Restructuring The Paleo Diet: Why Starch Makes Sense

It’s no secret I hate the Paleo diet. And before you get on my case about what paleo actually is, I am going to define is as Dr. Loren Cordain’s original version. The low carb version.

I’ve had a fun time over the past few days. I combed through the latest garbage on the internet, as well as the latest refreshing research and looks at diet and lifestyle. Not all of it, for sure. But a lot.

Time and time again, I read angry comments from paleophiles about how the paleo diet “saved” them! How they are fitter and healthier than ever before.  All I could think was this:

The SAD diet is corn, soy, wheat, potatoes, dairy, eggs, beef, pork, and chicken (read: sugar, fat, starch, starch-fat, fat, cholesterol, fat, fat, and a little less fat) Not much else. ANY diet that displaces one of these majority share-holders with fresh fruits and vegetables will improve someone’s health and probably their waist line.

It doesn’t matter if you’re paleo, raw, vegan, macrobiotic, fruitarian, mediterranean… they all do the same thing: they cut out processed food, and they make the diet more micro-nutrient dense. Does anyone disagree here?

And yes, we KNOW the Paleo Diet is great for weight loss.  It’s effing excellent at burning fat!  Heck, increasing micro-nutrient density alone can encourage weight loss. And because it is a low-carb diet, it is practically fail safe.  Behold the following paleo pyramids I found on Google images:

Meat on the bottom. Very low starch. I see a carrot and a beet here.

Meat on the bottom. High-sugar reserved for special occasions. Pretty much no starch. I see a carrot and a beet here.

Looking better. Fresh plant foods take precedence over meat, but still... where is the starch? Root veggies under-represented.

Looking better. Fresh plant foods take precedence over meat, but still… where is the starch? Root veggies under-represented. Looks like this pyramid is flexible and allows our favorite processed grain treats at the top. Technically, this isn’t paleo.

Loads of meat. Very little starch.

Loads of meat. Few concentrated carbs.

This one is pathetic.

This one is pathetic.

Meat on the bottom. No starch beyond the carrot.

Meat on the bottom. No starch beyond the carrot.

Jesus Christmas...

Jesus Christmas…

When you fill up on meat, there isn’t a lot of space left for carbohydrates, be they starch or sugar. This means low carb. When you are glycogen depleted, you have no other option than to go into ketosis. This is what Paleo wants. This burns fat. No doubt about it. Obesity: check.

But this is in no way the natural way to eat. Check out this lovely Ted Talk by Christina Warinner, just for fun. She isn’t a paleo BASHER. In fact, much of what she says is supportive of the Paleo movement. I found it very middle-ground:

Debunking the Paleo Diet. TED Fellow Christina Warinner is an expert on ancient diets. So how much of the diet fad the”Paleo Diet’ is based on an actual Paleolithic diet? The answer is not really any of it.

(If you’re looking for a REAL Paleo bash, see Dr. John McDougall’s “The Diet Wars”)

Also have a look at Hunter-Gatherer Diets: A Different Perspective, by Katharine Milton, published in the American Journal of Nutrition.  It’s a gem:

The hunter-gatherer data used by Cordain et al (4) came from the Ethnographic Atlas (5), a cross-cultural index compiled largely from 20th century sources and written by ethnographers or others with disparate backgrounds, rarely interested in diet per se or trained in dietary collection techniques.   By the 20th century, most hunter-gatherers had vanished; many of those who remained had been displaced to marginal environments.  Indeed, using data from the same Ethnographic Atlas, Lee (1) found that gathered vegetable foods were the primary source of subsistence for most of the hunter-gatherer societies he examined, whereas an emphasis on hunting occurred only in the highest latitudes… Furthermore, although humans can thrive on a diversity of diets, we know of few specific genetic adaptations to diet in our species…In hominoids, features such as nutrient requirements and digestive physiology appear to be genetically conservative and probably were little affected by the hunter-gatherer phase of human existence. ..There is general agreement that the ancestral line (Hominoidea) giving rise to humans was strongly herbivorous (1415). Modern human nutritional requirements (eg, the need for a dietary source of vitamin C), features of the modern human gut (haustrated colon), and the modern human pattern of digestive kinetics (similar to that of great apes) suggest an ancestral past in which tropical plant foods formed the basis of the daily diet, with perhaps some opportunistic intake of animal matter.

This isn’t to turn you off your Paleo diet if it is working for your weight loss. It’s just to help you cut through the bullshit language of your Paleo DIET BOOKS that tell you ridiculous things like “humans evolved to eat meat.” No such thing occured. These books read like diet books. They are more motivational than accurate.

