20 Things You Didn't Know About Paleo

20 Things You Didn’t Know about Paleo

by Chris Kresser

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Paleo has received a lot of attention in the media over the past couple of years—some of it positive, and some of it negative—and there are a lot of misconceptions about what a Paleo approach to nutrition and lifestyle means for most people. With this in mind, here are 20 things I think everyone should know about Paleo.

1. Following a Paleo Diet/Lifestyle Today Is Not about Re-Enacting the Exact Diet/Lifestyle of Our Ancestors

Instead, it’s about embracing the ancestral health principles of their diet and lifestyle to a modern context: eating nutrient-dense, toxin-free, whole foods, moving our bodies regularly, sleeping at least 8 hours a night, managing our stress, and playing and having fun. But instead of saying all of this each time, it’s a lot easier to just say “Paleo!” Learn more …

2. Most HunterGatherers Did Not Eat a Low-Carb Diet

The average carbohydrate intake of hunter gatherers ranged from 30-40% of total calories. This is not a low-carb diet! It’s a moderate carb diet, and it’s important to realize that virtually all of the research that has shown benefits for the Paleo diet involved a Paleo diet with this carbohydrate range. Learn more …

3. A Very-Low-Carb (VLC) or Ketogenic Diet and Paleo Diet Are Not the Same Thing

Some of the earliest adopters and advocates of the Paleo approach were coming from low-carb diets like Atkins. As a result, the low-carb ideology got mixed together with Paleo, despite the fact that most true Paleolithic diets were not low-carb (as I described above). And while some people do thrive on a low-carb diet over the long-term, many people don’t and can even experience harm. Learn more …

4. It’s Best to Consider Paleo as a Template, Rather Than a “Diet”

A Paleo diet implies a particular approach with clearly defined parameters that all people should follow. There’s little room for individual variation or experimentation. A Paleo template implies a more flexible and individualized approach. A template contains a basic format or set of general guidelines that can then be customized based on the unique needs and experience of each person. Learn more …

5. There Is No Single Approach That Works for Everyone

Just as there was tremendous variation in what our ancestors ate, there is also tremendous variation in what works for each person. Some people clearly do better with no dairy products. Yet others seem to thrive on them. Some feel better with a low-carb approach, while others feel better eating more carbohydrate. Some seem to require a higher protein intake (up to 20-25% of calories), but others do well when they eat a smaller amount (10-15%). The key is to personalize your approach to meet your own unique needs. Learn more …

6. The Foods Emphasized on the Paleo Diet Are Loaded with the Nutrients Our Bodies Need

The most nutrient-dense foods you can eat are organ meats, herbs and spices, nuts and seeds, fish and seafood, beef, lamb, and wild game, eggs, vegetables, and fruits. And those are exactly the foods that a Paleo diet emphasizes!

7. Vibrant Health Is Your Birthright (Chronic Disease Is Not Inevitable)

Today, chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and autoimmune disease are so common we’ve accepted them as “normal”. But humans lived for thousands of generations virtually free from these modern, inflammatory diseases—most of which have only became common in the last 50–100 years ago.

8. You Don’t Have to Be 100 Percent Compliant to Benefit from a Paleo-Style Diet

There’s no doubt in my mind that a “Paleo-style diet” is what we’ve evolved to eat. But that doesn’t mean you have to strictly and rigidly follow Paleo diet guidelines 100% of the time in order to be healthy, regardless of what the Paleo zealots will tell you. With some exceptions, you’ll get most of the benefits by following it 80–90% of the time. Learn more …

9. Sugar Isnt “Toxic”

Sugar is neither a toxin nor a replacement for real food. Ultimately, small amounts of sugar can fit into a whole foods, nutrient-dense, Paleo-style diet, as long as you recognize it for what it truly is: a treat. Learn more …

10. You Might Not Instantly Feel Better When You Start Eating Paleo

The reason some people transitioning to a Paleo diet initially feel a dip in overall energy is not that the diet is unhealthy or that they need more simple carbs. It is that their body has been conditioned to rely on sugar for energy and needs time and support to adapt to burning fat for energy instead. Learn more …

