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The Paleo Identity Crisis: What Is The Paleo Diet, Anyway?
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June 22, 2011
5:32 am
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Remember back when "Are white potatoes paleo?" was the biggest question facing the paleo community? Now we're seeing perfectly respectable paleo bloggers advocating butter and heavy cream...and some are even experimenting with white rice.

What sort of caveman diet is that?

And just what is the "paleo diet", anyway? Is the term becoming diluted because we just can't stop eating delicious cheat foods—or is it still a valid concept?

First, we need to define the . Here's one attempt, which I've chosen because it's typical:

"With readily available modern foods, The Paleo Diet mimics the types of foods every single person…

June 22, 2011
6:43 am
Halifax, UK
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While still in my first month of paleo eating, I have been doing a lot of reading and absorbing as much as I can from the paleo community.

Hardliner like Cordain and Wolf will tell us that dairy should NOT be in our diet, yet Sisson and Harris will say these are fine so long as they are tolerable. Likewise, hardliners will say that fatty meats are out, and again Sisson and Harris tell us these are okay. Moreover, Harris tells us that there is little evidence to show that dairy, white rice and white potatoes are wrong; quite the contrary, in fact.

If I was looking for a hardline cause, I'd stick rigidly to Wolf. Sisson, I like - he understands that people also have lives to lead and more importantly, enjoy. Harris goes further and on the face of it seems to be so full of compromise and concession that you wonder what the point is of trying to apply the word paleo to what he writes.

Indeed, a timely article and something I have been seriously mulling over in the last day or two.

For me, I am more happy with Harris' understanding - paleo is about seeking out and rejecting modern agents of disease from our lives. I say lives since we are alive - what we eat is more than a diet, just as activity is more than exercise; both go together to make a life(style).

So, while some things are tolerable ... are they desirable? Early into my transition to paleo, I had a panic about exactly what I was going to cook and seemed to cling to cooking habits I had formed - especially with potatoes. Having actually eaten paleo for a couple of weeks, I have no desire for potato, nor rice or some of the other concessions we're seeing. I eat other things now and thoroughly enjoy it.

Furthermore, I am addressing a lifelong problem with gastric reflux which has been managed through prescribed medication for the last decade or so. I noticed that I had missed a pill, or two, so just went with it and ... tentatively, I'll say I'm cured. Looking at what is new in my food, such as an increased intake of very green vegetables, more meat, more fish, and at the food I have dropped out, no beans, grains or pulses, and no potatoes, I can see biologically (as far as I am able to understand) how I am cured. Again, just because potatoes are okay, does not make them desirable - for someone with gastric reflux problems, they most certainly are not and so, I'll leave them out. Yoghurt has a very positive effect and so, dairy remains in.

Sound article, JS!

While it is good to go back every now and again to see whether the original stake in the ground is still in the right place, such as the likes of Sisson and Harris, it is more valuable to stop and really take a look at why it was put right there in the first place - this article promotes that consideration.

Living in the Ice Age

June 22, 2011
6:50 am

Paul, I found after an initial low-carb period, I could add carbs back in. It makes sense because PPIs are known to cause bacterial overgrowth in the stomach o_0 Low carb allows you to kill off that bacteria.

Either way, good post! I wouldn't describe my diet as paleo any more, maybe simply as industrial-poison free? Haha.

June 22, 2011
7:22 am

Sound article, JS!


All of this denying of the word "Paleo" reminds me of priest looking for the true name of god. Or, maybe a doctor looking for the disease so we can identify it, name it, and hate it. Let's just called it "Fred". But I do understand the frustration of telling someone you follow a caveman/paleo/primal WOE and then having people call you on it. You say you eat a paleo diet but you eat "X", no caveman ever ate "X". It does get irritating. I like the word Primal, so I use it. I like to combine what I have learned from Sisson and Wolf. Mark calls his "The Primal Blueprint", because that is what it is, a guideline to go by to express your best genes. I like what Rob Wolf says, " do you look, feel, and perform?" and "Check the biomarkers of health and disease". So we eat the foods we believe are best for the human animal and we avoid the ones that are not. What shall we call this way of eating?

June 22, 2011
7:37 am

Sir, you have posted another great article. I don't necessarily agree with evolution(a conversation for another time) but I find your articles interesting, thought-provoking, and educational.
Once sentence from this article sums up why, though I disagree with evolution, I choose to eat paleo. "These questions have answers, because humans have biochemistry, and we should do our best to find them and live by the results. "
From all I have read about sugar and grain consumption, I'm convinced that they do harm to the human body. I dont have a problem with grains(that I'm aware of) but the fact that others so is reason enough for me to only consume it very sporadically(2-3 beers per week and occasionally a sandwich or burger on my cheat day).
Thank you again for the article. By the looks of it, you will keep me entertained at work for the forseeable future.

