vegetables, whole nuts and seeds. These foods for the most part comprise those that would have been grown, prepared, and eaten by our nearer ancestors, our great-grandmothers and great grand-fathers.

In the case of advocating for an “ancestral lifestyle,” I mean what is usually referred to as a Primal or Paleo approach to eating and living. These approaches are rooted in the theory of evolutionary biology (see the following entry on Evolutionary Biology). For almost 2.5 million years, humans were primarily nomadic hunters and gatherers, prior to our transition approximately ten to eighteen thousand years ago to an agricultural, settlement-based culture.

Today, with the myriad choices available to us (hyper-palatable chips, candy bars, and sugary drinks available to us at an arm’s length in vending machines, for example), and lacking the selective pressures of our evolution (lacking a sense of what is in season, what herbs or greens are medicinally helpful, having light available to us at night and in winter when we might otherwise be resting)  we live, according to Nora Gedgaudes, under a “collective illusion of creature comforts and conveniences” and no longer have “the wiggle room enjoyed by our ancestors” to make errors in our diet and lifestyles. The good news is that “we do have a choice to complement, not compromise” our health.[4] We make this choice every time we procure, prepare, or share a meal, for example.

[4] Ibid (Nora Gedgaudes). Besides Nora Gedgaudes’ Primal Fat Burner, excellent references in which these theories have been developed are Lights Outby T.S. Wiley, Chris Kresser’s The Paleo Cure, and Robb Wolf’s The Paleo Solution. Additional resources can be found in the Resources and Further Reading section in The Bordeaux Kitchenbook.

Observe the scientific evidence of early human diets and lifestyles if you want to understand the Primal-Paleo-Ancestral approach to eating and living today. Our modern, stressful lifestyles – thanks in part, to the overabundance of toxic, industrially-processed fast “food”, – has led to a genetic mismatch, in which our genes and our diet and lifestyle are at odds. According to a branch of science called epigenetics, many modern chronic illnesses are in no small part caused by genetic processes triggered by poor diet, nutrition and lifestyle choices (like poor sleep and exercise habits). In other words, our genes are literally affected by what we eat, how much and well we sleep and exercise, as well as the cumulative effect of stress and toxins in our environment.

Our bodies are biologically (that is, hormonally and metabolically) affected by the food we eat, therefore a calorie is not just a calorie. Dr. Mark Hyman, author of Eat Fat Get Thin, puts it succinctly on his website: “There are good and bad calories. Your body is much more complex than a simple math problem. When we eat, our food interacts with our biology, a complex adaptive system that instantly transforms every bite. Food is more than just calories and flavors. Food is information telling our cells what to do. In fact, every bite you eat affects your hormones, brain chemistry and metabolism. Sugar calories cause fat storage and spike hunger. Calories from fat and protein promote fat burning. What counts more is the quality, not the quantity, of the calories.”[5]

[5] http://drhyman.com/blog/2016/12/21/4-big-fat-food-lies-make-fat-sick/?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_campaign=4a4f6b26fc-Newsletter_2_6Fat_Makes_Thin&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_07a277e311-4a4f6b26fc-107438945&mc_cid=4a4f6b26fc&mc_eid=bc3a3ff9e7

More to come…