I spend more time than I probably should hanging out in various Facebook groups intended to support members in implementing certain dietary approaches.
Most of the groups I hang in are focused on some flavor of paleo, primal, and/or ketogenic diets.
These dietary strategies best reflect my own eating habits, and I think they’re effective tools for looking, feeling, and performing awesome when their implemented properly.
In every single one of these groups, questions like “is quinoa paleo?” or “is fruit keto?” pop up all the time.
I totally get why people are asking questions such as these.
We like rules.
We like guidelines.
We like knowing that we’re doing something “right”.
However, asking questions like this can be problematic, especially if these are the only questions we’re asking about what we’re eating.
Let’s start with the question “is this paleo?”
For starters, if you ask ten different people what foods are or are not “paleo”, you’ll get ten different answers.
I touched on this a bit in my article, Is paleo a fad diet?, but I’ll cover some of the issues with the ideas of “paleo” foods here, too.
Do we define “paleo” as being only those foods that were around during paleolithic times?
If so, when did paleolithic times officially start and end?
How do we account for seasonal availability of different foods?
How do we account for how foods have changed since that time, thanks to selective breeding?
How do we account for differences in geography and which foods were available in certain parts of the world?
How do we account for the fact that there’s evidence that some paleolithic populations did eat grains and legumes, two foods which are most often not considered “paleo”?
How do we reconcile the fact that there are plenty of modern foods and ingredients that are benign or even beneficial in terms of how they affect our health?
Eating a “paleolithic” diet could mean an infinite number of things, depending on how specific you want to be in terms of trying to replicate the food environment with which our ancestors likely evolved.
Furthermore, once we define “paleo”, does that mean we have free reign in terms of eating those foods?
This is the most problematic outcome I see when we eat based solely on whether the foods or ingredients we choose fall into the category of “paleo” or not.
For example, there are a variety of “paleo” recipes out there that are meant to replicate conventional comfort foods and desserts using alternative ingredients.
You can find paleo cookies.
You can find paleo cakes.
You can find paleo chips.
Sure, these foods offer their advantages.
If, for example, you are avoiding certain food or ingredients because of how they affect you, these alternatives allow you to satisfy cravings without any potential allergenic or immunogenic effects.
Rather than using wheat flour, for example, these foods generally are made with alternative flours like almond flours.
Rather than using seed, vegetable, or soybean oils, these foods generally are made with less potentially problematic fats like coconut oil or avocado oil.
These swaps might help you enjoy flavors you’ve learned to enjoy without acute discomfort, or offer peace of mind that you won’t be promoting chronic inflammation if they’re a staple in your diet.
If your goal is weight loss, however, the macronutrient profiles of these foods rarely offer any real advantage over their conventional counterparts.
Say you take a cookie recipe and swap out, one for one, the butter with coconut oil and the cane sugar with maple syrup, honey, or coconut sugar, you are likely going to end up with nearly identical macronutrient profiles.
These alternatives will likely have identical or at least similar effects on your blood sugar, your appetite signals, and your potential to eat more than you might need or want to otherwise.
Sugar is sugar, and a paleo cookie is still a cookie.
Yes, these foods could be considered less potentially problematic than their conventional equivalents, but your liver, taste buds, and pancrease don’t really know the difference.
Without making changes to our eating habits that result in eating appropriate calories and essential nutrients for our goals, it doesn’t matter whether what we eat is “paleo” or not.
Let’s shift gears a bit and unpack the idea of asking whether something is “keto” or not.
For starters, there are no foods that are or are not “keto”.
For example, is bread “keto”?
You might at first think “of course not” because it’s pretty much 100% carbohydrate.
In reality, this question can only be answered with additional questions.
How much are you eating?
What else are you eating that meal or day?
How does this amount of carbohydrate compare to your own individual tolerance for carbohydrate in the context of maintaining your target ketone concentration?
Ketosis is not some “on/off” switch flipped each time we eat.
While different camps might define “ketosis” by having a blood ketone concentration above different amounts, our bodies are always modulating varying degrees of ketone production and utilization.
The amount of any given food we eat matters, as does our individual physiology.
Some high level “ketogenic” athletes, for example, eat upwards of 200 grams of carbohydrate on days that they compete or train, yet still maintain ketone levels considered to be “in ketosis”.
