Ask The RD: Mixed Heritage Ancestral Diets and Getting Enough Calcium On Paleo

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Join Kelsey Marksteiner, MS, RD and Laura Schoenfeld, MPH, RD, staff nutritionists at ChrisKresser.com, as they answer your questions about ancestral and Paleo nutrition. A must-listen for anyone new to the Paleo diet or looking to improve their current Paleo diet based on their personal needs and health goals. 

The content on this show reflects the opinion of Kelsey and Laura and does not represent the opinions of Chris Kresser, who has not reviewed the content of this podcast.

Have a question for our nutritionists? Submit it here.

We have another Q&A episode this week! Thank you to everyone who has submitted questions so far, and we hope you’re enjoying the podcast.

Here are the questions that Laura and Kelsey address in this episode:

  1. I have read a lot lately about the benefits of eating an ancestral diet. How can you do that if you have a very broad mix? For example, my mother is Scandinavian/aboriginal and my father is East Indian/Italian. All of these cultures have very little in common.
  2. How do I get enough calcium on a Paleo diet?
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Links Discussed:

ATRD_L_KAbout Laura: Laura is a Registered Dietitian with a Master’s degree in Public Health from UNC Chapel Hill. She has been a content manager for ChrisKresser.com since 2011. She is passionate about making traditional diets healthful and accessible for all her clients. You can learn more about Laura by checking out her blog or visiting her on Facebook.

About Kelsey: Kelsey is a Registered Dietitian with a Master’s degree in Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine. She works in private practice and recommends individualized dietary therapy focusing on biologically appropriate diet principles to aid her clients in losing weight, gaining energy, and pursuing continued health.  You can learn more about Kelsey on her staff bio page, or by visiting her website. Join her newsletter here!

TRANSCRIPT

Thanks again to Amy Berger of Tuitnutrition.com for the great transcription!

LAURA: Hey everyone, welcome to this week’s episode of Ask the RD. I’m Laura Schoenfeld, and on the other end of the line is Kelsey Marksteiner. How are you doing today, Kelsey?

KELSEY: I’m doing well, how about yourself, Laura?

LAURA: Good! I passed my RD exam, as people may be aware, so I’m very happy about that, and now I get to be one of the Ask the RD RDs!

KELSEY: Yeah, awesome! That’s so exciting. I hated that process of going through those study materials, but it’s all worth it in the end, so you must be pumped that you’re actually done now.

LAURA: Yeah, it’s funny, I thought I was going to get…maybe not less busy, but I didn’t realize how much more busy I’d be as soon as I passed the test, but now it’s like full-on career mode.

KELSEY: Yeah.

LAURA: But I’m enjoying it. It’s nice to be able to decide what I want to do and not have to…sorry, my audio just cut out for a second. But anyway, I guess we should start with our questions, and the first question is for you, Kelsey.

KELSEY: Awesome.

LAURA: How do I get enough calcium on a Paleo diet?

KELSEY: Okay. So first I want to point out that there were a few of you that asked this question in our forum, so than you so much for submitting it. It really, really helps us to know what questions you guys still have lingering so we can answer those specific questions. So, as a lot of you probably know, calcium is really important for bone health. And what I want to talk about is why calcium isn’t the only thing you need to think about when considering bone health, and why, as a Paleo eater, you’re probably getting more calcium than you think you are.

So, there are a few other things to consider when we’re talking calcium. And first is your intake of fat-soluble vitamins, like A, D, and K – specifically K2. And I think it’s pretty fair to say that for those of us in the ancestral health community, we care a lot more about getting those vitamins in the diet than the average person does. And I think we’re pretty successful at getting them in. So if you’re eating things like organ meats—particularly liver, things like lard, grass-fed butter, and maybe even some cod liver oil, you’re WAY ahead of the average standard American dieter in terms of the fat-soluble vitamins in your diet.

So let’s talk a little about why those vitamins are so important when we’re talking about calcium and bone health. The fat-soluble vitamins are crucial for the deposition of calcium into bones to strengthen the mineral density and to fight fractures. Vitamin K2 for example, activates a protein called osteocalcin, which attracts calcium into bones and teeth. So basically, without K2, the calcium you’re getting has a difficult time knowing where to go. Also, things like matrix gla proteins, or MGPs, for short, need vitamin K to function, and their purpose is also to help calcium get where it needs to go.

So our arteries are one of the places where we definitely don’t want calcium, and these K2-dependent proteins are essential for moving calcium around the body to where we actually want them, and not in the arteries. And that’s why a lack of K2 can contribute to heart disease development, because arteries can start to become calcified when calcium ends up there instead of in our bones and teeth. Now, in order make osteocalcin and MGPs, we need vitamin A, vitamin D, and of course, vitamin K2 to kind of activate them. And vitamin D is also required to activate calbindins, which are calcium-binding proteins in our intestinal cells. So that means that if we don’t have enough vitamin D, then we’re not even absorbing all the calcium we are eating, because those proteins that take the calcium from our gut to other places in our body aren’t even activated. So hopefully you can understand why we really need all those fat-soluble vitamins, A, D, and K2, to use calcium effectively and get it where it needs to be. So this is before we’re even talking about the sources of calcium in the diet; it’s just that we need these other vitamins to make sure any calcium we’re actually eating is getting to where it needs to go, and getting absorbed in the first place.

