Moving from a "Paleo Diet" to a "Paleo Template" | Chris Kresser
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Beyond Paleo: Moving from a “Paleo Diet” to a “Paleo Template”

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These dairy products may not fit in a strict Paleo diet—but there’s room for them in a Paleo template.
Dairy foods may not fit in a strict Paleo diet—but there’s room for them in a Paleo template. iStock/bit245

Over the last couple of years, as the popularity of the Paleo diet has expanded, a lot of controversy has emerged over exactly what a Paleo diet is.

Part of the problem is that there are now a number of authors and bloggersfrom Mark Sisson to Kurt Harris to Robb Wolf to Paul Jaminet to myselfthat advocate what might generally be called a Paleo diet, but with slight variations in each case. This has unfortunately led to some confusion for people new to the Paleo diet.

It has also spawned new terminology in an effort by each author/blogger to clarify the differences in their approach, such as Mark Sissons Primal diet, Paul Jaminets “Perfect Health Diet,and Kurt Harris’ former PaNu or Paleo 2.0 and current Archevore concepts.

So whats the controversy or confusion all about? It usually revolves around the following questions:

  • Is the Paleo diet low-carb or low-fat? Is saturated fat permitted? If so, how much?
  • How much protein should someone eat on a Paleo diet?
  • Does the Paleo diet include dairy productsor not? Which kinds of dairy?
  • Are any grains at all permitted?

In the early days, following Loren Cordain’s book, The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Food You Were Designed to Eat, the Paleo diet was considered to be moderate in carbohydrate and low in saturated fat (though monounsaturated fat wasn’t restricted).

Then, as low-carb diets rose in popularity and many low-carbers switched over to Paleo, it seemed that the lines between low-carb and Paleo began to blur. For these folks, the Paleo diet is high in fatespecially saturated fatand low in carbohydrates, with a moderate amount of protein.

More recently, some authors/bloggers have advocated a diet based roughly on Paleo principles but that also may include dairy products and even certain grains like white rice and buckwheat, depending on individual tolerance. Still others have suggested that a high carb, lower fat dietprovided the carbs come from starchy vegetables and not grainsmay be optimal.

So what is a Paleo diet? Is it low-carb? Low-fat? Does it include dairy? Grains?

Were Not Robots: Variation Amongst Groups and Individuals

The answer to that question depends on several factors. First, are we asking what our Paleolithic ancestors ate, or are we asking what an optimal diet for modern humans is? While hard-core Paleo adherents will argue that theres no difference, others (including me) would suggest that the absence of a food during the Paleolithic era does not necessarily mean that its not nutritious or beneficial. Dairy products are a good example.

Second, as recent studies have revealed, we cant really know what our ancestors ate with 100 percent certainty, and there is undoubtedly a huge variation amongst different populations. For example, we have the traditional Inuit and the Masai who ate a diet high in fat (60 to 70 percent of calories for the Masai and up to 90% of calories for the Inuit), but we also have traditional peoples like the Okinawans and Kitavans that obtained a majority (60 to 70 percent or more) of their calories from carbohydrate. So it’s impossible to say that the diet of our ancestors was either “low-carb” or “low-fat,” without specifying which ancestors we’re talking about.

Third, if we are indeed asking what the optimal diet is for modern humans (rather than simply speculating about what our Paleolithic ancestors ate), there’s no way to answer that question definitively. Why? Because just as there is tremendous variation amongst populations with diet, there is also tremendous individual variation. 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 to 25 percent of calories), but others do well when they eat a smaller amount (10 to 15 percent) while still others need a diet for diverticulitis.

The Paleo Diet vs. the Paleo Template

I suggest we stop trying to define the “Paleo diet” and start thinking about it instead as a “Paleo template.”

What’s the difference? 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 ancestral health general guidelines that can then be customized based on the unique needs and experience of each person.

But here’s the key difference between a Paleo diet and a Paleo template: following a diet doesn’t encourage the participant to think, experiment or consider his or her specific circumstances, while following a template does.

