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Food Fascism and the 80/20 Rule


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The 80/20 rule allows for these potatoes and other non-Paleo foods.
Potatoes may not be strictly Paleo—but, with the 80/20 rule, there might be room for them in your diet. iStock/fcafotodigital

I tend to write a lot (here on the blog, and on my Facebook page) about the benefits of a Paleo diet. And while I do think it’s probably the healthiest diet for us humans to eat, I’m not dogmatic about it. At least, I try not to be. That’s why I wanted to take a few moments to clarify my positionand explain the 80/20 rule.

A Paleo diet doesn’t have to be super restrictive. Find out how to implement the “80/20 rule” and enjoy what’s on your plate. #paleo #healthylifestyle #chriskresser

Can You Eat Non-Paleo Foods on a Paleo Diet?

There’s no doubt in my mind that a Paleo diet is what we’ve evolved to eat. That’s hard to argue with. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to be healthy while eating foods that are not considered “Paleo,” regardless of what the Paleo zealots will tell you. Some of the foods the Paleo diet excludes are more harmful than others, and of course there’s a significant amount of individual variation.

I think the evidence is clear that excess sugar, processed and refined flour, and industrial seed oils contribute to virtually all modern, degenerative diseases—from diabetes and obesity to heart disease and autoimmunity.

Beyond that, however, things start to get murky. The Paleo diet excludes dairy products and grains. Yet Weston A. Price identified isolated groups of people, like the traditional Swiss Loetschental, who were exceptionally healthy and subsisted primarily on a diet of bread, milk, and cheese.

Strict Paleo diets also exclude potatoes, claiming that the saponins and glycoalkaloids they contain make them unfit for human consumption. Yet as Stephan Guyenet’s articles have revealed, it’s quite possible to eat a lot of potatoes and be perfectly healthy. In fact, Stephan’s article on the subject was about a guy named Chris Voigt who ate nothing but potatoes for two months. Did he keel over and die? Did he get fat? Hardly. He not only lost weight (21 pounds), but also experienced improvements in several other markers, such as a decrease in fasting glucose and triglycerides, and presumably an increase in insulin sensitivity.

There’s a similar story with legumes and nightshades. They aren’t Paleo, but I haven’t seen any evidence to convince me that these foods play a significant role in the modern disease epidemic.

What about carbs? Low-carb diets are all the rage. And while it’s true that very-low-carb diets can help with weight loss, there’s no evidence that they are superior to moderate-carb diets (at 100g/d) for healthy people.

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There’s No One-Size-Fits-All Approach to Diet

Here’s the thing. As convenient as it would be to have a “one-size fits all” diet that works for everyone, we’re not robots. We’re more diverse than that. Someone who’s dealing with an autoimmune disease, leaky gut, arthritis, and skin rashes would certainly benefit from a strict Paleo diet and may even need to follow that approach for the rest of their lives. But for someone that is fundamentally healthy, such a diet may be unnecessarily restrictive. They might do perfectly well eating grains (other than wheat), especially when those grains have been properly prepared by soaking and/or sprouting. Dairy is similar. I have patients that tolerate it well in spite of being quite ill (they’ve removed it for long periods and added it back in without negative effects).

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, we also consider the effect of season, geographical location, constitution, state of health, and lifestyle when making dietary recommendations. So not only is each person different, what works for one person at one time may not work for that same person at another time.

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How to Follow the 80/20 Rule

So with this in mind, what do I recommend people eat?

The answer, of course, depends on the person. For healthy people, I suggest they follow a high-fat, nutrient-dense diet that removes the most significant food toxins (wheat, sugar/high-fructose corn syrup, and industrial seed oils). If they do well with properly prepared grains and raw, fermented or at least organic dairy products, I don’t have a problem with that.

I suggest they follow what I call the 80/20 rule. 80 percent of the time they should follow the guidelines very closely, and 20 percent of the time they’re free to loosen up and just eat what they want to eatthey can follow more of a “Paleo template” rather than a strict Paleo diet. There’s a lot more to life than food, and in fact I believe (as did the ancient Chinese) that in some cases it’s better to eat the wrong food with the right attitude than the other way around.

Unfortunately, the 80/20 rule doesn’t apply to those dealing with serious health challenges or allergies or intolerances to specific foods. It’s never a good idea for someone with Hashimoto’s disease and gluten intolerance, for example, to just throw caution to the wind and have a pancake feast. That could trigger an immune reaction lasting up to several weeks.