So of course, you’ll want to make sure that you’re getting those vitamins in your diet, through your lifestyle and your diet of course. So vitamin D, obviously that’s a lifestyle one, so getting some sunshine is a really good bet. Or, if you’re like me and living on the East Coast right now, or somewhere where it’s pretty cold right now, you may want to consider supplementing. And of course, you can take cod liver oil or eat liver for both vitamin A and vitamin D, and also some K2 as well.

So K2 is also high in things like natto and eggs, but a great source of it is cheese, particularly grass-fed cheese. And I think that’s probably a good segue into the types of foods that are high in calcium, because I’m sure most of know that dairy’s a really good source of it. And if you’re someone who doesn’t tolerate dairy, we’ll talk about some non-dairy sources of calcium in a second, but if you do tolerate dairy, it’s obviously a wonderful way to get in not only calcium, but some vitamin K2 as well.

For myself, for example, I really don’t do well with fluid milk or even yogurt a lot of the time, but I can tolerate cream, I can tolerate cheese, and even low-lactose kefir perfectly fine. So I choose to incorporate those into my diet. And if you’re someone who can tolerate some forms of dairy perfectly fine, then I think it’s great to include that in your diet if that’s something you want to do.

If you’re not eating dairy products, there are a lot of Paleo-friendly foods that provide adequate calcium. Sardines and other bone-in fish, that’s probably my favorite one. I think that’s a really, really excellent source of calcium. And then of course, the leafy greens, so spinach, bok choy, collards, kale, swiss chard, all of those green leafy vegetables. And then nuts and seeds, particularly sesame seeds, are great sources, too.

The other thing to consider is that a high-protein diet has been shown to increase the absorption of calcium. So if you’re concerned with getting enough, making sure that you’re eating enough protein, and even a high-protein diet is a good idea, too. Also, by not consuming grains and foods that are high in anti-nutrients like phytates, we end up actually absorbing much more of the calcium we consume. Since phytates bind calcium, we don’t end up absorbing it. So basically, in your gut, you eat something that has calcium, but you also ate something that has phytates in it, and those phytates bind onto calcium, and you’ll just pass it out of the body without absorbing it.

So by eating calcium in the context of a low-anti-nutrient diet, we’ll actually absorb a lot more of it than someone getting more calcium than us, but on a standard American diet where they’re eating grains and legumes, and a lot of things with anti-nutrients in them. So I really think if you’re getting adequate fat-soluble vitamins and eating green, leafy vegetables and some bone-in fish, and nuts and seeds on a regular basis, and also eating enough protein, that’s really all you need. Of course if you tolerate dairy, it’s a really good way to get more calcium in your diet, but I really don’t think it’s necessary as long as you’re doing all of those other things and making sure your fat-soluble vitamins are in a good place.

I do want to mention, since I think this is probably an add-on question that people might have about this topic, that I pretty much only suggest getting calcium from food, as I’m very wary of calcium supplementation. And this is because studies have shown that calcium supplementation increases the risk of atherosclerosis, which is the hardening of the arteries. And I would imagine that this is because when people are just taking calcium by itself, they’re not really concerned about the fat-soluble vitamins, especially if it’s just a calcium supplement, it doesn’t have anything else in there. And because of that, the calcium might not end up where it’s supposed to be, which is of course the bones and teeth, and instead, ends up in the arteries as we discussed before. So I just want to mention that because even for people that I’m really concerned about their calcium intake, I try to get them to get it from food, with a strong focus on those fat-soluble vitamins, and of course weight-bearing  exercise and getting adequate sunlight. Those are also very important for bone health too.

So I hope that that helps to answer this question, because I know it’s a big one, and it’s one that a lot of people have, especially when they’re newer to Paleo and they’re not quite sure. You basically hear that dairy is your biggest source of calcium, and maybe the only source of calcium in the diet, so if you’re taking it out, where are you going to get your calcium from? And of course, if you tolerate dairy, great. You’re probably going to get enough. But if you’re someone who doesn’t, then you just really want to pay attention to your intake of fat-soluble vitamins, and then making sure you’re eating some green leafy vegetables, bone-in fish, and nuts and seeds on a regular basis to get some calcium in, but know that you are absorbing probably more than you think, because you’re not eating things that are high in anti-nutrients like you were on a standard American diet. Anything you’d add there, Laura?

LAURA: Yeah, I mean I think that’s a very good overview. I would suggest that people try to aim to get at least 600mg per day from their diet, which is a little lower than what the RDAs are. I think generally the RDAs are around 1000mg, maybe a little more for women.

