Smorgasbord Health – Weight Reduction – Meet Helena the first of my clan.

In the first post of this repeated series on weight reduction, I explained that I did not believe in the “Quick Fix” approach to weight loss or magic pills for life to prevent diseases that are lifestyle related. Weight loss has become the obsession of most women today in the western world. Magazines, celebrities and experts are constantly bombarding us with the latest, guaranteed way to lose our extra weight, and there is a multi-billion pound/dollar business to service our obsession.

N.B. There have been some comments in the past about the use of the term ‘loss’ when referring to weight and that it carries negative connotations.  To be honest I don’t feel negative about the term as the very act of losing weight that is causing health problems is such a positive experience.  However, I am using the term reduction more frequently as I would also like to combat the incessant negativity about FAT... like a lot of good things you can have too much of it and you need a certain amount of body fat to be healthy.

For me the key to losing weight is not about following the latest diet, or taking the latest miracle supplement but coming to an understanding with, and respecting our body. Never before in history has so much information been available about how our body works and the diseases that can cripple it. Perhaps there is too much and we are overwhelmed? Advice is torrential and confusing. One minute you should eat meat and the next only carbohydrate. Exercise for 30 minutes a day or perhaps just 2 minutes at a run would do the trick?

Before we move further into the series and talk about strategies that you as an individual can use to tailor make a diet that suits you, I would like to dial things back a notch.

Actually quite big notch – I would like you to meet my grandmother 500 times removed – called Helena. A woman who has passed on her powerful mitochondrial DNA to me, so powerful that despite all the pairings of genes throughout the last 20,000 years, I still carry her within me.

When I began my journey 22 years ago to repair my body and my health, I realised that I knew very little about my own family history from a health perspective and even less about the history of humans in general.

My mother had little information or even family to share with us. Her father was killed in the last week of the First World War at age 31, when she was just over a year old and an only child. My grandfather was Irish and Catholic and my grandmother English and protestant. Although his close family, living in England offered to educate my mother, it was provisional on her being brought up Catholic. My grandmother refused and contact was lost with my grandfather’s side of the family and consequently we also lost all their history.

In the late 1990s  I embarked on two historical journeys. One into the recent past and one way back into the late Stone Age. I managed to research back as far as the late 1400’s on both my mother’s English family and my father’s roots in the North East. No surprises but some emotional discoveries that both saddened and inspired me.

The Clan of the Cave Bear

One of my inspirations for our next step on this journey of discovery were the books of Jean M. Auel – beginning with the Clan of the Cave Bear – set around 28,000 years ago when the Neanderthal branch of human kind was disappearing. The story follows the life of Ayla and the series of six books up to her most recent – The Land of the Painted Caves – is the most fascinating read of my life. I wanted to find out if there was an Ayla in my past.

My husband and I decided to take advantage of the recently emerged DNA ancestry projects and in 2001 we both had our mitochondrial DNA tested. If you want an insight into the process before having your own DNA tested then I suggest you read Dr. Bryan Sykes book The Seven Daughters of Eve.


When submitted, an individual’s DNA is tested against seven sets of bones. Each of the identified set of bones found in various regions in Europe was given a name. My results showed that my DNA came from Helena whose bones dated back around 20,000 years ago. My husband’s to a slightly later woman, Velda, 17,000 years ago.

So I now had two points at each end of my ancestry, Helena and my mother – and it was a fascinating process, not just to establish the likely route that my ancestors took to arrive in southern England, but to also establish some dietary and health links along the way.

Helena’s, and therefore my own DNA, is according to Dr. Sykes and his team, the largest and most successful of the seven native clans with 41% of Europeans belonging to one of its many branches. She was born somewhere in the valleys of the Dordogne in South Central France but the clan is widespread throughout all parts of Europe but reaches its highest frequency among the Basque people of Northern Spain and Southern France. (Perhaps explains my love of my former Spanish home in the mountains above Madrid combined with sunshine, olive oil, seafood etc.)

The ice-age was at its severest and stretched down as far as Bordeaux, and in Britain down as far as the midlands (Britain was still joined to continental Europe by dry land).   Helena’s diet would have consisted of meat, seafood from the shoreline such as oysters and possibly seaweeds, various plants and fruits, some tubers and mushrooms, seeds and grains. Recent research indicates that we may well have begun eating raw grains very early on when we left the forests for the grasslands, and that even 30,000 years ago we may have been processing existing grains for cooking. Rather negates the recent trend to take all grains out of our diet!

