Nourishing Diets

How Paleo, Ancestral and Traditional Peoples Really Ate


By Sally Fallon Morell

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Sally Fallon Morell, bestselling author of Nourishing Traditions, debunks diet myths to explore what our ancestors from around the globe really ate–and what we can learn from them to be healthy, fit, and better nourished, today

The Paleo craze has taken over the world. It asks curious dieters to look back to their ancestors’ eating habits to discover a “new” way to eat that shuns grains, most dairy, and processed foods. But, while diet books with Paleo in the title sell well–are they correct? Were paleolithic and ancestral diets really grain-free, low-carb, and based on all lean meat?

In Nourishing Diets bestselling author Sally Fallon Morell explores the diets of our primitive ancestors from around the world–from Australian Aborigines and pre-industrialized Europeans to the inhabitants of “Blue Zones” where a high percentage of the populations live to 100 years or more. In looking to the recipes and foods of the past, Fallon Morell points readers to what they should actually be eating–the key principles of traditional diets from across cultures — and offers recipes to help translate these ideas to the modern home cook.



I first met Sally about twenty years ago through an article I read in a small magazine called Spectrum. By that time, I had been a practicing holistic and anthroposophical doctor for about fifteen years and had studied food and medicine for over two decades. I thought I knew a lot about food and the relationship between food and health. That small article quickly convinced me that no matter how much I thought I knew, this woman knew far more than I did. I resisted my first urge to go off and pout and decided to call her to talk about food, medicine and how she had learned about these subjects. That call led to Sally doing her first public Nourishing Traditions workshop in my small town in New Hampshire; it led me to become one of the founding board members of the Weston A. Price Foundation; it led to two books that we cowrote; and most importantly it led to a lifelong friendship.

After two decades of collaboration, I was honored to be asked to write this small preface to Sally’s new book Nourishing Diets. I was surprised that I had two distinct reactions to reading her new book. The first was expected; the second surprised me.

The first reaction was that, in contrast to the inaccurate nonsense that is out there among bestselling books purporting to describe the dietary habits of healthy traditional people, Sally gives an in-depth and accurate depiction of what healthy diets actually were like. We have been led to believe that healthy Okinawans or Native Americans lived on low-fat animal foods, tree nuts and wild greens. The reality, as Sally describes in intimate detail, is that the healthy diets of the most successful humans on the planet were loaded with high-fat animal foods including insects and offal, as well as lots of fermented foods and drinks of all sorts. Traditional people eat many foods and parts of animals that most of us have never heard of, let alone eaten. Sally’s depth of knowledge about what constitutes a real traditional diet surpasses by miles anything found in the popular books on this subject, including the usual “paleo” diet prescriptions.

Contrary to what we have been told, healthy traditional cultures, far from excluding this or that category of foods (like grains, dairy, beans, fats and organ meats), relished these foods, perhaps above all others. But they were meticulous about their preparation techniques to make foods healthy and palatable, many of which are now validated by modern science.

I often tell my patients the single most important health decision they have to make is to decide whether they think modern Americans are the healthiest people who have ever lived. This is what we are told, over and over again—we should all be grateful for the modern agricultural system, the wonders of the green revolution, the blessings of modern medicine, and the convenience of food fortification. If it were not for “progress” we would all live the nasty, brutish and short lives of our ancestors. The reality as Sally describes it is far different—the traditional diet conferred a level of health and vitality on these people that is unheard of for modern man. The key is to have an accurate description of the details of what this healthy nourishing diet entailed. For that, there is simply no resource even close to what Sally provides in Nourishing Diets.

My second reaction to Sally’s book was a surprise. Reading the descriptions of the varied and unusual foods that comprise a healthy traditional diet I felt a profound sense of sadness for what we have lost. Even the most “foodie” of us living in the “foodie” capital of the United States (I live in San Francisco) live in a food desert compared to the incredible diversity afforded to traditional people. They ate hundreds of different foods, different textures, different and more robust flavors almost every day or week of their lives. Today we pay one hundred dollars a person to go to a top restaurant that has “discovered” bone broth, organ meats and wild vegetables. I felt this strong longing to live in a world where the traditional foods of my ancestors are freely available, to exercise my birthright to consume healthy, nutrient-dense food.

With Sally’s able guidance it is possible that in time we can regain some of this lost diversity and flavor. Engaging in food diversity, as for example eating the organs and bones of an animal not just the “prized” muscle meat, is the key to regaining robust health. Nourishing Diets points the way to this rejuvenation and will serve as an invaluable guide for anyone interested in the reestablishment of the true human diet.

Thomas Cowan, MD
June, 2018


Modern Technology or Ancestral Wisdom?

