Forget the Macronutrient Ratios – You Are What You Were Designed to Eat

Forget the Macronutrient Ratios - You Are What You Were Designed to Eat

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy having this particular debate. Someone – not a fan of the Paleo Diet – points out that the diet’s higher protein content is proof that the diet is dangerous citing multiple studies linking higher protein to cancer, CVD, and all-cause mortality.1-3

I have this “dance” down pat. I simply shrug my shoulders and say, “Makes sense. Too bad vegetables are bad for us as well.” I get an incredulous look and a “How can you say that?” response. “Vegetables are a carbohydrate and so are jelly beans. And jelly beans are bad for you.” My frustrated opponent chastises me for drawing a ridiculous conclusion by lumping all carbohydrates together.

Gotcha! Almost invariably I’m able to point out that the high protein diets in their studies were based on processed meats like fast food hamburgers and bologna, not lean meats. “Aren’t you doing the same with all proteins?”

Its remarkable how much current literature and popular diets focus on nutrient ratios, from the “carbs are bad for you” Atkins diet to the 55-65% carbohydrate ratio of the popular food pyramid. It seems one of the hottest topic in nutrition today is the ideal ratio of carbohydrate to fat to protein.

But this debate can miss a very important point.

Throughout our entire evolution, our ancestors had no idea what carbohydrates, protein, and fats were. I am certain that when offered a mango, no hunter-gatherer ever muttered the words “No thanks, I’m watching my waistline. I don’t need the carbs right now.”

All they understood was what was edible and what was not.

The biography of Ishi – the last true North American hunter-gatherer – provides a great example of this awareness. Even while trying to adapt to western civilization, he refused to consume milk or butter. In his very limited English he explained that dairy “ruined his singing voice.”4

This is, in my opinion, one of the greatest strengths of the Paleo Diet. It doesn’t miss the point. While the Paleo Diet is lower than a Western diet in carbohydrates, it is not a low carb or a high protein/fat diet. That’s because not all carbohydrates, protein, and fats are made the same. A high protein or higher carbohydrate diet can be healthy or unhealthy depending on the foods.

The focus of the Paleo Diet is not on ratios, but on eating the foods we evolved to eat. The ratio is a by-product.

A healthy Paleo Diet in fact doesn’t have an ideal ratio.

In their 2009 review of plant-animal subsistence ratios of hunter gatherer societies, Dr. Cordain and his team were quick to point out that the plant-animal ratio varied greatly.5 Societies living close to the equator could get more than 55% of their calories from plant sources, while more polar societies (such as Eskimos) derived almost all of their calories from animal sources.

As a result, the macronutrient ratios could be vastly different. Hunter-gatherer societies ate anywhere between 22-40% carbohydrates, 19-35% protein, and 28-58% fat (though it’s worth pointing out that even those broad ranges are lower carbohydrate and higher protein/fat than the Western diet).6

So it’s somewhat ironic that despite showing such broad ranges, much of the early criticism of the Paleo Diet was over macronutrient ratios.

In 2002, Dr. Cordain described a sample one-day Paleo menu in one of his early reviews. His sample menu was 23% carbohydrate, 38% protein, and 39% fat.7 Those numbers have been cited repeatedly by critics of the diet.

But again, they missed the point.

The point of the review was not to establish exact macronutrient ratios. Dr. Cordain could have easily laid out a sample Paleo menu that was higher or lower in carbs, protein, or fat. The point was to show that the sample menu consisted of nutrient dense and healthier foods than a typical Western Diet.

Let me give a real world example of why focusing on ratios over foods can be so dangerous.

My wife recently told me about a friend of hers who describes himself as a “Paleo Diet fanatic.” He unfortunately has a habit of lecturing others on their food choices including my wife. Yet, a large portion of his diet consists of bacon, butter, and coconut oil. And he avoids fruit.

His diet may be many things, but I wouldn’t personally call it Paleo. I’m unaware of any hunter-gatherer society that ate butter as a staple and gave the local fruit tree a wide berth.

When my wife asked her friend why he eats the way he does, his answer was all about macronutrients. Carbohydrates are bad for us because they cause cancer and all fats are good because they put us in ketosis.

Addressing both of those points fully is beyond the scope of this article, but let me give a cursory overview of carbohydrates and cancer to show why it’s so dangerous to make generalizations like that about macronutrients.

