Eating Like Your Ancestors

When I was a kid, I used to wonder which part of me came from which parent, as if I could draw a line down my middle and figure this out. Some things are easy: my hands look just like my mother’s. My nose, says my dad, is a Hartley nose from his mother (not, unfortunately, the finely sculpted Roman nose of the O’Briens) with an Asian-style bridge that didn’t grow until I was 11.

But what about things that cannot be so easily viewed? For example, my stomach. Or more accurately, what should I put into my stomach?

In recent years, I’ve developed an intolerance for spicy foods or even acidic foods, like tomato sauce (ruling out all those Mediterranean foods that are supposed to be good for you). I am not of Mediterranean descent, so perhaps this makes some sense.

If I ate like my own ancestors instead, would I be better off? Douglas Wallace, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Molecular & Mitochondrial Medicine and Genetics at the University of California, Irvine, suggests that we all have metabolisms based in where our ancestors hail from, so we should eat like them no matter what. His full paper is here. So if you’re from a hot southern climate and move to a northern cooler clime, you should still eat like you’re in the south or your body will rebel.

This doesn’t explain, however, how you should approach food if you are of multi-racial, multi-national descent, as so many people are today. Should I stick to the diet of my Irish ancestors, which is fairly cool all year round; or my mother’s region of Japan, which has hot and humid summer temps?

Another interesting tidbit: Recently, researchers found a gene in Japanese people responsible for the ability to digest seaweed. Do I have this gene? Or do I have some kind of Irish gene that makes potatoes easier to digest? Do I have both? Did this gene mutate into something entirely new, and is that why I can’t eat tomatoes? Does everyone have their own weird genes particular to where their forebears grew up?

Questions, questions. No answers.

I do like seaweed, and never had a problem digesting it.  But neither does my husband.  And Japanese food is usually so high in sodium (soy sauce and fish broth) that I swell up like a Macy’s Day balloon.

Then I had the idea to look at what the two diets have in common:

  • Fish
  • Rice/Potatoes (starchy and white, right?)
  • Cabbage
  • Carrots
  • Soups (clear-ish, not cream based)

Now, if I ate fish, soup, and root vegetables (sans the delicious salty sauces), should I eat white rice or brown rice? Experts always tell people to eat brown rice instead of white, because eating white rice will spike your blood sugar and make you fat and possibly diabetic.

Yet the Japanese (and other Asian cultures, for that matter) eat tons of plain old white rice. According to author Naomi Morayma (Japanese Women Don’t Get Old or Fat: Secrets of My Mother’s Tokyo Kitchen) in a WebMD article, “Thanks to the relatively healthier Japanese diet and lifestyle, Japanese women and men live longer and healthier than everyone else on Earth.” But…they eat white rice!

Maybe the difference is eating an all-Japanese diet (white rice, lots of veggies, fish) as opposed to an American diet with white rice (rice covered in butter, a hamburger, few veggies). Perhaps what they meant when they said to not eat white rice is to avoid stuff like this (on the popular Hawaiian plate lunch served everywhere here):

  • A fried entrée, like fish battered up, or a hamburger or other fatty meat.
  • White rice.
  • Potato salad (mayo only).
  • Iceberg lettuce.

Now that has the potential cultural mishmash to produce a blood sugar problem.

So maybe what the experts should say is this:

  • Try to eat like your ancestors. Avoid junk food.
  • If you have a mixed cultural background, we don’t really know what to tell you.

So my quest continues.

Published by Margaret Dilloway

Middle grade and women's fiction novelist. FIVE THINGS ABOUT AVA ANDREWS, (Balzer + Bray 2020); SUMMER OF A THOUSAND PIES. MOMOTARO: Xander and the Lost Island of Monsters (Disney Hyperion); TALE OF THE WARRIOR GEISHA and SISTERS OF HEART AND SNOW, out now from Putnam Books. HOW TO BE AN AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE was a finalist for the John Gardner fiction award. THE CARE AND HANDLING OF ROSES WITH THORNS is the 2013 Literary Tastes Best Women's Fiction Pick for the American Library Association. Mother of three children, wife to one, slave to a cat, and caretaker of the best overgrown teddy bear on Earth, Gatsby the Goldendoodle.

3 thoughts on “Eating Like Your Ancestors

  1. This is very interesting. I am a believer in ancient diets (and this is where we have to ask if the ancient Japanese ate the rice white or brown, as in other parts of the world ancients ate brown bread, not white–I would think). In any case, I never thought that I should exactly follow my own ancestors’ diet. Being that I have moved away from them, I would rather follow the ancient diet of the place where I leave, as that would contain the most beneficial eating stuff of that land, also with regard to the climate of that particular land. I mean, maybe animal products are what works in winter, while in India people don’t really need the animal protein for survival, due to a completely different climate, not to mention the availability of all sorts of vegetables year round. I also believe that it is less ecological if we try to eat the diets of other lands, as a lot of the food has to be shipped to us with great fuel and other expenses.
    Anyway, I am going to read the paper you link to and make a better opinion.

  2. Totally interesting. But I’m also mixed race. And grew up in Hawaii. So basically I eat everything. But being Asian I’ve also been cursed with lactose intolerance in adulthood. But what is not mentioned is that people in Hawaii live very long also. Compared to Mainland US anyways. Maybe it’s the sunshine. Or an outdoor lifestyle with cleaner air than say…California. I think people in Asia also walk a lot. That’s gotta count for something.

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