THE MOST UNIVERSAL disease in the world is the decay of the teeth, and unfortunately we have not known the cause, until we have gone to the primitive* people to find how they prevent tooth decay,” said Dr. Weston A. Price in the late 1930s, in the only video recording we have of him.1 “Our difficulty is that we are adding too much white flour and sugar and do not get enough of the foods that carry the minerals and vitamins. When the primitive people adopt the foods of modern civilization, their teeth decay just as ours do.”

Dr. Price continued: “I’ve spent several years studying the primitive people in various parts of the world, and I have come as a missionary from them to the people of modern civilization. And I beg of you to learn of their accumulated wisdom, and if you do, you, too, can have strong healthy bodies, without so much disease as we suffer from these days.”

What an amazing thought—that the so-called “primitive” people of the world could come as missionaries to modern civilization, missionaries with the gift of their “accumulated wisdom,” so that people today might live without disease—including the disease of tooth decay. Even today, explorers, anthropologists, government officials and medical practitioners believe that the transfer of knowledge can go only one way: from modern people with advanced technology to “primitive” people living a preindustrial lifestyle. The idea that the primitive people of the world can provide us with knowledge that could help us have strong, healthy bodies, freedom from tooth decay and resistance to disease… this idea is not one that finds acceptance in today’s world.

Yet the so-called civilized world is grappling with an epidemic of disease—not the infectious diseases that modern technology holds at bay, but chronic degenerative disease that is sapping the health and strength of industrialized nations, especially diseases that are now epidemic in the young: learning disorders, behavior problems, growth problems, asthma, allergies, digestive problems, obesity, addiction—even problems normally associated with adults such as arthritis, diabetes and cancer. A large portion of children born in the West today need braces, and treatment for pediatric tooth decay is the fastest growing medical profession. Few today realize that these problems will not be solved by modern medicine, but rather by embracing ancient wisdom on what to eat and how to prepare our food.

WHO WAS DR. WESTON PRICE? He was a Cleveland dentist who wanted to answer the question: what causes tooth decay? He also wanted the answer to its corollary: what causes poor physical development and poor health? In his lifelong search for the cause of the dental decay and physical degeneration that he observed in his dental practice, he turned from test tubes and microscopes to evidence among human beings. During the 1930s, Dr. Price sought the factors responsible for fine teeth among the people who had them—the isolated “primitive” people.

The world became his laboratory. As he traveled, his findings led him to the belief that dental caries and deformed dental arches resulting in crowded, crooked teeth and unattractive appearance were merely a sign of physical degeneration resulting from what he had suspected all along—nutritional deficiencies.

Price traveled the world over in order to study isolated human groups, including sequestered villages in Switzerland, Gaelic communities in the Outer Hebrides, Eskimos and Native Americans of North America, Melanesian and Polynesian South Sea Islanders, African tribes, Australian Aborigines, New Zealand Maori, and the Indians of South America. Wherever he went, Dr. Price found that beautiful straight teeth, freedom from decay, stalwart bodies, resistance to disease, keen eyesight and hearing and optimistic outlooks were typical of native peoples who ate traditional foods rich in essential food factors. As soon as these people began eating “the displacing foods of modern commerce,” they began to suffer from tooth decay; and the children born to parents consuming modern foods had narrower facial structure, crowded and crooked teeth and increased susceptibility to disease.

The discoveries and conclusion of Dr. Price are presented in his classic volume Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, published in 1945. The book contains striking photographs of handsome, healthy native people and illustrates in an unforgettable way the physical degeneration that occurs when human groups abandon nourishing traditional diets in favor of modern convenience foods like sugar, white flour, pasteurized milk, and “shelf-stable” foods filled with extenders and additives.*

In Dr. Price’s day, the medical profession considered good dental health a sign of good overall health, rejecting Army recruits based on the state of their teeth. Dr. Price’s photographs and findings indeed indicate that strong bodies and freedom from degenerative disease go hand in hand with healthy teeth. In conversations with medical personnel in the communities he visited, he learned that those eating traditional foods did not suffer from the diseases that afflicted white people living on processed food nor native people who had adopted the white people’s diet—they were free of tuberculosis, arthritis, heart disease and cancer. Childbirth was easy for those living on their native diets—a fact that many early explorers noted with amazement.

WHEREAS NATIVE CULTURES with their accumulated wisdom clearly knew how to eat, modern man is drowning in confusion about what constitutes a healthy diet. Conflicting advice comes from every side. Should we be vegetarians? Avoid fat? Choke down skinless chicken breasts? Eat according to our blood type? Make juice out of kale?

