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 bloggers – from Mark Sisson to Kurt Harris to Robb Wolf to Paul Jaminet to myself – that 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 Sisson’s “Primal diet”, Paul Jaminet’s “Perfect Health Diet”, and Kurt Harris’ former “PaNu or Paleo 2.0″ and current “Archevore” concepts.
So what’s 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 products – or 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 fat – especially saturated fat – and 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 diet – provided the carbs come from starchy vegetables and not grains – may be optimal.
So what is a Paleo diet? Is it low-carb? Low-fat? Does it include dairy? Grains?
We’re 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 there’s no difference, others (including me) would suggest that 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.
Second, as recent studies have revealed, we can’t really know what our ancestors ate with 100% 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 (60-70% 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 (60-70% 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 20-25% of calories), but others do well when they eat a smaller amount (10-15%).
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 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.
In my 9 Steps to Perfect Health series, I attempted to define the general dietary guidelines that constitute the Paleo template:
- Don’t eat toxins: avoid industrial seed oils, improperly prepared cereal grains and legumes and excess sugar (especially fructose)
- Nourish your body: emphasize saturated and monounsaturated fat while reducing intake of polyunsaturated fat, favor glucose/starch over fructose, and favor ruminant animal protein and seafood over poultry
- Eat real food: eat grass-fed, organic meat and wild fish, and local, organic produce when possible. Avoid processed, refined and packaged food.
Within these guidelines, however, there’s a lot of room for individual differences. When people ask me whether dairy products are healthy, I always say “it depends”. I give the same answer when I’m asked about nightshades, caffeine, alcohol and carbohydrate intake.
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. These are the foods I mentioned in my “Don’t Eat Toxins” article.
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?