Saturday, November 12, 2011

Paleo Myth: Nutrient Deficiency

So Paleo has been in the news quite a bit lately (see recent Breakfast TV spot here) and it has pretty much become a script for how this plays out. Scene 1 we see some random person who has adopted the Paleo lifestyle, insert editorial about cavemen, etc and then a brief description of the eating habits (meat, fish, veggies, fruit, nuts and seeds). In scene 2 we tend to see the naysayers who trot out all manner of excuses as to why this 'diet' could potentially be 'dangerous'  as well as numerous other poorly thought out arguments concerning our Paleo ancestors.

The biggest myth I have seen appear over and over, usually by a dietician or nutritionist, is that you will become nutrient deficient without your healthy whole grains or dairy.  Instead of arguing why I think this is a fallacy and the result of "just not doing your homework", let us actually look at what you get out of grains and dairy.

If I take bread for instance, and flip over to the back and take a look at the vitamin content (I linked in the info for Dempster's Ancient Grains to give you an idea) you see that it contributes mostly to Selenium, Magnesium, and Maganese. Depending on the type of bread you may also see an "Ok" amount of other minerals like Iron, Thiamine, or Folate (most at 8 - 10%).

If we look at what types of foods are actually high in these vitamins/minerals you'll notice some interesting things. I have taken the vitamins/minerals above and searched out the foods that contain the most. It is a pretty easy exercise, simply Google the vitamin/mineral name and then "foods".


If you take a look through these you will notice that fruits/veggies/nuts/seeds/meat/fish MAKE UP MOST of the top foods. You will see flours and grains in there, I will not lie. However if you look at HOW MUCH you have to eat of each you can gain a better appreciation, especially if you are concerned about caloric content. Calorie per calorie, Paleo-friendly foods are amongst the most nutritious you can eat. Conversely most grains are pretty nutrient-poor if you consider the calorie content one must eat to accumulate the necessarily vitamins/nutrients. Also do not be fooled about protein content, most grain protein comes in the form of gluten, which the digestive system has issues breaking down (or can't break down at all).

"How about dairy then? How will I ever get my calcium, vitamin A and D" you say ... well.

Vitamin D
Vitamin A

In all cases but calcium, Paleo-friendly foods outperform dairy. Regarding calcium, and this goes for all the vitamins/minerals even the ones Paleo is plentiful with, it is not just about how much you eat, it is about about how much you absorb. Co-factors that aid in calcium absorption are Vitamin D and Magnesium, both of which Paleo is high in. Dairy products also tend to be high in vitamin D (fortified) but here is an interesting tidbit. Just as you need some vitamin D to help with calcium absorption, you require a fat source for vitamin D to be digested properly. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin meaning that it is absorbed in the intestines with the aid of lipids (fats).

Now, think about that for a second then consider the vast majority of dairy you eat. It is probably low-fat, right? Think about it.

For some other fun facts about calcium on Paleo you should definitely check out Diane Sanfilippo's blog post on calcium here. While most people are probably willing to give something different a try they are less adventurous when it comes to their children. If you are nervous about your children being nutrient deficient (especially if they tend to be pickier eaters) you can check out Diane's other post on the USDA Recommendation for kids vs Paleo.

I do not think the issue here is that Paleo is necessarily a nutrient deficient way of eating (obviously), it is that we have come to rely on grains and dairy so much as an "easy way" to eat and the food industry (mostly forced by the gov't) has fortified these foods with vitamins/minerals such as A, D, and folate so we do not become deficient from lack of better alternatives.

If you will not eat veggies and fruits, nuts/seeds, and meat to get these vitamins/minerals then by all means eat fortified grains and dairy. However I really am becoming tired of RDs and nutritionists raising the alarm bells because you decide to get your nutrients from REAL WHOLE FOODS. Do your homework folks, the information is out there. If you are reading this then you already know how to use a computer, work on your Google-fu and start cutting through the garbage dietary advice we are being force fed.

Do not want to believe me? Oh, you need to hear it from an actual science people. Sure, here you go.

Origins and evolution of the western diet: Health implications for the 21st century. Am J Clin Nutr 2005;81:341-54.

The nutritional characteristics of a contemporary diet based upon Paleolithic food groups. J Am Nutraceut Assoc 2002; 5:15-24

Nutrition and health in agriculturalists and hunter-gatherers.

Hone your new found Google-fu by searching for others, they are plentiful. Grab a healthy snack of some fruit, veggies, or nuts (or even jerky! there are healthy versions) before you do, you may be there awhile.


  1. Hey Andrew
    Thanks for putting the work into this and also for expressing the tortured truth so well.
    16 months into paleo with 2 months totally clean ie no dairy,grain seed oil - great butcher Jason the organic butcher who keeps his own flock of sheep - free bones for broth and fat - paleo is cheap when you have a small veg garden- just added you to my favs...keep up the good work fred 59 yrs old ..midlands England

  2. Thanks for the kind words. I enjoy the research so I'm glad that somebody else finds some use in it as well. We'll eventually get the word out on this, one person at a time.

  3. Hey Andrew,

    You should check out the movie Fat Head (available on Netflix) if you haven't already. A lot of the myths surrounding grains (and to a certain extent, dairy) are exposed there.

    Truly love the paleo lifestyle (even if I don't observe it quite as strictly as some). So far combining paleo concepts with a personal trainer @Elite Experience three times a week, I'm down almost 45 pounds with more weight loss on the way.

    Thanks for the post, great read!


  4. Brian,

    Yeah I saw Fat Head on the weekend and thought it was pretty good. I had some issues with a few things in the movie but overall I think it will help people start to question what we've been told over the last 20 years.

    Congrats on the new body composition :D I hate saying weight loss (I do it too, try not to) since it provides an image of trying to be as skinny as possible. I think fat loss + muscle gain is probably what most people actually mean. Either way I'm sure you are doing both.

  5. I use dairy but I tend to use traditionally processed dairy: butter, cream, yogurt, cheese. I don't believe in low-fat dairy. It's pointless without the fat. But with all these grass-fed ranchers pushing their product with promises of it being lower in saturated fat, when I transition over to pastured everything, I've got to make up the fat somewhere. The simple fact is that we eat our meat much younger than we did in the Paleolithic, and hence the animal hasn't had as much time to build up its fat stores.

    I don't insist that anyone else eat dairy because that's a personal choice and I know you can get calcium other ways. Bone broth, in fact, is probably the best non-dairy source, and you don't have to fight with antinutrients in plants to get it (as you would with, say, broccoli). But there are reasons that someone without a casein sensitivity might continue consuming dairy. Coconut oil only takes you so far if you want to keep your gallbladder working properly. :)