And what about the so-called “paleo” or ancestral diets, which advise us to avoid grains and dairy foods? The paleo diet originated with Dr. Loren Cordain, a professor of exercise physiology at Colorado State University. His 2002 book The Paleo Diet2 (the diet is now trademarked) launched the current dietary fad with claims of a diet tailored to the “foods we were designed to eat.” The book and paleo diet website recommend lean grass-produced meat, fish and seafood, eggs, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and “healthful” oils (olive, walnut, flaxseed, macadamia, avocado and coconut). The diet is very high in protein and low in animal fats and proscribes all grains, legumes, potatoes, dairy foods (including butter), refined sugar, processed food, refined vegetable oils and all salt. In 2010, Robb Wolf, a student of Cordain, published a slightly different version of the paleo diet, The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet,3 which eliminates all starches but allows small amounts of salt. A typical meal includes a salad, 200 grams of lean beef, 300 grams of broccoli and fruit for dessert—a meal that would be very difficult to choke down without added carbohydrates, fat or salt, and one bound to result in cravings for sugar, fat and salt.*

The paleo diet is subject to a wide range of interpretation in hundreds of books, some of which do allow salt, carbohydrates and fats, but the common ground is avoidance of all grains, legumes and milk products on the premise that mankind has not adapted to these foods, which are new to his evolution.

As we shall see, the tenets of the paleo diet have little in common with the way our ancestors actually ate, and can lead to a number of nutrient deficiencies. We’ll talk in detail about the principles of healthy traditional diets in chapter 9, but first, let’s take a careful look at the diets of healthy people from around the world—the kind of people Dr. Price encountered during his research. What becomes clear is the welcome news that we don’t need to deprive ourselves of grains, legumes, milk products, fats or salt in order to eat according to ancestral principles; the emphasis should not be on depriving ourselves of the foods we like to eat, but rather on choosing and preparing foods to maximize our intake of nutrients. As Dr. Price consistently emphasized, whatever specific foods native peoples ate, their diets were very high in minerals and vitamins, particularly the “fat-soluble vitamins”—A, D and K2—found uniquely in animal fats. In chapter 10, we’ll provide guidance for implementing the principles of traditional diets in modern life—without having to eat foods that Westerners find unacceptable, like insects or weird fermented animal parts.

WE CAN’T GO BACK—we can’t go back to a primitive lifestyle, nor would we want to. We must be careful not to romanticize tribal or village life with its constant specter of food shortages or even famine, the pressure to conform, the dread of ghosts, the ritual attached to all aspects of existence, the lack of comfort, the constant exposure to smoke. Dirt was a daily companion—even the fastidious South Sea Islanders suffered from lice. There was no room for individuality in the traditional tribe or village—it was a matter of survival for every member to conform to cultural norms and traditions. Many Western observers noted that the women, in particular, lived a life of drudgery. Some tribes engaged in cannibalism or even ritual torture.4

Modern man is an individualist and would have great difficulty returning to the narrow confines of tribal and village life; our consciousness has changed… but our bodies have not. We still have the same nutritional requirements as our ancestors, and these needs are only met with real, traditional food, chosen and prepared according to the patterns of preindustrialized people, according to their accumulated wisdom.

Technology has freed us from constant manual labor and given us a life that is more comfortable and more free; but technology applied to our food hacks away at nutritional content in favor of long shelf life. The challenge for modern man is to use technology wisely, opting for wisdom over cleverness when it comes to how we farm, what we choose to eat, and how we prepare our food. Only traditional cultures can show us how.

Wrote Dr. Price,

In my studies I find that it is not accident but accumulated wisdom regarding foods that lies behind their physical excellence and freedom from our modern degenerative processes, and, further, that on various sides of our world the primitive people know many of the things that are essential for life—things that our modern civilizations apparently do not know. These are the fundamental truths of life that have put them in harmony with Nature through obeying her nutritional laws. Whence this wisdom? Was there in the distant past a world civilization that was better attuned to Nature’s laws and have these remnants retained this knowledge? If this is not the explanation, it must be that these various primitive [peoples] have been able through a superior skill in interpreting cause and effect, to determine for themselves what foods in their environment are best for producing human bodies with a maximum of physical fitness and resistance to degeneration.5


Australian Aborigines

The Most Paleo of Them All

ANY EXPLORATION OF ancestral foodways should begin with the native Australians. They provide us with a unique example of an isolated Paleolithic population, one that existed on the hunter-gatherer’s lean-meat, grainless diet, without the practice of agriculture or animal domestication. They occupied temporary shelters and prepared their foods in the most primitive way; in short, they lived the life of the primitive nomad, wandering across the face of the earth. It was a life that was necessarily nasty, brutish and short.