KELSEY: Yeah.

LAURA: But those RDAs are based on a diet likely pretty low in those fat-soluble vitamins that we were talking about, so if people are getting adequate vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin K2, then I feel like 600mg per day could be enough. And that said, if people run their diet through some kind of analysis, or if they have a dietitian look at what they’re eating and it turns out they’re eating less tan 600mg per day and they really can’t eat foods regularly that have high calcium amounts, so say they have…maybe they don’t tolerate dairy, or they can’t eat a lot of green vegetables because they have IBD or something like that, then I do think that potentially supplementation can be helpful in certain cases. Again, it’s only to get you above that 600mg mark, and another issue is that these studies, they were going well above 1000mg per day.

KELSEY: Right.

LAURA: So when you combine that with no attention to the fat-soluble vitamins, I think it’s pretty clear why there were calcium deposits in the arteries. But again, this is one of those situations where ideally you want to be getting it from food and you don’t need as much as the American government says you need on a regular basis, but don’t feel like you can go with just 400mg or 500mg per day and get away with it, because it really is important to make sure you’re getting at least enough. You don’t have to overdo it, and certainly it’s not one of those supplements that I think people should be taking unless they really have an issue with getting it from food, and if that’s you, then definitely work with someone to figure out how to go about supplementing in a way that would be beneficial, because there’s a lot of other minerals that are important as well, with bone health, and also things like weight-bearing exercise and that kind of stuff is really important to help make sure that calcium is getting put into the bones and not just floating around your bloodstream. So there’s a lot of different ways to ensure good bone density and certainly calcium is one of them, but it’s not the only factor.

KELSEY: Exactly.

LAURA: I think it’s important to pay attention to, but again, like Kelsey said, if you’re eating a pretty well-rounded ancestral-inspired or Paleo diet, you should be okay, but it’s good to kind of check in with yourself and make sure you’re not just completely missing those nutrients. One other thing I wanted to mention is that Chris actually just wrote an article about the dangers of a vegetarian or vegan diet, and one of the sections actually discusses calcium, and there’s some research talking about the bioavailability of calcium from vegetables, and it turns out that when you compare certain green leafy vegetables to the calcium in milk, it would actually take multiple, multiple servings of a green vegetable to get the same amount of calcium as one cup of milk. So I think the example he used was spinach or kale—I want to say it was spinach—and it was basically like, you would need to have sixteen servings of spinach to equal the amount of bioavailable calcium that you could get from one glass of milk.

KELSEY: Right.

LAURA: So that’s something for people to be aware of if they think they’re getting their calcium from leafy greens, because as Kelsey mentioned, there’s the same issue with grains as with leafy greens, there’s a lot of anti-nutrients, unfortunately, in green leafy vegetables that can actually block the absorption of calcium. So that includes phytates and oxalates, and if you’re trying to get all your calcium from those plant foods, you’re going to probably not be absorbing it as much as you think you are, or you’re going to have to be eating a lot of it.

KELSEY: Right. It’s pretty tough. And I think it’s important to bring that up; it’s a great point, Laura. And probably even for that person, if you are a vegetarian, it’s going to be hard to get on a high-protein diet, which has also been shown to increase the absorption of calcium. So I agree. I think on a vegetarian or vegan diet you’re going to have a really hard time getting that calcium up. But even for someone who’s eating meat on a Paleo diet, like we were just talking about, the leafy greens can be tough to get it all from there, from the vegetarian sources, like nuts and seeds. For example, sesame seeds are pretty high, but again, nuts do have some of those anti-nutrients that we’re talking about here, so it’s not a perfect system, but you’re already much better off by decreasing the amount of grains you’re eating, because that’s obviously a big source of phytates and if you’re eating that along with, at the same time as eating your leafy greens, it’s going to be that much harder to get that calcium from what you’re eating.

LAURA: Yeah.

KELSEY: Yeah, it’s tough.

LAURA: For me, I always think that bone-in fish is really the optimal source for people that can’t do dairy and also aren’t going to try to eat sixteen servings of spinach in one day.

KELSEY: Right.

LAURA: And that’s because the bones are…you can just chew them. I don’t know if people that are listening have tried a can of salmon with the bones in, or sardines that have the bones in, but they’re really actually very soft and the nice thing is with those foods you’re also getting the vitamin D from the fatty fish, so it’s kind of like a one-two punch where you’re getting both the bioavailable calcium and the fat-soluble vitamin that will help absorb it. So again, you need to make sure you’re getting vitamin A and vitamin K2 as well, but the vitamin D is very important for the gastrointestinal absorption of the calcium, so that’s my favorite way to get calcium in a typical Paleo diet.