June 22, 2011
7:41 am
A.B. Dada

No matter how much I try, my body just hates potatoes and rice. I've been low carb for 6 years, primal blueprint for about 2, and finally in the Archevore lifestyle for the past 3 months. I'll do potatoes twice a month, rice never. For me, my body loves fats too much to overdose on protein, and most of the starchy carbs just slam me to the ground (nap time within an hour).

I think the key is that each of us really has to look at the "Direct Evidence", meaning the effect that each food has on us individually. I have 2 friends who are carbkins and can eat anything all day long (and, no, not purge after) and stay skinny (not even skinny fat). I'm not jealous, though, because they're over a decade younger -- and I'm in better overall shape.

Next month I am going to try potatoes again, but this time with hella more fat involved.

Great post, J. Stanton.

June 22, 2011
8:39 am
Forum Posts: 47
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June 14, 2011
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I think you could extend the definition of a 'paleo diet' towards the subject of intermittent fasting and the metabolic flexibility you outlined in an earlier post.

The point being that 'eating your body fat' is an important source of calories in a successful paleo diet.

Another very fine post!

June 22, 2011
9:05 am
Angelo Coppola

Great article. I covered my take on "What is Paleo" in episode 20 of latest in Paleo:

Also, talked about some people who have left the Paleo fold, and why it might be a good idea for Paleo to stay a big umbrella for "real food" and to be more open to variants. Like high-carb Paleo.

Thanks for another thought-provoking and well cited article.

June 22, 2011
10:08 am

OK, I have the name. I was reading Dustin Sharp's blog Paleo Velo and he used the term; Just Eat Real Food (JERF). So maybe we can call it JERF instead of Fred or Paleo.

June 22, 2011
10:29 am

Just a thought for discussion: If we go back to the ancestral diet by excluding modern foods, aren't we then "stalling" evolution? If we remove modern foods, how will the human race continue to evolve and adapt to one day accept those types of food? Do you think it is possible for humans to evolve to effectively digest sugars and grains over the long term?

June 22, 2011
10:42 am

Very nice article 🙂

The problem I see with your definition is that people will try to push things like cereals and maybe even oils as "good for our biochemistry" and meats and fats as bad, despite that multi-milion year history. So they'd technically fit your description, but no one thinks of that as paleo.

I think it was you who once defined paleo as using that history we have as a framework or a starting point.

Your point about things we strived on for longer (and more) periods of time being the ones we'd be more strongly selected for is good, and as I see it trying to observe that point is a commom trait of the paleo world.

June 22, 2011
10:51 am


I don't know, we already live long enought and procreate as much as we would with the foods most people eat, thanks in part to medicine but also to other things of the modern world.

So to what extent being able to adapt better to these foods would be a selective advantage?

There are lots of ways in wich we are "stalling evolution" already. Then again, evolution is not a path, it's not like there's a place we should be getting at.

Anyway, we're animals living right now and we can't really tell what will happen in thounsands of years. Whatever happens it's not like eating something or other in our lifetimes will change our genes.

June 22, 2011
11:00 am

Outstanding and provocative thoughts as always from J. Stanton.

The fact that humans were selected to endure periodic shortages suggests a neglected aspect of health: metabolic flexibility.

As omnivores, our bodies are prepared for a constantly shifting spectrum of nutrition. Consider how often you've found a meal that you loved, and felt you could eat the same thing every day forever. Yet after a while it no longer had the same allure, and you found yourself drawn to new favorites. Part of this is our seasonal nature, but I think there's more to it than that.

Considering the environment in which humans evolved, we could hypothesize that our bodies are most comfortable in a state of constant adaptation. If this is true, then the notion that each person has a single, optimal diet is an illusion, to say nothing of a universal "paleo diet" that fits all humans.

I began to suspect this myself when I reached a fitness plateau after many months of low-carb (following many years of very high-carb). As an experiment, I tried strategically adding starchy carbs back into my diet, even though it felt like dancing with the devil, and was delighted to find that carbs no longer left me bloated and comatose as they did when I first adopted a low-carb diet. In fact, I leaned out noticeably.

Since that discovery, I've tried to mix up my primary energy sources from day to day:

- Carbs over a few meals on days I lift heavy weights
- Fat-gorging after a day-long fast on days I do cardio
- Alcohol once a week to the exclusion of both fat and carbs
- Occasional 36-hour fasts with no energy intake at all

Whatever energy source I'm consuming, I always include lots of complete protein.