An Australian government website asserts that the Aboriginal people in Australia lived by “roaming their vast continent in search of animals and eating seeds and roots of plants for survival… Foraging parties gathered enough food for their immediate needs and food was not often stored.”1

According to this point of view, the Australian native survived because he lived on a continent blessed with abundance. Early colonists from Europe, who began arriving in Australia in 1788, described a land teeming with life, with soil of unusual loamy lightness and kangaroo grass so high as to conceal the sheep and cattle of the first settlers. Orchids, lilies and mosses flourished in the fertile ground. The settlers were astonished at the beauty of the country, which they considered completely natural and accidental. According to the early settler and diarist Sir Thomas Livingston Mitchell, writing in 1839, “We crossed a beautiful plain; covered with shining verdure, and ornamented with trees, which, although ‘dropt in nature’s careless haste,’ gave the country the appearance of an extensive park.”2 Many other settlers noted that the land had the appearance of landscaped park, where tracts of pasture alternated with belts of timber in an artistic fashion, very pleasing to the eye.3

This beautiful continent abounded with fish and wildlife of every sort. “Newcomers commented endlessly on plains rich with life, skies dark with birds, seas black with fish… Kangaroos very numerous and easily caught… Newcomers heard possums grunting and saw glider possums flying.”4

In the early 1840s, colonist Angus McMillan saw a lake “alive with swans, ducks and pelicans… The country was absolutely swarming with kangaroos and emus… In all ordinary seasons… they can obtain in two or three hours, a sufficient supply of food for the day. Even in the desert, people got food in four to five hours per day.”*5

The problem with these descriptions of the native Australians is that they are misleading, if not completely wrong. The Aboriginal peoples did not live haplessly in a land fortuitously blessed by abundance; rather, through wise and ingenious land management, they created the landscape and the abundance that so amazed the European interlopers. And far from existing on a meager, dry diet of nuts, vegetables and lean meat, the Aborigines enjoyed a wide and varied diet that included everything from fatty animal food to grain flour made into cakes!

AGRICULTURE, PARTICULARLY THE cultivation of grain, is defined as the cultivation and breeding of plants and animals by largely sedentary human beings, thereby producing food surpluses that can be stored between harvests and for times of famine. Agriculture encompasses the domestication of animals, selection of seed, preparation of the soil, harvesting of crops, storage of surplus and water management. It requires large populations living in permanent housing. Contrary to the claims of paleo-diet enthusiasts, the Aboriginal Australians did all these things, a fact that emerges from a careful review of early colonial diaries, but one only reluctantly accepted by mainstream anthropologists.

“The whole country looks as if it had been carefully ploughed, harrowed, and finally rolled,” wrote the colonist John McKinlay in 1861.6 In crossing the Australian frontier, Thomas Mitchell marveled, “The grass is pulled… and piled in hayricks, so that the aspect of the desert was softened into the agreeable semblance of a hay-field… we found the ricks or hay-cocks extending for miles… the seed is made by the natives into a kind of paste or bread. Dry heaps of this grass, that has been pulled expressly for this purpose of gathering the seed, lay along our path for many miles. I counted nine miles along the river, in which we rode through this grass only, reaching to our saddle-girths, and the same grass seemed to grow back from the river, at least as far as the eye could reach through a very open forest.”7 In 1845, the colonist Charles Sturt saw harvested grain spread out in a “boundless field of stubble.”8

On Cooper Creek in east central Australia, the natives reaped millet from fields of one thousand acres. According to settler Augustus Greghory, “The natives cut it down by means of stone knives, cutting down the stalk half way, beat out the seed, leaving the straw which is often met with in large heaps; they winnow by tossing seed and husk in the air, the wind carrying away the husks. The grinding into meal is done by means of two stones.”9

At times the Aborigines harvested through the use of fire. According to one settler, “Fire was set to the grass which was full in the ear yet green. While the fire was burning, the natives kept turning the grass with sticks all the time to knock the seeds out. When this was done, the fire burnt out, they gathered up the seed into a big opossum rug.”10

IN ADDITION TO MILLET, the Aborigines cultivated a native wheat, oats, rye and bull Mitchell grass, which produced, according to botanist Fred Turner, “ears nearly six inches in length, well filled with a clean-looking, firm grain, which separates easily from the chaff.”11 Moreover, they also cultivated and harvested rice. One explorer-driver found two granaries, “one with about a ton of rice seed stored there in large dishes.”12

