Paleo Deconstructed Part 1: A Pig With Lipstick

I love the Paleo Diet. That’s going to surprise some people. What’s not going to surprise anyone is that I also hate Paleo, too. In fact, I hate Paleo as much as I love it. More, even.

The physicist in me likes to distill everything down to its basics, looking for the smallest number of characteristics to define a system and encompass a vast number of variants. This means that when you go Paleo:


  1. You avoid pretty much all processed foods—including dairy—unless that processed food is an energy bar or a GU pack—or if the manufacturer was smart enough to print “all-natural ingredients” on the wrapper. If they’re really smart, these manufacturers will actually print the word Paleo somewhere.
  2. You’ll eat anything that came from an animal (except as noted above), but prefer leaner cuts of meat.
  3. You think grains (like rice, corn, and wheat) are the devil.
  4. You’ll eat anything natural, no matter how unnatural it actually is for humans, unless it’s white. Cauliflower is an exception because although it’s white, it’s broccoli’s albino brother. White potatoes aren’t okay, although they’re pretty much identical, metabolically and nutritionally, to sweet potatoes, which are.
  5. You’ll eat honey and evaporated cane syrup despite the fact that they produce identical metabolic results to table sugar, which you hate.
  6. You believe you’re allergic to just about every type of food.
  7. You’re a big fan of plant fats like the ones you get from nuts, avocados, and flax seeds. Unless, that is, you think you have a nut allergy, at which point you won’t be a fan of nuts—unless those nuts are rolled into an energy bar (see above).

These are the basic principles I’ve found to be common to the majority of works I’ve seen on the subject, along with almost universal sentiment from the Paleo community. Even though I was going for humor with some of these, I’m not trying to be inflammatory here. For health, for the most part, they’re excellent guiding principles.


The Golden Rule of Health

I wish this DH guy would stop making references to math shit in these articles!

I’ve studied diets for a long time now. For the majority of my life, in fact. With virtually every diet out there, I’ve done the same thing I’m doing here, grouping them into their essential components based on research, health benefits, and performance attributes. From the Zone fad, through Atkins, South Beach, Pritikin, and Low GI diets, to vegan and vegetarian diets, I’ve done this with just about everything. As it turns out, there are, literally, only eight types of diets. When you find these base elements in any system of mathematics (from which all other systems can be constructed), you call it the canonical set.

At the base of this canonical set of diets, there’s one overriding principle that defines the health-producing effects of every one of them. Here it is:

The greater amount of your diet that comes from foods that require the least amount of processing, and that were obtainable before modern agriculture, the greater level of health you achieve.

This covers all diets, whether ketogenic, low-fat or ultra-high protein. There’s also one supplemental principle that’s key, as it explains why vegan diets—which conform to this principle—cause increased risk of stroke and other maladies like…well…malnutrition:

The greater the extent of your food variety, the healthier you are.

Although this adjunct is a topic for another day, it essentially means that to get all the nutrients you need (macro and micro), you need a specific variety of different types of foods[1] (animal and possibly plant). Again, I’ll cover this in a later post.

That’s it. Everything we know about a healthy diet—no matter what the label—is contained in those two principles. This is where Paleo gets it painfully right in a lot of ways, because at heart, Paleo is based on these two principles.


What’s In a Name?

I don’t, however, want to get all gushy over Paleo, because it also does some things painfully wrong. The first of these is its damned name. Paleo. This irks me probably more than anything else, because it implies that this is how humans ate during the Paleolithic Era. To be honest, it’s rather asinine to think that humans roamed free through vast forests of nut and fruit trees, picking berries, digging yams and sweet potatoes from the loose, yielding, nitrogen-rich soil, and grunting some lyrically undeveloped version of Kumbaya.

Lipstick doesn’t always make things pretty…

The truth is that during the Paleolithic Era, humans ate almost no plant matter whatsoever[2-10]. From collagen studies on homo sapiens bones, we know for a fact that we ate almost nothing that grew from the ground. Hell, we were actually pretty smart back then. We let the animals designed to eat grass and vegetation do all the hard work, and then we just ate them.

All of them, that is. From fossil records and bone fragments found at archeological sites, we ate the entire animal—organs and all, including the bone marrow[11]. Some of the first stone tools we developed were used to split open the bones of animals so we could slurp out the marrow (which is a rich source of the omega-3 fatty acid DHA).

Researchers found that even modern-day hunter-gatherer populations with forgo digging up and consuming tubers and other plant-based food because the cost of digging them up trumps the energy and nutritional value[12]. Modern populations who live as close as possible to Paleolithic conditions don’t even eat Paleo. Nobody did until modern times. I hate to break it to everyone, but Paleo is a 21st century diet.


Another Pig With Lipstick

Herein lies the problem. When you create a funky label for a diet—especially one that turns out to be easy to debunk—everyone and their brother (including me) is going to point it out. This is what fuels supposed dietary experts in their campaign to label diets like Paleo “fads.” No one should consider the principles of Paleo when applied to health as a fad, although I’ll bet the name will pass away and be forgotten after a few years.