11. The Paleo Approach Is Not Just about Weight Loss; It Can Also Prevent and Even Reverse Chronic Disease

Paleo is remarkably effective for weight loss, but it’s benefits extend far beyond that. As a clinician I’ve seen a Paleo-type diet and lifestyle lead to dramatic results in people with a wide range of conditions, from type 2 diabetes, to IBS and other digestive problems, to Hashimoto’s, MS and other autoimmune diseases, to infertility and hormone imbalance. Learn more …

12. Full-Fat Dairy Products Can Actually Be a Healthy Addition to a Paleo Diet—for Some People

Strict Paleo diets exclude all dairy products because our ancestors didn’t eat them. But is that reason enough to eliminate them from our diets? While it’s certainly true that some people are intolerant to the proteins or sugars in dairy products, it’s also true that modern research suggests that full-fat (but not non-fat or low-fat) dairy has several health benefits, including protecting against obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Learn more …

13. Red Meat Is One of the Healthiest, Most Nutrient-Dense Foods You Can Eat

Conventional wisdom blames red meat for everything from heart disease to cancer. These claims are ill-founded and misleading; red meat is a healthy and nutrient-dense choice. Learn more …

14. High Cholesterol Is Not the Primary Cause of Heart Disease

For decades we’ve been told that eating saturated fat and cholesterol raises the level of cholesterol in our blood, and high cholesterol in our blood contributes to heart disease. But recent research has shown that 1) there is little evidence to support the idea that cholesterol or saturated fat in the diet affect blood cholesterol levels for most people, and 2) that high cholesterol levels in the blood alone are not a strong risk factor for heart disease. Learn more …

15. Many of the Packaged “Paleo Friendly” Foods Are Full of Modern Additivesand Some of Them Are Not so Friendly to Your Health

Just because a packaged food is labeled “Paleo-friendly”, that doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Some of these foods contain modern additives that may cause digestive distress and other problems. Learn more …

16. Eating a Paleo-Style Diet Doesnt Have to Be Expensive

While it’s true that real, nutrient-dense foods can be more expensive than highly processed and refined junk food, a Paleo-type diet doesn’t have to break the bank. With a little planning and some smart shopping, there’s no reason that Paleo should cost more than your old way of eating. Learn more …

17. Legumes Are More Paleo Friendly Than You Might Think

Paleo dogma holds that we should strictly avoid legumes because 1) they aren’t part of our ancestral diet, and 2) they contain toxic anti-nutrients like lectin and phytic acid. But research suggests that some of our ancestors did, in fact, consume legumes, and that the lectins and phytic acid in legumes are not the “boogeymen” we’ve been led to believe they are. Learn more …

18. Paleo Is Not Just about Food

There’s no question that a nutrient-dense, real-food diet is the cornerstone of health. But it’s also true that lifestyle choices like physical activity, sleep, and stress management play an equally important role in determining our health. Learn more …

19. Paleo-Friendly Starches Are Not the Same as Industrial Starches

Some advocates of the Paleo diet have argued that we should avoid starches because they contribute to obesity and other diseases. While it’s true that highly processed and refined starches like wheat flour are harmful, there’s no evidence that the same is true for whole-food starches like potatoes, sweet potatoes, plantain, or taro root. Our ancestors consumed these foods for millions of years, and there are many examples of cultures around the world that consume a high-(real-food)-starch diet and maintain excellent health. Learn more …

20. Paleo Cooking Can Be Both Delicious and Easy

You don’t have to be a 5-star chef to make delicious Paleo meals. Armed with the recipes below, you’ll impress your friends and family with delicious meals without spending countless hours in the kitchen. Learn more …

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  1. I recently purchased The Paleo Cure, but cannot for the life of me find on this site the weekly plans and shopping lists promised in the book. Can someone point me in that direction?

