What Traditional Foods Can Teach Us About Healthier Eating

By Marilee Nelson |

featured image: What Traditional Foods Can Teach Us About Healthier Eating

Since word has gotten out about how our lives were changed by eliminating toxins and using food as medicine, we get a lot of questions about nutrition. Specifically: What do we eat? What do we not eat? What diet do we recommend? What do we feed our children? And how did we come to our conclusions about what’s healthy and what’s not? Though our nutritional philosophies have evolved as we’ve grown, healed, and expanded our knowledge, our foundational advice and guiding principle is always to first "Toss the Toxins" from your diet and get back to the basics of eating real food and traditional food diets.  

An overview of traditional foods

A traditional food diet is the diet of generations’ past who lived, survived, and thrived before processed foods and modern medicine came on the scene. These have been documented in many best-selling books and media outlets, including but not limited to:  The Jungle EffectThe Blue Zones, The Mediterranean Diet, The Okinawan Diet, The China Study, Nourishing Traditions, the Weston A. Price Foundation, and many books, documentaries, etc. by Michael Pollan. The really interesting thing about studying these diverse “traditional” or “ancestral” diets is connecting the dots to figure out commonalities that have helped people live disease-free for generations. Different authors, doctors, anthropologists, journalists, and nutrition experts have their opinions on these common threads and what constitutes a “healthy diet.” However, there are a few things everyone seems to agree on when it comes to the wisdom of traditional eating:

  • Eat whole, real foods
  • Choose local and in-season fruits and vegetables
  • Eat until you’re satisfied, not stuffed
  • Eat more or less according to your activity levels
  • Listen to your body 

Many experts also note that some of the longest living and healthiest cultures eat no or “little” animal products and more liberally of plant-based foods. That’s not to say they don’t eat or value the nutrient-dense animal foods, but they don’t make them the focus of every meal and still enjoy low rates of diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease, cancers, etc. Other traditional food experts promote liberal consumption of animal foods based on the fact some native communities survived on mostly meats and animal fat. The caveats being: activity level of the people, climate lived in, and the animal protein must be from healthy, pasture-raised animals. That said, both camps agree: whether you follow the wisdom of traditional plant-based or more animal-protein based diets, you’ll be getting better nutrition than you would from the Standard American Diet, which is full of processed foods. Bottom line: listen to your body and aim for balanced eating.

The origination of traditional food diets and food as medicine

So where did traditional food diets come from? They evolved from ancient communities and civilizations based on what was available locally, their knowledge, cooking techniques and materials/equipment, the need for food preservation (fermented foods), and the understanding of how food acts as medicine.

It is believed the origins of all traditional diets can be traced back to Asia, where the original practitioners or “healers” of India (Ayurvedic Medicine) and China (Traditional Chinese Medicine) used their wisdom to create a nutritional system for sustenance and healing, as well as for enjoyment. These “diets” were based on local, nourishing foods, healing herbs and spices, the seasons, and the individual’s constitution, so while there are many overarching principles (like not overeating and observing times of fasting and feasting) there was always an individual component too. 

For example, in Ayurvedic medicine there are different general dietary recommendations for the 3 “Doshas” or body types known as: Pitta, Vata, and Kapha. And in Traditional Chinese Medicine (and other cultures) the contents of one’s diet would change according to season (based on location/time of year), your health, age, occupation, level of stress, and other natural life events such as preconception, pregnancy, lactation, postpartum, menopause, andropause, etc. This is key to understanding why some people will thrive on a particular type of “diet”—either indefinitely or for a certain amount of time—while others do not have the same experience. People following these diets knew that one size did not fit all when it came to food as medicine and nourishing the individual.

How to use the wisdom of traditional foods to eat healthier today

We personally love to pore over and analyze all the books, research, and other content on traditional foods (and if you do too, click the links above to order some of those books and visit their websites)! However, if you just want the cliff notes, here’s how to use this information to eat healthier right now:

