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Functional Paleo: A Definition And Short Manifesto
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August 3, 2011
1:57 am
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My series-in-progress, (, ), will return after the Ancestral Health Symposium. I'm anxious to continue, because we're just starting to dig into the meat of the problems with )—but due to conference preparations and unexpected workspace issues, I simply don't have the time to do it justice right now.

I'll be signing copies of The Gnoll Credo at the Friday evening author event—so if you're attending AHS, make sure to stop by and introduce yourself!

Also, if you don't see me update next Tuesday, rest assured…

August 3, 2011
2:32 am
anand srivastava

What about WholeHealthSource? He is not included because he does not recommend a diet, except for refraining from wheat, sugar and refined oil. But that is the same point as your 2nd one and he also uses biochemistry and traditional diets to decide on what is good and what is bad. Sounds to me like Functional Paleo.

August 3, 2011
2:34 am
Max More

Hmmm. Coining terms to describe broad yet reasonably precise concepts is challenging, as I know well. "Functional paleo" seems to fit the bill well. I've been using "NeoPaleo", but I think I like your term better.

Okay, JS, I'm in.

The logic of functional paleo, in contrast to paleo reenactment makes complete sense to me. Paleo reenactment is really just another form of fundamentalist thinking. That's excusable and understandable for very short initial periods of time when moving from different beliefs systems or when very young, but otherwise is just silly. "Functional paleo" nicely labels a rational, evidence-based yet intellectually daring approach to nutrition and well-being.


August 3, 2011
3:16 am
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Stephan has never self-identified as paleo AFAIK…he's more of a WAPF guy.  I know he soaks/sprouts grains — and lately he's begun strongly recommending a bland, starch-based diet, for reasons that I disagree with.  (Note that I absolutely accept the concept of food reward, and I believe that blandness can help address some cases of imbalanced hunger -- but he seems to be advocating it as a universal solution, which I don't accept.  What I mean will become clear as I continue the series.)

As far as soaking/sprouting grains, sure, you can remove a lot of some toxins…but grain protein is still sparse, of poor quality, difficult to digest, and often disruptive to digestion (e.g. lectins).  And no amount of soaking will cause gluten or gliadin not to mess with your intestines.

AFAIK the only grain we can even remotely justify on functional paleo grounds is white rice, and that's because it's a relatively clean source of starch.


You're right: good coinages are incredibly difficult to come up with.  This one simply came to me as I was preparing dinner and not thinking of anything in particular.  Which is good, because I was and am far too tired to write Part IV of "Why Are We Hungry?"

I'm glad my articles still merit your attention!


August 3, 2011
3:18 am
Guy The Healthy Pale

Yep agree

Paul Jaminet's book is excellent in this regard. I went to a seminar by Mat Lalonde and he is also driving this point, biochemistry above all.

After nearly a year Paleo I am still experimenting around. I'm losing my attraction to fruits in general, except bananas(?) and berries. Bread is only good for the butter.... Coconut oil has a very soothing effect on me, I take it daily mornig and evening. Now I'm reconsidering the whole Crossfit mentality, that a bit of fat might be healthy, has opposed to chocolat abs mentality????

I'm blogging about my experiences here: and oh yes I like week long water fasting, good for fat recycling and protein recycling.

Thanks for another short paleo blurb!!!!!

Guy The Healthy Paleo Guy

August 3, 2011
3:29 am

Particle physics has been likened to trying to figure out how a clock works by smashing it with a sledge hammer and looking at the pieces.

I think trying to figure out the optimal human diet by a combination of often poorly done (and institutionally biased) research, studying modern hunter-gatherers (almost non-existent), and archaeological evidence is somewhat similar, except that the human body is much more complicated than an atom and the tools we have to study it relatively more primitive than high-energy particle accelerators. So we are left with thing like 'what would Grok do'. Such blunt tools are all we have at the moment, since we are pretty far from being able to compute nutritional biochemistry directly from the genome. But what would Grok do is way better than following the Food Pyramid or the China Study...