The only way to figure out what an optimal diet is for you is to experiment and observe. The best way to do that is to remove the “grey-area” foods you suspect you might have trouble with, like dairy, nightshades, eggs, etc. for a period of time (usually 30 days is sufficient), and add them back in one at a time and observe your reactions. This “30-day challenge” or elimination diet is what folks like Robb Wolf have recommended for a long time.

As human beings we’re both similar and different. We share the same basic physiology, which is why a Paleo template makes sense. There are certain foods that, because of their chemical structure, adversely affect all of us regardless of our individual differences.

On the other hand, each of us is unique. We grew up in different families, with different dietary habits, life experiences, exposures to environmental toxins and lifestyles. Many of our genes are the same, but some are different and the way those genes have been triggered or expressed can also differ.

For someone with an autoimmune disease, dairy products, nightshades and eggs may be problematic. Yet for others, these foods are often well-tolerated. This variation merely underscores the importance of discovering your own optimal diet rather than blindly following someone else’s prescription.

I think it’s a complete waste of time and energy to argue about what a Paleo diet is, because the question is essentially unanswerable. The more important question is, what is your optimal diet?

Finding Your Own Optimal Version of the Paleo Diet

In my book, The Paleo Cure, I provide a simple—yet powerful—three-step approach for helping you to discover your own ideal version of the Paleo diet. Click here to learn more about it and pick up a copy.

177 Comments

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  1. Great article — it matches what I have been thinking and doing about my approach to primal/paleo eating.

  2. Thanks for this post; I think you are spot on! I have recently backed away from the “all the fat you can eat” approach to the Paleo diet as well. After being diagnosed with Celiac about five years ago, I removed all gluten-grains, ate non-gluten grains in moderation, and removed sugar and processed food from my diet. I felt amazing within 6 months after years of fatigue and stomach pain! About 2 years ago, I discovered Paleo eating. It was so similar to how I was already eating that I decided to give it a try. I gave up all grains and yogurt, reduced fruit intake, started eating grass-fed fatty meat (before I avoided mammal meat), and upped my fat intake signficantly. Well, my health has definitely taken a nose dive in the last year. I have developed inflammatory conditions: RSI/joint pain and endometriosis.

    Recently, I have cut way back on my fat intake, especially saturated fat, I have increased my fiber intake (which means more carbs, fruit even!) and I am already noticing a positive difference. Just because we’re all the same species doesn’t necessarily mean that the same exact diet is optimal for all of us. Maybe someone who is not prone to inflammation (ie. endometriosis-free) will do fine with all of the bacon and beef, but I certainly wasn’t able to (unfortunately…it was very tasty).

    • I did read up on arachidonic acid and it seems that while it is supposed to be anti-inflammatory in healthy people, it can cause inflammation in someone with other underlying problems. I think that’s actually one of Matesz’s and his wife’s issues, to tell you the truth.

  3. Excellent post. Thank you. I have seen this to be true of myself and my husband. Through trial and error, and elimination diets and just being observant and in tune with our bodies, we both follow a paleo-ish diet with some differences. For instance, I do not tolerate eggs at all, unless they are pastured. I can tolerate high amounts of fat with less protein, hubby needs more protein and less fat. Neither of us tolerate tomatoes well, but I tolerate white potatoes. I cannot tolerate milk, cheese or even yogurt or kefir even if lactose free- however husband seems to do will with yogurt, and we both enjoy goat protein and goat colostrum in smoothies. I can tolerate white rice- husband cannot. We both enjoy buckwheat and chick peas. There is no such thing as a one size fits all diet. It’s good to remember that when talking to friends or making recommendations.

