Traditional Foods in a Nutshell

The last few days, Nourished Kitchen has experienced a spike in readership, and I want to welcome all those new readers to the site with a back-to-basics approach to Traditional Foods.   This is a print it out and pin it to your fridge kind of post, and even those readers who’ve been with the site a long time may find benefit in the overview.

What are Traditional Foods?

Traditional foods are those foods which nourished our ancestors throughout history and prehistory prior to the advent of the industrialization of food. The industrialization of food largely began in the 19th century and entrenched itself in standard diets of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Deeply nourishing, traditional foods as our ancestors knew them were unprocessed, naturally raised, largely raw and decidedly unrefined. These foods represent the natural diet of humankind and, as such, nourished the natural growth and evolution of the human species for thousands of years prior to the industrialization of food.

Why choose Traditional Foods?

Anthropological data suggest that those cultures subsisting entirely or largely on native, unrefined foods prepared according to time-honored traditions enjoy better health than peoples consuming a largely refined diet of modern foods. Infertility, heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune disease, mental illness, obesity, dental cavities and other diseases were largely absent in cultures subsisting on a native diet of unrefined foods. Whole foods lead to whole health.

What are the basics behind the Traditional Foods movement?

In the simplest explanation, traditional foods focused on four basic principles: 1) avoidance of modern, refined foods; 2) celebration of unrefined, whole and natural foods; 3) respecting the importance of nutrient-density in our food and 4) preparing and eating foods in the same manner that nourished our ancestors and kept them well. In essence, if your great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother wouldn’t recognize it, don’t put it in your mouth.

Traditional Foods in Greater Detail

Traditional Food: Meat, Fish and Fowl

Animal foods held a time-honored place throughout the world prior to the saturated fat scare of the mid to late 20th century. Native Americans celebrated the hunt. The Inuit subsisted almost entirely on raw animal meat and fat during the long, dark, arctic winters. The Irish traditionally made heavy use of seafood and mutton. Pork and fish held a special place in the native diet of Okinawa. In every culture, the whole animal was traditionally used. Bones became broth. Lard, tallow and suet helped to preserve and cook other foods. Kidneys, hearts, liver and other nutrient-dense organ meats were prized most of all.

It’s important to note that, cross-globally, animals traditionally raised for food subsisted on their natural diets in open pasture for land animals or in clean streams and oceans for fish. This natural practice translates to improved micronutrient content in the meat and fat of animal foods. Clean food for the animals means clean animal food for you.

Wise Choices: Choose grass-finished beef, lamb, bison, elk, venison and goat meat. Choose wild-caught, but sustainable fish including liberal inclusion of mollusks like clams, oysters and mussels as well as cold-water fish like salmon. Choose pasture-raised poultry, eggs and pork. Don’t eschew the other parts of the animal: fish roe, liver and other foods are important too. Bone broth and nourishing stocks. Don’t shy away from raw animal food, either. Incorporate sashimi, raw egg yolk, cured ham, carpaccio and steak tartare into your diet. (View sources for grass-finished and pasture-raised animal foods.)

Skip: Conventional, factory farmed meats and animal foods.

Traditional Food: Fat and Oil

Natural fats, including animal fats and unrefined oils, are an excellent source of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. While advocating the consumption of dietary fat – particularly animal fat – may seem counterintuitive in a fat-phobic nation, dietary fat is an important and neglected nutrient. And while the ADA and other organizations recommend a diet of comprised of no more than 30% fat by calorie, that recommendation does not jive with the diet human beings naturally enjoyed for thousands of years prior to the latter part of the 20th century. Indeed, research conducted on the macronutrient profile of traditional diets indicates that most pre-industrial societies consumed much more than 30% of their calories from fat. Some cultures even consumed upwards of 80% of their calories as fat – and thrived free from heart disease, diabetes and other ills.

Keep in mind, however, they consumed natural dietary fats not fats and oiled derived through intense manufacture. Moreover, much of their natural fat intake came from saturated and monounsaturated sources; very little derived from polyunsaturated fats.

