Food Fascism and the 80/20 Rule | Chris Kresser
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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.

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.

How strict are you with your diet? Do you follow the 80/20—or 90/10, or 75/25—rule? Comment below and share your routine.

  1. Thanks Chris. I’ve just starting reading up on the paleo diet and wondering what changes to make. Some websites do seem quite extreme and dogmatic, but this is a balanced and intelligent view- thank you.

  2. Chris,

    What’s your rationale for including sugar/HFCS on that list of toxins? Just that it leads to excess (and un-compensated) caloric consumption? I was just recalling your article on fructose from last June, which seemed to indicate that the excess calories was really the main problem with sugar and fructose. Wheat and Seed Oils, though, seem to be much more toxic in a variety of ways.

    Thanks!

    Jeremy

    • Hi Jeremy,

      The main reason refined sugar is an issue is that it promotes overeating because people do not compensate for the additional calories they’re getting from the excess sugar. As you probably know, the consequences of positive energy balance go far beyond weight gain. So while most studies suggest that sugar is not fattening in an isocaloric diet, they also suggest that sugar tends to promote excess calorie intake in free living people.

      In the article I wrote, I argued that fructose is not uniquely fattening when compared to glucose. I also argued that it is not “toxic” in the context of an isocaloric diet, because it is converted almost completely to glucose, glycogen and lactate, neither of which are problematic. However, there is evidence that fructose causes insulin resistance in the liver and higher circulating insulin levels more readily than glucose does in the context of caloric excess.

  3. I think you would really like the blog and diet at BulletProofExec.com. It is what he calls upgraded Paleo that was around before this whole Paleo craze. It focuses on the source of food good fats like grass feed beef, pastured Irish butter and coconut oil. Once I stopped being afraid of fats and added lots of these healthy fats in my diet I had more energy and much better clarity of thought.

  4. Most of what you say is probably things we should look at, however, your support of Weston A. Price, I believe, is a big mistake. He is associated with the dairy industry and as such your support of him makes this news letter suspect. I am a vegetarian of 35 years, and I have been living with prostate cancer for 20 of those years with no intervention. I believe humans are vegetarians and by just looking at our physiology, it appears to be true. I am 68 years old and I am in great health considering the cancer. Fermented soy is a wonderful choice. I have been using nu-fermented soy for 35 years and my health is not hurt by it. Perhaps you should delete reference to Weston A. Price. Thanks for you information.

  5. Completely with you on this Chris, I came across Paleo a few months back, and I thought it was a bit hardcore for me, so I used what suited me and have so far been doing great on it.

    The main thing I’ve done is to cut out most wheat and grains, especially bread as I used to eat a lot of that – but I still eat potatoes and some rice, yogurt and dairy too – I’ve also added plenty of fats and meat and as I said, I am doing fantastic.

    I work on an Apple orchard 5 days a week, and at times it can be very hard manual labour – before going semi Paleo I was always tired by the end of the day, and cream crackered by the end of the week, but lately I seem to have constant energy all day, and by the end of the day I even have enough to do a couple of bodyweight workouts each week too.

    I’m convinced its because of the increase in fats and meat that I eat, it can’t be anything else.

    And something major I’ve noticed is that I don’t get the mid afternoon lull after eating lunch – which I can only put down to not eating any bread or wheat.

    I used to have sandwiches, crisps and a cake – now I have meat, cheese, nuts, fruit and some yogurt and cream and I have high energy all afternoon!

    I’ve been a vegan, vegetarian and a fruitarian in the past, and at no point have I felt as good as I do now – my whole health is as good as it has ever been, and it’s all thanks to going mainly Paleo!

    Oh, and again I agree on the 80/20 theory – I have a tasty cheesecake or a couple of chocolate bars during the week, sometimes I’ll even have a a load of wheat in the form of a pizza or burger in a big bap, and I suffer no after effects – which again I think is because it’s so little compared to the quantity I used to eat of all those naughty things! 🙂

    Great blog btw, been an avid reader for a while now – keep up the great work!

  6. Thank you so much!! Having discovered a paleo way of eating several months ago, I have been struggling with my thoughts on all the other foods. Your article couldn’t come at a better time. Definitely reposting this. Cheers!

  7. That’s pretty much exactly how I feel. In today’s modern age with as busy as everyone is, I’d say it’s nearly impossible to eat paleo 100% of the time.

    Plus how can you argue with Benjamin Franklin “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy”

  8. what a great article! I have been considering that, as I was exposed to dairy a while ago and did not experience any side effects. I am however inclined to try it again but it will have to be grassfed. God know what people do to cows these days.

    As for my husband, he cannot drink milk. Not one drop or his psoriasis will flare up again.

    I like your approach to this and will make sure to do some experiments.

  9. Hans:
    I agree with Chris. Get good quality chickens and some chicken feet too. Roast up the chicken with some veggies, that’s a meal or two.. then save the carcass and simmer it with some of the chicken feet for a wonderful broth. You can make multiple dishes with any stock and it is great for poaching eggs, cooking sausage in etc. and esp soup. You can add rice and some ginger and salt and make Juk, which is just a chicken or turkey rice soup.

    Bones are where it’s at!

  10. Get cheap cuts from the butcher including bones and slow-cook them. That will get you high-quality animal fat and protein, which are the two highest priorities.

