Are Legumes Paleo and Why it Might Not Matter | Chris Kresser

Are Legumes “Paleo”? And Does It Really Matter?

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why are legumes not paleo, are legumes bad for you
There are benefits to consuming legumes, especially when prepared correctly. olgakr/istock/thinkstock

I went on the Dr. Oz show in 2014 to discuss my book, Your Personal Paleo Code (published in paperback as The Paleo Cure in December 2014). (If you missed it, you can watch the clips here.)

Dr. Oz did a segment on Paleo in 2013 with Nell Stephenson and Dr. Loren Cordain, and it got great ratings. However, the feedback the show received from their viewers was that “The Paleo Diet” as presented by Nell and Dr. Cordain was too restrictive. The producers invited me on because I consider Paleo to be more of a template than a rigid prescription, and my approach doesn’t prohibit foods that aren’t typically considered to be “Paleo”—such as full-fat dairy, white potatoes, dark chocolate, and legumes.

Some people—particularly those not previously familiar with my work—were surprised to hear me tell Dr. Oz that I think eating a few servings of legumes a week is fine as long you tolerate them well. This directly contradicts Paleo dogma on legumes, which holds that we should strictly avoid them because:

  1. They aren’t part of our ancestral diet, and
  2. They contain toxic anti-nutrients like lectin and phytic acid.

But are these arguments supported by the evidence? Let’s find out.

Legumes: More #Paleo than you might think!

Are Legumes Paleo?

Back in November of 2013, Dr. Stephan Guyenet posted an article outlining the evolutionary history of legume consumption. He demonstrates that, contrary to popular belief, legumes were part of our ancestral diet.

Recent analysis of Neanderthal tooth plaque revealed that they consumed wild varieties of peas and fava beans. (1) Since early humans are thought to have eaten a more diverse diet than Neanderthals, it is safe to assume that our human ancestors also ate legumes.

Dr. Guyenet also points to several contemporary hunter-gatherer groups that consumed significant amounts of legumes, including the !Kung San of the Kalahari desert (who relied heavily on a legume called the tsin bean) and the Australian Aborigines (who extensively harvested the seeds and gum of Acacia trees, another legume).

This research suggests that legumes are, in fact, “Paleo.” But even if Paleolithic people didn’t eat legumes, is that reason enough to avoid them? If it is, then shouldn’t we also strictly avoid dark chocolate, coffee, green tea, and alcohol? What about the glut of breads, muffins, packaged snacks, desserts, and even candy (no, I’m not kidding) claiming to be “Paleo” that have recently become so popular? It should be obvious that our ancestors were not baking with nut flour, chowing down on truffles or drinking “Paleo” cocktails. Yet even the most die-hard, self-identified Paleo purists typically consume at least some of these foods and beverages, and don’t seem to see a contradiction in that. Why should legumes be any different?

As I’ve argued before, Paleo is best viewed as a template or a starting place,—not an inflexible, unchanging system based on (sometimes mistaken) beliefs about what our ancestors ate. Mark Sisson said something very similar in a blog post:

The anthropological record is a framework for further examination of nutritional science; it does not prescribe a diet.

A more important question to ask than whether a food is “Paleo” is how it impacts human health. Fortunately, in the case of legumes, we have a lot of modern research that can help us to answer that question.

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Should We Avoid Legumes Because of the Anti-Nutrients They Contain?

Paleo dogma on legumes holds that we should avoid them because they contain toxic anti-nutrients called lectins and phytic acid (aka phytate). Let’s take a look at each of these compounds in legumes and see if this argument holds up.

Lectins

Lectins are a type of protein that can bind to cell membranes. Studies have shown that lectins can impair growth, damage the lining of the small intestine, destroy skeletal muscle, and interfere with the function of the pancreas. Sounds serious, right?

Not so fast. There are several reasons that these results cannot be extrapolated to humans. First, the animals consumed very large amounts of lectins—much larger than a human would get from a varied diet which includes legumes. Second, the lectins were from raw legumes. Why is this significant? Because humans eat primarily cooked legumes, and cooking neutralizes the lectins found in most legumes.

In fact, cooking legumes for as little as 15 minutes or pressure-cooking them for 7.5 minutes almost completely inactivates the lectins they contain, leaving no residual lectin activity in properly cooked legumes. (2)

What’s more, other components in food (e.g. simple sugars) can bind to lectins and diminish their toxic effect. So even if there is a small amount of lectin left after cooking, it’s unlikely that it will have a detrimental effect given the presence of simple carbohydrates in legumes that can bind to the proteins. (3)

Finally, if lectins really are a problem then we’ll have to cut out a lot more than legumes from our diet in order to avoid them. It turns out that lectins are present in at least 53 fruits, vegetables, spices and other commonly eaten plants, including carrots, zucchini, melon, grapes, cherries, raspberries, blackberries, garlic and mushrooms—to name a few. (4)

This is not an invitation to stop eating these foods! It’s simply a reminder that almost every plant we eat contains small amounts of toxins, since this is how plants defend themselves. In the majority of cases these low levels of toxins don’t harm us, and in fact, they may even provide health benefits. For example, many of the compounds we call “antioxidants”—like polyphenols found in blueberries, dark chocolate, etc.—are actually “pro-oxidants” that cause mild oxidative stress and thus upregulate our body’s natural defense systems. (5)

To my knowledge there’s only one study demonstrating humans being harmed by consuming legumes. This is the study often used by Paleo advocates to “prove” that legumes are dangerous. However, what is often neglected is that this study described a case of food poisoning that occurred in hospital patients who ate legumes that hadn’t been cooked properly. (6) Suggesting that we shouldn’t eat cooked legumes because raw legumes cause disease is like saying that we shouldn’t eat cooked chicken because we can get Salmonella from eating raw chicken.

The one lectin we may want to exercise caution with is peanut lectin, since both raw peanuts and peanut oil have relatively high lectin content. Some data in animals suggest that peanut lectin may contribute to atherosclerosis by stimulating the growth of smooth muscle and pulmonary arterial cells. (7) However, other research (including clinical trials) in both animals and humans have found that peanuts and even peanut oil reduce cardiovascular risk factors and thus may protect against heart disease. (8, 9) In light of this conflicting data, and because of other risks associated with peanut consumption such as exposure to aflatoxin, I recommend either minimizing your intake of peanuts or avoiding them entirely.