KELSEY: Agreed, yeah. One of the things I recommend, especially if I have women who have osteoporosis or are getting to that point, one of the things I recommend is a salmon cake, where it’s blended up so you don’t even notice the bones at all because it’s all just mushed together into a nice tasty little package that for a lot of people is really great as a breakfast food, because you can make a big batch of them store them in the freezer, and then just warm them up as you need them. So it’s a really nice way to make sure you’re getting calcium on a regular basis there.

LAURA: Yeah. Cool! Well, I think that’s probably a good amount of information. Hopefully people will take a little bit of that home with them and maybe get one of those diet analysis websites up and put your 24-hour intake in and just see what kind of calcium intake you’re getting. If you’re above 600mg I wouldn’t be too concerned, but if you’re below 600mg, you definitely want to think about getting more.

KELSEY: Yeah, definitely. Cool. So let’s move on, and the next question’s for you, Laura. I have read a lot lately about the benefits of eating an ancestral diet. How can you do that if you have a very broad mix? For example, my mother is Scandinavian/Aboriginal and my father is East Indian/Italian. All of these cultures have very little in common.

LAURA: Okay, so first, I just want to say that this person’s ethnic mix sounds so cool! I lived in Australia for a year and a half, so I have a special affinity for Aboriginal culture. And I really appreciate this persons question, partially because of the way Aboriginal Australians eat. It’s definitely a unique diet, when you look at it, they call it Bush tucker in Australia, but the way Aboriginal Australians eat, either on the coast or in the Outback. But I think this is a really cool question, because this is something that people are interested in—eating like their ancestors, eating like their grandparents would’ve eaten, but when you have family that is from all over the world, it can be difficult out what your ancestral diet would be.

So let’s dive into this person’s specific blend of ethnicities and look at what those cultures typically eat. I’ll start with Aboriginal culture, because like I said, I’m a bit partial to anything related to Australian culture, but I will say in advance, I do apologize if I mischaracterize any of these cultures’ traditional diets, because I’m describing them based on a fairly brief amount of research, and I’m not personally acquainted with most of these dietary patterns, so if you’re from one of the countries I’m talking about and I get something wrong, please let me know in the comments. Because like I said, other than the Australian culture, I really haven’t had a whole lot of firsthand experience with any of the other three traditional diets.

That said, Aborigines typically have a hunting and gathering diet, so their diet is about as close to a strict Paleo diet as you can imagine. And before European settlement, Aborigines had a really deep connection with their land and an intimate knowledge of how to survive in a relatively inhospitable environment. And both men and women played an important role in the collection of food, so women hunted and gathered in groups and provided reliable foods such as small marsupials, shellfish, reptiles, insects, honey, eggs, and some plant foods, and then men hunted alone or in pairs for larger animals, so those are the mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish.

Their diet was highly meat-based, but it was also supplemented with plants foods such as yams, bush tomatoes, figs, wild orange truffles, gall nuts, and seeds from some grasses. And a lot of those sound like very exotic foods; they’re the kind of plant foods that are only available in the Outback, but they were widely available, so those were a significant component of their diet. And most of their food was eaten either raw or lightly cooked, and they also consumed obviously the entire animal because they couldn’t afford to throw anything away the way we do. So that means they were eating organs like liver, brain, heart—anything you could think of, really. And interestingly, Aborigines considered the prime time for hunting to be when the animals were fat, so fat from both animals and insects was actually highly prized and shared equally among tribe members.

And there’s an insect in Australia called the witchetty grub, that’s actually considered to be one of the most important insect foods of the desert, and it was a historical staple in the Aboriginal diet. So this grub is high in both protein and very high in fat. So the Aboriginal diet, like I said, is probably the ultimate strict Paleo diet, and the population was quite lean and healthy prior to colonization, thanks to this nutrient-dense and high-protein diet.

So, as far as Scandinavians go, their traditional diet is fairly high in fat as well, They do get some additional carbohydrates in the form of things like properly prepared bread and root vegetables, so their diet was traditionally very high in dairy; they ate a lot of sourdough rye bread, lots of fish, berries, apples, cabbages, root vegetables, potatoes, pork, and various game meats like venison. And Scandinavians have one of the highest lactase persistence rates in the world. So that means as a population, they can actually tolerate dairy foods much better than most other ethnicities. And they also happen to have the highest consumption of dairy in the world, so this is really one of the biggest differences between a traditional hunter-gatherer diet like the Aboriginal Australians eat, which includes no dairy whatsoever, and this is more of a somewhat agricultural diet.

So the Scandinavian population also traditionally ate a lot of fish, whether that be cooked or raw and smoked fatty fish. So they ate foods like herring, tuna, salmon, mackerel, and cod, which we know are very high in omega-3s, and berries were also very widely available, so there was a high consumption of antioxidant-rich berries, such as cloudberries, lingonberries, bilberries, red currants, and blueberries. And as far as vegetables go, cabbage and other cruciferous vegetables such as kale and Brussels sprouts actually thrive in these cold Nordic environments, so these vegetables were a big part of their diet as well, and they’re known for having a wide range of health benefits, which include detox support, and also some anti-cancer efficacy. So Scandinavians actually tend to eat a high-fat diet similar to the Aboriginal diet, but it’s also somewhat higher in carbohydrate and they had a very high consumption of dairy.