  4. Great article Chris, and good timing given I just sent you an email inquiring as to why stuff like white rice can be ‘ok’. There is definitely a balance that needs to be struck between our anthropological knowledge and our modern nutritional knowledge combined with the unique blueprint of each persons genetics and upbringing. I personally eat high protein paleo+lots of full fat dairy-nuts (I’m a math guy, can you tell?). I find that dairy feels better on my gut than nuts do and have a better nutritional profile to boot (nuts have so many PUFAs and their course nature can’t be good on your gut lining). And thanks to the new found information I got from you I’ll probably add small amounts of white rice back into my diet. I’m excited to make some homemade rice pudding using white rice and raw cream!

  5. well said. I pretty much just tell people that starches make my stomach hurt … if they ask me about my diet. otherwise, I don’t bring it up. It’s not worth it, 90% of the time.

  6. Great post Chris. Sums up what I’ve been telling people who question me about the paleo concept. Some things are universally applicable while many others are very individually dependent. Experiment, observe, apply what you learn.

      • Don’s article is ridiculous. I’m sorry to hear of his nagging health challenges. I wouldn’t wish those horrendous issues on very many people. But regardless of his own experiences with his diet, blaming all his proclaimed health issues on fat consumption and “Paleo” is so unbelievably off base that it’s, well… unbelieveable. His ‘exit’ is not classy or respectful to his “once fellow Paleo folk” in any way. If he seeks to gain trust as a result of some twisted attempt at ‘exposing the truth’, he produced the opposite result with me personally.

        • Your attack on Don is off base. I just read the post and found it interesting, you need as much of the contrarian argument as you can. The paleo echo chamber like all internet induced echo chambers adds no value to the conversation.

          • I am not attacking Don. I am saying that I don’t trust his writings anymore. He can do whatever he wants. It’s his site. But I can do whatever I want too, and I don’t buy into his “Farewell to Paleo” message. I think it oozes rotten thought at the core and I have a problem with that.

              • I’m sorry Ben but I disagree. If I steal your car, which leads to you receiving an insurance check, which allows you to buy a better car, does that make me stealing your car an acceptable thing to do? Just because something begat something doesn’t mean it’s good. Winners respond to situations like winners. Perhaps ‘that’ is what triggered this very post here.

                • Don saying farewell to the notion the high fat, low carb, hypercaloric diets are the end all be all. He defines these diets as paleo. They very much aren’t. Many people who eat paleo do eat diets that are all those things but the paleo diets can be different than that as well. The classic is the examples are the kitivans or you can follow me around for a day to find out I eat a high-ish carb paleo diet.

          • It’s not the conclusions he came to, necessarily, it’s the way he conveyed those conclusions. If you have a following and you change horses in mid-stream, you should do it with a little more tack and circumspective language. I’m perfectly open with someone changing their mind: If your health isn’t improving you try different things. But if you have been preaching one thing for a long time you don’t change by kicking the followers in the teeth. He came across as rather arrogant and frankly, disrespectful. I can take the arrogance, but the disrespect, uh, no.

  7. Thank you! The voice of reason at last. I think it’s easy, but dangerous, to get sucked into dogma with regards to the Paleo diet. I’m guilty of it myself– exposure to even small amounts of dairy lands me in the hospital with anaphylactic shock. Because of that fact, I feel my blood pressure rise every time someone says “Oh, yeah, I’m following a strict Paleo diet– I had scrambled eggs and cheese sauteed in butter for breakfast this morning.”

    It’s a real struggle not to scream “DAIRY IS NOT PALEO AAARGH DON’T YOU REALIZE THAT STUFF WILL KILL YOU!?!”. But that’s not accurate. Well… it’s not *completely* accurate. I still maintain that calling dairy “Paleo” is completely ridiculous (Want to change my mind? Send me a video of yourself catching and milking a wild deer, elk, moose, or bison. Then I’ll shut up about it.). But it would be more truthful to say “don’t you realize that stuff would kill me, and some other people I know who are allergic to dairy or lactose intolerant”.

    In conclusion, while calling this diet the Paleo diet was a good marketing decision originally, I wonder if it’s fragmenting and harming the movement more than helping it, these days.