Phytic Acid (aka Phytate)

Phytic acid is the storage form of phosphorus found in many plants, especially in the bran or hull of grains and in nuts and seeds. Although herbivores like cows and sheep can digest phytic acid, humans can’t. This is bad news because phytic acid binds to minerals (especially iron and zinc) in food and prevents us from absorbing them. (It’s important to note that phytic acid does not leach minerals that are already stored in the body; it only inhibits the absorption of minerals from food in which phytic acid is present.)

Phytic acid interferes with enzymes we need to digest our food, including pepsin, which is needed for the breakdown of proteins in the stomach, and amylase, which is required for the breakdown of starch. Phytic acid also inhibits the enzyme trypsin, which is needed for protein digestion in the small intestine.

Sounds pretty bad, right? While it is true that diets high in phytic acid contribute to mineral deficiencies, it’s also true that humans can tolerate moderate amounts of it without harm (perhaps because our gut bacteria produce enzymes that break down phytate and extract the nutrients the body needs). In fact, there’s even evidence that phytic acid may have some beneficial effects. It prevents the formation of free radicals (making it an antioxidant), prevents the accumulation of heavy metals in the body, and plays a role in cellular communication.

The problem with telling people to avoid legumes because they contain phytic acid is that many other foods in the diet—including “Paleo-friendly” foods—contain substantially higher amounts of phytic acid than legumes. For example, a serving of trail mix, that beloved Paleo favorite, is likely to be much higher in phytic acid than a serving of lentils. Cacao beans (chocolate) have about the same amount of phytic acid as most beans. And spinach and swiss chard are higher in phytic acid than almost any legume, nut or seed!

Phytic acid in common foods (10, 11, 12)

Food                              Phytic acid (mg/100 grams)·
Lentils270–1,500
Legumes (average)500–2,900
Almonds350–9,420
Walnuts200–6,700
Pecans180–4,520
Sesame seeds140–5,360
Dark chocolate1,680–1,790
Swiss chard3,530
Spinach3,670

I know some of you will be tempted to stop eating spinach and Swiss chard after seeing this chart. That’s not the point! Remember, the dose makes the poison. High levels of phytic acid are harmful, but moderate amounts within the context of a diet that is nutrient-dense overall are not. Moreover, phytic acid only binds to certain minerals and prevents their absorption. There are many other nutrients in spinach, Swiss chard, and all other foods containing phytic acid that will still be absorbed when you eat them.

It’s also important to note that phytic acid can often be at least partly broken down by certain food processing methods, such as soaking and roasting. I wrote an article a while back called “Another Reason Not To Go Nuts on Nuts” suggesting that you soak and then dehydrate or roast nuts before eating them for exactly this reason. In the case of legumes, studies have shown that soaking at room temperature for 18 hours or at 140 F for 3 hours eliminates between 30–70 percent of phytic acid—depending on the legume. (13)

The takeaway is this: phytic acid in legumes is not a cause for concern as long as you’re eating them in moderation and they aren’t displacing more nutrient-dense foods from your diet. This is especially true if you are soaking legumes prior to consuming them.

Are There Any Reasons We Might Want to Limit Legumes in Our Diet?

If you’ve read this far, you might think I’m a big advocate of legumes. That’s not the case. While they do contain beneficial nutrients and fiber (which feeds the gut flora), they are not as nutrient-dense as other Paleo foods—like organ meats, meats, fish, shellfish, eggs and vegetables—and, as I mentioned above, some of the nutrients they contain are not bioavailable due to phytic acid. (14) Because maximizing nutrient-density is one of the most important things we can do to improve our health, I think it makes sense to limit consumption of legumes to a few times a week, and to prepare them properly (i.e. soak for 18 hours and cook thoroughly) when you do eat them.

Another reason some people may need to avoid legumes is that they contain FODMAPs, which are carbohydrates that are poorly absorbed by some people and can cause gas, bloating, and other digestive symptoms.

You probably remember this song from when you were a kid:

Beans, beans, the magical fruit, the more you eat, the more you toot …

FODMAPs are probably the main reason beans have this effect on some people. But not everyone is sensitive to FODMAPs, so this isn’t a reason to avoid legumes across the board. That’s like saying that everyone should avoid shellfish because some people are allergic to them.

Final Thoughts and a Caution about Paleo Dogma

Legumes are not necessary for human health. They contain no nutrients that we can’t get from other foods—often with less trouble (i.e. no need to go through extensive preparation methods to make the nutrients more bioavailable).

That said, if you enjoy them, tolerate them well, and are willing to prepare them properly, there is no credible evidence showing that they will harm you when eaten in moderation in the context of a nutrient-dense diet—regardless of whether they are “Paleo”. The same can be said for many other “grey area” foods that are popular in the Paleo community, such as dark chocolate, alcohol, nut flour, and full-fat dairy (like butter and ghee).

I’ve been criticized on social media by some defenders of “The Paleo Diet” for my comments about legumes on the Dr. Oz segment. They insist that legumes are “not Paleo” and that they cause harm. When I ask them for proof of these claims, they almost exclusively point to Dr. Loren Cordain’s work. Dr. Cordain wrote the first mass market book on Paleo nutrition and has published many scientific papers on the subject, most of which I have read. I have great respect for his contribution.

But the idea that a single authority is uniquely capable of interpreting the research on a topic as diverse as Paleolithic nutrition, and that their opinion is infallible and unassailable, is dogma—not science. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines dogma as “a belief or set of beliefs that is accepted by the members of a group without being questioned or doubted.” Google dictionary defines it as “a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.”

I feel strongly that we need to guard against this, both for our own benefit and if we want Paleo to be taken seriously in the scientific community and mainstream medical establishment. We should always be ready to question even our most cherished beliefs, and prepared to change our minds in the face of new evidence. And it’s imperative that we apply the same standards of critical thinking to Paleo arguments that we do to conventional arguments.

