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An Outsider’s View of The Paleo Diet® Movement

By David Seaman, D.C., M.S., Science Writer
October 2, 2018
An Outsider’s View of The Paleo Diet® Movement image

Focus of this article

Agreeing on the meaning of words is very important so that we all know what we are talking about when we communicate. It seems to me that the Paleo-nutrition movement is lacking in this regard, because the “Paleo” nutrition concept has been hijacked and excessively commercialized by non-scientist marketers. This article represents an outsider’s view of Paleo-nutrition.

My background and view-point

I met Dr. Cordain in 2001, prior to the release of his first book, The Paleo Diet. A friend forwarded me two of his early articles:

Cordain L et al. Modulation of immune function by dietary lectins in rheumatoid arthritis. Brit J Nutr. 2000;83:207-17.

Cordain L. Cereal grains: humanity’s double-edged sword. World Rev Nutr Diet. 1999;84:19-73.

These articles intrigued me because I was studying how pain and inflammation could be impacted by nutrition. As a chiropractor, I noticed that many patients had a substantial reduction in pain when refined sugar, flour, and oil calories were replaced with vegetation. This led me to eventually write two articles, which were subsequently referenced by researchers at Harvard Medical School and many other universities in America and abroad:

Seaman DR, Cleveland C. Spinal pain syndromes: nociceptive, neuropathic, and psychologic mechanisms. J Manip Physio Ther. 1999; 22:458-72.

Seaman DR. The diet-induced pro-inflammatory state: A cause of chronic pain and other degenerative diseases. J Manip Physiol Ther. 2002;25:168-179.

I have written additional articles since that time, all of which focus on pain and inflammation (1-5). More recently, I wrote two layperson’s books, including The DeFlame Diet and Weight Loss Secrets You Need To Know. In short, I essentially view everything (lifestyle choices, pain, diseases, etc.) based on its relationship to inflammation.

In my book, The DeFlame Diet, the fundamental recommendation is to replace pro-inflammatory calories (refined sugar, flour, and oils) with vegetation, and otherwise consume a diet that is calorically appropriate to achieve a normal waist/hip ratio, which robustly correlates to other markers of inflammation that can also be easily tracked, such as blood pressure, glucose, lipids, and C-reactive protein. In other words, my perception is that ones diet should be molded so as to achieve normal markers of inflammation. The reason I have always been a fan of Dr. Cordain’s work is that his Paleo Diet recommendations are anti-inflammatory.

The primary DeFlame Diet recommendation to completely avoid sugar, flour, and refined oils (pro-inflammatory calories) and replace these calories with vegetation is 100% consistent with The Paleo Diet®. Where the DeFlame approach differs from the Paleo approach is that whole grains, legumes, and dairy are not completely excluded from The DeFlame Diet, and the reason is because these foods can be consumed and still lead to a reduction of chronic inflammation in a clinically meaningful fashion (6-8).

In The DeFlame Diet, I address whole grains, legumes, and dairy in a single chapter and argue that these calories need not be consumed at all if one chooses. However, they are not excluded so long as the markers of inflammation are appropriate. This is the reason I characterize myself as a “Paleo” outsider.

My recent perception of The Paleo Diet®

My first introduction to Paleolithic nutrition was Dr. S. Boyd Eaton’s seminal paper that was published in 1985 in the New England Journal of Medicine (9). I did not think much about the topic until meeting up with Dr. Cordain years later. My perception then and now is that the Paleolithic diet is a research topic primarily that led to the development of lifestyle recommendations in Dr. Cordain’s book, The Paleo Diet®.

I should say that my view of Paleo nutrition soured for a few years because of the fashion that it became commercialized. I witnessed “Paleo” books, blogs, and podcasts emerge, and my perception was that Dr. Cordain was orchestrating it to some degree, which I then found out was absolutely not the case. In 2014, I met up with Dr. Mark Smith at the World Golf Fitness Summit and was re-immersed into the “original” and “proper” Paleo diet mindset. For those who do not know, Dr. Smith was Dr. Cordain’s first “Paleo-oriented” graduate student.

With my properly oriented “Paleo” mindset, I began to look at the big names in the commercialized world of Paleo and ancestral nutrition. What I found was a sea of non research-based “Paleo” proponents; none of whom have any significant scientific background at all.

What do I mean by “non research-based “Paleo” proponents”?

To me, the “non research-based “Paleo” proponents” are those who identified and resonated with Dr. Cordain’s Paleo diet book and research, and who then went out and started to use the word “Paleo” in their own books, blogs, websites, youtube channels, and podcasts. In my mind, The Paleo Diet® is Dr. Cordain’s thing, so it did not even occur to me that I would use the term “Paleo” or “ancestral health” as part of my identity.

At conferences, I typically ask the audience if they have heard of the The Paleo Diet® and if yes, what name do they associate with it? Quite often, people do not mention Dr. Cordain, which astounds me, as he is the founder and primary driver of Paleolithic nutrition research.

In my opinion, the “non research-based “Paleo” proponents” are essentially marketers, who saw an opportunity to cash in on a growing nutritional concept. It is actually quite easy to identify these individuals versus the scientists.