August 3, 2011
3:36 am

I think this whole definition-thing is fraught with danger.

For me 'paleo' comprises of fasting (so I throw one or two long fasts in a week, which are generally lower protein days), some higher carb days (potatoes and root veg), and some lower fat days. Notwithstanding the above, protein and fat dominate the diet. The days on which I implement the above are chosen at random. There is another paleo element I include, and that is an emphasis on seasonal foods.

Trying to formalise the above is quite difficult and my main approach is one that had occurred to me, but which I first saw documented by Tamir Katz ( who writes, "imagine yourself in the woods, or by the ocean or on some fertile plain, with nothing but your own wit. What would you be able to eat? Well, you could gather some berries, fruit, leaves, flowers, roots, nuts, and seeds. You could also use rocks, sharpened sticks, or other simple tools to hunt animals or catch fish."

Katz's appraoch gives us a good handle on the paleo concept and can act like a compass thereafter. I usually start off with this example when explaing the paleo diet to people - which gets them to an understanding I call 'Paleo Ground Zero' (PGZ).

I then suggest that from PGZ and armed with this 'compass' people can explore the paleo terrain and move from PGZ in to diary, eating perennial higher carbohydrate diets, eating unseasonally etc... But each time a novel food choice comes up, you can just reflect back upon Katz example, and if the food does not register in that situation, then treat it with caution. Novel can mean out-of-season as much as neolithic.

This still does not capture the fasting part of the equation. Perhaps the modern desire for diet-by-numbers is an unachievable definition of paleo?

August 3, 2011
4:58 am

Rob Wolf - The paleo solution????

I would say that's functional paleo.

August 3, 2011
6:11 am

Thank you JS for your kind inclusion in that distinguished list.
I think we need a new term badly. I'm getting tired of a forward slash (Paleo/primal/lowcarb/evolutionary/...). We need something which doesn't enclose us in a box because any box, even a Paleo one :), means that people turn off their brains and just blindly follow. Functional Paleo or primal works for me until somebody shows up and declares that primal means you have to eat sauerkraut daily or never ever buy milk from the supermarket.
Fundamentalists are unpleasant in any guise even when they mean well.
Enjoy the AHS. Wish I could be there.


August 3, 2011
6:17 am
James Schipper

I like the term.

For those of you wondering why he posted that MMA video, it wasn't just for the entertainment value. Neil "Goliath" Grove is very much a Paleo guy.

August 3, 2011
6:34 am
Dave, RN

Semantics. Just eat real food. Don't worry about tags.

A rose by any other name...

August 3, 2011
6:43 am
Jan's Sushi Bar

I am most definitely a functional paleo eater, although I avoid using the term to describe my diet for the very reasons you have listed here - you end up in some of the most absurd conversations ("but cavemen only lived to be 25 years old!!"). I tend to tell people I only eat real food - and things that are processed are no longer real. If I'm feeling particularly argumentative, I'll point out that all grains MUST be processed before they can be consumed, then ask if the person I'm talking to has ever eaten just straight flour. I actually had one person tell me, "Well, you don't eat raw meat!" Uh, yeah, I do. I love sashimi, carpaccio and steak tare tare, and eat them every chance I get.

August 3, 2011
8:23 am
Mike T Nelson

Great discussion!

I agree, that the most basic question of "what is paleo" varies quite a bit.

First off, if your method of paleo work, by all means go for it! Results above all else!

For me, I like the Metabolic Flexibility concept (which I do owe you a follow on in regards to your great article on it).

My goal is to be the most adaptable MF-er around. 90 to 95% of the time that means eating foods that make me better. The rest of the time is to test my response to foods and see if I can handle them ok.

I should be able to drink a can of soda and not pass out from the "sugar rush." This does NOT mean I will drink soda with every meal, every day though!

I believe this method is more in tune with what our ancestors did, since food selection was more limited. People back then did not have the option to skip on certain foods when they were present. They ate as much as possible and those that continually passed on certain foods, probably did not live long and died from starvation.