I’m by no means perfect in this regard. I’ve had blinders on in the past about certain issues (my stance on fructose and naturally occurring omega-6 fats in foods like avocados come to mind), I’m sure I have blind spots now, and I won’t be immune to them in the future. Unfortunately, the tendency to succumb to groupthink seems to be a hardwired part of human nature. As clinicians, researchers, and scientists, all we can do is strive to be more rigorous and consistent in our thinking, and support each other in that process.

Evolution didn’t stop in the Paleolithic. While it’s certainly true that foods our ancestors ate are most likely to be well tolerated today, our bodies have continued to evolve and change. In fact, up to 10 percent of our genome shows evidence of recent selection. Many of us are able to tolerate foods like dairy, grains, and yes, legumes, even though our hunter–gatherer ancestors didn’t typically include those in their diets. That’s why I’m a proponent of a Paleo template, instead of a strict diet.

That said, the right dietary approach for any individual person depends on several factors, like their:

  • Calorie needs
  • Age, gender, height, and weight
  • Current activity levels
  • Existing health issues
  • Health goals

Functional and integrative medicine practitioners are well suited to help someone who is searching for the healthiest diet for their needs, while health coaches are experts at supporting them as they reach for their health goals. Working together with practitioners as part of a collaborative care team, health coaches empower their clients to change their lifestyles. Health coaches with knowledge of the principles of Functional Health and ancestral nutrition can offer deeper support to their clients.

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257 Comments

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  1. Amen! The anti-legume crowd never did convince me. Why are people so anxious to always be jumping on the next bandwagon? It is like a replacement for religion?

    I don’t think gluten avoidance is going to stand up to much scrutiny either. In another year or two we’ll be reading about how gluten is ok – if you tolerate it – which most people do. It’s not evil folks! If you are having trouble digesting organic wheat then you need to see to your gut health, i.e. take your probiotics.

    • A gastroenterologist I was talking to the other day says his specialty literature mentions that some people are fructans intolerant (a form of sugar in wheat and other foods) and so when they eschew wheat they improve. So it’s actually a FODMAP issue for these people rather than non-coeliac gluten intolerance.

  2. Chris, what you present here is essentially a strawman argument. All major proponents of Paleo, including Loren Cordain, propose an 85/15 rule that allows for the occassional consumption of things like legumes. They would argue, just like you, that the occassional consumption of low amounts of legumes is fine.

    It seems wildly irresponsible for someone with your prestige to use it to both:

    1. Frame this arguement in an extremely confusing way that will leave a large portion of your readers to walk away from this article with the idea that “legumes are okay” instead of the idea of what is actually healthy for them, and what they can occassionally eat for pleasure.
    2. To launch a whole attack on major paleo thinkers and authors who are actually under attack from all sides by BS fad-diet psuedo-science.

    None of us are the meat-eater version of vegans. This is not a movement of dogma. And creating dogmatist-strawman characatures of Loren Cordain is damaging to all of us.

    • Maybe you’ve just learned about this in debate class Eric, so we’ll give you some leeway, but I think the strawman argument is much better illustrated by your own comment.

    • “Dr. Cordain wrote the first mass market book on Paleo nutrition and has published many scientific papers on the subject, most of which I have read. I have great respect for his contribution.” – Chris Kresser

      Sounds pretty far from an ad hominem attack on Dr. Cordain. I think Chris is trying to address the folks who have argued that legumes aren’t “Paleo (TM)” because “Dr. Cordain says they’re not.”

      I value Chris’s above contribution as a way to help make people aware that being free to question everything and anything is one of the virtues of science, and when we stop questioning what we’re told, we’ve moved from science to dogma. This should apply to nutrition science as well.

      As a nutritionist, I personally worry that people will not be confused by Chris’s well-researched articles, but rather the sound-byte Paleo(TM) dogma that comes from outspoken individuals whose personal finances depend on people believing that strict Paleo is the only way to eat. And yes, those people exist. (Frankly, Dr. Cordain doesn’t even fall under that category.)

      You may not see it, but I’ve had clients who have expressed a great deal of confusion about how they should and shouldn’t eat based on arbitrary “Paleo(TM)” rules, and I think it’s crucial that clinical experts like Chris address these issues in a public forum, so that people can make the best decisions for their health and mental wellbeing.

      • You’re mistaken. Read Cordain’s Paleo blog. He was the one who FIRST attacked Kresser with extremely weasel words. Chris simply responded to this. And he responded like a gentleman.

        • Ehh, I looked at the blog and while I think Cordain shouldn’t use lack of scientific publication as evidence for lack of expertise (by that logic, none of us should listen to a thing our doctors tell us), I wouldn’t necessarily call them “weasel words”.

          I personally value clinical experience as high, if not higher than publication count. After all, we’re working with humans here, not lab rats, in vitro cultures, or archaeological fossils.

    • Dear Eric R.,

      Please refer to Cordain (The Paleo Diet, revised edition, 2011), page 23–Ground Rules for the Paleo Diet, states (and I quote): “no legumes”.

      I do not think that Chris Kresser’s comments that legumes are indeed paleo are attacking a strawman when Cordain very clearly (and without ambiguity) states legumes are not be consumed in his six rules for the paleo diet (chapter 2). These rules (at least not all of them) are not, in fact, based on the actual paleo diet (and, therefore, shouldn’t influence the modern version of it). This comment is not meant in a rude or sarcastic tone. I simply don’t believe that Chris is making a strawman error. Best wishes.

    • Eric R,

      1. Chris has not done anything confusing, its all very clear to me. As he said on the Robb Wolf show, he is neutral on legumes. Legumes are not the highest nutrient dense food, but they are also not harmful in moderation.

      Sometimes I get tired of eating tubers all the time, it makes me happy that sometimes I can take a break from tubers and have some lentils.

      2. There was no attack on anyone. Adults should be able to have respectful disagreements, without anyone taking it personally.

  3. People typically like to define a diet by noting what they can’t eat (based on the rules of the diet). Therefore, they describe their diet to their friends in terms of “I can’t eat this or that”. Recognizing great diversity in a diet makes it harder to define the diet in a few sound bites, which then creates tension for some people. The paleo diet was an incredibly diverse diet (as are/were the diets of their direct descendants–indigenous people). The paleo diet, in many ways, is too diverse to define on what you have to exclude (aside from obvious items, like highly processed foodstuffs).