Likewise, if someone comes to see me in my private practice and they’re dealing with multiple health problems, one thing I often do is put them on a strict Paleo diet for a short period of time. Why? Because it gives us a baseline to work from. By removing all common food toxins and observing what happens, we learn which foods may be contributing to their issues and to what extent. From there the next steps usually become a lot more clear.

Ultimately, each of my patients ends up discovering their own ideal diet through experimentation and careful tracking. Some might end up doing the strict Paleo thing indefinitely. Others find they tolerate dairy, nightshades and even properly prepared grains (gasp!) quite well.

Where do I fit in? I’m somewhere in the middle. I avoid grains with the exception of occasional homemade sourdough buckwheat pancakes (which is technically not a grain anyway), but I do eat a lot of raw, fermented dairy products like kefir, yogurt, and creme fraiche. I also don’t seem to have a problem with nightshades, so I eat tomatoes and chili peppers in moderate quantities. I do, however, avoid white potatoes because I don’t feel good when I eat them.

So there you have it: my manifesto on food and health, and how to use the 80/20 rule to avoid food fascism.

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Join the conversation

  1. Agree 100% that fascism is NOT the answer, Chris! Along these same lines, it drives me nuts when paleo-ish/organic hounds/Weston A Price wonks/etc call for *banning* specific food products: artificial trans-fats or MSG, for example. The reason why I have to drive 2 hours each way to smuggle raw milk across state lines is because some people in power decided it was so dangerous that it deserved to be banned.

    No more food fascism! When you let any government decide what is “so dangerous” it needs to be controlled or banned, you run the risk that down the road, someone in charge will re-interpret what it means to be “so dangerous.”

  2. Thanks you Chris for all your awesome work.
    If your ever looking for ideas on what to write about next. ;D
    One idea, is some more information on Graves.
    Thanks & Cheers.

  3. The first anti-nightshade argument that I heard 4-5 years ago was that paleos did not eat them, and that they were discovered in America post-paleo. Cordain has constructed an elaborate soup-to-nuts nightshade condemnation, using solid points about modern over consumption mixed with bro-science nutrition conjectures. Today I was surprised to find out that African nightshade is edible, which means that nightshades are very likely a historic paleo food. The people that crossed the land bridge arrived with nightshade in their diet, and improved upon that diet with better nightshades.

  4. Just curious, What would you say to someone who has insulin resistance? I don’t have any intolerances to any specific food or food group. I’ve done strict paleo for 6 weeks now and haven’t noticed any real/ measure able changes in how I feel. No change in the scale. No change in mood or sleep patterns. So I’m not sure why I’m doing it. I guess my whole point was to reverse the insulin resistance and to drop a few pounds. Not 1 # lost and of course I’m not sure my status on the insulin resistance. So should I continue with this strict Paleo(which is extremely difficult and my resolve is waning) or should I ease up a bit? I’m not sure if insulin resistance is considered a serious health issue. Any insight would be helpful.

    • I’m SO keen to know the answer to this question too. I’ve been Paleo for 5 and a half months now and have only lost 3kgs (6.6lb) way back in the beginning, in all that time! I had blood tests taken at the beginning and then at 5 months and my insulin resistance hasn’t shifted. I’m eating NO sugar, no bread, rice, corn, pasta, etc. I eat only meat, fish, chicken, eggs, butter, lots of vegetables and absolutely minimal fruit. I take MCT oil, cook with beef tallow or lamb or pork fat. I’m taking lots of supplements prescribed by my integrative medicine doctor (pro-Paleo) and also my pro-Paleo nutritionist/naturopath. I’m at an absolute loss as to know why my weight and insulin resistance won’t budge.

  5. Hi Chris,
    I just stumbled upon some of your articles and found them very refreshing. I have a question for you though. In all the reading I have done about diet from a Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective (Paul Pitchfords book for instance), a diet based on a large proportion of whole grains, and little to no meat, has been recommended. What is your thinking on this? I have a lot of respect for TCM as I have benefited so much from tai chi. I have celiac disease and have been struggling for the past three years since my diagnosis to find a diet I can thrive on.
    Thank you

  6. Chris,

    When you put a patient on a strict Paleo diet for a short period of time, how long do you keep him in it in order to observe some change on average?