Lou Schuler

Author, Journalist, Presenter

Posted 08/02/2012

Ancestral Nutrition: Which Ancestors Matter?


I spent the first months of the year writing a feature on the paleo diet for Men’s Health magazine. As part of my research, I asked a company called Warrior Roots to analyze my DNA and tell me where my ancestors came from.

Warrior Roots’ CEO and cofounder, Tom Murphy, is a former college wrestler who has competed in MMA. As you can guess from the company name, there’s a lot of emphasis on warfare.

My interest wasn’t in my ancestors’ weaponry so much as their gastronomy. The paleo diet is based on the notion that you shouldn’t eat anything your ancestors wouldn’t have eaten. So before you jump into it, shouldn’t you at least know who your ancestors were, and from there extrapolate what they had in their diet?

This 1998 paper by Riccardo Baschetti, M.D., makes an elegant argument about the importance of heritage in tackling problems like obesity and diabetes. Europeans and European-Americans have relatively low rates of obesity and diabetes, perhaps because our ancient ancestors have had the longest exposure to grains, dairy, and alcohol. For example, most of us with European ancestry can digest lactose beyond childhood, whereas the majority of humans are lactose intolerant.

Before I get into the roots of my own DNA, I should say that most of us alive today evolved from a small group of humans who migrated out of Africa some 60,000 years ago. (Most Africans, of course, evolved from Africans who never left.) They went to the Middle East, and from there branched out in multiple directions. My European ancestors would’ve gone north or west. Those who went east populated Asia, Australia, and the Americas.

The Cretan Chronicles

Warrior Roots traces DNA from the Y chromosome, the one you get from your father. My father’s mother, Grandma Vivian, was obsessive about tracing our family tree and linking us to historical figures and events. That’s how I know we had an uncle on the Mayflower (John Howland), and that we’re somehow related to William Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state and the guy who not only bought Alaska, but made bird poop an imperial priority when he was a U.S. senator.

I think Grandma Vivian would roll over in her grave if she knew our Y chromosome comes from haplogroup J2, which originated in the Middle East some 18,000 years ago and spread throughout the Mediterranean, Balkans, Caucasus, and Iran. It’s associated with the spread of agriculture during the Neolithic period. My ancient ancestors, it seems, went wherever they thought they could grow crops.

My particular Y-DNA is J2a1h-M319, a mutation that arose on the island of Crete about 5,100 years ago. That’s about the time that the great Minoan civilization arose, and the transition point from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age. I grew up enthralled by Greek mythology, so to find a genetic connection to one of the great myths was as exciting to me as joining the Daughters of the American Revolution was to my grandmother.

Born and Bread

So what does this have to do with the paleo diet?

For starters, I’m skeptical of any diet that presents itself as one-size-fits-all. It doesn’t matter if it’s low-fat, low-carb, paleo, vegan, or whatever else has come along while I was typing this sentence. Different diets work for different people for different reasons.

As the Baschetti paper explains, the Western diet tends to be a metabolic disaster for populations who’re exposed to it for the first time. Pacific Islanders have the highest obesity rates in the world, and Pima Indians have devastating rates of diabetes. But indigenous populations who still eat whatever their ancestors ate don’t have these problems.

My ancestors would’ve been the first people in the world exposed to diets rich in grains, dairy, and beans. They had hundreds of generations to develop enzymes to process those foods, and defenses against whatever problems those foods create. My particular Y-chromosome strain appears to have arisen on Crete as a direct result of a migration of early farmers and herders to previously unoccupied territory. Put another way, the mutation that created my patrilineal DNA didn’t exist before agriculture. All of my ancestors on my father’s side would’ve been exposed to non-paleo-diet foods like grains and dairy from cradle to grave.

Five thousand years later, my generation is the first to question whether we should eat those foods at all. Which is kind of ironic, considering we probably wouldn’t exist without them.


  • Dave

    So to make a (big) leap of faith and jump on a soapbox for the sake of argument…

    The base diet is basically “meat, leaves, and berries” – no grains, legumes, or dairy. ‘Just protein, natural fats, tuber/nightshade free veggies, and a little fruit…

    DNA testing and a little evolutionary biology of our ancestor’s region will give us strong clues to our ability to process grains, etc.