  • Buy organic, non-GMO foods as much as possible. The traditional diets mentioned above did not contain pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, GMOs, etc.
  • Buy foods free of refined sugar, harmful chemicals, and inflammatory oils.  Traditional diets contained no additives or highly processed foods.
  • Eat plenty of whole, fresh foods. If you can, buy local and in-season, all the better for nutrient quality.
  • Eat the rainbow. More colorful fresh fruits and vegetables to feed your microbiome. 
  • Enjoy healthy, traditional organic unrefined fats such as extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, sesame oil, avocado oil, ghee, and whole nuts and seeds.
  • Opt for traditional, non-hybridized grains such as spelt, kamut, millet, quinoa, brown rice, barley, teff, sorghum, etc. If you don’t tolerate grains well, you can try sprouted grains or going gluten-free (many cultures traditionally ate gluten-free out of necessity) and see how you do. Grain-free diets were also traditional in some cultures where they relied on potatoes, squashes, tubers, plantains, etc. as their main sources of starchy carbohydrates. 
  • Carbohydrates from plant-based whole sources are healthful for many people when eaten in their whole, unrefined state. This includes potatoes, taro root, sweet potatoes, squash, fruits, beans, plantains, yucca, corn (organic non-GMO), cassava, oats, quinoa, etc.
  • Soak your grains, beans, nuts, and seeds overnight with 1 tablespoon lemon juice to reduce phytic acid content and enhance nutrients. Pour off the water before cooking.
  • Moderate amounts of natural salt, such as Himalayan pink salt, sea salt, and salt found in sea vegetables aids digestion and is healthful.
  • Seaweed and sea vegetables are a natural source of iodine, a mineral sorely lacking in most modern diets.
  • White sugar, corn syrup, and other processed sugars and artificial sweeteners should be replaced with natural sweeteners such as sweet squashes, fruits, raw honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar, stevia (it’s a plant and a traditional food) and dates.
  • Leafy greens are essential to good health. Lettuces, kale, collards, turnip greens, mustard greens, bok choy, spinach, arugula, dandelion, chicory, etc. are all excellent.
  • Lacto fermented foods aid digestion and support a healthy gut. Try eating a little kimchi, sauerkraut, cultured vegetables, kombucha, miso, etc. with your meals once or twice a day.
  • If  you eat meat and dairy:
    • Try swapping out meat for beans, legumes, and other plant-based proteins a few times a week. 
    • When you eat meat, go all-out for pasture-raised, organic, grass fed and grass finished, or wild game. This can be more affordable when meat consumption gets cut back.
    • Organ meats, such as liver, can add high-quality essential nutrients to your food. Just make sure they’re from very, very clean, organic, pasture-raised and grass finished animals. If you’re unsure of their origins, take a pass.
    • If you tolerate dairy products, enjoy them sparingly (like a condiment) and again, go all-out for organic, pasture-raised grass fed and finished. Become educated on the difference between raw dairy (consumed in traditional diets) and pasteurized dairy. Bone broths contain a wealth of healing components for the digestive tract such as glycine, gelatin, and collagen and add a nice meaty flavor. 

How NOT to use traditional food wisdom in the 21st century

Another important aspect of applying traditional food as medicine principles successfully, is to stay up on issues surrounding food safety and toxicity. The world we live in now is not what it was 100, 200, or 1000 years ago in terms of pollution, chemicals, heavy metals, pesticides, and processing and packaging practices, etc. Thus, we must exercise common sense vs. traditional-food-absolutism for best results.

For example, many traditional food experts still recommend eating all types of fish and seafood because it worked for generations’ past. However, we would err on the side of avoiding fish that now contain large amounts of heavy metals, PCBs, and plastics such as tuna, swordfish, shark, orange roughy, etc. in favor of omega-3-rich, low-tox varieties like wild Alaskan salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, and herring (SMASH is a helpful acronym to remember). This is a perfect example of how we can (and should!) adapt traditional food diets to meet our modern needs for nutrition and safety. 

Same goes for over-consumption of dairy products, gluten, or meat for some people. What worked for people in a certain part of the world many years ago may not be compatible with modern-day chronic conditions, genetic predispositions, or ancestral heritage. For example, research from Cornell University has shown people from Northern European ancestry tend to digest dairy better than those of Asian, Native American, Latino, and African American descent, due to their ancestral diets.1 So balance, commonsense, and honoring of one’s body and intuition should always be paramount. 

For more practical advice about food as medicine and healthy eating…

...we recommend the following:

This free panel presentation by the University of California provides some excellent information on the history and practical application of food as medicine and traditional diets: Let Food Be Thy Medicine.

We also really enjoyed this article/interview in Today’s Dietician with the author of one of the newer traditional food books: The Jungle Effect with Daphne Miller, MD (and the book is really good too, check it out here!).

Marilee Nelson

Marilee Nelson is an Environmental Toxins expert who has spent nearly 30 years advocating for the chemically-sensitive and chronically-ill. She is a Board Certified Nutritionist, Certified Bau-Biologist and Bau-Biology Inspector and specializes in Food As Medicine. She has helped thousands of families and individuals identify, heal and recover from toxic exposures and is on a mission to revolutionize the way American families view their health.