So the Aboriginal peoples grew grain—lots of grain—which they harvested, winnowed, stored, soaked, ground into flour and baked into cakes. The Aboriginal grain belt stretched from east to west across the continent, with a wide band through the desert interior, whereas today modern agriculture only succeeds in growing grain in the wetter areas of southeast and southwest Australia.13 The evidence indicates that the peoples of arid central Australia engaged in seed propagation, irrigation, harvest, storage and trade of seed across the region.14 Several explorers and commentators witnessed grain traded to distant relatives in small sealed parcels.15 In an 1860 expedition to the unexplored interior of eastern Australia, the Irish soldier John King found a store of grain estimated at four tons.16

Grindstones have turned up in Cuddie Springs, New South Wales and at Kakadu in the Northern Territory. In the 1940s, the explorer Hamilton Hume observed that “on the Darling [River] the Natives gather grain from the wild oats… and grind it between two stones and make a paste and eat it, the same is done by the Natives to the northward.”17

The practice of agriculture includes the manipulation of grains through selection for desirable traits. When plants become “domesticated” as the result of a human-induced selection regime, they undergo changes in form and structure to such an extent that the plants become dependent on humans for the continuance of their life cycle. These changes include a tendency to ripen simultaneously and the development of a tough rachis,* which allows man to harvest the seed. Harvesting and winnowing techniques also contribute to changes in seed characteristics.

Aboriginal grains exhibited these qualities, and native seed-selection techniques were similar to those that led to the domestication of wild wheat and barley in Europe. According to some researchers, the tough rachis developed within just twenty to thirty years of this cropping style, to the extent that the grains required watering for germination to occur.18 Aboriginal grains became dependent on the interventions of the Aborigines.

Grains grown in arid regions require water, and evidence of extensive irrigation systems and man-made wells is scattered throughout the desert areas of Australia. The Airaduri people in New South Wales built large dams to store water. Stories of ancestors teaching their people about selecting seed, sowing it and building dams are common in the grain areas.19

Many colonists saw dams and irrigation trenches, and even saw such structures in the process of construction: “The people would get in a line, using their digging scoops and larger coolamons. The clay and earth was scooped into the larger coolamons, which were passed along the line.… with a line of people working the deepening of the favoured catchment area and the building of the bank could be done at the same time. When it was satisfactorily excavated, the people would trample the clay base. If ant nest material was nearby this was carried and trampled in to give a very firm base.”20

A dam wall in the Bulloo River floodplain in southwest Queensland was over three hundred feet long, six feet high, and almost twenty feet at its base. The earthen embankment across the catchment of several streams was capable of holding almost two hundred thousand gallons.21 A site in the Great Western Desert was estimated to hold over forty thousand gallons. In fact, today’s empty and forbidding desert regions once hosted a considerable population of Aboriginal tribes, engaged in grain production without any degrading impact on the environment. As one commentator observed: “Desert is a term Europeans use to describe areas where they can’t grow wheat and sheep.”22

The great advantage of Aboriginal crops was their development for harsh conditions through seed selection, direct planting and weeding. Many of the grains grew on sand and required a minimum of irrigation. They also had a very high nutritional value.23

Evidence of widespread and large-scale grain production by the “primitive” people in Australia makes it clear that the Aboriginal people were not reacting to the whims of nature, but directly affecting its production.24 In Australia, the lines between the passive adaptation of the hunter-gatherer and exertive activities of the agriculturalist were blurred or even nonexistent.

While not all Aboriginal peoples cultivated and stored grain, the testimony of explorers indicates that most native Australians were, at the very least, in the early stages of an agricultural society and even ahead of many other parts of the world25—all without the advantages of metals, the wheel or domesticated beasts of burden.

THE ABORIGINES CULTIVATED many other species of plant foods besides grains, especially in areas of abundant rainfall. The east coast of Australia alone provides 250 species of edible plants, including tubers such as yams and grass potatoes, fern roots, palm hearts, legumes, nuts, seeds, shoots, leaves and a wide variety of fruits such as figs and berries.26

Chief among these was the murnong, or yam daisy, a native dandelion, which flourished with the help of human cultivation in areas blessed with moisture. In 1836, one settler saw “a vast extent of downs… quite yellow with murnong” and “natives spread over the field, digging for roots.”27

The murnong


On Sale
Jun 26, 2018
Page Count
288 pages

Sally Fallon Morell

About the Author

Sally Fallon Morell is the author of the bestselling cookbook Nourishing Traditions (with Mary G. Enig, PhD, over 650,000 copies sold), Nourishing Broth (with Kaayla T. Daniel, PhD, CCN), and Nourishing Fats. As president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, she is the number one spokesperson for the return of nutrient-dense foods to American tables.

Learn more about this author