Do you remember Professor Valter Longo’s 2016 book, The Longevity Diet? We’re not fans of ‘diets’ per se, but we read it with great interest. I was particularly struck by Prof Longo’s advice to eat as our forebears did. “My best advice,” he wrote, “is to eat at the table of your ancestors.”
So how do we do this? And what would the table of our ancestors have looked like?
Since Longo’s book hit the shelves, I’ve been eating at the table of my ancestors. I initially did this as research for a book (The Language of Food, which came out in February in the UK and last autumn in the US where it’s titled Miss Eliza’s English Kitchen) about the pioneering cookery writer, Eliza Acton (1799-1859). This post isn’t about my book: it’s about what I discovered about ancestral eating along the way and how you too can unearth the diet of your ancestors.
But back to Prof Longo who explains that to eat like our ancestors means tracing our grandparents and great-grandparents, and identifying the foods they ate. It also means avoiding the foods they didn’t eat. He supports his argument by quoting research suggesting that quinoa, for example, may cause autoimmune diseases in people who don’t originate from the Peruvian Andes (which is most of us) and exploring what happened to the Japanese who started drinking milk.
It’s a radical and compelling argument. After all, each of us comes from a long line of robust survivors whose diet undoubtedly shaped us, our genes and our microbiomes.
But is Professor Longo right?
The Prof has Italian ancestors and he inherits a culinary tradition that is quite different from mine – and possibly yours. So should we take his advice and look at what our ancestors ate?
I started with my grandparents, but their food didn’t seem right… tinned peaches and tinned cream? Tinned ham? Surely not…
When I mentioned this to a professor of nutrition and epigenetics, he said the canned diet of my English grandparents was an ‘urban’ diet, corrupted by the industrial revolution with its rise of fast food, industrial-scale adulteration and the epic shift from rural to the urban. My grand-parent’s diet was too recent to have influenced the genes bequeathed to me.
So to discover the ‘true diet’ of my ancestors I needed to look significantly further back – to the diet of my rural, pre-industrial revolution (1780-ish) forbears – which is the period I’ve spent years researching.
For this blog post, I’m sharing the eating habits of recipe writer, Mrs Rebecca Price (1649-1740). Why? Because she’s a fine example of longevity, living to the age of 81 at a time when the average life expectancy was 35. We know, from the papers she left, that she died free of debilitating disease. Perhaps her diet helped.
Or was it her daily fasting? As Prof Longo (and many others) remind us, our ancestors all practiced a version of intermittent fasting. Supper was typically a light meal at 5pm. Nothing was then eaten until 7am the next morning (an average daily fast of 14 hours). The main meal was taken between 11 and midday. People ate at meals: not a single cookery book has a ‘snack’ section. If you’ve read The Obesity Code by Doctor Jason Fung, you’ll know this is exactly what he advocates. He also advocates the use of vinegar to reduce insulin spikes. And, funnily enough, every early cook book includes a chapter on pickling. Rebecca Price is no different. She pickles fish, vegetables, flowers, melon rinds and kidney beans, for eating with cheese and roast meats during the sparse winter month. Most meals in the seventeenth century included a splash of insulin-reducing vinegar.
Earlier cook books (pre-1600s) told me that most people went without meat on Fridays and Saturdays, and during Lent. In fact most of the population rarely ate meat, living off bread, cheese and bone-and-vegetable potages, along with the odd bit of foraged game (including blackbirds, seagulls and larks). Meat was often wild, and farmed animals roamed free and ate organically – no pesticides back then.
So. My (British) ancestors fasted every night for around 14 hours and regularly consumed vinegar in some shape or form. Meat was a part of most people’s diets, but not every day. What else did they consume?
Lots of herbs and spices, it appears. Almost every dish of Rebecca’s is liberally spiced with cloves, nutmeg, mace, cinnamon and ginger. Herbs like marjoram, thyme, sage, parsley and rosemary were widely used. We now know that herbs and spices are powerhouses of anti-oxidants and polyphenols – so perhaps these helped Rebecca live such a long life. Reviewers of my novel have been surprised at how much spice Eliza Acton used – but spice has been a very popular flavouring for hundreds of years, only becoming less so in the twentieth century. Eliza’s Gingerbread, for example, uses a heaped teaspoon of ground cloves (we wrote about the extraordinary power of cloves here).
My English ancestors regularly consumed raw, unpasteurised dairy. Milk was used to make cheese (either soft curd cheese or a hard probiotic-rich cheddar, you can read why we like these types of cheese here) or butter and cream. Indeed, cow’s milk was deemed unsuitable for drinking and goats’ milk was preferred. Eliza Acton regularly made almond milk – a laborious process in which she pressed the oil from almonds by hand. And, hey, we all thought almond milk was a 21st century invention!
To my surprise, I found that Rebecca consumed a fair bit of Brewer’s yeast (another contemporary ‘health’ food, rich in B-vitamins). Bread (which wasn’t consumed in the quantities we eat today) was made with brewer’s yeast – a by-product of all the brewing Rebecca did – and with coarsely ground wheat. It would have been dense and fibrous.
Because, yes, our ancestors consumed huge amounts of beer and ale. Rebecca’s home-brew was full of B vitamins and silicon (we have a chapter on the benefits of (moderately) drinking beer in our first book, The Age-Well Project). Of course, the long hours of physical labour would have kept many beer bellies at bay.
Fish was eaten regularly. Rebecca had a fish pond which included carp, pike, eel – fish we rarely eat today – and salmon. Oysters and mussels were cheap and plentiful, and widely eaten by rich and poor alike. Back then they were free of pollution and microplastics, but that’s a post for another day.