Rock on
Mike T Nelson PhD(c)

August 3, 2011
10:31 am
Guy The Healthy Pale

Isn't interesting that nutritive food is Paleo
and addictive/stimulating foods are .... not

Do you eat to nourish and flourish
Or eat to get stimulated?

This is how I look at food today....

August 3, 2011
11:39 am

Oh man. I love MMA. Thanks for that! Will catch up on comments later!

August 3, 2011
11:45 am
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Mat Lalonde is great, but he doesn't have a website I can link to!

And self-experimentation is important...within the constraints of nutritionally sound foods.


"Blunt tools" is a good analogy. 

That's why I like to bypass so many of the poorly done studies -- especially population studies, which statistics can be sliced and diced to "prove" just about anything -- and go directly to such biochemistry as I understand.  For instance, my favorite example: if saturated fat is so terrible, why do so many animals store their surplus energy as saturated fat?  Wouldn't you think that somewhere in, say, the mammalian family tree, we would have started using our desaturase enzymes to store energy as linoleic acid, like grains do?

"What would Grok do?" is basically a mental shortcut to evolutionary context.


I'm not trying to define so much as coin a term.  The community is already where it is, and I'm not trying to move it somewhere else: I'm trying to describe where so many of us are already.

As far as PGZ, it's a good mental shortcut to human evolutionary context, much like "What would Grok do?"  I like it, and as I've said, we always need to keep it somewhere in sight.


Robb Wolf is a bit more on the traditionalist end AFAIK.  But I haven't finished reading The Paleo Solution, so I could be wrong.


That's exactly why I wanted a term to distinguish the functional approach from the traditionalists: NeoPaleo, Paleo 2.0, etc. weren't descriptive, and "primal" is too closely associated with Mark Sisson (NTTIAWWT, but I don't see the Jaminets or Kurt Harris as derivative of the Primal Blueprint).


I didn't know Neil Grove was paleo!  Forrest Griffin and Frank Mir also come to mind, and I'm sure there are more.


I agree -- but the problem with the term "real food" is that too many people think whole grains are real food and fatty meat isn't.


Absolutely!  I hope this gives you another way to reasonably introduce and discuss the concept.

Mike T:

You can bet that I'll be talking more about met flex in the future...I'm just in a different area right now.  But I absolutely agree with you that it's important, and lack of met flex is either causal to, or associated with, a whole raft of health issues.

Absolutely people with the flexibility to eat anything outcompeted those who didn't, though there is still a difference between optimal eating and bare survival: see my point about crises in evolutionary time in What Is The Paleo Diet, Anyway? 

The trouble is that empirically, I see that decades of the SAD often seems to permanently impair met flex to some degree.  A lot of people seem to have to stick with low-carb because the moment they eat something carb-heavy, the switch apparently gets stuck on "glycolysis" and they become ravenously hungry -- even people who aren't prediabetic and have otherwise functional metabolisms.  I don't understand the biochemistry here: it's an empirical observation.


Yes.  I talk about that subject at length here.


Glad to oblige!


August 3, 2011
12:12 pm
Halifax, UK
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June 5, 2011
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About time! Good work, J!

Disconnecting our thought processes from "what would Jesus^H^H^H^H Grok do?" and focussing upon what does biochemistry show is the best leap forward in terms of the paleo diet. Even using that term pins it back to Cordain and Wolf who make very useful first steps into biochemically proven good diet.

It's good to see Sisson up there in your list - I have a real admiration for the fellow! Curiously, that "grinning American" was the thing that put me right off, but I bought the book in the end and it is the one I'm keeping. I'm selling the other two. What I like about Sisson is that he understands that life is to be lived, to be enjoyed, not endured. His approach to fat, dairy, natural sugars and even legumes is all well worth reading, but very much backed up my what it does to us biochemically.

It's a shame that it was Sisson who brought Grok to us all - functional paleo is actually contra-Grok. We have science; Grok had whether it didn't agree with him in an obvious way.