  2. Thanks for this primer on paleo. Looking to up my standards a bit more on nutrition and I think paleo may be a good method. I’ve had success with intermittent fasting and think if I were more nutrient conscious where it comes to food I might get even more benefit. With I.F. I find it I am looking to get more nutrient rich food to offset the loss of calories. So ideally I get protein rich, and nutrient rich food. Kale salads, fish and protein smoothies and nutrition bars have been helping. I feel most people want the best they can get , but also require simplicity.

  3. I have been reading the Paleo Cure and want to start the 30 day reset. I struggle with some depression, ADD, irritable stomach and am struggling with my last 10 lbs of weight loss and think this is a great solution for me. I also have a lot of allergies and notice that a lot of your recipes call for coconut/coconut milk and nut/nut butters, which are a few (of the many) things I am allergic to. Coconut and nut allergies seem the most difficult thing to avoid in your recipes. What do you suggest as alternatives during the reset and onward?

    • For a reset, try looking for recipes labeled as “AIP” Paleo or AutoImmune Protocol Paleo. Some have coconut, but none have nuts and other common allergens.

  4. I think it is so peculiar that about 45 years ago Monsanto introduced Round up and then we started low fat too. Now with most all grain and many vegetables and even wine has glyphosate contaminant. Low and behold we ate gluten for hundreds of years ad now we can’t tolerate that . There is a serious connection with disease , obesity,
    alzheimers , autism, and our good friends from Monsanto.
    They just banned it in Europe but not in the good ol’USA!

  5. I don’t call my diet a diet as such. I try to eat the way my grandparents used to eat. This would be during the 19th century.
    A little bit of everything goes a long way. No pesticides if at all possible. ( I try to grow a lot of our veggies in the backyard and have for along long time)I can get raw milk and raw yoghurt. Meat is a problem and only available by half an animal once a year. So I go as organic as I can.
    I don’t have problems with milk, but all bread even home baked sourdough made from freshly milled wheat and rye is a major problem for me.

    We don’t eat much refined sugar. I bake a cake for a birthday and some cookies for Christmas. I never buy ready made. That stuff is always wayyyy too sweet in America.

  6. Sugar may not be toxic for you, but it is for me. The reason insulin resistant diabetes is going up in this country is because everything is loaded with sugar/HFCS. When they started putting HFCS in the food over 30 years ago, I started getting terrible cramps & diarrhea plus started gaining weight for no discernible reason because HFCS is hidden in everything from tomato sauce to flavored yogurt. (So now I can’t eat “paleo” because I can’t tolerate fruit at all anymore, low carb gives me panic attacks & I like sandwiches–most commercial no gluten bread is loaded with sugar & chemicals & hardly what our ancestors ate.) BTW most fat people do NOT have diabetes. Plenty of thin people do. It’s time to stop blaming the victim and admit the real cause–fructose overload and choline deficiency. Just because you and some other people are able to tolerate sugar, at least while you’re young is not an excuse to say it’s not toxic. Ability to tolerate various insults to the body varies from person to person.

    • Right on, Robin. Some of Kresser’s comments struck me as irresponsible – the sugar comment is one of them. Sugar has been clinically proven to be many times more addictive than cocaine. I don’t need an addict– or an enabler, for that matter–giving me nutritional or any other kind of advice. Sugar cane is a cereal grain, by the way. So if we’re avoiding grains, then less avoid grains. Secondly, it’s sloppy thinking to equate more recent hunter/ gatherer diets with ancestral diets. The vast majority of the human race for the vast majority of our existence lived under ice age conditions. And baby, THEY weren’t eating any 30-40% carbs! And I’d also like to see data on how many of the people who’ve experienced relief from Type2 diabetes, IBS, congestive heart failure and the other diseases of civilization have done so on Kresser’s version of a sugar/legume/and diary-friendly “paleo” solution (Now, I’m not even going there with resistant starch.) But – I will say this: if by casting such a broad net, Kresser brings more people into grain-free living, he certainly deserves some applause.