Bone broth: most of Rebecca’s recipes involved long slow cooking of bones over a fire. These stocks formed the bases of soups, sauces and entire meals. Eliza Acton was no different – her stock pot was constantly simmering and every bit of vegetable and meat ‘waste’ went into it. In other words, our ancestors (rich and poor) probably drank protein and nutrient-rich bone broth regularly. Bones were available to everyone and we now know that bone broth (otherwise known as stock) has many scientifically-tested benefits which you can read about here.
Many of Rebecca’s recipes involved poaching. Meat and fish were often boiled or poached, although spit-roasting was popular for larger carcasses. However, everything (meat, fish, vegetables) was then doused in melted butter, as these words from a visiting Frenchman reveal: “the English will have a piece of boil’d Beef, besieged with five or six heapes of Cabbage, Carrots, Turnips or some other Herbs or Roots, well pepper’d and salted and swimming in butter.”
So, my ancestors ate a lot of vegetables and … a lot of butter. Should we be concerned about all that butter? I think not. Recent research suggests that cholesterol may be protective against degenerative disease, and other studies have largely debunked the association between saturated fats and heart disease (as in this 2014 study). Susan recently returned to butter and I’ve never left it. After all, butter is almost as pure and unprocessed as you can get.
Interestingly, Rebecca also used olive oil, but only on salads. And yes, our ancestors ate salad. The first book of salad recipes came out in 1699: John Evelyn’s Ascetria. A Discourse for Sallets refers to a wide variety of leaves and vegetables: nettles, cabbages, carrots, leeks, fennel, lamb’s lettuce, purslane, cress, sorrel, numerous wild and cultivated herbs, and the seedling leaves of radishes, turnips and mustard, to name a few. Eliza Acton has recipes for dozens of vegetables including dandelion leaves, as well as the first ever recipe for Brussel sprouts (see below).
Mushrooms were popular – Rebecca has no less than five recipes for pickled mushrooms and a recipe for a sauce called catsup (a bottled mushroom sauce used to flavour soups and stews and the precursor to ketchup) which appears in every old cook book. Wild mushrooms included ceps, chanterelles, oyster mushrooms and puffballs, all of which grew in English woodland, as well as field mushrooms.
Fruit (many more local varieties than we have today) and nuts were widely consumed, either in season or bottled in syrups and jams. Dried fruit was generously used in both sweet and savoury dishes. Sugar was used sparingly in sweet and savoury dishes. As far back as 1845, however, Eliza Acton described sugar ‘as poison’. It was also expensive and required grating from a loaf. Sweets were for treats.
Salted and cured meat and fish were regularly eaten, and although meat wasn’t processed as it is today, my ancestors probably ate quite a bit of salt. And chimney smoke! Interestingly, many scientists are now taking a more nuanced approach to salt, witness this fascinating new podcast on salt (sodium) from the Huberman Lab.
Our ancestors were exposed to more dirt and germs than we are, from muddy vegetables to animal hair, and researchers who’ve examined ancient faeces have found evidence of hugely diverse microbiomes (vastly more diverse than ours). Without refrigeration, my ancestors would have eaten fresher dairy, meat and fish than we do, but also foods that were occasionally past their prime. However, cookery writers like Eliza Acton urged their readers to use the freshest possible ingredients … thereby supporting the immunity needed to fight all those additional germs.
So, when Prof Longo urges us to ‘eat as our ancestors ate’ should we take any notice? Yes, but…To eat like Rebecca Price, we need a pesticide-free garden and an orchard with heirloom varieties, ready access to fresh-water fish, wild and/or organic meat (from traditional breeds), foraged foods, herbs and spices, raw unpasteurised dairy, a larder of pickled foods.
But if we strip out the details and look at the principles of an old English diet, it looks remarkably similar to the latest Medi, Okinawan or Scandi so-called diets:
- A daily fast of 14 hours and at least two days a week without meat (several more if you were poor)
- Organic meat or wild game, either poached (with the fat skimmed, a requirement that Eliza Acton repeats frequently!) or spit-roast
- Bone broth regularly, possibly every day, in soups and broths.
- Fruit and vegetables including mushrooms, often foraged, grown without pesticides, and eaten every day
- Plenty of herbs and spices
- Fish, regularly, and often fresh-water
- Regular shellfish (for rich and poor alike), particularly oysters, mussels and cockles
- Bread, mostly wholemeal and with substantially more fibre
- Vinegar, particularly in winter
- Plentiful butter, cream and cheese (fresh, unpasteurised and raw)
- Beer and ale
- Some sugar, not much
- Local hazelnuts, walnuts and imported almonds
- Limited pulses, although split yellow peas were used in pease pudding and soups.
I think we have here the makings of a new way of eating: Old British. What do you think of this as the basis of a longevity diet? Or do you have your own ancestral diet? We’d love to hear…
I’ll leave you with Eliza Acton’s recipe for Brussel sprouts on toast: simple, delicious, and yes, swimming in butter!
Simmer or boil Brussel sprouts until just soft (around 5-8 minutes, as you like). Heap them onto toasted bread, liberally buttered. Season generously with salt and pepper. Serve with a dish of melted butter.
Adventurous friends have tried topping this with seeds, walnuts, cheese – anything you fancy. I rather like it neat!
Susan and I are delighted to announce that we’re hosting another webinar for Thursday 7th April at 7.30pm BST. You can book your ticket here – it’s free. We’ll be talking about our ancestral eating, walking (yes, there’ll be give-aways!) and our current favourite age-well products and practises.
We hope you can join us!
And there’s still time to sign up for our online taster yoga nidra session on 29th March at 7pm BST. You can book via this link.