And here’s a reality check for you, because if you love Paleo, chances are, you’re also in love with the promoted Paleo physique. Look at the pictures that come up when I searched for Paleo promoters and Paleo athletes:

Paleo promoter Anthony Colpo

Paleo promoter? Anthony Colpo (recent hostile comments say he’s not. Hell, I don’t know anymore)

Paleo promoter Mark Sisson

Paleo promoter Mark Sisson

Paleo model, targeting the male ego.

Paleo model, targeting the male ego. (Obviously on steroids).

Paleo Crossfitter, I presume.

Paleo Crossfitters, I presume.

Dr. Loren Cordain, the author of The Paleo Diet (aka-The Paleo Bible). Oops! Well, maybe he doesn't work out?

Dr. Loren Cordain, the author of The Paleo Diet (aka-The Paleo Bible). Oops! Well, maybe he doesn’t work out?

The news: the Paleo Diet didn’t make them this way. NO DIET MAKES YOU LOOK LIKE THIS. Exercise does. And a SPECIFIC TYPE of exercise–largely anaerobic, short-duration exercise.  Perfect for a low carb approach.

Here are real hunter-gatherers:

Lean, scrawny.

Lean, scrawny.

Lean, scrawny.

Lean, scrawny.

Lean, scrawny.

Lean, scrawny.

Lean(ish), scrawny(ish).

Lean(ish), scrawny(ish).

So don’t buy the crap. Know that nice bodies take hard work. Got it? I’m not saying quit your Paleo diet.  I’m just trying to manage your expectations.

So where am I going with this?

Based on what I know about performance, endurance, happiness, sustainable lifestyle choices, cost-efficiency, time-efficiency, paleo approaches, raw food guru gospel, fruitarian extremism, macro-holistic-woo-hoo, ethics, environmental sustainability, and everything else I’ve given a fair chance; and based on all the material I’ve covered in the last ten years… I’ll cut to the chase.

The low-carb Paleo approach is pretty much excellent at only one thing: burning fat off you, quickly!

As for all other relevant considerations (such as cancer prevention, heart disease treatment, diabetes prevention, environmental ethics, sustainability, better allocation of resources, affordability, micro-nutrient density, and more), a whole-food high-carb/low-fat diet works better.

Whoa. Sounds confusing.  It just means eat plants. A lot of them. Unprocessed. And easy on the fat. (No oil, no binges on nut butters, no eating coconut oil by the spoonful.)

Plant based. Plant based!  Plant based! (If you want to be a vegan, great, but understand that veganism is about ethics; plant based is about health. Plant based diets, as opposed to veganism, offer you some wiggle room.)

Listen, including animal foods won’t instantly kill you (they are, however, routinely linked to cancer, diabetesheart disease, early onset puberty, high levels of IGF-1, and more) .  That’s not exactly the problem.  Rather, it is the displacement of whole plant foods that’s the problemthe corruption of our body’s system of checks and balances. I am not of the mindset that animal foods should never or can never be eaten. In the context of today’s society, I think they are convenient for things like… well… B12 (that’s about it). But they are not necessary.

By telling you to substantially reduce the amount of animal derived foods in your diet, I do not mean to suggest you go to some other extreme (nutrition bloggers, vloggers, and junkies like myself has a tendency toward extreme dietary behaviors). I respect raw (vegan) foodies for their diligence and enthusiasm, but I don’t think we need to go that far for optimum health. Cooking food is not all that harmful to the nutrient content of foods, and dietitians are not at all convinced by the enzyme theory. In many cases, cooking increases bio-availability of nutrients. And it certainly saves time on eating. I can chomp through all the vegetables I need for the day in a matter of minutes if they’re cooked.

But whole plant-based diets? Vegans? Raw freaks? They’re unhealthy looking! Well, the “scrawny” stigma, if anything, is more akin to the hunter-gatherer images displayed above; the truth is that we are so accustomed to seeing large and fat people that we forgot what size humans ought to be!

How about the physique? After all, the usual reason anyone ever diets is to look hot, right? Let’s have a look at the plant-based spokespeople and athletes, shall we:

Brendan Brazier, vegan Ironman with raw food emphasis.

Brendan Brazier, vegan Ironman with raw food emphasis.

Mark Martell, vegan bodybuilder.

Mark Martell, vegan bodybuilder.

Robert Cheeke, vegan bodybuilder.

Robert Cheeke, vegan bodybuilder.

Rich roll, vegan ultramarathoner.

Rich Roll, vegan ultra-marathoner.

Tonya Kay, vegan turned raw vegan, actress and dancer.

Tonya Kay, vegan turned raw vegan, actress and dancer. (The number of hot vegan women is overwhelming).