It's still early in my experiment (only 4 weeks), but the results of all this mixing up are so far encouraging: noticeably improved leanness and increased energy and strength. My tentative conclusion is that we thrive the most when we juggle our energy sources, challenging our bodies to master every metabolic pathway, just as our ancestors were forced to by circumstance.

June 22, 2011
12:01 pm
Courtney West


Please see a video about the Pottenger Cat Study.

The study found that processed foods led to chronic illness among cats in the first three generations and sterility in the fourth generation.

The Pottenger video also highlights the following comment in JS' above article:

"This poses an interesting question: which of our dietary adaptations simply allowed us to struggle through bad times, and which are our “ancestral diet”? To choose a modern example, humans can clearly survive and reproduce on a diet of donuts, Taco Bell, and Red Bull—but we all know such a diet isn’t optimal for health or long life."

The above video describes sugar cane as a nutrient-rich substance. However, the commentator doesn't discuss whether this natural substance should be regularly consumed to promote health and longevity. However, her point seems to be that ALL whole foods contain all the nutrients the body needs to properly digest them. Nonetheless, she seems to be promoting sugar cane as a healthy food choice, which is certainly debatable.

Many people who are trying to overcome sugar addiction cannot take a bite of anything sweet, just as an alcoholic can't take one drink. Otherwise, these addicts binge on the forbidden substances. Refined sugar is a drug with a chemical structure similar to alcohol.

Interestingly, "natural" drug rehab centers treat sugar addiction in the same way that they treat addictions to hard drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and alcohol. Please see The Diet Cure by Julia Ross. This book explains that sugar addiction is caused by chronic neurotransmitter deficiencies, which are usually the result of a high-sugar/processed food diet or excessive use of recreational (and probably over-the-counter and prescription) drugs.

Like other directors of natural drug rehab centers, Ms. Ross uses amino acids, vitamins, and minerals to eliminate sugar cravings. She says amino acids supplements can end sugar addiction within 24 hours. She says daily use of an amino acids supplement may be necessary for 3 months to a year or more. That's because it takes time for the supplement to help the body restore depleted neurotransmitters. Once this occurs, cravings for potatoes, rice, and other carbs that were unknown to human ancestors should permanently disappear.

Willpower and prescription drugs help about 5% of drug addicts to permanently abandon their drugs of choice. On the other hand, Ms. Ross and other founders of natural drug rehab centers achieve success rates of 70% or more.

June 22, 2011
2:45 pm
Forum Posts: 2045
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February 22, 2010
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Hello, everybody! Thanks to your efforts, has become so popular — especially within the past week — that I may not be able to respond directly to every comment anymore.  Rest assured I read and appreciate all of them, and I'll do my best.


I agree that eliminating Dr. Harris' NAD is the most important step.  That's why it is part of my definition, and is Step 1 of "Eat Like A Predator".  And the question of how to start is interesting in itself: there's the Whole 30 "do everything, so that if there is improvement to be made, you'll see it", and there's the Primal Blueprint 80/20 "do what you can, it's better than nothing or giving up".  That's a whole new topic!

Congratulations on fixing your GERD…that's a common benefit of paleo.  (And see my comment to Melissa about met flex, below.)


I think you're right about carbs: in the early stages of the diet, it's all about forcing your body into beta-oxidation, i.e. retraining yourself for metabolic flexibility.  Once you've regained that ability, many of us can add some quantity of carbohydrate to our meals (important: carb snacks are still bad) without losing our met flex.

Of course there are some people whose metabolisms seem to be permanently broken, and can't eat carbs without the switch getting stuck on 'glycolysis'. I wonder how many of those people exercise semi-regularly: as I point out here, exercise isn't important because it burns calories, it's important because it increases your met flex.  (I have my theory as to why, which I'll explore someday.)

Based on what I know of your diet, I think you're probably a JERF.  See my link to Sean Croxton's page, which I added in the Postscript.


It's paleo.  If there were some way to truly recreate "the ancestral diet" that some people are following but we're not, I'd say "ok, let's find another label."  But I don't see even Don Wiss advocating giving up his refrigerator and freezer — and as I stated in the article, dairy is technically more "paleo" than broccoli.

(Note that I still agree with what I said in "Eat Like A Predator": casein and lactose have issues, but butterfat doesn't.  I eat full-fat yogurt, but I don't drink milk.)

Good to see you back!


At the end of the day, we have to respect the science over the re-enactment.  I'm sure Paleolithic humans ate plenty of rotten raw meat…but I can't see how that would be beneficial to us.

I'm glad you enjoy my articles!

