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What is or isn't "Paleo?"

Answered on August 19, 2014
Created January 06, 2011 at 2:19 AM

I'm still new to this and the more books I read and the more sites I visit, the more confused I become as to what Paleo really means.

From my reading of some of the popular works by Cordain, Wolf and Sisson, I understood the general principles to be the avoidance of "non-paleo" foods and after that, eat until you're full. From these books, I gathered paleo to be a high protein and moderate fat and carbohydrate diet. (I believe that's how it's worded in The Paleo Diet)

However, a lot of what I see on the Internet is making Paleo out to be a remake of Atkins; high fat and low to ultra low carbs. Some proponents post pictures of their meals which are heaping piles of fatty meats with not a veggie or fruit in sight. Is there an official stance as to what "paleo eating" really means? Are there multiple factions? If so, what should I be focusing on if I agree with the high protein, moderate fat and moderate carb approach?

77732bf6bf2b8a360f523ef87c3b7523

(6157)

on January 07, 2011
at 03:56 PM

Ahh, never mind. I did some more thinking and realized that wheat = gluten + WGA + other lectins + phytic acid + omega 6 + blood sugar spike, while corn oil is mostly just omega 6. As a practical matter, though, it's much easier to get people to use butter instead of corn oil, than to get them to avoid all gluten.

77732bf6bf2b8a360f523ef87c3b7523

(6157)

on January 07, 2011
at 03:45 PM

I wonder if gluten is actually less problematic than industrial seed oils. Gluten consumption has been around for 6-10k years, after all, while industrial seed oils are only 100 years old. Maybe this deserves its own question.

E35e3d76547b18096a59c90029e7e107

(15613)

on January 07, 2011
at 08:32 AM

Typo, you can see in my comment on Cynarin's post above that I identify KH as agreeing with me.

26f1c6e9fbecc4ac6948f8f395979a81

(503)

on January 07, 2011
at 01:28 AM

There are many great replies on this question, but you directly answered specifically what I needed Mark. I believe I'm already in line with the Cordain/Wolf camp so I think I'm focused on the right web sites and references. Thanks!

77732bf6bf2b8a360f523ef87c3b7523

(6157)

on January 06, 2011
at 08:39 PM

Why *pace* Harris? He agrees with you. "The EM2 is defined mostly by what is missing [i.e., grains and industrial oils], once we stipulate that a certain amount of high quality animal foods is a minimum requirement." http://www.paleonu.com/panu-weblog/2011/1/5/guest-post-professor-gumby-essay-001.html#comments

1471beca8e3adff4ae2f89d10e5f7acb

(6550)

on January 06, 2011
at 04:13 PM

I think you misinterpreted what I meant there...I'm not saying there's necessarily all that much disagreement--just that some people focus on the anthropological theory (which originates from Cordain's work), some on the tweak-heavy sciencey bits (which has come to be associated more with folks like Robb Wolf because he has a podcast that's all about the tweaky stuff), and some on the low-carb theory (which can look like basically "natural" Atkins). Of course everybody eats grass-fed and cares about omegas.

6fa48935d439390e223b9a053a62c981

(1676)

on January 06, 2011
at 04:06 PM

I disagree with this. Cordain SPECIFICALLY cautions against eating much honey (due to its paleolithic scarcity) or dried fruits (because of the glycemic load). Moreover, Wolf is a protege of Cordain, and I don't see much, if anything, that they disagree about. They are both very concerned about -6s, and both expound upon this at some length in their respective books. Wolf and Cordain are in the same camp, not different camps. Also, ALL paleos recommend grass-fed ruminants and offal, due to the favorable fatty acid profiles. There is no distinction between camps on this point.

6fa48935d439390e223b9a053a62c981

(1676)

on January 06, 2011
at 03:55 PM

I would just add that the second group (or maybe a different group altogether?) also seems to go out of their way to add lots of additional other fats, beyond dairy, to their food, like lard, tallow, coconut oil, etc. This definitely goes beyond re-enactment as paleolithic peoples simply did not get all the fat they may have wanted. +1

667f6c030b0245d71d8ef50c72b097dc

(15976)

on January 06, 2011
at 03:54 PM

nice, i had no idea panu updated. great initial post with gummy.