Who are the “Paleo” researchers and scientists?

The easiest way to find out if someone is a “Paleo” scientist, or any kind of scientist for that matter, is to put their name into the search field. If you search for Cordain L, you get 66 papers and can track his transition from pure exercise science before the mid-1990s and thereafter into Paleolithic nutrition.

Using Dr. Cordain as the starting point on Pubmed, you can identify his co-authors. Then you can search all of their work. By doing this, one can easily identify the Paleo experts and their work.

Quite conspicuously, none of the highly commercialized Paleo advocates have ever published a legitimate scientific paper on any topic ever, and certainly nothing related to Paleo nutrition. For these people, Paleo nutrition is a business model and marketing scheme, rather than a research model, a heuristic device, and a clinical science.

Anytime you want to determine if an alleged “scientist” and self-proclaimed expert is legit, all you have to do is put the last name and initials into the search field. Articles should appear that confirm they are legit. I have yet to find one of these individuals who has published a single article.

Foods allowed in The Paleo Diet®

Many of these self-proclaimed experts appear not to conceptualize the basic nature of The Paleo Diet®. The primary mistake is the assumption that there is only one Paleo Diet and it is a low carbohydrate, high protein diet. The point is missed that the Paleolithic diet differs dramatically depending on one’s geographical location.

The traditional Paleo diet of Arctic Eskimos consisted mostly of fat from fish, seal, walrus, and land animals (10). In contrast, the diet of the Kitavans in the Melanesian islands, as studied by the late, legit Paleo researcher, Staffan Lindeberg, consists primarily of yams, sweet potatoes, taro root, and fruit, a so-called low-fat, high-carbohydrate Paleo diet (11). Most of the fat in the Kitavan diet comes from coconut and fish, which destroys the foolish notion, promoted by some radicalized vegans, that The Paleo Diet® is a red meat or red meat-based diet.

Non-scientist “Paleo” marketers have also flooded the market with Paleo-bars, Paleo-shakes, and more shockingly, Paleo-supplements. None of these are legitimate components of The Paleo Diet®, and serve only to confuse the proper scientific and practical message, in my opinion. Pemmican would be the closest food that resembles a nutrition bar.

With the above in mind, I do recognize that many thousands of people have benefited from the recommendations of non-scientist Paleo marketers, which is certainly a good thing. The common recommendation is to avoid refined sugar, flour, and oil calories, which will be beneficial to anyone; however, such recommendations are NOT specifically “Paleo.” As a research model, The Paleo Diet® is about foods that were consumed in the upper paleolithic era, which dates from 10,000 to 40,000 BCE, before the advent of farming. In contrast, as a practical lifestyle approach, The Paleo Diet® is about consuming foods that are identical or similar to the foods that were consumed in the Paleolithic era. For example, we now farm our vegetation, whereas in the Paleolithic era, wild vegetation was consumed.

So in short, as a Paleo outsider, my suggestion is to get all of your Paleo nutrition information from the founder (Dr. Cordain) and his research colleagues, or at least make sure that any recommendation you read is backed up by peer reviewed scientific research. Getting your information from Dr. Cordain, his colleagues, and other published nutritional scientists will allow you to avoid the confusion and controversy that has been created in the Paleo movement.


  1. Seaman DR. Anti-inflammatory diet for pain patients. Pract Pain Management. 2012;12(10)36-46.
  2. Seaman DR. Body mass index and musculoskeletal pain: is there a connection? Chiropractic Man Ther. 2013;21:15.
  3. Seaman DR. Weight gain as a consequence of living a modern lifestyle: a discussion of barriers to effective weight control and how to overcome them. J Chiro Humanities. 2013;20(1):27-35.
  4. Seaman DR, Palombo AD. An overview of the identification and management of the metabolic syndrome in chiropractic practice. J Chiropr Med. 2014;13(3):210-19.
  5. Seaman DR. Toxins, toxicity, and endotoxemia: a historical and clinical perspective for chiropractors. J Chiro Human. 2016;23:68-76.
  6. Forsythe CE, Phinney SD, Fernandez ML et al. Comparison of low fat and low carbohydrate diets on circulating fatty acid composition and markers of inflammation. Lipids. 2008;43:65-77.
  7. Perez-Guisado J, Munoz-Serrano A. A pilot study of the Spanish ketogenic Mediterranean diet: an effective therapy for the metabolic syndrome. J Med Food. 2011;14:681-87.
  8. Perez-Guisado J, Munoz-Serrano A. The effect of the Spanish ketogenic Mediterranean diet on nonalcoholic fatty liver disease: a pilot study. J Med Food. 2011;14:677-80.
  9. Eaton SB, Konner M. Paleolithic nutrition. A consideration of its nature and implications. N Engl J Med. 1985;312:283-89.
  10. Stefansson V. The fat of the land. New York: Macmillan Co; 1960
  11. Lindeberg S, Lundh B. Apparent absence of stroke and ischaemic heart disease in a traditional Melanesian island: a clinical study in Kitava. J Internal Med. 1993;233:269-75.

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