Diana Kelly Levey

Today’s Food Trends That Fueled Ancient Civilizations

March 12, 2017 | Categories:

If you want the lean physique and incredible energy that people from ancient civilizations had, you have to eat like them. Here, we’ll walk you through the superfoods that nourished our ancestors and are popular on store shelves today, as well as how to eat them.

Sweet potatoes

These orange-hued spuds fueled the Aztecs. Beta-carotene gives sweet potatoes their vibrant color. The body converts it to vitamin A, which is a powerful antioxidant that can help prevent dry eyes and night blindness and help fight off eye infections, says Sara Haas, R.D. They also contain potassium and fiber. Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin, so for better absorption, consume it with a healthy fat, like nuts, or olive oil. “They are high in fiber and complex carbohydrates which help to fuel you during your day and encourage healthy bacteria growth in your colon,” says Natalie Butler, a registered dietitian at Healthline.com.

How to eat them: Roast them and add them to everything from salads to stir-fries. Mash and add to oatmeal along with cinnamon, nuts and a little honey. Butler says she loves to stuff a roasted sweet potato with Buffalo sauce, Greek yogurt, black beans, and spinach.

SEE ALSO: Low-Calorie Foods That Fill You Up

Chia seeds

These tiny black seeds fueled the Aztecs and Mayans. Chia seeds are a good source of fiber as well as protein and omega-3 fatty acids, says Haas. They can help lower cholesterol, reduce constipation, and meet your nutrient needs, says Butler.

How to eat them: Add them to your morning bowl of cereal, yogurt or smoothie. They can also be used to thicken fruit for making jams.


This ancient beverage fueled the Tsing Dynasty in China beginning around 250 B.C. More research needed on kombucha’s health benefits, but the fermented tea drink does contain probiotics, which help with gut health and boosting the immune system. Kombucha is similar to apple cider vinegar and therefore may also be able to reduce heartburn or indigestion and after-meal blood sugars, says Butler. More research is needed to confirm this benefit.

How to have it: Enjoy this fermented, lightly effervescent sweetened black or green tea drink daily if you’d like. It’s a great replacement for soda lovers. Kombucha’s delicate bacteria can be altered by high temperatures, so don’t heat it; just simply enjoy kombucha straight from the bottle, suggests Butler. “I find it especially helpful if I have a sore throat or a stomach ache,” she says.

Coconut water

This water and the popularity of coconuts is said to have originated from the Pacific basin, like the Philippines and the Indian Ocean basin, according to recent research. Coconut water contains potassium (which can help with recovery after a tough workout), as well as sodium and magnesium. The scientific jury is still out on all of the health benefits often touted by the marketing teams behind these products, but overall, if you have it in moderation, it’s a refreshing beverage to hydrate with.

How to drink it: Drink unsweetened coconut water on its own, especially after an endurance event to replace potassium. You could also use it as a low-calorie mixer for cocktails.


These veggies fueled ancient Koreans starting in the Koryeo Dynasty. Kimchi is a fermented cabbage and provides a great source of healthy bacteria or probiotics. Scientists are learning more and more about the gut microbiome through the Microbiome Project and come to find out the bacteria in our colon not only influence our gut health, but also our metabolism, disease risk, inflammation, energy level, weight, and immunity, says Butler. Kimchi also provides vitamins and some fiber.

How to eat it: These taste great with scrambled eggs, suggests Haas. Use it in whole-grain fried rice and soups. “It’s a great condiment for hamburgers or veggie burgers, too,” says Haas. You could also add it to lettuce wraps, spring rolls, cold chicken salad, or top of seafood, Asian noodles or fried rice, suggests Butler.

Learn about foods that burn belly fat while you sit.


Freekeh contains three times the fiber of brown rice, and also has 7 g protein per serving (1/4 cup uncooked), says Kelly Toups, MLA, RD, LDN, Program Director, Whole Grains Council. Both the whole and cracked freekeh have a low glycemic Index, meaning that they supply a slower, more steady source of glucose (blood sugar). Eating more whole grains is associated with a lower risk of stroke, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, and is even linked with longevity. Note that because freekeh is a wheat, it is not gluten-free.

How to eat it: Because freekeh is young, green wheat that’s been roasted, it has a signature smoky flavor that pairs especially well with Middle Eastern ingredients, like cinnamon, lemon, pine nuts, and tomatoes. The fluffy, chewy texture makes it ideal for grain salads, sides, and pilafs, and the distinct flavor makes it a much more interesting grain base for meat dishes and other entrees. Most freekeh is sold cracked (into smaller pieces), so it cooks up in about 25 minutes.


Just one serving of quinoa (1/4 c uncooked) has 3 g fiber and 6 g protein. Quinoa is one of the few plant foods that is a complete protein, offering all essential amino acids in a healthy balance. It is also an excellent source of magnesium, phosphorus, and manganese, and a good source of iron, copper, thiamin, and vitamin B6. Quinoa is also gluten-free, making it suitable for a wide variety of audiences (including those with celiac disease).

How to eat it: Quinoa is one of the fastest cooking whole grains (only 12-15 minutes), so it’s the perfect pick for busy weeknights. It has a neutral flavor with an almost grassy aroma, so it pairs well with nearly everything — especially Latin American ingredients (corn, black beans, avocado, citrus, cilantro, peppers, & tomatoes). Quinoa retains its toothsomeness even when chilled, making it ideal for both warm and cold grain salads. Or experience quinoa’s sweet side, by serving it as a warm breakfast dish with cinnamon, raisins, bananas, and milk, suggests Toups.

SEE ALSO: 10 Healthy Quinoa Bowl Recipes 


Sorghum has 3 g fiber and 5 g protein per serving (1/4 c uncooked). It’s also an excellent source of manganese, and a good source of magnesium, phosphorus, selenium, and vitamin B6. Nutritionally, sorghum is somewhat similar to whole corn and wheat, except that (unlike wheat) it’s naturally gluten-free. Eating more whole grains (such as sorghum) is associated with a lower risk of stroke, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, and is even linked with longevity.

How to eat it: Sorghum’s pearly shape makes it a great substitute for couscous, and the delightfully chewy texture is ideal for grain salads and pilafs. Sorghum can also be popped, like popcorn. In baked goods, sorghum flour performs beautifully in pancakes, waffles, crepes, and cookies. Next time you’re making a stew or curry, use sorghum as your base instead of rice.

SEE ALSO: 10 Snacks Under 200 Calories


This nutty, slightly sweet grain, farro, boasts 7 g of fiber and 7 g of protein per serving (1/4 c uncooked), more than many popular grain foods. Farro is also a good source of iron. Eating more whole grains (such as farro) is associated with a lower risk of stroke, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, and is even linked with longevity, says Toups. Because farro is an ancient wheat, it is not gluten-free.

How to eat it: Farro maintains a pleasant chew even when chilled, making it ideal for both warm and cold grain salads, sides and pilafs. Farro (also called emmer) is also becoming a popular in risotto (“farrotto”). Make a farro salad with dried fruits, nuts, and some aged cheese, and use it as a bed for roast fish or chicken. Or, slowly cook farro in stock with mushrooms and kale, for your own spin on risotto.

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