    This is especially true considering one can examine different regions and different time periods within the paleolithic. For example, if you want to go back 2.5 millions years, you would be eating a more carbohydrate- and plant-rich diet as Homo habilis was not the effective predator that later hominids were (though these people did consume animals). If you look at more recent times (say 50,000 years ago), hominids were eating grain and legumes (along with all kinds of other foods, including lots of animals). The idea for me is then to examine what types of animal foods (or grains and legumes) they consumed, and find those forms (or as close a mimic as possible–ignoring highly derived cultivated plants that have documented losses in nutrition, phytochemistry, and fiber).

    There is ample documentation of indigenous people around the world consuming legumes and experiencing health (i.e., none of the chronic health ailments we face today). That being the case, a blanket statement like “no one should ever eat legumes” is in direct contradiction with real world observations. Instead, we need to ask questions like “what kind of legumes did they eat?”, “how did they prepare them?”, “how much did they consume?”, and “what other foods were combined with legumes in the diet?”. It may seem like more work, but it opens up the diet to greater diversity (and stops spreading dogma). Best wishes everyone.

  4. Thank you for this post. I am indian and legumes are a big part of our diet. I get so many questions on my blog specifically related to legume consumption and I haven’t been able to just write it off as legumes being terrible for you.
    In Indian cooking legumes are soaked overnight very often and are properly prepared. Also a lot of people who are interested in eating paleo are vegetarian and often ask me that if they can’t eat ‘daal’ which is their only form of protein (apart from fermented dairy) what can they eat.
    While I am aware that this is not the ideal paleo plan, there are a lot of vegetarians out there who want to take a step or two in the right direction and without properly prepared legumes, it’s almost impossible for them to go anywhere close.
    I agree with what you say about being on guard against the herd mentality.

  5. Thank you! I have a short question (hope it has a short answer…):

    How about sprouts from lentils or peas? They are not paleo if strict, but what about lentil sprouts and anti nutrients?

    • No, I would soak and cook your own. I know someone who can eat homecooked beans all day without a problem, but the storebought canned ones cause the back of her hands to crack and bleed within 20 minutes of consumption. This leads me to believe that they are not soaking the beans properly. Probably just pressure cooking them from the dried state. Be careful.

      • Absoltely! Kudos to Eden for their wonderful beans and no BPA in their cans! I cannot imagine my life without their beans. I used to be sensitive to all beans, even the ones cooked and soaked at home. But I can totally enjoy Eden beans. I am able to make a variety of dishes for my family and they allow me to serve different kinds of beans for small or large servings when I need to and not be stuck with the same pot of of beans for a week! Not to mention that they save me time and make my life a little easier!

    • Canned legumes aren’t soaked before they’re cooked. Cooking destroys enzymes such as phytase. So even though they are soaking in the can, there are no enzymes to neutralize the anti-nutrients. Soaking must be done before cooking.

    • There’s a lot of advice out there to avoid canned beans but I haven’t seen a smoking gun yet. In fact the research I was able to find seems to show that canned beans are probably ok — and possibly even better than any home method other than soaking and pressure cooking.

      This study found that lectins in canned beans are mitigated during the pressure-cooking process. Also less than 5% trypsin inhibitor remained. (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2621.1990.tb06789.x/abstract)

      What about phytic acid? According to one study, simmering beans without a pre-soak has the smallest impact on phytic acid, with 64-92% still present after cooking. Soaking first shows a further reduction, with 30-48% remaining. But the best results came from canning/pressure-cooking, with only 8.5-32.4% remaining. (http://books.google.com/books?id=zcBlhoDyOOMC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false).

      Bottom line, soaking and pressure cooking your own beans is probably the best option, but canned beans seem ok, too, at least in terms of phytic acid and lectin content.

  6. Chris, I really appreciate your interpretation of the evidence and your balanced take on this. It is quite helpful to me as I try to determine my own best Paleo template and has made me decide to buy your book!

  7. You’ve responded admirably and make a good case for not applying a double standard – say for e.g. – when it comes to legumes & nuts.

    A comment:
    (This applies to other respected figures in the health & nutrition circles) I think people aren’t explicit enough about what angle they’re taking on a particular subject- are they talking about:

    -what APPEARS to be *optimal* (or what SHOULD be) from the purely scientific perspective
    or
    -what someone COULD probably ‘get away with’ (whilst remaining at a determined level of health &/or performance)

    People listening to the argument don’t necessarily even get that such a distinction underlies all questions of health & that not clarifying the approach, explicitly, leaves people talking past each other.

    This may be an uncomfortable distinction to make because it constrains ones recommendations & makes it harder to harp on the “everyone is a special snow-flake” ‘cop-out’. [Of course everyone is different – question is why & what to do about it]

    “I don’t know” is unsatisfying but ultimately a true scientists best friend.

  8. Chris,

    Thank you for taking a scientific, evidence-based approach, instead of a dogmatic one! I know sticking your neck out there isn’t fun, but there are lots of us that appreciate the evidence based research!

      • Hi- curious about the difference between canned beans and dry ones that are soaked – can you elaborate or point me to an article discussing the processes and how it affects the legumes? Just wondering – never thought about this before!. I don’t eat legumes too often anymore, but I still like them and they don’t give me a huge amount of trouble.

    • Haha, me too! I know it’s coming. We need to stop setting ourselves apart with our food choices. I think it’s a form of elitism.

  9. Great article Chris, paleo circles have become just as dogmatic as vegans in the last few years, its tiresome. To be honest, after years of researching and listening to dozens and dozens of different specialists opinions in different fields on paleo and health, i really think that Loren Cordain should just be ignored overall. He never seems to have anything positive to add to the discussion, just constantly pushing his narrow minded views and bashing anyone who disagrees with him regardless of the fact that theres tons of evidence showing people can live well on foods he deems “evil”. Keep up the good work Chris and stay open minded as a buffer for the people against all the stupidity in health these days!

  10. After reading both your book and this article, it occurs to me that the Paleo diet is something of a giant detox that alerts the eater to what they can and cannot tolerate, and how much of what foodstuff they can tolerate without gaining weight or incurring other unwanted side-effects.