So now, an East Indian diet is just about as polar opposite to an Aboriginal or Scandinavian diet as you can get. This is because they grow a lot of rice in that area of the world, and plant foods are actually a big part of the menu as well. There are some amount of religious vegetarians, so animal foods generally play a little bit less of a role in this diet, especially when you’re comparing to Aboriginal and Scandinavian diets. So the major form of animal foods that a lot of East Indians would be eating is things like dairy and dairy fats, so a lot of yogurt and ghee, which is a clarified butter. They also use a lot of spices, which have some great health benefits, so they were eating lots of turmeric and ginger and garlic and those kinds of things, and they also used a lot of coconut products in East Indian cuisine. And also, being a coastal region, many of those who don’t eat animal foods ending up eating a lot of fish and shellfish, although there are several populations in that region that also eat meat and other animal proteins, including things like pork, chicken, mutton, which is a type of sheep, and duck eggs. And fermentation is used in a lot of the food preparation there, so many of the dishes include some type of rice, some kind of meat or dairy, and also vegetables fermented overnight. So you would have that whole mixed dish, and it would be fermented together.

One thing I want to point out really quick is that even though East Indians have been eating rice and grains like that for centuries, that area of the world recently has actually been experiencing a dramatic increase in the rate of diabetes. I won’t go into details, but I believe this is actually more to do with the significant change in cooking oils and an increased intake of inflammatory foods, as opposed to the amount of rice and other starches they eat. That’s a story for another day, but I do think it’s safe to say that East Indian cuisine is typically higher in carbohydrates and lower in fat and protein than the Aboriginal or Scandinavian diet.

So Italians. Italians typically also eat more grains and carbohydrates, but that’s not to say that they don’t also eat a lot of protein and fat as well. They would fall under the umbrella of what we call the “Mediterranean diet,” but there are some misconceptions about what a true Mediterranean diet even is. So even though the mainstream media portrayal of the Mediterranean diet is a lot of whole grains, low in fat, and either low in meat or even potentially pescatarian or vegetarian, there was actually a lot of meat and dairy consumed in a traditional Italian diet. And they also used a lot of animal fats in their traditional cooking methods. And again, this culture would’ve practiced nose-to-tail eating just like the other cultures, and especially in the form of foods like sausage and other cured meats that generally would contain all the parts of the animal.

And it is true that their diet is high in monounsaturated fat, as they use foods like olives and olive oil, and also high in omega-3s, because they eat lots of seafood in the Mediterranean region. But they did definitely consume plenty of other meats, like pork, lamb, beef, and also eggs as staples of their diet, and the bread that they eat is properly prepared from both heritage grains and also it’s prepared by using sprouting and fermenting techniques. And there’s a great article about the real Mediterranean diet on the Weston A. Price Foundation page, so I’ll link to that in the show notes so people can get a better idea about the real Mediterranean diet, and so they can realize that our modern conception of the Mediterranean diet is actually a far cry from what people in that region traditionally ate.

Okay, so now that we have a general overview of the four ethnic diets that this person’s ancestors may have been eating, the question is, how should this inform what this person eats? So it might seem like there’s a lot of contradictory dietary practices, particularly in the form of macronutrient ratios, so just as an example, Aborigines ate a very low carbohydrate diet, and as a population, they actually tend to do quite poorly on high carbohydrate diets, and they typically tend to develop diabetes very easily and it’s a significant health concern for that population. On the other hand, East Indians consume rice at nearly every meal, and they don’t eat anywhere near the amount of protein that an Aboriginal Australian would eat, and yet, they were generally healthy when eating their traditional diet, even though potentially they might be more prone to diabetes depending on if they’re eating inflammatory foods or not.

So, the question, like I said, is how should this individual eat if they’re trying to mimic their own ancestors? This is where personal experimentation really wins the day, because there are many common threads to these dietary patterns and the major differences can be easily experimented with on an individual basis to determine the best diet for this person. First, we can notice how many similarities there are between the diets. First of all, none of these diets are vegan, or even primarily plant-based. So they all make heavy use of animal fats, nose-to-tail eating, and animal proteins of various types. And that means they’re including organ meats, using animal fats like ghee, butter, tallow, lard, or duck fat for cooking, possibly coconut oil, but that’s still a saturated fat that we consider to be good for you.  And this would be a common practice of all these diets—making sure they’re eating parts of the animal even if they’re not eating meat, specifically.

Second, you’ll notice that they all have a heavy emphasis on seafood. So even coastal Aboriginal tribes ate a lot of fish and shellfish. So perhaps for this person, specifically, they might want to include fatty fish and shellfish on a regular basis. Now, I would say anyone could benefit from including lots of seafood on a regular basis, but to be fair, there are lots of non-coastal or areas of the world that don’t have seafood available and they survive just fine. So it’s technically not required, but it’s definitely a good health practice to get into.