Where you come in J, is with your key principle of 'eat like a predator'. Okay, nuts and seeds are fine, but we're not birds or foraging rodents. Some foods in absolute moderation, eaten rarely and as a treat are also fine and our bodies can cope with it so long as it is consumed rarely - think honey, or a sugar-heavy dessert. Likewise, once we're down to a healthy size and fat ratio, we can start to enjoy the occasional natural treat like a piece of fruit.

Metabolic flexibility should also be a key part of functional paleo.

MF is very important indeed and something the lowcarbtards (to use a phrase I read in a recent forum argument) should read up on. Lowering carbohydrate content to levels laid out by Sisson for particular needs is useful. Understand what it is you want your body to do and feed it accordingly. I like that you cite protein shakes and other such nonsense as things we should avoid - we're all about eating naturally and in accordance with our digestive milieu.

Homeostasis is a word that we should be seeing more of. Perhaps that should be a focus of the functional paleo manifesto?

So far, it is a definition and a short manifesto - you said that. Let's get some meat on those bones. Principles and statements. Remember the discussion we had on play and rest as a potential second core point of any potential definition? I mooted that your two points from 'The Paleo Crisis' could be put together and beefed up with a statement about drink, then a second statement around work, play and rest. Yes, it can be distilled too far, but a couple of well crafted statements to encapsulate the whole notion of functional paleo is just a few keystrokes away - diet is one part; functional paleo is about the whole, which includes how we work, play and rest.

Burgeoning work! This is going to be strong stuff.

Living in the Ice Age

August 3, 2011
12:14 pm
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August 1, 2011
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J. Stanton said:

The trouble is that empirically, I see that decades of the SAD often seems to permanently impair met flex to some degree.  A lot of people seem to have to stick with low-carb because the moment they eat something carb-heavy, the switch apparently gets stuck on "glycolysis" and they become ravenously hungry — even people who aren't prediabetic and have otherwise functional metabolisms.  I don't understand the biochemistry here: it's an empirical observation.


That's indeed true. I would never believe it myself, nor did I want to be true. In fact, I came from a few month of eating raw fruits and veggies after vegetarianism where I realized I headed in the wrong direction, because my health problems didn't get better.

I was hyperinsulinic, hypoglykämic, hungry all day, had migraines (energy crisis), acne and other minor problems.

After a few months low-carb, it is all gone. I couldn't believe that it is possible to eat less then 3 times a day and not being hungry for 4-7 hours, sometimes more. It's relieving!

And here's the backside: I can't cheat with carbs, because then the hunger for carbs come back and I go on binging again. It seems my metabolism will need a few years to heal before I can maybe switch to a higher-carb paleo diet (I love fruits) or have the occasional cheat without a disfunctional glucose/insulin reaction or whatever the science behind that is.

Because a lot of people suffer from metabolic problems I agree with you that strict paleo low-carb/ketogenic diet seems to be the only reason, at least in the beginning.

Having said that, I am sure a metabolically healthy person has no problem with a high-carb diet in general. (There a numerous healthy tribes out there) or some rare eatin modern junk.


Functional paleo is indeed the right term describung where the community is already heading. But I am not sure if it is something which is distinguishable from Loran Cordains or Staffan Lindebergs concept. If you ask them, they would talk exactly about this: The combination if evolutionary history and the marriage with modern science.

Only the interpretion, what our ancestors ate and what science says about biochemistry differs.

August 3, 2011
1:05 pm

While Mike & Mary Dan Eades are associated with low carb, but if you read Protein Power and Protein Power Life Plan there is plenty of Paleo concepts and both Drs. Eades explain the science very well and the biochemistry or physiology is the final word for them, making them functional Paleo in my opinion.

August 3, 2011
1:26 pm
eddie watts

i get the ravenous hunger when indulging in carbs too, read about it a lot on low-carb sites (fathead comments and facebook mostly)
seems to hit me more with sugar though, bananas and sweet potatoes don't affect me any where near as much.

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