Wise Choices: Ghee, raw butter and raw cream from grass-fed cows. Tallow and suet from grass-finished cows, bison, elk and other ruminant animals. Lard from pasture-raised pigs. Fat from pasture-raised ducks and geese as well as schmaltz from pasture-raised chickens. Unrefined coconut oil. Palm kernel oil. Unrefined, cold-pressed, extra virgin olive oil. (View sources for wholesome fats.)

Skip: Refined oils and solvent-extracted oils. Soybean oil. Canola oil. Corn oil. Vegetable oil. Margarine. Shortening. Manufactured trans-fats.

Traditional Foods: Fruits and Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables, like animal foods, were consumed by all preindustrial societies; however, as with meat, the amount of fruits and vegetables consumed relative to other foods varied from culture to culture and season to season based on regional and local availability. Vegetables and fruit were grown in mineral-rich soil, not soil depleted by over-farming and industrial agriculture practices. Vegetables and fruit were always organically grown because synthetic inputs like chemical-based fertilizers and pesticides simply didn’t yet exist.

Like animal foods, many plant foods were eaten in their raw state or preserved through lactic acid fermentation. Take care to consume the bulk of your vegetables raw or naturally fermented through traditional techniques.

Wise Choices: All organic or certified naturally grown fruits and vegetables – preferably from small farms that practice good soil management techniques. Mostly raw, and largely fermented when raw produce is not (or would not naturally be) seasonally available. (View sources of traditionally fermented vegetables.)

Skip: The “dirty dozen” or most contaminated fruits and vegetables. (View contamination by crop at What’s in Your Food.) Cooking all of your vegetables.

Nuts, Seeds, Grains and Legumes

Grains and legumes were not regularly consumed cross-globally in pre-industrial societies; however, many cultures have a rich heritage that celebrates grain and bread. Prior to industrialization, grains were consumed in their whole, unrefined form. Refined, white rice was not widely available until the middle of the 20th century. Grains and legumes were customarily fermented, soaked, partially germinated or sprouted prior to cooking. These traditional practices neutralized antinutrients naturally present in whole grains and legumes thus increasing overall digestibility and the ability to more fully absorb the minerals and vitamins naturally present in these foods.

Similarly, nuts and seeds – though often eaten raw – were also soaked in a salty solution prior to serving or roasted. This practice activated food enzymes which neutralized enzyme inhibitors that make nuts difficult to digest for many people.

Wise Choice: Soaked and dried organic nuts and seeds. And, if you tolerate them, grains: whole grain sourdough breads and sourdough noodles, sprouted grain and sprouted grain flours, slow-rise breads and recipes calling for soaking. Tempeh, miso and natto. (View sources for sprouted grain flour.)

Skip: Quick breads. Refined flour and grains. White rice. White flour. Muffins, cookies, pastries, breads, noodles and other grain products made with non-sprouted grains. Non-soaked or non-roasted nuts and seeds. Soy-based meat- and dairy-alternatives.

Milk and Dairy Products

While dairy products were not consumed cross-globally, in those cultures that did consume dairy products one thing remained fairly constant: dairy was consumed raw or fermented. Pasteurization as a practice wasn’t invented until the middle of the 19th century and wasn’t routinely applied to dairy products until the 20th century. Prior to that, dairy was almost always consumed in its raw state with boiled milk being an anomaly, not the norm.

As with other animals raised for food, dairy cows were, until the late 19th century, raised on pasture with access to nutrient-dense grasses that optimized the herd’s health. Healthy milk, you see, comes from healthy animals fed their natural diet. Of course consumption of dairy wasn’t restricted to cow’s milk; rather, yaks, goats, sheep, camels and other animals were raised for their milk.

Wise Choices: Raw whole milk, raw cream and raw butter from grass-fed animals. Raw whole milk yogurt, kefir, sour cream and cheese. (View sources for yogurts.)

Skip: Skimmed milk. Dairy substitutes. Milk from conventional, industrial dairies including industrial Organic dairies. Ultra-high temperature pasteurized milks and creams.


Sweeteners never comprised a substantial part of diet until the middle of the 20th century. Sweeteners were difficult to find and rarely available – especially among the poor. Of those cultures with access to sweetener, sweeteners were rarely refined. White sugar, agave nectar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, liquid stevia, white stevia and artificial sweeteners simply did not exist. Due to lack of access more than lack of interest, sweeteners were rarely used – a sort of forced moderation, if you will.