A. B. Data:

Welcome!  Like I said above to Melissa, there are definitely people who, for whatever reason, simply don't deal well with carbs of any kind.  Fortunately they're not strictly an essential nutrient, so as long as you're getting enough protein to make glucose from, you're fine.

Personally, I've found that I deal OK with glucose…but too much fruit is a problem even though it's "natural" fructose.

I agree that there's a place for "eat what feels right…", but only within the context of real paleo foods.  Otherwise it's too easy to get short-circuited by junk.  This may become an article someday.


Definitely.  Once we've got a useful definition, there is a lot of work still to do.  JERF is a huge improvement, but we're not satisfied with "better": we're looking for "best".  IF is definitely part of that for me, and I'm sure I'll talk about it more specifically at some point.


Thank you!  I'm a couple episodes behind right now, so I haven't heard that one yet.

The whole thing is a continuum: you've got the WAPF, JERF, Perfect Health Diet, Archevore, Primal, and Whole 30, all of which are friendly to each other but are clearly different.  The question is "Where do you draw the line and say 'that's not paleo anymore'?  I think it's right around Archevore and the PHD (which are quite similar): any more abstract than that, and the "paleo" label just gets silly — and whether Dr. Harris himself is still "paleo" is an interesting question.  I'm inclined to say yes, because despite eating Rice Krispies on occasion, he's more "paleo" than someone doing 80/20 Primal.  Even if you assume someone on the PHD is getting 100% of their carbs from rice, that's still under 20%.

There probably needs to be a useful term for the Whole 30/Cordain/ end of the spectrum: let me know if you think of one.


JERF is Sean Croxton's term AFAIK: I linked it at the end of the article.


We haven't stalled evolution: we're just selecting for the desire to have as many babies as possible, independent of the means or ability to provide for them.  (Or socialize them.) 


They'll push that crap no matter what we do or say.  That's why I specify "human animals with a multi-million year history of hunting and foraging": to give us that theoretical framework.  Science has to start somewhere.  

And that's absolutely why I made the point about crisis food: everyone gets all excited about starch grains found in a few isolated caves, but when you look at the sheer number of sites featuring cutmarked bones found in association with stone tools, and add the protein isotopic analysis to that, the picture becomes a lot more clear.

Excellent point about evolution, by the way: it's easy to ascribe some sort of will, goal, or foresight to it.  No: it's simply a statement of fact.  Animals that successfully reproduce leave descendants who are more like them than they are like the animals that didn't reproduce.


Different types of exercise deplete different nutrients, and the human body tends to seek equilibrium.  If we want to make progress, we have to perturb that equilibrium somehow.  Have you read  It sounds like you're doing similar things…

Thanks for sticking around! I enjoy your comments.


Epigenetics is just beginning to be understood: it turns out the sins of the parents are indeed visited upon the children, unto multiple generations.

I think the Ross theory is related to the Fat Fiction theory that obesity is caused by nutrient deficiency: the reason we're hungry is because our body requires nutrients it's not getting, and we'll keep eating until we get them.  But in the case of processed carbohydrates and snack foods, there are no nutrients to be gotten, so we keep eating and eating.

I'll have to look at her work someday, because I'm interested in the role of amino acid deficiencies in carbohydrate addiction.  

Thanks for the reference!



June 22, 2011
3:23 pm

JS, I am familiar with, a valuable resource that I recommend to anyone trying to maximize fitness. I owe some major insights to Martin Berkhan, such as the importance of segregating aerobic and anaerobic workouts and the benefits of cycling alcohol as a macronutrient (as a non-drinker, that never would have occurred to me, and much hilarity has ensued).

However, is awfully short on details, so the clever reader will have to fill in the blanks from personal research, anthropological theory, and n=1 experiments -- which is more fun anyway.

June 22, 2011
6:12 pm

I've also been experimenting with alternating some low-carb and low-fat days, as well as the odd intermittent fast, with some success. Seems like there's also a very good case for some low-protein days too. Paul at Perfect Health Diet has talked about how it is protein-restriction that turns on autophagy, letting the cells do some house-cleaning. He suggests coconut oil fasts, to help your body get into ketosis. Just another part of the "metabolic flexibility", I guess.

June 22, 2011
6:14 pm

@Timothy II,
btw, Your "Alcohol once a week to the exclusion of both fat and carbs" sounds intriguing. How does that work?

June 22, 2011
7:35 pm

Doht! I didn't read the postscript.

June 22, 2011
7:54 pm

Does anyone care that you have to kill animals to eat them? Or does some perceived health benefit to humans trump that fact? And are you folks that still consume dairy aware that you are suckling a cow? Is that normal behavior?

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