      • Yes, it takes about a day to ferment. It’s kept in a skin by the door and I think as people come and go they give it a bit of a mixing. I kept forgetting it was mildly alcoholic and would get a bit tiddly as I generally avoid alcohol but love the salty and tangy milk drinks of Central Asia (kumiss) and Asia Minor (ayran). Their horses are set free over the winter to fend for themselves in the shallow snowfalls (Mongolia is a desert). The survivors are rounded up and the mares are got in foal. When the foal is born, it is kept tethered with others and the mares hang around to feed them. The foals are handled alot and even little children who can barely walk are placed on their backs to get used to being on horses and vice versa.

        Mongolian are classified as lactose intolerant. When I was there, some horse grooms with our trekking party offered me milk. Not realizing it was horse milk from the mare I was riding, I accepted with glee saying it would be lovely in my cup of tea. They weren’t keen on this use of it and encouraged me to drink a cupful. Now I discover that if they did that, it would make them unwell so either they were having me on, or they realized most of us from Northern Europe extraction can handle that stuff. This is probably why they like to ferment it. It’s offered to visitors in every ger (tent). Great nutritious custom.

    • Traditional Maasai were pretty much Paleo. They were herders. Worked out great for them too, they were quite healthy and well-formed.

      I think herding is, or can be, a transitional thing between hunting and gathering, and going into horticulture or agriculture (not quite the same thing). Actually you could still be a forager if you’re pastoral, because the animals can move with you as plant food availability changes.

      I don’t think trying to apply a label to a concept is a bad thing and I don’t think calling this Paleo was the central problem. I think the central problem is that we grow up and live under the spell of cultural universality. It is one thing to be loyal to your tribe and to believe that that’s the best way for you to live; quite another to believe everyone ought to live in one way and to try to force that to come about through coerced conversion to your way of life. This is not unique to any of the major religions; it is the very essence of civilization (human domestication). A critical look at what we call Paleo style eating would reveal that “Paleo” peoples had a wide range of diets. We just have a hard time shaking the notion that there’s one right way for the whole world’s population of human beings to live. It’s not enough to say “what would your ancestors eat”–we’ve got to take it one step farther and decide, “everybody’s ancestors ate beef and squash and salads and avoided dairy,” and never mind the experiences of the Inuit or the Maasai.

      It’s like the Borg, only it’s people. We think too much like machines now, and we want everything to work together like one giant well-oiled efficient machine, everything nice and neat and uniform. And living beings do not operate that way.

      Note I said “we.” I catch myself doing this too. Just about all the time. Tough habit to break.

    • My favorite line from this is also: “…the absence of a food during the Paleolithic era does not necessarily mean that it’s not nutritious or beneficial. Dairy products are a good example.” Just because dairy doesn’t suit one or many doesn’t mean it’s off limits to everyone else. To begin with, there’s a vast difference between industrial dairy and carefully produced raw dairy, especially such raw dairy that has been fermented. Even the latter two may not suit everyone, or not everyone at all times, such as if they have a damaged gut — which, after all, could be healed. So even a damaged gut doesn’t necessarily mean dairy will never be appropriate for a given person. There never was any one single Paleo diet, and that’s still true. It’s not about historical accuracy but what’s optimal for modern humans in general and each individual in particular (and those aren’t going to be the same in all cases). Paleo is a good template, which each person can use to find the right tweeks for themselves.

  8. I come from a WAP/Real Food perspective but have learned a tremendous amount about what is best for me from the paleo world including Mark Sisson and Robb Wolf.

    I love your “Paleo Template” approach of striving for an optimal diet based on individual circumstances using the guidelines you described.

    My favorite line; “…the absence of a food during the Paleolithic era does not necessarily mean that it’s not nutritious or beneficial.”

    Thanks again for yet another outstanding post!

    (Great interview with Robb Wolf- I would love to see a post on the presence of selenium in fish protecting against mercury and other toxins. I’ve never read that before and would like to be able to link to something in writing to help others make better choices instead of avoiding fish).