    Judging by the galactic brouhaha about resistant starches, and now there’s sure to be one about beans and legumes, I’m even more convinced of the detox mindset. Like Atkins, it seems the Paleo diet is also one you don’t stick with for very long–just long enough to get your body’s messages straight about the food you eat. Once you become fluent in that language, then you venture forth and “eat the forbidden fruit” as it were. It’s a STARTING POINT, but for some, it’s the start and end point (according to our bodies). The “Paleo” part is just marketing–something to get our attention, but it’s really a well-disguised elimination diet.

    Fortunately, we’re educated as to WHY we should limit or avoid certain foods along the way, and not just left with a book author’s opinion of foods as justification for the diet.

    And the education portion has just started, even though the Paleo concept is in the twilight years…some will seem justified in calling Paleo a fad diet, but when is education ever a fad?

    • In my book, I refer to strict Paleo as essentially an elimination diet, so I’d agree to some extent. But as I mentioned in another comment above, I do think Paleo is still a useful construct.

  11. Hi Chris, In your book page 199 you say (condensed): “Extensive preparation is required to make legumes more digestible and improve their nutrient bioavailability. If you are healthy and have a strong digestive system, and are willing to take the necessary steps to prepare legumes, then you may introduce them in modest amounts (that’s about 3 to 5 servings per week) during step 2 (= reintroduction phase)”. Perhaps you should have emphasized what is stated in your book during your nice Dr. Oz TV-performance.

      • I already thought so. Dr. Oz and his team give limited space. I think it is already great that paleo was promoted. He clearly fancied you and Nell.

    • I’m sure there was a lot of ideas Chris would have liked to further explain, if given the opportunity. It’s tough for a guest to go on a show like that and have much control over the show’s overall content, much less spend time on nuanced biochemical foundations of cooking and GI health.

      My guess is that the show’s producers have a fairly strong say, maybe stronger than Dr. Oz’. They’re making sure the show continues to be highly viewed and marketable to the masses. Not my preference, but that’s the reality.

  12. Chris, I think this is a great article and I also listened to you cover a lot this on Robb Wolf’s podcast. But one thing slightly disappoints me. You discuss the reasons why you shouldn’t necessarily avoid legumes, but I disagree that there aren’t more reasons why people should definitely consider including them in their diets. Sure they aren’t as nutritionally dense as liver, but at the same time, people probably shouldn’t be eating liver daily either. With your recent focus on the benefits of resistant starch and fermentable fiber I would expect that you might see legumes in a better light. I hope at some point you explore this more. 🙂

      • Could cause copper or vitamin A toxicity if eaten in excess and if you’re not getting enough zinc or vitamin D, respectively. Also might be harmful for anyone with an iron storage disease like hemochromatosis. Most practitioners recommend ~6-8 ounces per week, so you could eat an ounce per day and probably be fine, but I wouldn’t suggest eating a 3-4 ounce serving daily.

        • I think it’s helpful to always try to consider what probable availability would have been. I.E. the liver would be a relatively small portion of the kill. I very much doubt hunters would expend the energy going after more kills just for the liver and wasting the rest. Too often people think because something is good more is better – it’s not.

        • Lamb liver, chicken and duck liver aren’t such an issue copper-wise, only beef liver (and maybe some others similar to beef).

          • The amount of copper in lamb liver varies a lot, depending on what the sheep have been eating. Sheep accumulate copper in the liver more readily than other farm animals. If I eat much local liver (green pastures most of the year) it makes me ill, as do copper supplements. Pyroluric people should avoid it.

    • Legumes are a great food! You’ve got all those great prebiotics, you’ve got soluble fiber to absorb whatever toxins the liver decides to eject in the bile, you’ve got a good dose of magnesium (without the omega-6s you get in nuts, which is the main other practical place to find magnesium) (not that I think whole-nut-source omega-6 ought to be avoided at all costs either, but that’s another comment, and if we can get 1/3 of our magnesium needs met in one serving of beans with minimal omega-6, why not?) And they have a nice substantial mouthfeel that I miss on a “true” paleo diet. Go eat some beans, people!
      I find I need 150+ net carbs a day for good adrenal function, and beans are a far sight more “nutrient dense” than tubers (or rice), and if I tried to eat that much fruit I’d be a sobbing blood sugar rollercoaster mess. For those of us who need carbs, legumes are an excellent choice. Lentils and kidney-type beans hold up well against most cuts of meat as far as minerals and b-vitamins per calorie (albeit admittedly because they lack the great fats you get in grass fed animal foods, etc).
      Besides, who said every single morsel that passes our lips has to be absolutely maxed out in nutrient density? Most traditional cultures get a fair chunk of their calories from something starchy with decidedly modest nutrient density, and get the rest of their needs met with supplementary meats, nuts, leaves, etc. It would be insane for an omniverous species to have evolved to need every morsel to be maxed out. We would never have survived if there weren’t a fair amount of slop built into the system.
      Note: This does not entitle you to live on twinkies supplemented by small amounts of liver, oysters, and kale. And I concede immediately that with today’s poorer soils and less nutrient dense produce varieties (and lower calorie needs due to more sedentary lifestyles) we don’t have as much room for slop as our ancestors. But it still doesn’t mean that we’ve got to be pushing the pedal to the metal at every meal.

  13. Love this article! Why strictly avoid legumes if they don’t bother you? No one would say legumes should be a replacement for more nutrient dense foods but it’s nice to be able to be flexible when enjoying various ethnic cuisines.

    Of course if you’re FODMAP intolerant that’s one thing, but I bet there’s a lot of Paleo followers out there who could easily handle a few servings of legumes per week with no problem. I hope people understand that Chris isn’t saying you must eat legumes, but rather that if you choose to have them on occasion and you tolerate them well, there’s no strong evidence to support universal avoidance of a relatively benign, whole food.

    I’m glad I’m not dogmatic about legumes either, because it would have been tough to enjoy all the food I ate when traveling in Nicaragua last year!

    • I agree and I agree with the article.

      As a nutritionist who advocates a whole food, nutrient dense diet (with a Paleo bent) to my clients, I have this conversation about legumes all the time.

      I do ask them to make legumes part of their elimination stage and then bring them back in. If they can tolerate the, great. Prepare them properly and make them more of a sometime meal, not an everyday meal.