1471beca8e3adff4ae2f89d10e5f7acb

(6550)

on January 06, 2011
at 03:04 PM

Good call, David...I think most of us take a blended approach anyway.

E35e3d76547b18096a59c90029e7e107

(15613)

on January 06, 2011
at 08:19 AM

I love this typology, but I would suggest that on the venn diagram I would expect a big overlap between 2-3, the scientific low carb school, which is espoused by Kurt Harris (PaNu). I think these people including KH and this is certainly true of myself are all interested in *optimal health* rather than *paleolicity*, which is why we minimise o-6/fructose and have whole meals of heavy cream, because we're explicitly not interested in arbitrarily recreating paleo conditions, but in paleo as a heuristic to suggest the optimal.

Ac1e55cf06c2180f4008ff01953d10dd

(3524)

on January 06, 2011
at 03:00 AM

excellent answer Cynarin!

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8 Answers

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5
6fa48935d439390e223b9a053a62c981

(1676)

on January 06, 2011
at 05:46 PM

There do seem to be some minor quibbles regarding carbs. There are endless debates about the paleo merits of potatoes and yams, for instance. But these really are minor issues and no one is overly concerned. Anyone who goes this deeply into paleo is probably tweaking their diet in a way that works best for them.

But I see paleos falling generally into two camps, separated by their respective understanding of the proper quantity of dietary saturated fatty acids (SFAs). Cordain and Wolf recommend keeping dietary SFAs around ancestral limits, that is between 10 and 15 percent of total energy. Lower than 10 percent or greater than 15 percent is a departure from these ancestral limits. This is the paper that both Cordain and Wolf point to on their respective sites.

Others feel that healthy saturated fats can pretty much be consumed without limit. This might be represented best by what Kurt Harris calls "duplicating what I believe are the key elements of the internal hormonal metabolic milieu..." This point of view allows unlimited quantities of butter, cream, ghee, coconut oil, tallow, lard, etc. The dairy products here are from grass-fed animals, of course. And not all of these paleos include dairy, but will include lard, tallow, and coconut oil for the most part. This is generally a low carb diet and eschews sugary fruits like apples and recommends low-sugar varieties like berries.

Yes, this second camp does seem to advocate a modified Atkins diet. See Melissa's great answer here. To her excellent diagram I would just add that Paleo is moderately fatty, while Primal is much more fatty, with the important caveat that all such "fats" are healthy paleo fats (i.e. from grass-fed ruminants). Keep in mind that even a "lean Paleo" diet includes more fat than what the conventional wisdom (CW) dictates we eat.

To sum up, the first camp is fairly described as high protein and moderately fatty and carby, per Cordain and Wolf. The second camp is much more fatty, and maybe low carb, depending on the individual, per Sisson and Harris. I don't think Sisson's Primal is nearly as fatty as Harris' PaNu.

You asked specifically: "what should I be focusing on if I agree with the high protein, moderate fat and moderate carb approach?" You should read Cordain and Wolf.

Above, I have tried to be objective and accurate in describing the paleo dichotomy as I see it. Now I'll give you my personal take. I follow the recommendations of Cordain and Wolf, and as such my diet is "lean Paleo." [But again, lean is a relative term, and is specifically relative to dietary recommendations of the American Heart Association, the American Medical Association, and others (i.e. the CW). I eat more fat than they say I should, but these are healthy fats.] If "lean paleo" is moderately fatty, then primal/panu is just off the charts. Proponents of these diets will tell you that they are healthy diets and can cite numerous papers as evidence. You have to decide for yourself.

