Key Nutrients | The Paleo Diet®
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Key Nutrients

Years of research have demonstrated that The Paleo Diet is the most effective diet at satisfying the genetically determined nutritional requirements of humans. This is the key to optimal health.

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Protein is one of three macronutrients, along with carbohydrates and fats. While the latter two are our primary sources of energy, proteins serve as the building blocks and signaling molecules of our bodies. While most people understand trans-fats are different from omega-3 fats and complex carbs are healthier than simple carbs, too often they assume all proteins are nutritionally the same.

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Carbohydrates, one of three macronutrients, are our primary source of rapid energy. All digestible carbs are made from three simple sugars—glucose, fructose, and galactose. Complex carbohydrates, found in vegetables and fruit, are long strings of sugars that break down slowly. Simple carbohydrates are made of just one or a few sugars and can have a dramatic impact on our blood sugar, insulin, and metabolic health if over-consumed.

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The technical term for fat is acylglycerol. The name indicates the chemical structure: one or many fatty acids (acyl groups) are linked to an alcohol (glycerol) via an ester bond. Acylglycerols can have one fatty acid (monoglycerides), two fatty acids (diglycerides), or three fatty acids (triglycerides.) Fat is our long-term source of energy and serves as our primary energy storage.

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Unlike fats, proteins, and carbohydrates—which our bodies break down and absorb—fiber is not digested by gastrointestinal enzymes. Also known as roughage, fiber is the sum of the constituents of plant foods that are not digested. It has two main components: soluble fiber, which dissolves in water, and insoluble fiber, which does not.

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Calcium is an essential nutrient and the most abundant mineral in our bodies. Most calcium is found in our bones, but it also serves a critical function in muscle and nerve function. On the Paleo Diet, calcium is the only essential nutrient whose recommended daily allowance is not met. Interestingly, there are proven health consequences of calcium overconsumption, and that has been linked to the rapid rise in heart disease in women.

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Iron is an essential mineral that cannot be synthesized by the body. It is necessary for the transport of oxygen and energy formation. Although the human body can recycle and reutilize this mineral, we lose a small amount of iron daily, which then needs replacing. Good sources of iron include meat, poultry, eggs, and vegetables, though animal sources are more readily absorbed.

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Magnesium is the fourth most abundant electrolyte in our bodies. It is critical to both muscle function and acts as a cofactor to over 300 enzymes, making it necessary for a wide variety of functions in our bodies. Fortunately, because it is found in many plant foods, deficiency is rare.

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The electrolyte potassium is abundant in the human body and has a critical relationship with sodium. Maintaining potassium inside and sodium outside cells is essential to both nerve and muscle function. Many health conditions have been linked to the high-sodium/low-potassium content of the Western diet. The best dietary sources of potassium are vegetables and fruit.

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The electrolyte sodium is one of the most misunderstood nutrients. It is critical to survival and has an important relationship with potassium. While hunter-gatherers consumed 1,000mg or less per day, a typical modern diet often exceeds 3,000mg and is linked to almost all chronic inflammatory conditions including hypertension, heart disease, cancer and autoimmunity.

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The mineral zinc serves a variety of functions in the body. The most well-known is its critical role in maintaining the health of our immune systems. Zinc deficiency is characterized by frequent illness. It is very difficult to get sufficient zinc purely from plant sources, especially since phytates in some plant foods prevent zinc absorption.

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The fascinating thing about folate is that you likely won’t find it at the supplement store. Instead, you’ll find folic acid, which was invented in the 1940s; folic acid doesn’t exist in nature. Worse, folic acid has been associated with issues in pregnancy. To get real folate, eat your leafy greens, avocados, and organ meats.

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Vitamin A

Vitamin A, or retinoic acid, is most well-known for its key role in maintaining healthy vision, but it also plays a critical role in gene expression. It is found in orange and yellow plants such as carrots. Vitamin A deficiency is rare in the first world and especially if you are consuming a Paleo Diet high in fruits and vegetables.

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B Vitamins

There are several B vitamins that play numerous roles in the body, particularly related to energy. It’s important to know that vitamin B12 can’t be found in plants, and plant sources of B6 often aren’t bioavailable. Both are critical to preventing a build-up of homocysteine which has a higher correlation with heart disease than cholesterol.

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Vitamin C

Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that is essential to survival. Deficiency is characterized by conditions like scurvy. However, much of the research touting it as a wonder pill for immune health and longevity has been debunked.

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Vitamin D

Despite the name, vitamin D isn’t a vitamin. It’s a hormone that’s produced in our skin through sun exposure. In modern times, living indoors and using sunscreen have prevented us from producing enough vitamin D naturally. This is one of the few nutrients we recommend supplementing.

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Vitamin E

Vitamin E is one of the few fat-soluble vitamins. It functions primarily as an antioxidant, and is essential at appropriate levels. However, since it is fat-soluble, our bodies cannot excrete any excess vitamin E (which is generally only possible with supplementation). Overconsumption has been associated with increased mortality rates. Our best dietary sources are seeds, nuts and olive oil.

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Vitamin K/Menaquinones

Vitamin K represents a group of fat-soluble vitamins that promote clotting of the blood by increasing the synthesis of prothrombin in the liver. However, recent research suggests the potential health benefits of vitamin K go beyond its role as a trigger for hepatic coagulation factors.

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Other Micronutrients

While there is a long list of known essential vitamins and minerals, the list of nutrients we still don’t understand is significantly larger. There are many beneficial nutrients (some phytochemicals) and harmful anti-nutrients such as lectins and saponins. Therefore, supplementing a nutrient-poor diet with a multivitamin continues to prove to have no health benefits, or to potentially be harmful.

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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.