  9. Monte: I agree that cycling between various macronutrient ratios based on geography, season and constitutional factors is a good idea. This is what the ancient sages of Chinese medicine have recommended for thousands of years.

    I find myself eating more fruit in the summer, more dense, starchy carbs in the winter, and more protein when I’m training harder. Sometimes I eat a lot of raw dairy, sometimes I avoid it almost entirely.

    I think the key is to learn to tune into our own ever-changing needs, and respond appropriately. It requires awareness and an open mind, and the willingness to experiment and question one’s beliefs. Those qualities can’t be learned from a book – they need to be cultivated. This is why black & white diets will always be more popular than “templates” that require people to think for themselves.

  10. Good post! People get so hung up on following a certain paradigm and it leads to dogmatic beliefs about macro-nutrient ratios and the condemnation of fats or carbs or both. If you are getting a diet with proper mineral and vitamin content, you can probably metabolize almost any macronutrient combo.

  11. Thanks for this blog post, Chris. I truly believe this is an experiment of one, and we all need to find out what works the best for us, as long as we are avoiding the things we clearly should not eat.

  12. Great article Chris!

    For me, my optimal diet must not include fish. My thyroid autoantibodies stopped decreasing when I was eating fish twice a week, probably due mercury and other contaminants.

    I know that your position is that a fish has more selenium than mercury it is safe, but this is something I’m not so sure and worries me when I see some paleo bloggers moving from eating lots of meat to primarly eating fish…

    Lithium and Other Elements in Scalp Hair of Residents of Tokyo Prefecture as Investigational Predictors of Suicide Risk (http://pmid.us/21671085):

    “Although the analytical results suggested that the Se status of the subjects was generally adequate, as seafood was a major dietary source of Se, much of it was actually sequestered by mercury and only a fraction was bio-available.”

    • Yup, I’m avoiding the big boys such as tuna, long-living hoki or dogfish and picking on the little guys e.g. sardines and anchovies that are lower down the food chain. Green-lipped Mussels are my main source of seafood.

      • Yep I agree with the smaller fish, and the mussel, along with N.Z. eel one of the highest fish in omega 3, absolute superfood. I am part maori and this is what my Maori ancestors ate, along with all manners of fowl (birds), and greens, with only the kumara (sweet potato) as a true high carb source. In the 18th century, scientist Joseph Banks observed that Māori were in good health and appeared to suffer from few diseases: and further… ‘So simple a diet accompanied with moderation must be productive of sound health, which indeed these people are blessed with in a very high degree. … I do not remember a single instance of a person distempered in any degree that came under my inspection … Such health drawn from so sound principles must make physicians almost useless.’ 2 Forty one per cent of Maori are officially obese. That’s a rate 37 per cent higher than US folk.

        But it wasn’t always so. Maori once were the most physically perfect race on the planet. Their physical perfection is backed by the first sketch of Maori by Abel Tasman’s cartographer, Isaac Gilsemans, who shows young and old warriors in a canoe, every one of them in superb physical condition. They’re lean and they’re muscular. Any of them could be a pin-up at the gym today.

        The sketch isn’t stylised. Gilsemans was a cartographer: lives depended on his accuracy. His purpose was to show the “appearance of the people”.

        That was in 1642. Captain Cook in 1769 observed: “They are also exceedingly vigorous and active. Their teeth are extremely regular and as white as ivory … they seem to enjoy high health and we saw many who appeared to be of a great age.”

        Captain Cook’s botanist, Joseph Banks, concurred. “The men are of the size of the larger Europeans, stout, clean limbed and active, fleshy but never fat. Among them I have seen many very healthy old men and in general the whole of them are as vigorous a race as can be imagined.”

        The early Europeans found Maori to be taller than them, healthier than them, fitter than them and maintaining their health and fitness to a good age.