You also have to ask yourself why you're doing this. If the paleo diet is an attempt to replicate the diet of our paleolithic ancestors, then you want to try to eat what they ate. But we only have access to modern foods. So if paleolithic peoples were eating wild game and wild game is very lean, you want to eat lean. "Even a fall-fattened deer is one very lean animal. So paleolithic people were not eating all the fat they wanted, or craved. That quantity of fat just was not available to them. We modern people, however, can enjoy unlimited quantities of butter, cream, ghee, coconut oil, and anything else we want, without limit. We can even tailor our dietary fatty acid profiles to suit our preferences, which would be industrial food by definition. This access to unlimited fat is clearly divergent from the actual paleolithic diet, so a high-fat paleo diet is an oxymoron (but it might be healthy). You just have to decide for yourself which seems right to you."

(I took the above quote from a related answer I gave.)

26f1c6e9fbecc4ac6948f8f395979a81

(503)

on January 07, 2011
at 01:28 AM

There are many great replies on this question, but you directly answered specifically what I needed Mark. I believe I'm already in line with the Cordain/Wolf camp so I think I'm focused on the right web sites and references. Thanks!

13
1471beca8e3adff4ae2f89d10e5f7acb

on January 06, 2011
at 02:34 AM

I see paleo as vaguely having three factions or schools:

  1. The anthropological school, which is most concerned with "real" food or traditional foods of hunter-gatherer populations, who tend to be happy with high-carb things like dried fruit and raw honey despite their fructose load because they would have been eaten during the paleolithic. Also bigger nut and seed eaters, generally. Avoid dairy because paleo man didn't eat it. Cordain-ish.

  2. The scientific school, which is much more concerned with anti-nutrients and inflammation; these are the people most obsessed with excessive omega-6s. For this camp, too many carbs hurt fat loss but too few impede a strength and conditioning program. Avoid dairy if it screws with your autoimmunity, other issues. Wolf-ish.

  3. The low-carb school, which is similar to Atkins but with much more of an emphasis on protein and fat quality. These are the folks that see animal products as the optimal human food, but that are into things like grass-fed meats and sometimes offal. Vegetable matter is optional or garnish. Heavy cream, etc. are considered generally OK. This school is often found on places like Mark's Daily Apple but isn't thus far espoused to the extreme by any author. (Possible exception: Kurt Harris of PaNu).

I started from #1 and moved toward #2 (basically, I let the science "prove" the anthropological hypothesis). I've tinkered with my diet and carbohydrate intake until I found what worked best for me--#3 has never really been an option because I really, really love vegetables.

Edited to add a link to a visual explanation by our own Melissa that I think is maybe clearer: http://huntgatherlove.com/content/paleo-vs-primal-vs-atkins

E35e3d76547b18096a59c90029e7e107

(15613)

on January 06, 2011
at 08:19 AM

I love this typology, but I would suggest that on the venn diagram I would expect a big overlap between 2-3, the scientific low carb school, which is espoused by Kurt Harris (PaNu). I think these people including KH and this is certainly true of myself are all interested in *optimal health* rather than *paleolicity*, which is why we minimise o-6/fructose and have whole meals of heavy cream, because we're explicitly not interested in arbitrarily recreating paleo conditions, but in paleo as a heuristic to suggest the optimal.

1471beca8e3adff4ae2f89d10e5f7acb

(6550)

on January 06, 2011
at 04:13 PM

I think you misinterpreted what I meant there...I'm not saying there's necessarily all that much disagreement--just that some people focus on the anthropological theory (which originates from Cordain's work), some on the tweak-heavy sciencey bits (which has come to be associated more with folks like Robb Wolf because he has a podcast that's all about the tweaky stuff), and some on the low-carb theory (which can look like basically "natural" Atkins). Of course everybody eats grass-fed and cares about omegas.

1471beca8e3adff4ae2f89d10e5f7acb

(6550)

on January 06, 2011
at 03:04 PM

Good call, David...I think most of us take a blended approach anyway.

Ac1e55cf06c2180f4008ff01953d10dd

(3524)

on January 06, 2011
at 03:00 AM

excellent answer Cynarin!