        • Yep, yep, yep. Those skimpy little carbs were nowhere near being a significant source of a dietary staple until the advent of the monocrop cultivation of grains, legumes and spuds. Remember your starry-eyed seventh grade teacher? “The plow…agriculture… Civilization!… freed us from a life of drudgery…” Give me, please ma’m, the drudgery of hunting, fishing and picking berries in the woods. The drudgery of living in a share economy, the drudgery of speaking a language with only a present tense and a dream-time tense, the drudgery of being so free i have to take responsibility for my own decisions. You can keep your wage-slavery, Ms Teacher, your diseases, your dumbing down of the average IQ from generation to generation, your pyramids of power, your rape of the soil to produce “foods” that the human race never had any business eating, your surplus and shortage…

  7. @Chris Kresser
    I heard about Paleo before but didn’t tried yet.
    Great video Kresser . Now i will use paleo diet.
    I will also suggest to my elders or my grandparents.

    Regards
    Priyanka

  8. You raised many good points in your article Chris.

    What i believe is that paleo should be seen as a ‘template’ and you can use a lot of the great habits that you learn from paleo instead of following a “strict paleo diet”.

    I believe in the ‘non-diet approach’ because restriction is not good for the long term, for me at least!

    I would love to know your thoughts on my latest blog article about quitting the diet:
    http://helpforfitness.com/a-single-simple-change-that-will-help-you-lose-weight/

  9. Thanks for posting this Chris, especially the part about legumes. It’s hard to understand why there is so much resistance to eating legumes in the paleo community.

  10. I think of Paleo as a for-life healthy diet. I think of low-carb as a weight loss diet. Those are two different things, although those of us who tend to battle weight gain may have to recur to low-carb pretty often throughout our lives.

  11. Hi chris kresser. I am just wondering about dark under eye circles. Is there a way I can improve them? I feel like I always look sick and tired.

  12. Hi Chris, could you send me the text of the videos for #6 & #7? thanks, Great 20 – clear, concise and complete. Keep it up, DS

  13. Finally, A great insight to what paleo -really- is, because I could never get my head around it.

    I’ve seen so many conflicting arguments, it’s almost like a religion people are following they don’t really understand.

    It always amazes me how convenience has made us weaker compared to the ‘hunter gatherer’ tribes you spoke off which are far superior to us. If they were to make a football team they would probably out perform us…

    Thanks for the great content.

  14. Question for Chris. If my ancestors came from Northern Europe, how did they get 30 to 40% of total calories from Carbohydrates during the winter months.

    • different regions were differently adapted, but also consider this, that were not talking about our ancestors from a thousand years ago, were talking about a much larger timescale where were the ancestors of your northern european ancestors from?

      • Were are oviously not talking about 1000 years ago as Paleo assumes that these diets were in place at least 10,000 (approx.) ago. There is evidence of Hominids in Europe for 500,000 years and in Georgia (formerly USSR) there was evidence that goes back 1.8 million years.

        • Exactly Phil, thats why I didnt understand the ancestry question, being such a precise geographical area for such a long time. Didnt know if it was genuine question because you know de facto you only have roots from one specific region for all that time, if it was a question to rock the boat or actually a genuine history question. Im guessing they either a) adapted to it, b) migrated, c) some old preservation technique, d) died……or got quite ill, e) an answer far more rational and intelligent than anything I can think off right now!

    • There is a bit of a flaw in the question. Even if we were talking about 1000 years ago, you have to understand that like all things in nature there is a natural shift. In modern society, we can maintain these beautiful percentages, however ideal isn’t always realistic. An example of this type of modern day environmental factor is severe poverty. There is also evidence that suggests that some people (descendant of Northern Europeans) are “healthier” when going through stages of fasting. All things in life go through stages of fluctuation, some more dramatic than others.

  15. Sorry, but need clarification to #9 (Sugar Isn’t Toxic). I bought Chris’s book, “Your Personal Paleo Code”. Love it/use it. But on page 79, in Chapter 4 (Three Foods to Avoid: Minimizing Toxicity in Your Diet), Chris lists refined sugar as one of three toxins to eliminate, thus: “Refined sugar (in a word, toxic)”. “Toxic” is in italics.

    Please clarify. Thanks.

