The Return of Traditional Diets

Posted by Anna Lavender on 10/07/2016

Blog_5363133933_7acb7bf6c4_z Since the early 1900's, new methods of production, processing, and preservation have drastically changed how people eat, especially in the United States. In a little over a century we have gone from eating foods with very few ingredients to foods that contain dozens of ingredients. This change from whole foods to highly processed foods has been paralleled by an increase in chronic diseases [1,2]. However, in recent years we have seen a resurgence in the interest of traditional diets.
Traditional diets refers to those diets followed for thousands of years by indigenous populations around the world. Research has shown that individuals who follow a traditional diet have lower instances of cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, obesity, and depression [2,3]. Some examples of Traditional Diets are the Ayurveda Diet (India) and the Mediterranean diet (circa 1960); however, traditional diets include the eating patterns of any indigenous people world wide [2,3]. Traditional diets are composed of the foods available to a population in the local environment and season.
While the actually foods of each diet may vary widely by location, almost all traditional diets have major similarities that account for their beneficial effects on overall health [2,3].
1. High in plants: Traditional diets are typically high in fresh plant foods including leafy vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and root vegetables. Fresh plant foods are high in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals which are lost during processing and production.
2. Include Fats: From olive oil and nuts to fresh fish, traditional diets include fats. Our bodies need fats (especially mono and polyunsaturated fats) to function correctly. Not getting enough fat in the diet can lead to decreased feelings of fullness (causing increased intake and weight gain), and increased risk of mental illness and depression [4]. 
3. Protein: Almost all traditional diets include some form of animal protein.  Often, diets included a range of animal proteins from sources such as fish and other aquatic life, birds, eggs, some dairy, large game, reptiles, and insects. In addition, the majority of the animal was consumed, not just the large cuts of meat. 
4. Mindfulness: Another component of traditional diets is a mindfulness and connection to food. Individuals are more aware of how the food was procured and therefore more mindful during eating. Many traditional diets (such as the Ayurveda diet) are closely related to spirituality and religion. A great emphasis is placed on the effects of eating, not just on the body but on the soul as well. Therefore, individuals may be less likely to eat past fullness or to waste food by eating too much at any one time. 
5. Minimal Processing: While traditional diets rely on natural processing techniques such as smoking and fermentation to preserve foods, overall processing of food items is minimal. Foods are free from the plethora of added sugars, salts, fats, and chemicals seen in contemporary diets. 
It is important to consider that traditional diets are also associated with an overall higher level of daily activity and exercise which contributes to decreases in chronic disease [1-3]. 
Are you interested in switching to a more traditional diet? You don't have to follow a strict manual of what to eat and what not to eat. Seek out fresh fruits and vegetables and a variety of protein sources. Don't try to cut fat out of your diet but instead include an appropriate amount of healthy fats like those found in plant oils and seafood. Reduce your intake of overly processed items by checking the label. If an item has more than five ingredients you might want to select a less processed choice. On the most basic level, the return to traditional diets is a return to whole foods. 

References
1- Popkin BM. Nutritional patterns and transitions. Population and Development Review. Vol 19, No 1; March 1993: 138-57.
2- Willett WC, Sacks F, et al. Mediterranean diet pyramid: a cultural model for healthy eating. Am J Clin Nutr. Jun 1995; 61:1402s-1406s.
3- Jacka FN, Pasco JA, et al. Association of Western and traditional diets with depression and anxiety in women. Am J Psychiatry. 2010; 167:1-7
4- Sathyanarayana Rao TS, Asha MR, et al. Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. Indian J Psychiatry. 2008 Apr-Jun;50(20): 77-82
Photo Credit: Harsha K R via www.flickr.com