I know Paleo enthusiasts would rather fantasize about hairy guys gnawing on tubers, but I’d rather imagine this.

So if Paleo isn’t a fad, then what is it? Paleo borders on the Mediterranean diet, and is a good example of the Spanish Ketogenic Mediterranean Diet (SKMD). That’s it. Here are the defining characteristics of the various types of Mediterranean eating plans (so you can think of these as the canonical description of a Mediterranean diet)[13-21]:

  1. Fat intake is 30 to 40% of energy intake, mostly from plant sources with lesser amounts from animal sources.
  2. Fiber consumption is high, through non-starchy vegetables.
  3. Foods are highly unrefined.
  4. Carbohydrate consumption, even from fruit, is low and often occurs at night (can you say Carb Back-Loading?) through starch sources like pasta or tubers like potatoes.

I know it’s not as exciting to imagine half-naked, hot, tanned bodies strolling on the beaches of the Mediterranean Sea eating fish and vegetables as it is to picture hairy Neanderthals clubbing each other for a handful of nuts and berries, but it’s the right picture nonetheless. This is a good thing, though, because these four principles consistently demonstrate how healthy the Mediterranean Diet is[22-25].


Let’s Be Honest

There’s nothing particularly exciting about the Paleo sensation other than its attempt at a new origin story. They do rightly assess the potential dangers of eating dairy and gluten (even if they’re blown out of proportion), but ignore others like the quality and effect of the sources of fat or not emphasizing adequate carb intake when performance is a concern. Oh, and there’s that whole thing about never eating anything processed, even if benefits the person without negative consequence. Next Friday, I’ll explore these mistakes and the lessons you can apply to optimize Carb Nite and Carb Back-Loading.


References (click to expand)
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  2. Richards MP, Pettitt PB, Trinkaus E, Smith FH, Paunović M, Karavanić I. Neanderthal diet at Vindija and Neanderthal predation: the evidence from stable isotopes. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2000 Jun 20;97(13):7663-6.
  3. Hu Y, Shang H, Tong H, Nehlich O, Liu W, Zhao C, Yu J, Wang C, Trinkaus E, Richards MP. Stable isotope dietary analysis of the Tianyuan 1 early modern human. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2009 Jul 7;106(27):10971-4.
  4. Richards MP, Hedges RM, Jacobi R, Current A, Stringer CB. Focus: Gough’s Cave and Sun Hole Cave human stable isotope values indicate a high animal protein diet in the British Upper Palaeolithic. J. Archaeol Sci. 2000 27(1), 1– 3.
  5. Richards MP, Jacobi R, Cook J, Pettitt PB, Stringer CB. Isotope evidence for the intensive use of marine foods by Late Upper Palaeolithic humans. J Hum Evol. 2005 Sep;49(3):390-4.
  6. Walker PL, DeNiro MJ. Stable nitrogen and carbon isotope ratios in bone collagen as indices of prehistoric dietary dependence on marine and terrestrial resources in southern California. Am J Phys Anthropol. 1986 Sep;71(1):51-61.
  7. Ambrose SH, Butler BM, Hanson DB, Hunter-Anderson RL, Krueger HW. Stable isotopic analysis of human diet in the Marianas Archipelago, western Pacific. Am J Phys Anthropol. 1997 Nov;104(3):343-61.
  8. Richards MP. A brief review of the archaeological evidence for Palaeolithic and Neolithic subsistence. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2002 Dec;56(12):16 p following 1262.
  9. Richards MP, Trinkaus E. Out of Africa: modern human origins special feature: isotopic evidence for the diets of European Neanderthals and early modern humans. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2009 Sep 22;106(38):16034-9.
  10. Bocherens H. Isotopic biogeochemistry as a marker of Neandertal diet. Anthropol Anz. 1997 Jun;55(2):101-20.
  11. Tappen M: Deconstructing the Serengeti; in Stanford CB, Bunn TH (eds): Meat-Eating and Human Evolution. New York, Oxford University Press, 2001, pp 13–33.
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  13. Ciccarone E, Di Castelnuovo A, Salcuni M, Siani A, Giacco A, Donati MB, De Gaetano G, Capani F, Iacoviello L; Gendiabe Investigators. A high-score Mediterranean dietary pattern is associated with a reduced risk of peripheral arterial disease in Italian patients with Type 2 diabetes. J Thromb Haemost. 2003 Aug;1(8):1744-52.
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  16. Kushi LH, Lenart EB, Willett WC. Health implications of Mediterranean diets in light of contemporary knowledge. 1. Plant foods and dairy products. Am J Clin Nutr. 1995 Jun;61(6 Suppl):1407S-1415S. Review.
  17. Martinez-Gonzalez MA, Fernandez-Jarne E, Martinez-Losa E, Prado-Santamaria M, Brugarolas-Brufau C, Serrano-Martinez M. Role of fibre and fruit in the Mediterranean diet to protect against myocardial infarction: a case-control study in Spain. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2002 Aug;56(8):715-22.
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