Wise Choices: Unrefined, raw honey. Molasses. Unrefined cane sugar including sucanat and rapadura. Sorghum syrup. Maple syrup. Maple sugar. Green stevia. Coconut and palm sugar. Raw sugar cane. Date sugar. All in very limited quantities, if at all.

Skip: White, brown, demerara, turbinado sugars and sugar in the raw (it’s really not raw, folks). High fructose corn syrup. Corn syrup. Beet sugar. Aspartame, sucralose and other non-caloric artificial sweeteners. Liquid stevia, white stevia powder, xylitol, sugar alcohols and agave nectar are all modern, manufactured and intensely processed though they still sit on your health food store shelves.

Lastly, take care to sleep fully, exercise gently, get plenty of natural sunlight and enjoy your life and family. Social connections, family and even faith play a critically important role in both wellness and longevity.

Cross-posted at Fight Back Friday.

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What people are saying

  1. Golden Goose says

    This list is great! I love to forward this info to family members who think that a Traditional Foods diet is off the deep end… smile & sigh… in any case, I do take issue with your recommendation to eat a lot of seafood, especially bivalves, who filter the water they are in. Can we reassure readers that the oceans are still free of contaminants and heavy metals, and that these fish/shellfish do not bioaccumulate toxins? How about the state of the world’s fisheries? How can we justify eating sashimi when conservative estimates give us maybe another 50 years of eating fish from the seas? I am a one-person crusade against sushi (especially eaten far from any whiff of ocean air, like the central Rockies), but would love to hear what others are eating from the ocean and their justification for this consumption. Perhaps you can share the Monterey Seafood Watch program :
    Thanks for my moment on the soapbox!

  2. says

    Thank you for this! I’ve been reading your site for awhile and have found it very helpful. I had one commenter ask this week about real food vs. industrial food so I put together a post of books and blogs to read, including yours. I’m going to add a link to this post since it’s a great way to start if someone is looking on the internet for information.

  3. says

    I came back to read over your post when the littlest ones were napping. I had never seen the link before for pesticides in fruits and veggies. After reading the methodology, I realized that I haven’t seen any research/info provided anywhere for the effect of pesticides on backyard vegetable gardens. Obviously, this is more variable, but I wish there was a way to know more concretely if my homegrown, organically grown veggies were being affected by the use of pesticides on my neighbors’ lawns.

  4. says

    Great resource!
    We have been finding, now that we have discovered my husband’s late onset diabetes, how little mainstream medical community knows about food and nutrition. So much of the information that they give us is “brought to us by Splenda!”
    We have always been pretty careful and pretty healthy, but with his age and health issues, we have to be even more vigilant.
    I swear the doctors are trying to kill him. They told him he could have up to 136 pkgs of artificial sweetener a day!
    They make no distinction between refined grains and whole grains, and have very little variety in the purposed “diets”.
    I have taken it upon myself to be his nutritionist, reading and researching and making more and more of our foods from scratch. As he is underweight, I have the added struggle to keep the pounds on him while keeping his blood sugar in check. I believe that as natural as possible is the way to go.

  5. Jenny says

    Golden Goose –

    I think you really hit on a point that I struggle with.  Historically, bivalves held a very important role in the human diet and seafoods are so incredibly valuable in terms of micronutrients, vitamins and minerals.  Clams represent one of the very best sources of iron.  Salmon roe is one of the best sources of DHA and EPA.  Oysters are a great source of zinc, vitamin b12 and selenium.  These are powerfully nourishing foods.  Even peoples that lived far from oceans often went to great lengths to secure seafoods.  But … and there’s always a but … wild stocks are fastly decreasing; oceans are loaded with dioxins; there’s dead-zones in the historically plentiful gulfs and seas.  Nevermind that there’s an island of plastic floating in the pacific.  Sea creatures are soaking up chemicals and trash – not optimal for us and not optimal for them – especially when you consider that much of their value lies in their fat and that’s precisely where the nasty chemicals end up.  If that’s not enough, you’ve got to consider the human-trafficking involved in the seafood industry in south-east Asia! Yipes!  It goes on and on!