      I do believe that the Paleo dogma is what gives Paleo a bad rap, and it is unfortunate.

      Keep up the good work.

  14. Nicely worded and I agree. It’s interesting how just because someone has published a book on paleo foods everyone else quotes and follows. I however do not… Best to read as much information as possible and then, taking into consideration what we know about our own bodies, make proper assessments and changes to provide optimal health. No one way of thinking works for every person…. We are after all individuals (our DNA is proof of that).

  15. interesting post. But it begs the question: What is really left of the Paleo Diet? The stance on carbs has been softened, dairy is now fine if you can deal with it, and legumes are okay, It seems to me that avoiding gluten is the only thing left that distinguishes this diet from a basic natural, traditional diet like, say, the French eat. Paleo has become ‘things you would eat in 1930s-50s, minus wheat’.

    • Lars, as I said in the article, Paleo is still a useful framework that can guide further investigation and research. The hypothesis that we are fundamentally mismatched with the diet and lifestyle we’re living today, and that returning to a way of eating and living that more closely resembles our Paleolithic roots will improve our health, is still valid. But my point is that we shouldn’t stop there; we shouldn’t mistake the map for the territory, as the saying goes. Paleo is a starting place, not a destination.

      From a dietary perspective, I think Paleo is about maximizing nutrient density and minimizing toxicity most of all. But don’t forget that a Paleo framework can also inform our lifestyle choices—from how we exercise to how we set up our sleep environment to our sun exposure.

      • It kinda begs the question does the “Paleo Diet” ™ label serve us that well anymore other than in marketing a new approach on healthy eating? When we ask questions like “What is left of the Paleo Diet” it starts to sound like the goal is setting ourselves apart as this special (read: weird) group that does things differently than other folks. While it’s cool to be part of a subculture, that shouldn’t be the focus of what we are trying to do here getting folks healthy should be. When I talk to friends about me doing Paleo the most common refrain is it sounds way too hard to do. Getting folks who are sick 95% there, with something they can stick to, seems way more important than doctrinal purity. At the end of the day, does it matter if it is called Paleo, Perfect Health, Ancestral or even “I’m eating like my grandma did” if it gets results?

        • I completely agree and strongly believe on Chris concept of being open minded, logical and question dogma.

        • Mark, I love your reply. There’s plenty of guidelines left for those of us interested to follow, and further exploration of the paleo diet can only make us more informed and help make better choices. I am not doing it because I like being part of a subset, I’m doing it because I’ve seen results and feel better. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

        • Thank you for posting this response! I agree that no matter the name if we can encourage others to at-least get to a 95% whole foods,nutrient dense diet then things like arguing over legumes becomes a benign issue that loses sight of the ultimate goal. Blessings!

      • What’s really cool about “Paleo” is how our ideas about it can change depending on the latest research and the current zeitgeist. We think our grandparents ate healthier than we did, but my grandma gave birth to a daughter with spina bifida because of nutritional deficiencies she didn’t know about.

        Nowadays we come armed with all kinds of scientific information to help us make decisions. While we brand the diet “Paleo,” we are just looking to be as healthy and happy as possible… that might be easiest to achieve if we follow the ancestral diet template without falling into the dogma, and leave wiggle room for new ideas and updated research.

        • The problem with defining unequivocally what is “Paleo” is that the Paleolithic era covered a huge span of time, geography, and human evolutionary stages ( and thus diets). It is generally accepted to cover the period of 2.5+ million years ago to 100000 years ago (start of the Neolithic), if we skip the early Australopithecus relatives and look only at the Homo genus. During that period, there were hominins that were still “proto-humans”, like Homo habilis, with a brain half the size and teeth twice as big as those of modern man. H. habilis’ physiology shows that his “Paleo” diet is not the “Paleo” diet of physiologically modern humans. Remember, during this Paleo time span, human brain size went from an average of 600 cm3 to 1350 cm3, a change of about 225%. Fossil remains indicate that H. habilis probably had a diet more like modern chimps than that of fully-human Paleo man, who appeared only about 200,000 years ago. Proto-humans like H habilis spent much of their day finding food, because their food was low-nutrient, fibrous plant stuffs, a small amount of scavenged meat (probably ripe in the tropical climate in which he lived), and an even smaller amount of meat that he hunted. As man evolved and spread out of Africa (first as proto-humans, then later as modern man) into more temperate ones, his largely-plant-cantered diet changed to one higher in animal foods and lower in plant foods. As Chris notes, Paleo man (across the time spectrum and geographic variation of the Paleolithic era) was not consuming modern “gourmet Paleo” cuisine, baking with nut flours, converting Cordon Bleu recipes to “Paleo-conforming”, etc. Like the hunter-gatherers of the historic era, modern Paleo man at all stages ate primarily locally-available and simply-prepared whole foods. That literally covers everything from soup (bone broth) to nuts. Today, you even see vegan gurus arguing that very early man was vegan, so vegan is the real Paleo. While the fossil record does not support their hypothesis, even for H habilis, it also doesn’t support the dogmatic Paleo tenets, either.

          • Oops, sorry, that should be 10,000 years ago when the Neolithic started, not 100,000. I am a lousy typist sometimes.

            • Appreciate the info. Thanks sincerely. I’m learning from Chris and all of you as I endeavor to eat healthy. I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2010, had chemo, radiation and surgery.
              All is great now and to my best ability it will stay that way. I love Paleo!
              God Bless!

      • I’m starting to think that lifestyle is actually MORE important than diet. Unfortunately, lifestyle may be even harder to fix than diet in the modern world. Most of us cannot live a busy professional life in the city and still move like our ancestors. Modern life also isolates us from the enormous benefits of organic community. We are not neurologically, physiologically, or hormonally adapted to the lives we’ve created for ourselves. We thought with our technologies, we could rule the planet and have whatever we want. Now the planet loses and we lose. I hope we find a way to turn things around. In the mean time, we have to be even more careful about how we eat.

      • Chris, your version of Paleo just feels like it’s Weston A. Price approach now. That’s not a bad thing but increasingly the “Paleo” label just doesn’t mean thing anymore. Maybe we need to come up with a different name.

        • I couldn’t agree more. I avoided Chris’s work for years because I didn’t identify 100% with being a classic ‘paleo’. I’d been missing out on so much valuable information and the wonderful articles he writes, just because of the term paleo.