    • Refined is the key word here. Sugar is in nearly all fruits we eat. Sugar cane is even in fact plant based and likely was available to our ancestors. The problem is when the foods are refined and processed. Chemical additives and nutrient stripping makes our refined sugar toxic. But raw unrefined sugar in small amounts actually has nutritional benefits. So while we shouldn’t pour a half cup over our paleo granola, feel free to have a little bit here and there 🙂

  16. Paleo for me is a way of life and it works for me. I think Paleo is a starting point to get away from fast foods and that way of life. We all need to find the right life stile choices for are body, mind and spirit that suits are individual personnel needs.
    The word Diet should be struck from the dictioney.

  17. Red meat is toxic. Its been scientifically proven to increase an inflamaation response in the body because humans lack a certain enzyme. Its proven carcinogen.
    Sigh, do your research instead of promoting this nonsense.

    • What makes you think the research wasn’t done? Why is your research better than his? I’ve done my own research and I agree with Chris.

    • Not all meats are created equal, corn fed, cramped in a box, disease ridden commercial grade meat is surely bad for you on the other hand grass fed meat, thats had no anti-biotics and no hormones is great for you, majority of scientific studies have only studied poor quality unnaturally raised meat. The good stuff on the other hand we have eaten for a looooooong time and we are built to thrive on. Its a small jigsaw piece put together to create awesomeness.

    • Think whole foods my friend. Would you trade your ground beef for a bunch of frozen McDonald’s patties? Probably not because science, research, and your gut (literally) tell you that your home cooked ground beef will be of higher quality and sit better. Well the same difference is noticed in grass fed, antibiotic and hormone free red meat compared to all the other stuff. If you have chemically enhanced foods, you will be subject to inflammation and disease resulting from those chemicals. Keep your food natural, whole, and clean!

    • If your position is so obvioius, provide a citation. Otherwise, if you read current researach, you will see red meat consumption does not lead to increased all cause mortality.

    • I recently had a conversation with Doctor who does not live the Paleo life. The response from the MD concerning Paleo is:
      A lot of scientific research has been done on this “diet”, probably more research than many other “diets” in practice today..
      BTW the book ” The Paleo Cure” is a great read. I have tried reading other books in this genre but lost interest.

    • I love red meat grass fed etc BUT my problem is iron ……and as I use a small amount of testoserone cream, my iron has been high and now I go donate blood once a week to keep it down,….. a real pain but necessary

    • Cite your resources, San.
      My BODY says that red meat is not inflammatory and that the highest authority about my own health that I know of.

  18. With Paleo, I have learned to pay close attention to the produce and meat sections of my grocery store, and to ignore almost everything else. All positives and no negatives, so far.

  19. I follow the paleo community but never identified myself as a member (my body does very well with the lifestyle at maybe 80% the diet with regular dairy and legume consumption), but I believe your list is what paleo is truly about! Extremist anything is not right.

  20. I have read 3 books and numerous other articles on cholesterol. Two points they make. 1. High cholesterol doesn’t cause heart disease. 2. Eating saturated fat doesn’t raise your cholesterol.
    I would like to believe point 1, however, at least in my case, and others in my family, point 2 is incorrect.

    I was on the McDougall diet for about 5 years. My total cholesterol was 160 and LDL was about 90. However, my HDL was about 32, which concerned my doctor. Exercise was prescribed for low HDL. (Is running 5 miles a day enough or do I need to go for 10?).
    Eventually I quit McDougall, because I was starting to gain weight, had high triglycerides and high fasting glucose.
    I went low carb and within 6 months my total cholesterol went to 230, LDL to 149, triglycerides dropped to 66. But HDL did go to 42. First time in years it had been over 40 and I did lose weight. (When I first started McDougall I lost weight and had more energy. But things started going the other way after about a year).
    The doctor started talking statins but agreed to send me to a nutrition class instead. The nutrition class can be described as McDougall lite. So here I am 15 years and 3 doctors later stressing about my annual blood test and going lower fat for the 6 weeks before my annual check-up just to get my total cholesterol below the magic 199 to avoid the statin talk. By the way I have been moderate carb paleo since 2007.