Cancer has been increasingly associated with elevated levels of the hormone Insulin-Like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1), a potent promoter of growth and cell division.8-11 As its name implies, IGF-1 shares many commonalities with insulin. The pathways that raise insulin and insulin itself cause an increase in IFG-1 and lower its inhibitor Insulin-Like Growth Factor Binding Protein-3 (IGFBP-3).12, 13

If insulin raises IGF-1 and its common knowledge now-a-days that eating sugary foods spikes insulin, it’s easy to draw the conclusion that carbohydrates promote cancer.14

But that would be a mistake. A better way to determine how diet may influence both insulin and IGF-1 is to look at the glycaemic load – a measure of the ability of individual foods to raise blood sugar levels.15, 16 High glycaemic load foods have been linked to cancer in many studies.17-21

When we look at the glycaemic load of individual foods instead of carbohydrates in general we see a very different picture. For example, the fruits and vegetables promoted by the Paleo Diet all have a low glycaemic load despite being composed mostly of carbohydrates.16 Fruits and vegetables have certainly been shown to be protective against cancer.22

Likewise, foods on the Paleo-no fly list such as refined grains and soft drinks have a very high glycaemic load and may promote both IGF-123 and cancer.17-21 Interestingly, milk also has a low glycaemic load value but still strongly raises insulin and IGF-1.24

There are still many great discussions to have about the Paleo Diet. For example, the fact that most Palaeolithic foods don’t exist in the same form anymore, so how do we best approximate them? Likewise, should individuals eat different diets depending on whether they have more equatorial or polar heritages? Even macronutrient ratios are a good question to explore.

But all of these questions are the minutia not the focus. While addressing them we can never lose sight of the foundation – eat the foods we evolved to eat. Otherwise, we start snacking on sticks of butter and think it’s a good idea.

Trevor Connor | The Paleo DietTrevor Connor is Dr. Cordain’s last mentored graduate student and will complete his M.S. in HES and Nutrition from the Colorado State University this year and later enter the Ph.D. program. Connor was the Principle Investigator in a large case study, approximately 100 subjects, in which he and Dr. Cordain examined autoimmune patients following The Paleo Diet or Paleo-like diets.


1. Nilsson, L.M., et al., Low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet score and risk of incident cancer; a prospective cohort study. Nutrition Journal, 2013. 12: p. 10.

2. Pan, A., et al., Red Meat Consumption and Mortality Results From 2 Prospective Cohort Studies. Archives of Internal Medicine, 2012. 172(7): p. 555-563.


4. Kroeber, T., Ishi in two worlds; a biography of the last wild Indian in North America. 1961, Berkeley,: University of California Press. 255 p.

5. Cordain, L., et al., Plant-animal subsistence ratios and macronutrient energy estimations in worldwide hunter-gatherer diets. Am J Clin Nutr, 2000. 71(3): p. 682-92.

6. McDowell, M.A., et al., Energy and macronutrient intakes of persons ages 2 months and over in the United States: Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, Phase 1, 1988-91. Adv Data, 1994(255): p. 1-24.

7. Cordain, L., The nutritional characteristics of a contemporary diet based upon Paleolithic food groups. Journal of the American Nutraceutical Association, 2002. 5(5): p. 15-24.

8. Safarinejad, M.R., N. Shafiei, and S. Safarinejad, Relationship of insulin-like growth factor (IGF) binding protein-3 (IGFBP-3) gene polymorphism with the susceptibility to development of prostate cancer and influence on serum levels of IGF-I, and IGFBP-3. Growth Hormone & Igf Research, 2011. 21(3): p. 146-154.

9. Yu, H. and T. Rohan, Role of the insulin-like growth factor family in cancer development and progression. Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 2000. 92(18): p. 1472-1489.

10. Christopoulos, P.F., P. Msaouel, and M. Koutsilieris, The role of the insulin-like growth factor-1 system in breast cancer. Mol Cancer, 2015. 14(1): p. 43.

11. Zhu, S., et al., Insulin-like growth factor binding protein-related protein 1 and cancer. Clin Chim Acta, 2014. 431: p. 23-32.

12. Cordain, L., The Paleo diet : lose weight and get healthy by eating the foods you were designed to eat. Rev. ed. 2011, Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley. xv, 266 p.

13. Attia, N., et al., The metabolic syndrome and insulin-like growth factor I regulation in adolescent obesity. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 1998. 83(5): p. 1467-1471.

14. Freedland, S.J., et al., Carbohydrate restriction, prostate cancer growth, and the insulin-like growth factor axis. Prostate, 2008. 68(1): p. 11-9.

15. Runchey, S.S., et al., Glycemic load effect on fasting and post-prandial serum glucose, insulin, IGF-1 and IGFBP-3 in a randomized, controlled feeding study. Eur J Clin Nutr, 2012. 66(10): p. 1146-52.

16. Foster-Powell, K., S.H. Holt, and J.C. Brand-Miller, International table of glycemic index and glycemic load values: 2002. Am J Clin Nutr, 2002. 76(1): p. 5-56.

17. Augustin, L.S., et al., Dietary glycemic index and glycemic load, and breast cancer risk: a case-control study. Ann Oncol, 2001. 12(11): p. 1533-8.

18. Woo, H.D., et al., Glycemic index and glycemic load dietary patterns and the associated risk of breast cancer: a case-control study. Asian Pac J Cancer Prev, 2013. 14(9): p. 5193-8.

19. Sieri, S., et al., Dietary glycemic index and glycemic load and risk of colorectal cancer: results from the EPIC-Italy study. Int J Cancer, 2014.

21. Eslamian, G., et al., Higher glycemic index and glycemic load diet is associated with increased risk of esophageal squamous cell carcinoma: a case-control study. Nutr Res, 2013. 33(9): p. 719-25.