So the third similarity is that they all ate plenty of diverse plant foods. So it’s a really good idea to eat a lot of vegetables and potentially a lot of fruit on a regular basis, and also try to make sure you’re not eating the same vegetable over and over, so don’t have broccoli every single night of the week. Try to mix it up—have Brussels sprouts one night, have cauliflower another night, have leafy greens or salad or something like that some other night, so don’t get stuck in a rut with the vegetables you’re eating. And you might also want to try eating the common local plants wherever you live if you’re trying to eat a more environmentally appropriate diet. So as an example, where I live in North Carolina, sweet potatoes and yams are actually really easy to find and they’re one of the staple vegetables down in this area, so eating lots of sweet potatoes for me might actually be an environmentally appropriate diet, whereas, say you’re living in Alaska, maybe sweet potatoes are not something that grows there, so you might want to look for other vegetables.

And included in that mix of plant foods, you definitely want to use a lot of herbs and spices in your cooking. This is something that’s very common in a lot of these traditional diets, specifically the East Indian diet and the Italian diet—they all have their certain types of herbs that they use, and herbs and spices have a lot of great health benefits and are generally protective against a variety of chronic diseases, so using cultural spice mixes and that kind of things is definitely a great practice to help increase the quality of your diet.

Fourth, all of these cultures consumed some type of fermented foods, and even Aboriginal Australians created a fermented beverage from various types of fruit, or honey, or flowers, so including some type of fermented probiotic food on a regular basis would also be a good idea. And as you can see, the four commonalities of these diets are all general recommendations made by most of us that promote an ancestral diet, so these guidelines will be able to set you up for a good foundation for a nutrient-dense and ethnically appropriate diet, and it doesn’t actually matter which of the four diets you lean towards, because they all have the same basic health properties.

But then, as far as the major differences between these diets, as I mentioned, they differ pretty significantly in the amount of carbohydrates consumed and whether or not dairy is a staple of the diet. So three of these cultures used full-fat dairy in their cooking, and that includes things like butter, yogurt, cheese, or even raw milk just in a glass. So if this person that asked the question wants to experiment with dairy and they find that they tolerate it well, then I would say that dairy is a really good addition to the diet. As we mentioned in the previous question, it’s a really good source of calcium, and there’s a lot of other nutrients in it that make it a good choice to consume if you tolerate it. But if certain types of dairy cause problems, then perhaps you just want to stick to low-reactivity products like ghee, or make sure that the dairy products you are eating are either fermented, or potentially you might want to try raw dairy as opposed to pasteurized, because some people find that they tolerate raw dairy better.

Or perhaps you decide you want to skip dairy altogether, which is totally acceptable, and you don’t need dairy to be healthy. But this is something that only this individual will be able to determine, so they need to experiment with the different types of high quality dairy and see which ones they can and can’t tolerate. So like Kelsey said, she can do ghee, and butter, and heavy cream and that kind of thing, but she can’t do fluid milk or yogurt, so perhaps this person will have the same experience.  Or they might have something different; everyone’s different with the type of dairy they can or can’t tolerate.

So the other major difference, like I said, is the macronutrient ratios in these diets. I wouldn’t say that any of them are particularly high­-carb. I mean, there are some very high carbohydrate traditional diets up in the range of 80-90% of calories from carbohydrate. So I would say that they range from very low carb, so let’s say around 10% of calories for the Aboriginal diet, to moderate to moderate high-carb, maybe around 40-50% of calories for the East Indian. So again, this is where individual experimentation should be used to determine the best diet. You may be someone who tolerates carbohydrates quite well and maybe you even feel best on a higher carb diet that’s in that 40-50% range, and perhaps it even includes some amount of properly prepared grains. Or maybe you’re more like an Aboriginal Australian who’s genetically predisposed to diabetes, and so that means that a lower carb and grain-free diet will likely work best for you.

So there’s really no way to know how a diet will affect an individual until they experiment with it. So what I would recommend is that this person just test out different carbohydrate amounts and see how they look, feel, and perform, if I may use a Robb Wolfism. And so those are generally just an overview—a little long overview, but an overview of my recommendations for this person who does have a pretty diverse ethnic mix. And I would also argue that these recommendations can really go for everyone, even if you’re really generally one single ethnicity.

Of course, many of us do have mixed heritage of some sort, especially in America because there’s a lot of immigration in the past, so a lot of us don’t necessarily have one country of origin, so that can make it difficult to hone in on one ethnic cuisine to focus on if you’re trying to eat a very ancestrally inspired diet. But luckily, as I explained, all of these cultures have some significant similarities that can be used to form the basis of your healthy diet, and then wherever they vary significantly, you can use personal experimentation to determine how you personally feel on the particular diet.