    • Eating saturated fat and cholesterol do not raise cholesterol in the blood **on average**. Some people, however—as you have discovered—are more sensitive to the effects of a high fat diet, and will see their cholesterol levels increase. Another question is what the significance of that is in the absence of other risk factors.

      • Hi Chris. Thanks for the reply. I have additional risk factors. High blood pressure since age 36, but controlled with medication. I am now 63. Also I struggle to keep fasting glucose below 99.

        I don’t like to be pressured by docs to go on statins if my cholesterol is slightly evevated.

        I should be in control of my health care decisions. But I find that isn’t always true. When I had to purchase my own health insurance, I was charged a 40% surcharge over the regular premium rate for having high blood pressure and high cholesterol. The ACA has eliminated that. But now I have a limited choice of doctors. There is only one doctor in my town that takes my insurance. I don’t want to be turned away for being non-compliant.

      • I’m starting to think I am one who is sensitive to fats. I have familial hypercholesterolemia, so my cholesterol levels have never been “normal”. But I started eating coconut products (unprocessed) and sometimes egg yolks in the last two years, and my total cholesterol and LDL levels are now far above what was normal for me.

        Any opinion of fish oil, CoQ10, red yeast rice, and niacin for this type of situation?

        Also, I can’t seem to find information anywhere, but I have always wondered if there could be a process where other substances could block the cholesterol receptors in the liver? I’m thinking something along the lines of what happens with halides interfering with thyroid uptake.

        Thanks.

    • You gotta remember that losing bodyfat is temporary as is the increase in LDL while in the process. Since LDL is a carrier protein and carries 85% of triglycerides from your own fat storage while losing fat. Where do you suppose it goes? Or how do you siuppose it was transported? Do not take statins, reach a healthy body composition, stabilize the weigh and then and only then check your numbers again. Also 200 total colesterol means nothing. Check out “cholesterol clarity” by Jimmy Moore or “the great cholesterol myth” by Bowden & Sinatra.

  21. Excellent article and great points. For me Paleo is a template and a lifestyle, which can be difficult to get across to people who are so stuck in the belief that it is a “dangerous diet”. Also the whole caveman comparison really gets to me, just going back 2 generations we can see a huge difference in our diets and food accessibility.
    Looking forward to sharing these pearls of wisdom with my friends!

  22. I like the common sense that Chris Kresser demonstrates. I decided that I would try for the diet of my great-great grandparents minus the gluten. I’ve made lots of improvement in my health by just going back a few generations.

  23. Love that Chris is not hating on sugar. Paleo is not about being a caveman. It is just about eating real food and there are many variations of paleo.
    I have tried so many diets and restrictions, and I have realized that just because something isn’t paleo or is high in FODMAPS or “unhealthy” according to specific standards does not necessarily mean it will be bad for me.

    It wasn’t until I started eating CARBS and SUGAR that my Lyme symptoms and overall health started to improve. Who knew.

  24. I was waiting to see “bacon isn’t paleo” and the part about paleo wasn’t low carbs. Glad I saw the latter!

    I wonder if CK has commented on the Hadza study where their diet was found to be 70% carbohydrate?

  25. This is a great article! I’m pleased to have something simple, easily-digestible, yet comprehensive that I can share with people in my community. There truly are SO many misconceptions around paleo, that even I avoided using the term for a long time to describe my very legitimate way of healing myself….. for fear of being misunderstood. You pretty much covered every area that I would try to address when describing my “template” to a skeptic who has limiting assumptions. Going to repost! Thanks!!

  26. So glad you have put this out there because paleo is getting a bad rap from so much misinformation. Love how you articulated it.

  27. Yes! Thanks for this – I’m bookmarking to send to people who question why I’m following a paleo diet or assume that all I eat is beef and bacon (wrong!). So much of what you’ve articulated here aligns with my perspective on paleo: use it as a template, eat lots of nutrient-dense food (tons of produce!), apply healthy lifestyle principles beyond just what you put in your mouth. Excellent!

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