Not so bad, right? Remember! Everyone exercises. But something worth noting is that the high-carb folks gravitate toward endurance activities–clean blood and lots of glycogen; low-carbers gravitate toward short-burst anaerobic activities–little to no glycogen, but plenty of size-promoting protein.

High carb? Or high fat?

You can’t have both! Not without some struggle, at least. This is the underlying problem. High carb, high fat diets tend to make us sick and fat.

If all you want to do is to simply lose weight, you can do it both ways: high-carb/low-fat or high-fat/low-carb. 

But if I had to cast my vote, it would be for the high-carb/low-fat camp.

  • Diabetes from high-carb, low-fat whole plant diet? Good luck. Diabetes doesn’t happen without excess fatty acids in the blood getting repackaged into triglycerides.
  • Heart disease from plant based diet? Practically unheard of (but not impossible).
  • High cholesterol from a plant based diet? Nope. Still possible on Paleo.
  • Environmental pressure from plant based diet? Considerably less than from Paleo.
  • Cancer on plant-based diets? Why have we known… like… forever that consumption of fruits and veggies is just about the best thing you can do to lower your risk for cancer?

I could go on, but I prefer to go over these things in detail, and I can’t do that here.

So what’s up with Paleo? Even though the diet fad is based on pretty crappy evidence, the “natural” philosophy still appeals to people. Is there any way to be high carb Paleo to avoid the collateral damage from animal foods?  Sure.  Eat the fruits, roots and tubers liberally! 

Or get off the Paleo bandwagon all together and eat legumes (technically a fruit), or eat grains (or don’t, if you’re irrationally terrified of leaky gut and celiac disease), or eat pseudograins (amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat–technically seeds, not grains). There are so many useful, optimal-forage foods you’ve eliminated with your Paleo philosophy! Be reminded that prehistoric stone age people ate these things in varying quantities, contrary to what fad diet promoters tell you. No, you don’t have to be a vegan, but my suggestion is to limit your animal food consumption to less than 10% of the calorie load of your diet.


It’s pretty simple in terms of anatomy. We’re not carnivores.  Really, we’re not. But we’re also not herbivores.  We are specialized omnivores, technically, with a strong preference and anatomy for plants. We’ve all heard about grinding teeth, long intestines, slow speed, perspiration through the skin, etc. Let’s not forget that you can’t give a real carnivore heart disease, but you can do this to herbivores. What’s the current number one killer of humans? Anyone?

Gary Taubes.  Ooops!  I mean...

Gary Taubes

Ooops! I  mean…

HEART DISEASE (and stroke)

HEART DISEASE (and stroke)

But we can make it more simple by looking at our cousins: other primates, to whom our digestive systems are most similar. Though we have somewhat smaller guts, we have similar gut microbiota, most closely resembling the bonobos. Our closest cousins, the bonobos, eat a diet of primarily fruit (gasp! a carb!)–as much as 90% in some populations.  But more like 50-75%. Their second food preference is terrestrial herbacious vegetation (like leaves and shoots) to fulfill dietary requirements outside of carbohydrates obtained from the fruit (compare this to gorillas–to whom we are much less similar–who subsist mostly on terrestrial herbacious vegetation). In bonobo populations, the eating of animal species has been witnessed (such behavior is more common to chimpanzees), but amounts to very little: mostly insects; and the consumption of vertebrate species is very uncommon.  You know what else these guys sometimes eat? Insects, dirt, and shit. B12, anyone?

Fruit and herbacious terrestrial vegetation and insects! Yummy!

Fruit, herbacious terrestrial vegetation, and insects! Yummy! All of it low fat.

But back to the point… Which is so much fruit! But just because bonobos are fruitarians (“carbivores”), doesn’t mean you have to be (that much fruit can be cost-prohibitive, but not more so than the meat-centric Paleo diet).

You don’t have to be a frugivore because of this little thing called optimal foraging theory which explains our preference (and later selective breeding) for macronutrient-dense food (starches ). Once we figured out we could eat more starchy (calorie-dense, with little effort) foods, we did. This explains our subsequently higher levels of amylase, an enzyme found in our saliva and pancreatic fluid specifically for digesting starch; we have many times the level of amylase compared to our primate cousins. We selected for amylase… we selected for starch.

What is all this business about starches making us fat? Starch is nothing but long chains of sugar. Paleo fad diet books allow for fruit, and yet they’d lead us to believe that starches are somehow intrinsically more fattening. Starch only makes you fat on a high fat diet (or if you just eat too damn much, period).  And contrary to what blow hard Gary Taubes would have us think, we did not have a low fat revolution in The United States. Our diets were still over 30% fat:

During 1971–2000, a statistically significant increase in average energy intake occurred…The percentage of kcals from total fat decreased from 36.9% to 32.8% (p<0.01) for men and from 36.1% to 32.8% (p<0.01) for women.