22. Block, G., B. Patterson, and A. Subar, FRUIT, VEGETABLES, AND CANCER PREVENTION – A REVIEW OF THE EPIDEMIOLOGIC EVIDENCE. Nutrition and Cancer-an International Journal, 1992. 18(1): p. 1-29.

23. Salmeron, J., et al., Dietary fiber, glycemic load, and risk of non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus in women. JAMA, 1997. 277(6): p. 472-7.

24. Hoyt, G., M.S. Hickey, and L. Cordain, Dissociation of the glycaemic and insulinaemic responses to whole and skimmed milk. Br J Nutr, 2005. 93(2): p. 175-7.

About Trevor Connor, M.S.

Trevor Connor, M.S.Trevor Connor was Dr. Loren Cordain’s last graduate student at Colorado State University. His research with Dr. Cordain focused on the effects of a Paleo style diet on autoimmune conditions. Their pilot study included close to 60 volunteers with diverse conditions ranging from Crohn’s Disease, to Multiple Sclerosis to Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. The results were very promising, including all eight Crohn’s subjects going into remission on the Paleo Diet.

Trevor started working with Dr. Cordain in 2010, soon after retiring as a Professional Cyclist. At 38, he felt it was time to hang up the bike. Trevor had studied traditional sports nutrition for over a decade and was admittedly very reluctant to accept the Paleo Diet. But after experimenting with the diet himself, Trevor was able to return to the Pro Peloton at 40, getting Top Five’s in several races and establishing himself as the top ranked 40+ rider in the country for several years running.

Trevor now writes the Coaching Section of the international cycling magazine Velo, has his own coaching business, and recently managed the semi-Professional cycling team Team Rio Grande who’s alumni include Teejay Van Gaarderen, a top five finisher at the Tour de France and multiple national champions.

Trevor is currently working on publishing several studies and reviews on the effects of wheat on the digestive immune system. Recently, he moved back to Canada so his wife could pursue her dream of making the 2016 Olympics in pole vaulting (as a Paleo Dieter and ranked top 10 in the country in her mid-30’s.)

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“8” Comments

  1. Nice read. I found your article with the Google search “which nutritional macro was most common during our evolution” because I’ve been thinking about diet from an evolutionary perspective a lot. I’m tired of hearing glucose is the “preferred” energy source. Oh God, it’s so annoying. Anyway, I am on the classical ketogenic diet because I have refractory epilepsy. I have tried 7 anti-epileptic medications in my life trying to manage this condition. Only one has been effective AND tolerable (AEDs have horrible side effects). But the keto diet has been LIFE-CHANGING. I mean, I went 7 weeks without having a single seizure. That is the longest I’ve ever gone and it is absolutely due to the diet. So, we should all put asterisks with our diet claims/advice, reminding people that every body is naturally different. Overall, though, it’s really exciting to see my generation so dang pumped about trying to live a healthy life and exploring all this stuff.

  2. Great content!
    I find this to be very beneficial, especially right now when all these diets are going on. I’m an ex bikini competitor, so when I see a lot of these diets and read the macros it makes me cringe, especially the Keto Diet. I’ve seen way to many people pass out from low carb diets. Keto, in my opinion is dangerously low!
    The paleo diet does seem like the best option in my opinion ion. You’ve mentioned a lot of great statistics. Thank you again.
    P.s. I live very close to CSU, so cool to see that’s where you graduated!

  3. Landed here to see what the general feel is for macros for paleo.

    I agree with most of the article however “my” bet is that we begin to nail down tracking changes in our phenotype regularly and begin eating accordingly.

    What are your thoughts on the paleo / neolithical diets as man began with animal husbandry and small scale farming.

    I fear consumerism has trapped content providers like yourself with having to label content/diets for subscribers and sales.


  4. Thank you for your wonderful article!! i enjoyed reading it. I love how you stated that Paleo is more of an overall lifestyle and not just allowed ingredients smoothed together. I think a lot of people out there spend a lot of time developing “Paleo Approved” junk foods and think they are being healthy. I indulge in some banana ice cream and Paleo Fudge Brownies some of the time, but this article serves as a great reminder of what Paleo really means.

  5. Trevor, you perfectly hit the nail once again. It’s about real food rather than macronutrients ratio. Hunter gatherers around the world thrive with different percentages but what we see is that they eat real food that we are meant to eat. And once again the fact that there’s no single paleo magic formula is used and exploited by ignorant or bad faith deniers who want or need to defend the grain based western diet…the absurdity of their thoughts is astounding to me, since we don’t have the aforementioned formula to standardize the paleo diet we should go to all the other way round eating a non species specific food…and apparently enough they guidelines make people sicker and sicker every day…

  6. Pingback: The Slippery Slope of Food Choices for Paleo Kids : The Paleo Diet™

  7. I lost a TON of weight by cutting my carbs! I’ve been doing low carb/paleo
for over two years. I recommend it to all of my friends needing to 
lose weight. I also recommend the 21 day sugar detox to get started. 
It really helped me get goin!

  8. Pingback: Forget the Macronutrient Ratios – You Are What You Were Designed to Eat | Health Fitness Daily

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