  11. Hi Chris,

    nice article.

    Where would be your priorities if you had to live on a really tight budget?
    Let’s say 2,5 – 3 $ a day.
    I’m a student from Europe and have to get by on that much for half a year to a year.

  12. Hi Chris,

    Please advise what are the roles of nutrients deficiencies, minerals imbalance and kidney dysfunction in regarding to osteoporosis.

    Thank you!

    Chao

  13. Hi Chris,

    I am unable to find any human research evidence to substantiate that organic soy milk is “endocrine disruptor”. Please advise me on this issue. Thank you!

    Happy New Year.

    Chao

  14. Brittany: not necessarily. Osteoporosis is usually cause by hormone imbalance, dysglycemia, essential fatty acid imbalance and inflammation. A Paleo diet should help with all of those factors, but additional testing and treatment will most likely be needed.

    • Hi Brittany and Chris,

      I’m a 38 year old woman with osteoporosis. I live in Spain and the only solution my doctors have given me is to take Bisphosphonates. They also told me that I can’t have more babies.

      Doing some research I’ve discovered that I’m gluten intolerant, so I started eating paleo a year ago and doing crossfit 5 months ago. On my last test 3 months ago my bones hadn’t improved.

      Any suggestion that you might have will be greatly appreciated.

      • Chelated Boron supplements. I know this is an old post and you probably won’t see this, but one of the main reasons that osteoporosis develops is because of nutrient deficiencies that inhibit the uptake and distribution of calcium. Boron is a micronutrient that is essential to this process, and you only need a tiny amount, which is normally supplied by eating plant foods that have absorbed boron from the soil. Unfortunately, the fertilizers and chemicals involved in modern agriculture inhibit the uptake of boron from the soil, and most conventional western produce is highly lacking in boron. I mean do you ever wonder why osteoporosis is such an epidemic in western countries where people are consuming calcium-rich dairy all the time, and yet it is a non-issue in many societies (Asian, for instance) that never touch milk? It’s not about calcium intake, it’s about application of calcium within the body, and supporting its retention. Boron has been scientifically shown to quickly and easily correct many instances of osteoporosis, and in most western countries, boron deficiency is a very likely culprit.

        Check out Swanson Boron and Vitamin D supplement (it’s one product containing both elements). You want a chelated boron, like fructoborate in this supplement, which will make it through the intestinal lining, as straight up boron itself is not very absorbable/bio-available. This product is the closest to the way boron occurs in nature in the things we eat. And Swanson has the best price (note that I do not work for them and have no connection to them whatsoever– I’m just a poor guy with a lot of health problems trying to get the best bang for the buck, and I did a lot of reading on the issue).

      • Thank you Beth for your answer. I read the article, but I can say that in my case walking didn’t help increasing my bone density.

        What did increase my bone density was taking Vit K2, after a year of taking it my bone density increased from osteoporosis to osteopenia. I don’t know if it’s the result of just the Vit K2 or eating paleo and doing crossfit as well. In two days I’m having a DEXA done and I’ll see the results after another year.

  15. Excellent post! I keep the following little item handy when confronted by “diet police” from whatever quarter. I am mostly paleo do indulge in some Italian pasta on occasion.

    This is from Jayne’s book…. (see reference at the end)

    A common error, when judging the effects of radioactivity or the toxicity of some substance, is to assume a linear response model without threshold (i.e. without a dose rate below which there is no ill effect). Presumably there is no threshold effect for cumulative poisons like heavy metal ions (mercury, lead), which are eliminated only very slowly, if at all. But for virtually every organic substance (such as saccharin or cyclamates), the existence of a finite metabolic rate means that there must exist a finite threshold dose rate, below which the substance is decomposed, eliminated, or chemically altered so rapidly that it causes no ill effects. If this were not true, the human race could never have survived to the present time, in view of all the things we have been eating.

    Indeed, every mouthful of food you and I have ever taken contained many billions of kinds of complex molecules whose structure and physiological effects have never been determined – any many millions of which would be toxic or fatal in large doses. We cannot doubt that we are daily ingesting thousands of substances that are far more dangerous than saccharin – but in amounts that are safe, because they are far below the various thresholds of toxicity.

    From the preface to “Probability Theory”, E. T. Jaynes, Cambridge University Press

    E. T. Jaynes. Ph.D in physics, Princeton University. Professor of physics at Stanford University and the Wayman Crow Professor of Physics at the University of Washington, St Louis

  16. Great post! I think the reason many more folks don’t “go Paleo” or whatever is the off-putting nature of many advocates of such diets being too purist about it all. I eat sooooo much healthier these days than I did three years ago, but if you had told me I had to eat this way from the get go for all perpetuity, no way I would have gotten to this point. Yes, obviously those with food intolerances/diseases can’t get away with much flexibility (but they also have a more compelling reason to stay on the straight and narrow), but I’m a firm believer that whatever % compliance is better than zero, and not overdoing the rest of the time will keep damage in check.

  17. this is an awesome post!!! i agree, set a base with paleo, keep it simple, then figure out what works for you. i do well with dairy, i eat a lot lot of raw cheese & yogurt when money allows. but for the most part, i stick to paleo because it is affordable. a poubnd of meat goes far with some frozen veggies and a couple pounds of potatoes!

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