Why did we get fat again? Because we eat too damn much!

Okay. Back to “evolution.” Starch breaks down into sugar… and what do our giant hungry (expensive) brains eat? It isn’t meat. It’s glucose–sugar–that thing provided in abundance from starch. Yes, okay, we can make glucose from protein… theoretically we could have hunted down all those unpredictable, quick, fast-to-rot-when-killed animals and survived that way… But starch just sits there. It doesn’t run away. And it grows back.  Crazy.  Ever heard of Occam’s razor?

Our primate cousins never migrated into colder latitudes because fruit wasn’t available all year round. But starch is, and if it isn’t, it stores very well.  We knew about starch, we ate starch as long as 105,000 years ago. Starch is the reason we have civilization. Starches are good, clean calories: suitable for brain function, suitable for endurance, suitable for storage, suitable for human metabolism. There are 1.7 billion Asians on a low-fat high starch diet–and they’re skinny for crying out loud!

“But my body is more pre-disposed to fat metabolism!” the Paleohack, or raw food whack job, David “Avocado” Wolfe (who got fat on all that plant fat) claims.

Says who? That desk you sit at all day long? You can change your metabolism’s direction and preference with diet modification and movement. Frankly, the body favors carb consumption; the shift from fat to carb metabolism is significantly quicker than the shift from carb to fat metabolism. You need only look at human athletic performance to understand that carbs are friendly and efficient; protein catabolism and ketosis isn’t going to take you far, physically or mentally.

So, again, why are you low-carb Paleo?

  • Simple, easy-to-follow weight loss?
  • Disease management?
  • Part of the “nature” movement?
  • You’re an arrogant jerk?

You can address any one of these concerns with a low fat plant-based diet (except for maybe the jerkiness factor). More cleanly. More cheaply. More ethically. More “naturally.”

Bottom line is that you can be a responsible and successful Paleo-follower if you simply RE-STRUCTURE your pyramid.

plant pyramid

Go plant-strong!

Leave a comment


  1. From the title, I was prepared to not like this post. But that was silly; I’ve liked all of your posts. Certainly not every word you’ve written, but for the most part I like them. This one is no exception.

    My first comment is that I think you might tend to ignore genetic (and possibly acquired) variation. So whereas I have to agree with your reasoning and conclusion (that starch is the optimal dietary base) for the general population, I don’t think it’s true for everyone and the people for whom it might not be true might represent a sizable minority.

    Case in point: myself. I don’t know why my cells want to resist insulin. But, for certain, they do. I monitor my blood glucose and I know which foods will shoot it up and which foods I can safely eat. I’ve been doing diet and exercise experiments along with lab test monitoring for almost 10 years. One of those experiments was done late in 2005. I found a vegan P/F/C at 17% / 18% / 65% to raise my HbA1c to 6.2 — totally unacceptable! I can keep my HbA1c under 5.5 and my fasting blood glucose right around 80 with a diet that’s PFC 20/45/35 as long as I keep my glycogen stores from ever topping off and take almost all of my carbs from veggies and legumes. … low fruit … zero added sugar.

    My second comment relates to your final food pyramid picture. Is that a picture of strawberries twice? Once for starch and once for fruit? If I look at strawberries from the USDA nutrient tables, the carbs in 100g strawberries are 90% fiber and sugar. I guess you just replaced the fruit label with a starch label. It’s a little confusing. You should change the picture, too.

    But don’t get me wrong; great post!

  2. Hi Maria, your article made me laugh while educating me. I think Paelo does the same thing, Paelo helped me recognise my inner caveman, and I ate more juicy meat and rediscovered nut, with the discovery of fire I cooked, and with the advent of the writing I discovered there was a lot more out there to learn. Paelo is an improvement on high fat/high GI carb diets, and worked for me as a good platform to figure out where to go to next. Reminds me a bit of the scene in “2001 A Space Space Odyssey” when the ape throws the bone in the air :)

  3. All of the great apes eat meat, (even gorillas in small amounts as recently discovered). Furthermore, this does not matter much becasue we are HUMANS. Deciding to base our diets on that of the great apes is a MISTAKE scientifically speaking.

    There are ENORMOUS UNCERTAINTY and monumental unknowns about nutrition. We are far away from knowing the optimal human diet- if such a thing even exists….

    Scientists are still unravelling how cells work. There are many salesman scammers out there making claims of certitude about diet. They are ALL frauds.