      • I absolutely agree with Chris! Paleo is the reminder of the standards of the food we eat….not limitations to only what our ancestors ate…we have come along in society, it doesn’t mean new findings are bad just because it wasn’t eaten way back then. Having a sound mind and listening to our bodies is what most people miss!

      • I myself, have found that I can not handle a1 casein, either. Wheat and soy are bad, as well.

    • Regarding legumes: I also had gas as a kid, eating legumes like everybody. However, at the time I was eating gluten (which was destroying me little by little). After I started Paleo and my gut was healed, and then years later I started eating again legumes, the problems DISAPPEARED. It seems that legumes become a problem if your gut is ALREADY in a bad shape, due to gluten/sugar/processed-foods/seed-oils. Avoid these, and suddenly, both fermented dairy, and soaked nuts/legumes aren’t a problem anymore. At least for me.

      The least problematic legume I found is sprouted lentils (Whole Foods sells some if you don’t want to do the work yourself). Garbanzo, peas, and white beans are also pretty benign after they have been soaked for 24 hours. Darker/colorful color beans might be a bit more problematic.

      To answer your question about what is left of Paleo if we start eating rice, legumes and dairy. For me, Paleo is this:

      – No glutenous grains ever, and avoid most other grains and pseudo-grains too when possible (rice or quinoa once a week is as far as I go). There were three recent studies (Nov-Dec 2013) that showed that *some cultivars* of quinoa and (certified GF) oats where producing celiac-like symptoms. But the rest of the cultivars didn’t. So sometimes it’s also about the actual cultivar eaten, not just the whole species of a grain or a pseudograin. I found that some types of rice makes me sick, while others don’t (Japanese rice is always safe for me, for example. GF Chinese is not). So when it comes to grains: “always avoid all glutenous grains, experiment with the rest, but avoid if you can anyway”. That’s my motto about these.

      – No seed oils/margarine/trans-fats. No brainer here.

      – No processed foods. This includes gluten-free pastas and pizzas and breads and cookies, artificial sweeteners, in addition to the more “bad” things found in supermarkets.

      – No excess sugar. If you got to have a sweetener, use unprocessed sugar, raw honey or maple syrup, always in small quantities. If you gotta make a dessert, make it raw.

      – And also: *soak* your nuts and seeds, soak your legumes. Avoid peanuts. Ferment your dairy, prefer casein A2 milk (or any, raw). Don’t bake with nut/seed flour (it oxidizes them). There is no such thing as a “Paleo cookie” or “Paleo bread”.

      – Go for the best quality of your food you can afford. Eat lots of veggies & fruits, more so than meat. Give priority to wild seafood. Eat offal, bone/fish broth, oysters, herbal tea (Greek Mountain Tea has huge research behind it for its benefits), fermented foods, sea veggies, ginger, turmeric, raw young garlic.

      For me, this sums Paleo up. Its what makes both sense to me, and makes me feel good. I was strict Paleo for 2 years and even Paleo-ketogenic for a few months, and while my health ailments went away, I never regained energy. My adrenals and thyroid got trashed in prolonged VLC. I feel and poop better eating this way, that includes more carbs (even if I am fat-adapted after so long on VLC).

      • Regarding my argument about grains: there is about 10% of celiacs that don’t get better with the gluten-free diet. However, they do get better with the Paleo diet, which removes all grains. This is why I’m still cautious about grains, and only allow in my diet a few types of grains and pseudograins, and only these brands that I have experimented with and they don’t create a problem. Even if you might not be a celiac, I’d still suggest you be careful with grains regardless. There’s a reason why so many people found their health with Paleo when all grains and processed foods were removed.

      • I, too, trashed my thyroid, and my adrenals by going VLC. I practiced intermittent fasting for probably two years, eating between 10am and 6pm. As a result, my body went into early menopause. I had no energy, I grew nodules on my thyroid, I couldn’t sleep, my body composition changed whereby I gained body fat. In addition, my cholesterol went through the roof (314). A VAP study revealed that my LDL’s (170) were the large fluffy kind, but still….? 314?
        The medical doctor wanted to sit and wait….”come back in a year.” Oh thanks, you mean when I feel EVEN WORSE!!!!!
        The problem is this: while everyone is glorying in their health gains, I thought I was doing something wrong. I tried Whole 30, I tried the SCD diet (maybe I had small intestinal bacterial overgrowth). I read about the AutoImmune protocol. Finally I went to a naturopath. A vitamin mineral amino acid test showed that I was deficient in several amino acids (How can that be when I was eating so high fat, and moderate but good quality protein?), as well as vitamin, mineral deficiencies. He prescribed a diet that was mostly vegetables, some legumes, brown rice (once a day), amaranth (once a day), and some fruit. I ate fish every 3rd day. He also had me eat raw almonds (soaked) as well as raw walnuts (soaked). I freaked out…..I thought I was going to blow up like a balloon. The majority of my calories where coming from carbs. I soaked the legumes (for 24 hours), I used TruRoot’s organic, sprouted brown rice. I soaked the amaranth in lemon water (per Nourishing Traditions). I entered my data on FitDay to see what the macronutrients profile of what I was eating. I ate about 1700 calories/day (200 more then what I allowed myself being Paleo), between 160-220 grams of carbs/day, with about 30% of my calories coming from fat.
        Results: so far I am down 8 lbs, my skin tags (which are benign skin tumors and had begun showing up the last couple of years) are shrinking (almost non-existent), hot flashes are gone, sleeping better, more energy, overall feel better, with a better mental outlook. This whole episode has me questioning Paleo. Is it the panacea that everyone claims it to be? Isn’t the most important thing that we stay off of processed foods, and maintain a diet that is clean?
        Even Robb Wolf stated that when he first wrote his book, his subjects were diseased populations. These were people who had a lot of weight to lose, had type 2 diabetes, etc. He agreed that the Paleo diet is evolving as we learn more. VLC and IF is not necessarily good for all populations. My research on IF for women showed that many women had adverse effects to IF…..namely of the female variety of problems. I wish I had known that before IFing for two years.
        After I finish my detox diet, he will put me on a normal diet with more variety. I believe I will probably eat a lot of vegetables, small amount of fruit, good, healthy fats, small amount of meat, which will focus mostly on organ meats, bone broths, and wild fish. I also believe I will allow myself to eat legumes in moderation. I am still not so sure about grains…..rice once in a while, ok. But, no more VLC for me, no more IF. If I fast, it will be all or nothing, and not on work out days.
        This was a great post! Thank you, Chris, for being open minded, flexible, and allowing the research to speak for itself.
        Nutrition is in it’s infancy. To say we have all the answers RIGHT NOW is foolish. The sanest approach is to realize that not everything about nutrition is set in stone.