So those people who do best on a strict Paleo diet may actually have genes more similar to Aboriginal Australians or other hunter-gatherer populations like Native Americans, for example. And those populations typically don’t do well with a higher carbohydrate diet and are prone to developing diabetes, whereas those who thrive on dairy and some amount of grains might actually have genes more similar to those of Scandinavian origin, or perhaps the tropical Asian areas where they grow a lot of rice and other things that are high in carbs.

So again, I don’t want people to be too concerned with the exact ethnicity that inspires their diet, but of course feel free to experiment, or obviously, just feel free to eat ethnic foods that have nothing to do with your genetic background. It’s not like it’s not a healthy diet; it might just not be the optimal diet for you on a regular basis. But I think it’s definitely a smart idea to use your personal ethnicity as a guide to help form your general, nutrient-dense ancestral diet, especially if you come from an ethnicity that does have higher rates of certain diseases that can be addressed by diet changes.

Whew! Well, all right, that was my answer to that question. I have a lot of fun researching that actually, because as people may know, my blog is called Ancestralize Me, and part of it is because obviously I promote an ancestral-deemed diet, I guess you would call it, but the other part of it is that I really, really like learning about food culture and I love eating various ethnic foods, so some of my favorite cuisines are things like Thai, or Ethiopian, or Indian, or any of those, like sushi—any of these foods that are completely not anything my ancestors would’ve been eating. I mean, I’m mostly German and Hungarian and Irish, I think, so pretty much if I were going to be eating strictly ancestrally, I would be eating things like meat and potatoes basically all the time, but I feel like as long as you’re eating generally foods that are whole foods, foods that are traditionally consumed by some population on Earth, it doesn’t have to be the one that your grandparents came from or your great-grandparents, but like I said, there are some populations, like if you have a strong genetic component of some kind of hunter-gatherer population, so if you’re someone who’s either Native American or Aborigine, you might actually want to kind of focus on at least the dietary pattern—it doesn’t have to be all the same foods, because perhaps you can’t even get the same foods your grandparents would’ve eaten—but trying to focus on the macronutrient ratios and also the dairy or non-dairy, depending on your lactase genetic tolerance or whatever you would call it, the lactose tolerance gene, the persistence gene.

So yeah, there are some people who might definitely benefit from trying to match their exact ancestor diet, but I’d say for the majority of the population, especially those who have mixed heritage, you can really just kind of model it after the overall rules of the ancestral diet, and you really should be okay. I don’t think you have to do anything too extreme as far as following what your grandparents would’ve eaten.

KELSEY: Yeah, and I think this is kind of the whole idea behind an ancestral, Paleo-type diet, is that we’re looking at all these traditional cultures and how they ate, and the similarities. That’s what we’re taking away from it, and pulling away the things that everybody did to stay healthy, and that’s part of what Weston Price did with his work, of course, is just to find what everyone was eating that seemed to make the biggest difference for them, health-wise. And I think that’s what we’re all after here. We just want to try to incorporate the most nutrient-dense and important foods that we’ve been eating forever, so I think that’s great.

LAURA: Yeah. If anyone’s really interested in this stuff, which, I love learning about it, like I said, I really like eating random ethnicity foods, things that would’ve never been something my grandparents would’ve eaten, but like you were saying with Weston Price, his original book from the 1940s is called Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, and it’s really cool because every chapter is a different country that he visited, and he would analyze the traditional diet and look for the commonalities and look for how come they could all be eating such different diets and all still have really robust health.

KELSEY: Right.

LAURA: And I think if people are interested in learning more about what the basic tenets of an ancestral diet are, that’s actually a really good place to start, because it is raw data. He did go to all of those cultures, which a lot of them don’t even exist anymore. I talk about these traditional diets, and like I said, I’m making a lot of generalizations based on research that I did, and people may feel that areas of the country that they live in, say they live in Scandinavia, or they live in East India, maybe they feel that their culture isn’t eating that way anymore. So lots of things have changed, and a lot of food practices have been lost thanks to some misguided public health campaigns, but I think if you’re interested in learning about the variety of diets that humans have thrived on in the past, that book is a really cool resource, and it’s really interesting. I mean, there’s a lot of dry data in it, but the overall gist of it is really interesting.

KELSEY: Yeah, it is, and I agree, that’s a really good place to start if you’re wondering about the most important things to consume that we’ve been consuming forever, that it really made our health thrive for a lot of these traditional cultures.

LAURA: Right. And I mean, I’m sure people won’t be surprised to find that a lot of those foods are things that Americans don’t eat anymore, so…

KELSEY: Right.

LAURA: So that’s what Kelsey’s and my mission is—to make people aware of what the actual nutrient-dense foods are, and to promote consumption of things that might not be so common or palatable, like gelatin, or bone broth, or organ meats, that kind of stuff.

KELSEY: Bone-in fish, like we were talking about.

LAURA: Right.

