Food fascism and the 80/20 rule

picture of facism cartoonOver the past few months I’ve been writing 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. I realize that I may have come off that way recently, so I want to take a few moments to clarify my position.

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 crystal clear that wheat, sugar/high-fructose corn syrup and industrial seed oils are toxic to the body and contribute to virtually all modern, degenerative diseases – from diabetes and obesity to heart disease and autoimmunity. There’s also substantial evidence that soy, in its processed form (i.e. soy milk, soy protein isolate, etc.) is an endocrine disruptor and anti-nutrient and is best avoided.

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 & 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 recent articles have revealed, it’s quite possible to eat a lot of potatoes and be perfectly healthy. In fact, Stephan’s most recent 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 & 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 (@100g/d) for healthy people.

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.

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/HFCS & 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 also suggest they follow what I call the 80/20 rule. 80% of the time they should follow the guidelines very closely, and 20% of the time they’re free to loosen up and just eat what they want to eat. 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 crepes (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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  1. Monica’s avatar

    great post!

  2. Monica’s avatar

    oh, chris, I didn’t put my url of my food blog…just for fun…don’t think you’ve seen it…

  3. brandon keatley’s avatar

    excellent chris. never noticed any dogma here though. just open minded assessments…that’s what we love about it. there’s enough dogma out there already. nobody owns what’s Paleo or not.

  4. Mason McClellan, LAc’s avatar

    There be some gold in these words…bravo! Great write!!!

  5. Jon’s avatar

    I agree 100%. The main problem is the small handful of foods you list that everyone should avoid, are the majority of the foods that a majority of people eat. That’s why we get funny looks when we try to tell people about these things. :)

    Personally, I’ve switched to drinking whole milk, eating some cheese, and use a fair amount of butter for cooking, and feel fine. In fact, since giving up wheat, I seem to tolerate dairy just fine. Previously, too much dairy would could cause gastro issues, but not anymore.

  6. Debra’s avatar

    Makes good sense. By the way, can you share the recipe for sourdough buckwheat crepes?

  7. Rosemary’s avatar

    Great post! Thanks!

  8. Darrin’s avatar

    When it comes to diet, I have a saying: 90% is perfect, 75% is good enough.

    I’m a big paleo proponent as well, but see the many difficulties of following and rationalizing it in our modern world. Better to be able to cut loose and have dinner at a restaurant with friends every once in a while than be a Paleo Puritan!

  9. Amanda’s avatar

    Thanks so much for writing this. I’ve been feeling so confused by all that I’m reading in Paleo books, websites and cookbooks. I’m fully bought in to the potential health benefits of living a Paleo lifestyle, though I’m new enough to it that I’m not noticing big changes…yet. However, I am struggling with the idea of where I’m going to land on the “Paleo Spectrum.” Especially as I try to feed my husband and two children. It’s so ovewhelming and confusing to figure out how strict we should be, what is non negotiable, and what we can be a bit more flexible with.

    Anyway, this article has greatly eased my mind as I consider the journey we have begun. I’m going to try to relax, stick with the program as best as I can, and stop obsessing so much.

  10. Mike’s avatar

    I just published a bog entitled – “The Paleo Nazi – No Bread You!” As I had earned this nick name from my friends!

  11. Barkeater’s avatar

    My confirmation bias is glowing. You have summed up my approach. One of my rules is no wheat unless the wheat is in a very compelling dish. Apple pie every now and again, for example. Most days are no wheat, but not all. Not much fructose, but when it is really good, well, OK.

    I am particularly happy to see your mention of legumes. More than a few writers throw legumes under the bus, but I don’t see much discussion that is convincing that they are per se bad. I soak my lentils 24 hours, but then I eat them.

    “Moderation in all things, including moderation.” Mark Twain.

  12. happy’s avatar

    I agree that diet is individual. Having reversed rheumatoid arthritis following Dr. Ayers’ advice (Cooling Inflammation), I now follow my gut about what foods are right for me. I eat nightshade vegetables because in my experience they strengthen my gut flora/immune system more than another other foods. While I LOVE buckwheat, even Stephen Guyenet’s Sourdough Buckwheat Crepes ( gave me what felt like a glucose spike (drat!) so I no longer eat any grains.

    I love your blog!

  13. Chris Curley’s avatar

    Very Well put and would make Tim Ferriss proud

  14. Chris’s avatar

    I thought the 80/20 rule meant that 20% of our “effort” produces 80% of our results. If that’s the case wouldn’t eating paleo or any “optimal” way just 20% of the time give us the 80% we’re looking for?

  15. deb’s avatar

    Chris, I agree and although my diet is free of gluten, sugar and seed oils my plan is to now remove them from the families food.
    Wish me luck on that one!

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  17. v’s avatar

    i’ve been feeling very confused because i feel great and super energetic eating pb&j on wonderbread. i’ve even tested my post-prandial glucose and i’m fine. i’m just waiting for a paleo zealot to tell me that i am fine now because i haven’t damaged my metabolism yet, but by the time i’m in my 50s, mr. diabetes will be showing up. who are they to tell me not to trust how i feel? and where are the specific pb&j wonderbread studies? until i see proof specifically that eating pb&j for the next 30 years will hurt me, i will continue to eat it!! I may even go on an 800 calorie pb&j diet just to prove that i can lose weight on it!

  18. Lisa @ Real Food Digest’s avatar

    Thank you for this excellent post. You’ve summed up and clarified much of what I’ve been reading in the last few months. With all the differences among different diets, it’s great to have a good starting point to agree on – no wheat, sugar/high-fructose corn syrup and industrial seed oils and soy. Beyond that we all need to take responsibility for our health and honestly examine what works for our bodies and educate ourselves.

  19. Alina’s avatar

    Hi Chris,
    Thank you for this wonderful article. I was wondering about that myself recently.
    It does make sense to experiment and see which food makes us feel bad and then avoid it. Should we assume that if we do not have any negative symptoms within 72 hours then the food is good for us? Is it the best way to decide if the food is right for us or not?
    I was just wondering if it is possible not to have any symptoms from certain food but nevertheless that food is not good for us long term. Maybe it causes certain diseases, conditions etc. even if there are no any immediate discomfort symptoms after consuming it? Is it possible?

    My second questions is: you mentioned that seed oils are not good. Did you mean vegetable oils? What about flax seed oil?

    Thank you very much.

  20. Pingback from What do you get up for? « on December 27, 2010 at 10:44 pm

  21. js290’s avatar

    PāNu’s Get Started page has some good common sense steps without being militant about one’s diet.

  22. Chris Masterjohn’s avatar

    Chris #1, great post!

    Chris #2, I think Pareto’s Law is so widely snagged that it’s considered free game to use it however you want. :)

    – Chris #3

  23. Mallory’s avatar

    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!

  24. CarbSane’s avatar

    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.

  25. Chris Kresser’s avatar

    Yes, vegetable oils. Flax is okay in very small quantities, but unnecessary if you’re eating fatty fish 2-3 times a week.

  26. John D Wilson’s avatar

    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

  27. Meg’s avatar

    Nice. Refreshing.


  28. Brittany’s avatar

    What kind of diet would you recommend for someone dealing with osteoporosis? Should they go strict paleo?

  29. Chris Kresser’s avatar

    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.

  30. Luming Zhou’s avatar

    You’re a good writer…

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