According to Helena’s bones, she was about 42 when she died and would have lived to see her grandchildren. That was a good age for the time. Life was very hard – apart from the cold and harsh living conditions, food scarcity, childhood was perilous and it was an achievement to reach 15. If you did, then provided you survived giving birth, avoided accidents and found enough to eat and store for winter months, you could look forward to perhaps another 20 years to your mid-30’s. In a time where survival of the fittest was the rule – Helena survived into her 40’s and produced daughters who were strong and fertile who resulted in not just myself, but my two sisters, and three granddaughters to carry on her legacy.

What is becoming evident is that because our ancestors were opportunistic eaters they had a much more varied diet than we do today, consuming over 100 different varieties of plant and protein. Today it is estimated that we restrict ourselves to around 25 different varieties. Take a look at your shopping basket and ask yourself when was the last time you tried something new?  This is not good for our general health as our bodies are designed to consume a broad spectrum of nutrients extracted from a wide variety of foods.

It appears that Helena’s descendants and their families wended their way through France once the ice had receded. They must have been strong both in mind and body to withstand the journey, its dangers and the daily grind of finding sufficient food to feed themselves and their families. Along the way some would have settled in with new groups that they encountered or simply as large family units. Eventually, some would have reached the fertile seashores of the South of England and the Isle of Wight, which may have been still attached to the mainland, and over the following centuries they would have created my immediate family.

Helena was 42 when she died 20,000 years ago and the interesting link is that according to the records I could find, nearly all my female relations from the recent past died at around the same age! In or after childbirth or worn out from the process of having a child a year, every year. Many children appeared to have died in the first year or two of their lives which must have been emotionally traumatic too. The first person in several generations to live a long life was my mother who died at nearly 95.

In fact it was not until the early 1900’s that this life expectancy would change. My grandmother and my mother in particular were the first of the women in my family to benefit from not just a more varied diet but a safer birth process, better public health and sanitation, reduction in childhood diseases, new medical advances, control and treatment of smallpox and measles and TB. Luckily neither was affected by the great Spanish Flu epidemic that killed millions in the two years after the First World War. Additionally they lived in the country with a plentiful diet of natural unprocessed foods full of variety and very little in the way of processed foods.

Sadly my grandmother had a weak chest and died from asthma at age 55 in 1945 and we never got to know her. The medical advances and drugs that might have saved her life came too late.

But I know now where I come from, who I am and that I have the strength derived from generations of strong women.   The journey gave me a greater knowledge of who I am and a greater understanding of my body. A body that is the outcome of thousands of years of survival. It needs to be treated with far greater respect than I gave it for the first 40 odd years of my life and I believe everyone needs to feel the same way about their own body and health.

So, before you embark on a starvation diet, or consume pills that promise you will lose weight, I would ask you think first about the impact of that action will have on your body. 

Links you might find interesting.

©Sally Cronin Just Food for Health 1998 – 2018

Please feel free to ask any questions in the comment section and if you would like a private word then please email me

24 thoughts on “Smorgasbord Health – Weight Reduction – Meet Helena the first of my clan.

  1. Pingback: Smorgasbord Health 2017 – Weight Reduction – Meet Helena the first of my clan. | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

  2. Wow, this is incredibly fascinating! I know I have a lot of Scotch-Irish/Celtic on both sides of my family, with long-lived family on either side. We are also tall and slim, I’m 5’8″ but on the curvy side, with lot’s of muscle. I shall have to delve into this DNA study further. I read all of Auel’s books and loved them all. I’d like to think there is a little Ayla inside me 🙂 Speaking of weight management, I started Weight Watchers a year ago and managed to lose 30 pounds during that time. I’m at a weight that I haven’t seen since my 30s and it feels darn good to wear size 10 jeans now rather than size 14s! Looking forward to your series, Sally! Oh yes, and I LOVE my grains!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oxford Ancestors works with poeple all around the world and they have introduced the Y Chromosome test for the male side now that was not there when we first did ours.. I bought my husband that for his upcoming birthday.. I hope to do the new female specific one again later in the year as that has also improved and expanded in the last 20 years. Good to hear you love your grains!! xxx

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You have a fascinating history, Sally, although quite shocking that so many of your ancestors died so young!
    I was surprised to learn that we have less of a varied diet than those that lived many years ago, I would have thought that in this modern age, there would be more choice of different types of foods! you live and learn! 🙂


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