    We ALL are taking risks and groping in the dark with our dietary decisions. Too little is known currently.

    Take care,



  4. Zoe Landors

     /  December 22, 2013

    Hi Maria,

    Thanks for your post. I was vegan for 20 years before I opted to include meat/fish and chicken in my diet again. I eat eggs and avoid grains, gluten and dairy. I do eat sweet potato as probably my main source of carbs with perhaps a lady finger banana, some berries and even the occasional passionfruit in a morning smoothie if I’m doing a double exercise training which I do every weekday. This includes 3 days of sprint training (interval) followed a couple of hours later by an intense gym training 45 minutes plus 15 min stretch. On Tuesday and Thursday I do a 11km loop run followed by a 4.2k swim. Saturdays I only do the 11k run and Sunday only the 4.2 k swim. I am a 49 year of woman. I probably look 35 at most.
    Avoiding gluten and dairy has been the most beneficial to me hence I no longer eat grain and usually not even the gluten free ones. I avoid sugars except for the 1-2 pieces of fruit I have on the days I exercise more. (there are sugars in sweet potato of course).
    I have triglicerides at the bottom of the normal range 0.3. My blood sugar is optimal. When I ate higher carb I had low blood sugar swings (cold sweats) which was symptom of pre-diabetes.
    I snack on nuts rather than fruit if needed.

    I’ve met Brendan Brazier and my first thought when I did was that he looked sick, unhealthy, scrawny and depleted, unwell. I wanted to feel different as I used and still at times use the vegan protein powder he formulated. That is just my take on it. He looks not much different on you tube videos out there. Marc Sisson at possibly 20 years older looks healthy, fit and much younger than his age. Anthony Colpo is not a paleo proponent although I read his articles often.

    In my humble opinion but after much research and trial and error, I must say that I think the vegan approach and also the raw vegan approach is good to cleanse the body when excess is present (illness and general heat in the body) but after a while the body must be given some building food otherwise it will become depleted. People will suffer from depletion and this can be as debilitating as symptoms of excess.

    Thanks for your article.

  5. Lady, what is wrong with you! How about doing your job – correct research! – before making such a pathetic post.

    First of all, PLEASE do your research before you start blabbing on about how you THINK you know about someone and their exercise, lifestyle, way of eating! You are very unprofessional and this post shows it.

    Anthony Colpo IS NOT A PALEO PROMOTER! Take your head out of the clouds and read his site! Start with this page on his site where he mentions your completely inaccurate and foolish post:

    ANYONE with half a brain would not read this blog after this moronic post. You can’t even research well before you start spouting lies and inaccuracies.

    Time to get a new line of work instead of misleading everyone.

  6. Razwell

     /  December 23, 2013

    Dear Maria,

    Anthony Colpo is a snake oil salesmen fraudster who deliberately deceived readers by providing a phony reference to Dr, Ornish’s highly successful study. If he were, in fact, an actual genuine, principled and professional research scientist,( instead of a dimwitted and useless arm chair Internet surfing huckster who is not advancing human knowledge like people such as Stephan Guyenet) , he would be immediately canned and his career ruined.

    Colpo holds many false beliefs. Physics is NOT done by FIAT, as Colpo thinks. Top scientists go out of their way to stress this. The man is laughably scientifically illiterate.

    Lastly, Anthony Colpo’s picture is definitley PHOTOSHOPPED- and poorly at that. Look at the bizarre tan lines, the extremely loooong giraffe neck ( also with weird tan lines). Magnify it up to 400 % and scrutinize it intensively around the ribs and shoulders and neck. You will see all of the touch ups, veins inserted, etc. he also posted it in black and white. He is a shady guy.

    People such as Evander Holyfield and prime Mike Tyson had superb physiques and theirs are the real deal- authentic on television.

    People such as Evander Holyfield and prime Mike Tyson have superb phtys

    My good buddy, Urgelt of YouTube , immediately spotted Colpo as a fraud back in 2006. Urgelt and I learned our science from Richard Feynman- the best of the best.

  7. Jane Sanchez

     /  December 24, 2013

    In science, we reason from EVIDENCE, NOT beliefs, traditions, dogmas or what we feel is correct or want to be correct.

    Absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence.In such cases with there is no evidence -SUSPEND judgement.

    Richard Feynman would be very dispelased with both yourself AND the Paleolithic salesmen. Most of the Blogosphere has not idea what science is…..

    We are ALL taking considerable risks with our diets. Far too litlle is known to science currently.Dr. Fuhrman is just as much a scammer as Mark Sisson.

    Take care,

  8. I loved this post. common sense + science = wisdom. Thank you!


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