Most folks, though, see success when aiming for less than 20-50 grams of carbohydrate per day in order to maintain their target ketone levels.
Physiological nuances aside, there are additional questions to consider.
What are the goals you’re hoping to achieve by implementing a ketogenic diet?
Stated another way, does it even matter if you’re “in ketosis”?
The stakes for keeping ketone concentrations above certain thresholds vary for different people.
Somebody using a ketogenic diet as a part of their plan to lose a little bit of excess body fat probably doesn’t need to worry about ketone levels as much as an epileptic child or cancer patient using a ketogenic diet as a part of their treatment protocol.
For the latter, sure, there might be a really good reason to maintain high ketone levels at all times, and eat accordingly.
For most of us, though, I’m not sure I see how it matters if our ketone levels drop from 0.9 to 0.3 mmol/L because we ate a bit too much protein, carbohydrate, or food in general.
Rather than worry solely about how your food choices affect the number on the ketone monitor, you might instead focus on how your food choices directly affect your health and body composition.
If your goal is fat loss, yet you are making fat bombs, “keto” desserts, and dumping butter and olive oil on every single thing you eat because “fat loss is all about hormones”, there’s a good chance you’re not doing yourself any favors.
Yes, hormones matter, but calories matter, too.
It’s not an “either/or” situation with those two in terms of losing excess fat.
Your hormones influence your caloric intake and utilization, but your caloric intake influences your hormones.
So, are those protein bars made with collagen and stevia “keto”?
How about that fudge made with erythritol, cacao, and coconut oil?
However, if these foods are promoting eating habits that aren’t moving you any closer to your goals, does it matter?
Push your ketones as high as you want, but if you’re not doing so in the context of a diet comprising inappropriate calories, protein, or other essential nutrients for your goals, you won’t make any progress.
I get that there are benefits to having clear guidelines when you’re just getting started with a new way of eating.
I get that you might not want to know everything there is to know about how and why your body might react in certain ways to certain foods.
I get that having lists of foods to and not to eat can help you establish a baseline before experimenting and figuring out what eating habits do or do not work for you.
However, simply choosing to eat from one list of foods rather than another list of foods is by no means a solid long-term strategy for looking, feeling, and performing your best.
On a related note, when you’re just getting started improving your eating habits, chances are that minute details like whether xanthan gum is paleo or cashews are keto probably don’t matter in the context of your overall eating habits.
Caloric intake, macronutrient profile, and micronutrient intake are all still the “big rocks”, regardless of whether you’re eating paleo, keto, primal, vegan, or just trying to fit your macros.
These dietary strategies are simply tools for moving those “big rocks” to where they need to be.
These tools are only effective if they’re being used properly.
So, rather than asking whether a food is “keto”, “paleo”, or any other term you are using to describe your diet, ask the questions that matter.
“Am I eating enough to feel and perform my best in the context of my body composition goals?”
“Am I eating enough protein to build or maintain lean mass?”
“Am I getting enough essential vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients to keep my body working?”
“Am I eating foods that make me feel awesome?”
“Am I making choices that are helping me break any adverse emotional or psychological connections to food?”
90% of your progress will come from getting the answers to these questions dialed in.
Regardless of what specific dietary strategy you’re looking to implement, here are a few outcomes that you might want to work towards:
- Increased intake of protein, fiber, and healthy fats, which help you feel satisfied and encourage appropriate appetite signals.
- Emphasis on nutrient-dense foods that support the countless physiological processes that keep you healthy.
- Decreased intake of hyper-palatable foods – often highly engineered combinations of sugar, fat, salt, and contrasting textures – that promote overconsumption.
- Reduced consumption of foods and ingredients that contribute to chronic inflammation and disease.
- An overall awareness of the impact of how you eat, move, and live on how we look, feel, and perform that results in ongoing investment in our health across many lifestyle factors.
A diet that successfully moves you towards these ends will do just fine 🙂
Don’t be afraid to experiment.
Don’t get caught up in minutia.
Don’t expect perfection.
Make one small change at a time, see how it affects your progress, and repeat the process.
Change is hard.
Change takes time.
You’re worth the effort, though.
You’ve got this.