        Maori had the best teeth ever recorded. The first director of Otago’s Dental School was Henry Percival Pickerill. He reported examining 250 pre-European Maori skulls to find only two had tooth cavities.

        They had no toothpaste, no toothbrushes and no dentists. Old-time Maori clearly knew how to look after themselves and their teeth.

          • Thanks for sharing that article. It looks as though Rodney has done his homework. My nephew who has a Hons.degree in Geography told me that at one time in the 1830’s the Maori of the Waikato area has the largest wheatfields in the world and about 20 steamboats paddling up and down the Waikato. So they were quick to adopt grains, unfortunately.

            I have an account and photos by Elsdon Best showing the magnificent physique of his Tuhoe informant, Tutakangahau who was in his 60’s at the time (Best of Both Worlds by Jeffrey Paparoa Holman).

            I say to Maori: we didn’t need to kill you, we just gave you our diet (and cigarettes and alcohol) and let that do the job for us more slowly. Now they don’t live too long into their late sixties. Very sad to see the traditional food gathering places disappearing (kai moana etc.).

  13. Not much to add but: yup.

    I hate even referring to what I eat as a “diet”. It suggests a temporary fix. It isn’t. It would take extremely compelling personal evidence (i.e., crazy-bad blood tests or a sudden, dramatic downturn in health) for me to stop eating this way.

    You’ll always have the zealots who insist YOU MUST EAT THIS WAY, and they probably need that structure (and they probably have the scars to prove it). But I suspect for most people a moderate, sensible approach is the best.

  14. I was waiting for someone to write this post. There is one problem though. We are limited in our ability to *read” the result of the experiments. And some of the consequences of the toxic foods are only long term. Often it takes more that a generation(s) for our species to figure things out. We also tend to make grave mistakes even in our controlled, “scientific” observations. For example I have been eating bread all my life and and I had no idea it was bad for me. How can you try something and then tell with certainty after a very short period of time if it is bad or good unless you have an extreme reaction. I will be devouring Napoleons then…

    So the boundaries indeed blur, it becomes very hard to explain it to the newbies and even the veterans. In our day and age you need an elevator speech while the ride gets longer and longer.

    • Ben: as I mentioned in the article, there are certain foods (like wheat bread) that we should probably all avoid because of their potential to cause harm. This is the basis of the “template”.

      Beyond those foods, experimentation usually reveals what we can and can’t tolerate. As you point out, there is rarely any “certainty” in those experiments. But is it necessary to be certain? What matters is whether we can find a diet that nourishes and sustains us, and increases our chances of living a long, healthy life. There are no guarantees, even with a “perfect” diet.

      • Chris, I agree completely with the premise of the post and the reply to my comment. Although one has to underline the core human dilemma, being cursed by the eternal unknown. And let’s, be clear about the methodology, we are blind to what is good or bad for us unless there is a catastrophic response. Coincidentally this is how we only learn from the extreme events, i.e. stock market crashes, revolutions, sickness, .etc. Indeed there an illustration of this in your own story or Robb’s story, etc. The proverbial “life and death” experience.

        In facing with this predicament the dictators throughout history decided that they will spare the mortals the pain of confusion and uncertainty and juts tell them “what to do”, all “for their own good”. The *Orthorexia* inevitably follows.

        • P.S. BTW, I think a better name is “Paleo Method” it denotes a progression, possibility of change. While “Template” means a static scheme, literally a mold to copy things exactly as they are.

          Template: “a shaped piece of metal, wood, card, plastic, or other material used as a pattern…”

          You want to break the pattern instead…

  15. Exactly! “Paleo” is a time period, not a diet. The template idea fits. People ate every macro ratio under the sun during this time period (and afterward). What’s more is that individuals would be forced to change their macros many times throughout the year because of seasonal variables and travel. In fact, taking into account individual tolerances for specific foods, I think everyone should mix up their ratios a few times a year just to stress (exercise) the bodies metabolism. I bet this is why Cyclic diets work so well.

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