    At the same time, I still feel that seafoods can be exceptionally important.  So, I think, the key here is moderation and wisdom in our choices.  Alaskan salmon stocks are well-managed (though they’re still decreasing), and other stocks of fish should be similarly well-managed.  It’ll take an outcry from consumers to make that happen – which is unlikely without education and outspoken activists.  More so, it’ll take self-restriction by consumers and that might be even harder! 

    I LOVE the Seafood Watch Program and, for us, when we eat fish which is a rarety these days we stick to the “Best Choice” listings on that site and do so as an occasional treat rather than a mainstay of our diet.  In an optimal world, we’d eat a lot more because it’s so very nutrient-dense.

    I’m going to see if I can dig up some kasha recipes, for you too.

    Nice to “see” you!

     – Jenny

  6. Jenny says

    Natashya –

    Woah! 136 packages of artificial sweetener a day!?!  That’s insane!  I think you really hit on a good point here – that the medical establishment is poorly equipped to handle nutrition and the government-recommended diets are based on faulty research.  Have you read Gary Taube’s Good Calories, Bad Calories yet? 

    Good for you for taking a whole foods, from scratch approach to treating illness.  I have suffered from infertility, PCOS and thyroid disease and a good diet is the only way I can keep these conditions remotely in check.


    Take care –


  7. Jenny says

    Meghan –

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful words! Yours is a site I definitely visit often. You offer such solid information delivered with grace and humor.

    Take care –


  8. Jenny says

    Barb –

    That is a GREAT link about foods and pesticides. I’ve shared it often.  I don’t know how much backyard produce is affected by neighbors’ application of pesticides.  If you’re in close proximity, I imagine it has to be affected in some manner.  I wonder if there’s something you could do to urge your neighbors not to use synthetic inputs?  Maybe ply them with garden-fresh veggies?

    Thank you so much for linking to me and this post today!  I sure do appreciate it.

    Take care –


  9. says

    Hi Jenny. Just stopped by to thank you for your comment on my millet chicken. I enjoyed reading your Traditional Food post. I’m finding so many great sites with these Friday festivals! Hope you have a great weekend:)

  10. Kelly H. says

    Thank you so much for the list! While I already knew most of this, the sweetener section especially was very helpful for me. I am going to post a link to this in both of my Cafemom groups as well, as there have been multiple discussions about which sweeteners are safe and ok to use.

    Thank you again for this valuable information! Sharing on my Facebook page right now!

  11. Dollie31Dale says

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  12. Nicole says

    Thank you for posting this! It can get so overwhelming out there in the world of constant “info-tizing”, you know what I mean? Sometimes I just need to check a list… the “Wise Choices” you have here are helpful when my brain is feeling fried from information overload.

  13. Martha says

    I have learned so much from your site.
    I live in Mexico, so obviously tortillas are a big part of my family’s diet. I find it really sad that a traditional food such as this has been so corrupted by industrial processes. I live in the country, so by carefully questioning people around here about whether or not they save seed from year to year I was finally able to find non-GMO corn. (It’s blue!). I have bought a hand grain mill and plan to make my own tortillas from now on. I do have a question that I hope you can help me with. I have read about soaking grains in an acidic solution to make them healthier and easier to digest. Here, however, corn is traditionally soaked with lime (or nixtamalized). Lime is alkaline, so I was wondering if it would still have the same beneficial effects.
    I also have one other question. I am in the process of finding access to pasture raised meat (beef and chicken), but in the meantime is it best to stick to a vegetarian diet rather than consume conventional meats?
    I would appreciate any input you might have.
    Thank you so much for helping me nourish my family – I am loving you Get Cultured course!

  14. Kaitlyn says

    Do soaked almonds need to be dehydrated if you are just planning to bake with them immediately? (I would be incorporating mine into a pie crust that uses almonds, coconut oil, and dates -blended in a food processor and stopping just short of almond butter before pressing into a pie dish and baking.) So, is it possible to still soak but skip the dehydrating step?

  15. says

    Hi, i feel that i saw you visited my web site so i got here to go back the favor?
    .I’m attempting to in finding things to enhance my website!I guess its ok to make use of a few of your ideas!!

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