    So to the extent that you believe obesity is about fat regulation, inflammation and other related issues and not just calories in/out this gives you a “better” framework of broader foods to eat.

    All for a couple hundred bucks.


    It’s easier to just test for 30 days and then add things back one at a time but not nearly as high tech.

  • I know I’m jumping on this bandwagon really late, but it has been a busy summer.
    Most of the diets out there will give you results, but some of the reasoning behind them strikes me as odd.
    My argument against the paleo diet is that we have been eating grain of some kind for centuries. If it takes thousands of years to adapt, we wouldn’t have survived as a species. If you look around the planet, we have adapted to all kinds of odd diets. It appears to me a question of overabundance of calories today, plain and simple, along with the fact that most of them are the flour and sugar variety. Flour, as we see it today, didn’t exist until mechanical milling, if you want to blame a “lack of adaptation”. Sugar, in its modern concentrated form, was extremely hard to obtain until modern times. Any diet that gets you eating less of everything, and more of veggies as the base, will make you lose weight and avoid “Western” diseases. I think we are over analyzing everything and not looking at the obvious.

  • Scott

    I saw your article on the Paleo Diet in Men’s Health. He’s my take on the diet. Paleo is only a premise that makes a concept of healthy eating easier. The diet eliminates some food groups for health reasons, or so than for calorie restriction. For example:
    1. it prefers grass-feed to grain-feed beef because grass-feed has a better Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio. According to Matt Lalonde, the American diet’s ratio is 16.7 to 1 when it should be no more than 3 to 1 O6/O3.

    2. Grains not only can cause intestinal permeability which can lead to celiac disease. Aside from that, though, eating excess starchy grains can raise Pattern “B” LDL cholesterol (VLDL) and triglycerides.
    MSNBC – Bad cholesterol: It’s not what you think
    Wheat is a major source of Fructans (polymer of fructose) that gut bacteria break down into fructose. More on fructose later.

    3. It eliminates milk for IGF1. Fermented dairy destroys IGF1 according to Mat Lalonde. Some people eat yogurt and cheese on a paleo diet.

    4. Beans/legumes that cause excess gas is an indication of bacterial overgrowth. Back to Lalonde, “it’s not funny. it’s a problem.”

    5 and the biggy IMO, the paleo diet minimizes fructose. Why? Fructose is natural in fruit. Except, that our ancestors only eat it seasonally. Here’s the thing about fructose and I’m going to back it with two sources:
    > The University of Colorado kidney specialist and chief of the division on hypertension and renal health, Dr Richard Johnson MD, has recently released his lab’s research on the affects of foods that raise uric acid. Cellular uric acid affects the mitochondria’s ability to produce ATP. Uric acid down regulates the production of ATP. That leads to insulin and leptin resistance which causes you to eat more and move less. Why? So you will put on fat in preparation for winter. In Dr Johnson’ opinion the Metabolic Syndrome should actually be called the “Fat Storage Mechanism.” All animals put on seasonal fat using uric acid. What foods “switch” on the metabolic fat storage? For humans, bears, and other fruit eaters, fructose is the switch. Umami foods, like shrimp and krill, will also raise uric acid. It’s probably how whales fatten up on krill. Brewer’s Yeast also raises uric acid leading to the beer belly. In their lab research, Johnson’s team, found non-alcoholic beer still gave their animals a beer belly. Wine and liquor don’t lead to a wine/liquor belly. So much for those Brewer’s Yeast supplements, no? Low levels of lead poisoning will also raise cellular uric acid leading to fat gain. Here’s an interview with Dr Johnson about their research (which has been submitted to peer review) that he wrote about in his new book “The Fat Switch” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3W2zSN0JOa8
    > The problem with modern humans is that we are eating fructose all year round. And it isn’t simply sugar and high fructose corn syrup. As I noted up above wheat is a major source of fructan in the diet. In his book, Johnson refers to wheat induced fat gain “the Pillsbury dough Boy syndrome.” Eating fructose year round sets up the Metabolic Syndrome Dr Lustig MD illustrates in this University of California series “The Skinny on Obesity” (we are not genetically geared to eating this stuff as much as we do)