6fa48935d439390e223b9a053a62c981

(1676)

on January 06, 2011
at 04:06 PM

I disagree with this. Cordain SPECIFICALLY cautions against eating much honey (due to its paleolithic scarcity) or dried fruits (because of the glycemic load). Moreover, Wolf is a protege of Cordain, and I don't see much, if anything, that they disagree about. They are both very concerned about -6s, and both expound upon this at some length in their respective books. Wolf and Cordain are in the same camp, not different camps. Also, ALL paleos recommend grass-fed ruminants and offal, due to the favorable fatty acid profiles. There is no distinction between camps on this point.

5
7e746be2f0e550a8cd7df881322ae705

on January 06, 2011
at 02:27 AM

I think the number one, across the board, Paleo Diet rule is DON'T EAT WHEAT/GLUTEN. After that, there are different views on many foods.

When I first started Paleo I used this list as a guideline:

http://altmed.creighton.edu/Paleodiet/Foodlist.html

Robb Wolf said he considered Paleo "carb agnostic" meaning it could be either high or low carb. You have to see what works best for you.

If you are focusing on high protein, moderate fat and moderate carb approach, I think Robb Wolf's food matrix is an excellent place to start.

http://robbwolf.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/thePaleoSolution_FoodMatrix.pdf

If you cut out gluten and sugar you are most of the way there. Your levels of protein, fat and carbs are up to you.

77732bf6bf2b8a360f523ef87c3b7523

(6157)

on January 07, 2011
at 03:45 PM

I wonder if gluten is actually less problematic than industrial seed oils. Gluten consumption has been around for 6-10k years, after all, while industrial seed oils are only 100 years old. Maybe this deserves its own question.

77732bf6bf2b8a360f523ef87c3b7523

(6157)

on January 07, 2011
at 03:56 PM

Ahh, never mind. I did some more thinking and realized that wheat = gluten + WGA + other lectins + phytic acid + omega 6 + blood sugar spike, while corn oil is mostly just omega 6. As a practical matter, though, it's much easier to get people to use butter instead of corn oil, than to get them to avoid all gluten.

4
E35e3d76547b18096a59c90029e7e107

(15613)

on January 06, 2011
at 09:18 AM

I think the cruciual point is that paleo is a heuristic, not a diet. Hence, trying to choose a diet compatible with paleo insights admits of multiple satisfactory interpretations.

As to the principles, as per Kurt Harris, I think paleo is more about what one leaves out than dictating what one includes. The emphasis is on avoiding things that we definitely couldn't have evolved eating, with a role for the science and the analysis of the physiological effects of precise nutrients, to distinguish the good from the bad (c.f. lots of butter vs lots of fruit).

Paleo is, I think, definitely neutral on what you ought to include by way of high fat/low fat/high carb/low carb, but it's easy to think that paleo plus a bit of reasonable science means you should lean one way or the other. I wouldn't call these factions. I'm decidedly a low carb paleo (previously eating close zero, with lots of low carb vegetables, now eating up to 40g per day) but I'm of the opinion that high (paleo) carb a la the Kitavans is completely acceptable for many people.

If you're eating a higher carb approach, then you can still agree with the insights of the scientific/low carb paleos (according to cynarin's categorisation above), by limiting fructose and getting most of your carb calories from starch (e.g. sweet potato). I think the same approach would definitely mandate eating only moderate protein, rather than high protein too.

This should be pretty intuitive: if you simply eat reasonably fatty meat until you have adequate protein, you should have a moderate amount of space left in your daily calories for your carbohydrate.

E35e3d76547b18096a59c90029e7e107

(15613)

on January 07, 2011
at 08:32 AM

Typo, you can see in my comment on Cynarin's post above that I identify KH as agreeing with me.

77732bf6bf2b8a360f523ef87c3b7523

(6157)

on January 06, 2011
at 08:39 PM

Why *pace* Harris? He agrees with you. "The EM2 is defined mostly by what is missing [i.e., grains and industrial oils], once we stipulate that a certain amount of high quality animal foods is a minimum requirement." http://www.paleonu.com/panu-weblog/2011/1/5/guest-post-professor-gumby-essay-001.html#comments

3
D38c0cc994b194de08289e0fe3f99d1e

(421)

on January 06, 2011
at 03:38 PM

I see two schools of thought when it comes to "paleo." One focuses on re-enactment and the other on optimal health.

