The Paleo Diet® | Macronutrient Ratios Versus Foods
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Macronutrient Ratios Versus Foods

The Paleo Diet is about eating whole, nutrient-dense foods in line with our hunter-gatherer ancestors—fruits, vegetables, lean meats, eggs, fish, nuts, and seeds—and avoiding the foods they didn’t eat, such as refined grains and sugar. The resulting macronutrient ratio is a byproduct of healthy eating, not the goal.

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If there is one thing that truly separates The Paleo Diet from the multitudes of fad diets, it’s that The Paleo Diet is about eating healthy natural foods and not about ratios. Diet after diet promotes the miraculous benefits of high-fat or, alternatively, high-carbohydrate approaches. But the more important question is what are the sources of those fats or carbohydrates? A high-carbohydrate diet based on fruits and vegetables is very different from one based on processed foods and white bread.

This focus on ratios over the foods themselves, even within the nutrition community, has led to some very damaging trends in recent decades. The high-carbohydrate, low-fat craze of the 1990s led people to consume low-quality, highly processed sugary foods, and is a major contributing factor to the current obesity epidemic.

Just as damaging, but on the other side of the spectrum, are diets like the Atkins Diet, which promote very high fat consumption and lead people to believe that eating a stick of butter is healthy. Likewise, the ketogenic diet, with its near complete avoidance of carbohydrates, encourages followers to avoid fruits and vegetables and can lead to serious long-term nutritional deficiencies.

By focusing solely on the amount of carbohydrates, protein, and fat you consume, you run the risk of avoiding other important questions about the foods you eat—such as the beneficial nutrient density of those foods and the anti-nutrient content. You may be asking, “How do I get carbohydrates in my diet if I don’t eat bread?” For us, the more important question is, “How are you avoiding inflammatory anti-nutrients like WGA, gliadin, and amylase-trypsin inhibitors if you do eat bread?”

The Paleo Diet is based on an analysis of the foods our Paleolithic ancestors ate throughout human evolution, and attempts to mimic those foods. That means eating natural, nutrient-dense, minimally processed foods. A healthy diet focused on eating mostly those foods allows you to let the macronutrient ratios be what they may.

That’s particularly important because there was no single macronutrient ratio eaten by hunter-gatherer societies. It varied by region and season. Societies living closer to the poles ate more fat and protein, while societies closer to the equator were more plant-based and consumed larger amounts of carbohydrates. Likewise, since fruits and vegetables are less available in winter months, the ratio can change seasonally.1

That said, there are certain macronutrient ratio trends with a Paleo Diet approach. While the Paleo Diet is not anti-carbohydrate, it is lower in carbohydrates and higher in protein than the standard Western diet. This is consistent with hunter-gatherer records which show a typical protein consumption of 19-35 percent of calories and a carbohydrate consumption around 22-40 percent. Unfortunately, the only way to get the recommended daily intake of carbohydrates on a Western diet is to consume breads, grains, and simple sugar—all of which are low-nutrient density foods and not part of a healthy Paleo Diet.

1. 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.

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Paleo Leadership
Trevor Connor
Trevor Connor

Dr. Loren Cordain’s final graduate student, Trevor Connor, M.S., brings more than a decade of nutrition and physiology expertise to spearhead the new Paleo Diet team.

Mark J Smith
Dr. Mark J. Smith

One of the original members of the Paleo movement, Mark J. Smith, Ph.D., has spent nearly 30 years advocating for the benefits of Paleo nutrition.

Nell Stephenson
Nell Stephenson

Ironman athlete, mom, author, and nutrition blogger Nell Stephenson has been an influential member of the Paleo movement for over a decade.

Loren Cordain
Dr. Loren Cordain

As a professor at Colorado State University, Dr. Loren Cordain developed The Paleo Diet® through decades of research and collaboration with fellow scientists around the world.