Proceedings of the Nutrition Society

Opening Lecture

The ancestral human diet: what was it and should it be a paradigm for contemporary nutrition?

S. Boyd Eatona1 c1

a1 Departments of Anthropology and Radiology, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30327, USA

Abstract

Awareness of the ancestral human diet might advance traditional nutrition science. The human genome has hardly changed since the emergence of behaviourally-modern humans in East Africa 100–50×103 years ago; genetically, man remains adapted for the foods consumed then. The best available estimates suggest that those ancestors obtained about 35% of their dietary energy from fats, 35% from carbohydrates and 30% from protein. Saturated fats contributed approximately 7·5% total energy and harmful trans-fatty acids contributed negligible amounts. Polyunsaturated fat intake was high, with n−6:n−3 approaching 2:1 (v. 10:1 today). Cholesterol consumption was substantial, perhaps 480 mg/d. Carbohydrate came from uncultivated fruits and vegetables, approximately 50% energy intake as compared with the present level of 16% energy intake for Americans. High fruit and vegetable intake and minimal grain and dairy consumption made ancestral diets base-yielding, unlike today's acid-producing pattern. Honey comprised 2–3% energy intake as compared with the 15% added sugars contribute currently. Fibre consumption was high, perhaps 100 g/d, but phytate content was minimal. Vitamin, mineral and (probably) phytochemical intake was typically 1·5 to eight times that of today except for that of Na, generally <1000 mg/d, i.e. much less than that of K. The field of nutrition science suffers from the absence of a unifying hypothesis on which to build a dietary strategy for prevention; there is no Kuhnian paradigm, which some researchers believe to be a prerequisite for progress in any scientific discipline. An understanding of human evolutionary experience and its relevance to contemporary nutritional requirements may address this critical deficiency.

Correspondence:

c1 Corresponding author: Professor S. Boyd Eaton, fax +1 404 352 2529, email sboydeaton@comcast.net