The re-enactment crowd tries to emulate, to the extent possible in a a modern world, what our paleo ancestors ate and they avoid all things neolithic.

The optimal-health crowd focuses on what we are genetically adapted to eating, and they avoid certain neolithic items that are deemed to be agents of disease.

Both groups are aligned on avoiding the four primary neolithic agents of disease (wheat, legumes, fructose, and omega-6 PUFAs from vegetable oils), and on avoidng high-calorie / low nutrient neolitihic foods (e.g., sugars, fruit juice, etc.) to minimize insulin response.

The primary area where they differ is with dairy. The re-enacters avoid dairy simply because it is neolitihc; the optimal-healthers eat butter/ghee, heavy cream, and cheese because it is rich in healthly saturated animal fat.

Within both groups, there is some disagreement with respect to starchy tubers (e.g., potatoes, yams, and perhaps rice). These foods are farless toxic than wheat and legumes, and the eaxct role they played in the diet of our paleo ancestors is still open for debate.

6fa48935d439390e223b9a053a62c981

(1676)

on January 06, 2011
at 03:55 PM

I would just add that the second group (or maybe a different group altogether?) also seems to go out of their way to add lots of additional other fats, beyond dairy, to their food, like lard, tallow, coconut oil, etc. This definitely goes beyond re-enactment as paleolithic peoples simply did not get all the fat they may have wanted. +1

3
D30ff86ad2c1f3b43b99aed213bcf461

on January 06, 2011
at 02:31 AM

For reliable "what is paleo" content:

MarksDailyApple.com <- Daily content, very accessible, good stuff. Thoroughly cited. Mark Sisson's "primal" nomenclature is generally synonymous with lacto-paleo friendly as heavy cream, butter, and raw cheeses are welcomed as part of the diet as long as dairy works for the user.

PaNu (Paleolithic Nutrition) <- Very challenging, thorough content by Dr. Kurt Harris (he just posted new stuff today! yay!) who eats 70% of his calories from fat. Also thoroughly cited. His "getting started" page is a classic.

RobbWolf.com <- a former research biochemist and weightlifting champion doing posts on everyday paleo living. Also has an adorable wife and a dynamite cat.

For a bit more:

Hunter Gatherer <- written by John Durant, who was featured on The Colbert Report in 2010.

Hunt Gather Love <- written by Melissa McEwen, a top notch PaleoHacker and PaleoHacks moderator. She wrote a post on what foods qualify as evolutionarily appropriate.

Also see the HUGE list of primal and paleo blogs listed here.

667f6c030b0245d71d8ef50c72b097dc

(15976)

on January 06, 2011
at 03:54 PM

nice, i had no idea panu updated. great initial post with gummy.

1
F8c63410ad2ade1978775862befb95ff

on January 06, 2011
at 08:02 AM

My understanding of the paleo diet is that "one should not eat any grains, beans, potatoes, dairy, excessive salt or refined sugars, or products thereof" which I got from back in the early days of the movement from here.

This I've reduced to mentally to excluding GBP (Grains, Beans, Potatoes) and eating "real food", stuff either I've cooked or I know doesn't come out of a packet. I still eat dairy since I don't feel I could give that up - cheese helps me beat any cravings that come up - and I use honey in place of sugar where necessary (normally when cooking ribs to give a nice glaze).

It works for me - I've felt better than I have in years and my body fat is coming down naturally, faster than exercise alone would have achieved.

0
Ac1e55cf06c2180f4008ff01953d10dd

on January 06, 2011
at 02:58 AM

There are a number of common factors: no flour, no sugar, no trans fat, no products derived from wheat-soy or corn, the importance of having meat, fish and vegetables, plus the great value of physical activity. As Cynarin says, the different authors-schools differ on what an optimal diet would be (aka very low carb versus moderate carb, etc). Also different people have come here with their own goals, from athletes to others searching for weight loss, and there is a huge variety of climates where we live, which explains those differences that you find.

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