        • Same experience here too. After I added more veggies, legumes (for more fiber), fruits, and brought down my excessive fat and protein consumption, I felt better within 3 days time.

          Except my trashed adrenals and thyroid, with Paleo my trigs went off the roof (200). My fatty liver never went away either, while for other people on Paleo it did!

          I was reading an article about the Hadza people, that women eat more veggies, while men value meat more. Scientists thought that this was so because the men were hunting, and the women were gathering, so they were valuing their product higher for psychological reasons. But so it seems, that women NEED more veggies/fruits, while men can do better with ketogenic diets.

          I do believe the people who say they found their health with Paleo and Paleo-keto, and their trigs and LDLs all stabilized at healthy levels, but it seems that the majority of them were men! It’s possible that we women need more carbs than men!

          Paleo has saved my life (I was near death when I found Paleo in Sept 2011), but it took me about 2 years too to find out WHICH parts of Paleo to keep, and which to throw out of the window. My comment above is the knowledge I accumulated in these 2 years on how to eat properly.

          Thank you for the info on this sprouted brown rice, I will be trying it soon!

      • I am 65 and live in Australia. When I was young in UK all our food was bought fresh at the market, and I continued to carry on that tradition for my own family. I figured that cooking a proper meal after work gave me time to wind down for the day, and it was a lot cheaper.
        Now, even though I have shops and restaurants within minutes, I still mainly make my own food, and keep a productive veg garden. At present I am eating green peas and beans and tomatoes straight off the vines for breakfast, with a leaf or two of kale, water cress, lettuce or herbs. What could be better? Most of my produce is grown in containers. I could afford to buy produce, but frankly I don’t want something that was picked a week ago or flown in from Peru, or sprayed with poisons.
        I cannot believe the rows and rows of rubbish food, pre prepared, that groan on the supermarket shelves. They are all so full of additives and salt they mostly taste quite horrible. Even the so called organic foods are often quite without flavour.
        There is a movement about for people to grow and eat their own produce again, and I think that is better than following food fads slavishly just because they are in vogue. Most of this is just marketing manipulation at the end of the day. I am healthy, look much younger than my age, and enjoy my garden. Not much wrong with any of that. People, don’t over complicate your life to eat fad food, just be sensible.

    • But isn’t eating what people ate in the 1930’s (minus wheat, or even moderately including wheat if it’s properly prepared and you tolerate it) a healthy diet?! especially when based on individual evidence about what you can tolerate, which you will have if you’ve followed paleo for any amount of time in order to determine your tolerance to foods that are “not paleo”. the biggest problem people face in their diets today is processed artificial foods, and eating this way will eliminate them. JERF!

        • Yeah, I’d prefer the 1830s, actually. Recently saw the food allowance set aside by the adult children for their aged parents in that decade. For the two of them for one year they got a 300 pound pig, 300 pounds of beef, 100 pounds of fish and all the milk and calves of three cows. Figuring it all out, and assuming the couple ate everything themselves, you’re talking nearly 2,000 calories worth of animal products and fat per day. They also got a little grain, some vegetables (whatever was in season), tea and some white and brown sugar.

          • Some food in the 19th century was adulterated and there was no legislation to protect the way it was produced. There would be chalk in flour and milk, floor sweepings in sweets, re-used tea leaves sold as fresh, and so on. Here’s one article that says ‘During the nineteenth century, much of the food consumed by the working-class family was adulterated by foreign substances, contaminated by chemicals, or befouled by animal and human excrement.’ http://www.victorianweb.org/science/health/health1.html

            And here’s another article: https://www.open.ac.uk/platform/news-and-features/dodgy-pies-and-dust-a-Victorian-fast-food-horror-story ‘Children’s sweets came with added plaster-of-paris, among other nasties.’ ‘Most of the adulterants were not dangerous as a one-off, but taken over time they impacted on health by lowering nutritional standards’

            But perhaps if you were living in the country you might have a better chance of eating fresh and unadulterated food.

            The middle classes would have done much better, I’m sure.

            Interesting.

      • One major source of confusion is what ‘tolerate’ means. It’s an iffy term with little meaning, but you see it a lot in these discussions. Many foods or substances may harm you over the long term, without causing any overt symptoms (gas, nausea, headaches, changes in blood panel, etc).
        My own feeling is that “Paleo’ is going to be a moving target for quite a while yet ( I personally mostly agree with Eugenia, minus the dairy.)

    • hey lars! EXACTLY correct, sir. if we’re just avoiding gluten and crappy oils, i see no need to cling to a confusing term and outdated dogma. paleo is a silly misnomer, that should be dropped.

      • But what happens in the wake of dropping a term (if that were even possible)? “Moderation” would eventually take over.

    • And this is why I rarely call myself “Paleo”. To non-paleo folks I simply say that I eat a low-inflamatory, nutrient dense diet that is both biochemically and physiologically sound… And if I need to justify why I don’t eat gluten (or grains in general), dairy, nightshades and legumes I say “I am allergic”.
      I will use “paleo” in the paleo community simply because I fall under that umbrella. (and FWISW, I was eating “Paleo” for years before I realized that I was)

      • I strictly avoid using the term “I am allergic,” because it further promotes the lack of understanding about food that people have. I say “I am sensitive to foods,” and if necessary explain the difference. I have heard other people I know use the allergic explanation because it’s easier and I cringe. That person they are talking to might have the same issues without realizing it yet, and if someone was honest with them about their own problems, it could help this person. At the very least the person would learn more about the human body and not walk away with the false impression that people are allergic to gluten, which doesn’t happen (as far as I know). This is part of the dumbing down of America, which is ashame.

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