KELSEY: That’s not something that a lot of Americans eat now, and of course when we’re moving to a Paleo-type diet, we are losing some calcium that we might have had before if we were eating a lot of dairy, so it’s just important to make sure you’re getting those really nutrient-dense foods that maybe we’ve forgotten about over the evolution of our cuisines.

LAURA: Yeah, it’s amazing to me, even things like chicken skin, which, I mean, I can’t imagine not eating the skin on chicken…

KELSEY: Right? It’s so good!

LAURA: I just know so many people who are disgusted by chicken skin, and it’s one of those things people believe so strongly that it’s so bad for you, and y’know, when you’re getting it from a properly raised chicken, it’s actually a health food. Why would you want to go through life eating chicken breasts and skim milk and all that stuff? It just sounds so horrible.

KELSEY: Yeah, boring right?

LAURA: Yeah, so hopefully our listeners made it to the end of this extra-long podcast, but hopefully you found that interesting, and I’ll link to that book I recommended in the show notes so you guys can check it out if you’re interested. And again, I would love to hear if any of you have any stories about traditional diets, and if you have any food culture that you’ve held onto or have resurrected based on your heritage, we would love to hear about it, because I don’t particularly eat a lot of ethnic food…I guess German food is not too different, like I said, meat and potatoes, but I always love hearing about people’s food practices. So if you have any stories to share, please share them with is, because I love to hear about them.

KELSEY: Yeah, that should be an interesting conversation in the comments, so please, please chime in with your experience.

LAURA: Yeah. Cool! Well, thank you for joining us, everybody. We hope you’re enjoying the podcast. And if you are enjoying it, we would really appreciate it if you could leave us a review on iTunes, and if you’re not enjoying it, then I would assume that you’re not still listening at this point, so…again, we like hearing your feedback, so feel free to leave any comments on Chris’s site, and keep submitting your questions. They’ve been great and Kelsey and I are really enjoying getting to talk to you guys about nutrition. So, we’ll see you around next time.

KELSEY: All right, take care, Laura.

LAURA: You too, Kelsey.

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    • says

      Well, 100 grams of molasses has 205 mg of calcium and 290 calories, with 75 grams of sugar. (USDA data) So while I think molasses is fine as a sweetener, I wouldn’t necessarily consider it a major source of calcium in the context of an overall diet. It does have a lot of minerals as far as a sweetener goes though.

      (To put 100 grams into context, it’s around 5 tablespoons.)

  1. kari says

    It must vary by brand/type. The blackstrap molasses I have says it has 20% of the DV of calcium per tablespoon (which contains 11g of sugar). It’s Plantation brand. I wonder how absorbable it is.

  2. Erik says

    What about bone broth for bio-available calcium? I’m surprised that that wasn’t mentioned. Isn’t everyone in Paleo world getting their calcium from bone broth?

    • says

      I don’t think bone broth has a particularly high amount of calcium. Maybe around 80-120 mg per liter on the high end. My mom tested her homemade broth with an aquarium calcium test kit and I believe she got a number around there (though I’d have to confirm.) Of course that’s not super scientific but we don’t really have much data as far as I’ve ever seen.

      This study was done a while back (80 years ago!) but they found even lower quantities of calcium in their broth: http://adc.bmj.com/content/9/52/251

      I’m not bashing broth here but I don’t necessarily think it’s the amazing source of calcium that everyone purports it to be. You’d really have to drink a LOT of it to get what you need on a daily basis.

  3. says

    They best sources of calcium (Or any nutrient in my opinion) are plant based. Start by applying this very simple tip. Use spinach in your salads. I even started using it on pizza and it’s freaking delicious.

  4. says

    People interested in learning more about calcium and the critical importance of the fat-soluble vitamins should check out the book Vitamin K2 and the Calcium Paradox, by Kate Rheaume-Bleue. It’s *fantastic.* The author talks a lot about the calcium/heart disease connection, (And you’ll also learn why so many more people have heart attacks shoveling snow than they do mowing the lawn. Shoveling is obviously more strenuous than mowing, but there’s more to it than that, and it has something to do with the excess calcium in the absence of K2 leading to atherosclerosis, like you mentioned in the podcast. Really eye-opening stuff, and a pretty easy read — not something that’s going to take you weeks to get through.

  5. Clare says

    Great stuff, thanks. About the German/Irish heritage diet. I don’t think potatoes have any part in that. They are a native plant of the Americas and were introduced to northern Europe only in the 17th century. Before potatoes were introduced, the staple food was bread. Made with more traditional techniques than modern bread, so sourdough. And I think rye sourdough is popular in Germany. Also sauerkraut! I wonder if fermenting cabbage changes the bioavailability of calcium, as with some other nutrients?

    • says

      Thanks for the info about potatoes! I didn’t realize they were so new to that area of the world. Though I suppose in 300-400 years of eating them that the countries wouldn’t have survived too well if potatoes were not at least somewhat health supporting.

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