The five most common mistakes the modern paleo eater makes

Here are the five most common mistakes I see people make as they transition towards a Paleo diet:

Mistake No. 1

Swapping gluten-containing grain products for gluten-free products.

Going gluten-free has many health benefits, and I am big supporter of removing gluten. But many people simply swap their 6 to 10 servings of gluten-containing grain-based products for gluten-free grain-based products.

If you do this you are still probably still eating 6 to 10 grain servings a day. All those starch-based products are filled with sugar and white starchy flour, which is quickly broken down to glucose (sugar) and released into the bloodstream.

Insulin levels spike, driving up inflammation, and competing with the enzymes that remove the harmful tau proteins in the brain. This is a big deal because tau proteins are linked with Alzheimer’s disease and are thought to contribute to the development of dementia! If you eat gluten-free products, I suggest limiting them to one serving a day, meaning one piece of bread or one half-cup of rice or pasta.

Mistake No. 2

Assuming that a modern paleo diet will naturally contain as many vitamins, minerals, essential fats and antioxidants as a traditional hunter-gatherer diet.

It is true that the diets of traditional societies exceed the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for vitamins and minerals two to tenfold, depending on the specific nutrient. It is also true that modern paleo diets (Practical Paleo and Primal Blueprint) are among the most nutrient dense (as studied by Dr. Jayson Calton).

But in their studies, they found that modern Paleo diets still missed 40 percent of RDAs!

Why the difference between traditional Paleo and Modern Paleo? Traditional societies eat wild plants and wild foods, while modern Paleo eaters consume agricultural foods, which have been bred to maximize carbohydrate content and taste appeal (sweetness).

Also, remember that crops are now grown using chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, which reduce bacteria in the soil. Having fewer bacteria in the soil is associated with less vitamin, mineral and antioxidant content in plants.

Not to mention that fact that crops are grown so fast, and on so much less land, that they are not able to take up as much mineral content from the soil as in the past.

The USDA, which has monitored the vitamin and mineral content in apples, chicken and hamburgers since 1914, released a report in 1992 that showed a 20 to 100 percent reduction in vitamin and mineral content since 1914 for apples and since 1963 for chicken and meat.

Traditional societies also have cultural food knowledge they have accumulated over hundreds of generations. They know what food choices maximize the health of the clan. That means that different societies ate very different foodstuffs according to locale and availability. Analyses of various hunter-gatherer society diets show that regardless of location and diet specifics, they all consume two to 10 times the RDAs, depending on the particular nutrient.

The modern paleo eater does not have that cultural wisdom as a guide any longer because it’s been lost or forgotten. There is no guide toward eating for maximal micronutrient density. as a result, the modern Paleo eater rarely eats things like organ meats (when was the last time you ate an animal heart, or even a liver?), or even green leafy vegetables because of the strong flavors of both.

This partially explains why the modern Paleo eater is at risk for missing 40 percent of the established RDAs for vitamins and minerals. And remember, that’s just a minimum. It’s nowhere near what you actually need for your best health.

Mistake No. 3

Assuming that alternative sweeteners such as honey, agave syrup and maple syrup are healthful.

Do you know how they damage animal livers in order to study fatty liver, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes? They give the animals fructose. Many of the sweeteners that seem to be favored in the paleo community contain fructose: honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar, agave syrup.

I recommend limiting fructose-based sweeteners to no more than one teaspoon a day or eliminating entirely. Using those sweeteners freely can be nearly as harmful as consuming high fructose corn syrup.

Mistake No. 4

Assuming that “paleo-friendly” cookies, cakes, and desserts are healthy.

They certainly can be tasty, but many paleo desserts contain fructose or alcohol-based sweeteners and a lot of white flour, though it may not be a grain-based flour.

Those tasty desserts have a high­ glycemic load, which means they also lead to more insulin production and inflammation as well as a higher risk of earlier cognitive decline and dementia. For a sweet treat, I eat a bowl of berries with a chia seed pudding made of chia seeds, spices and full fat coconut milk. It’s tasty, filled with antioxidants and healthy fats, and will not lead to a spike in glucose or insulin.

Mistake No. 5

Eating mostly meat and few or no vegetables

Many paleo eaters can’t afford organic meat and so eat a lot of conventionally grown meat and no or almost no vegetables. Unfortunately, conventionally grown meat contains pesticides and chemical residues. We live in a world filled with chemicals; our babies are born with more than 200 synthetic chemicals in their tiny bodies. Eating conventionally grown meat means taking in more synthetic chemicals that will interfere with the normal biochemical processes in our cells.

Those chemicals are processed and eliminated by our liver, kidneys and sweat glands. The phytochemicals in plants speak to the DNA in our cells, turning genes on and off. This greatly influences whether our chemical processes shift toward efficient processing of toxins or toward storing toxins in our fat.

The more plants we eat, the more we are preparing our body to eliminate the toxins it encounters, promoting our overall health and vitality. Our ancestors ate more than 200 different species of plants each year and yet most paleo eaters consume relatively few species.

My advice is to eat sufficient protein (6 to 12 ounces) and then eat 6 (women) to 9 (men or tall women) cups of leafy green, sulfur-rich, and deeply colored vegetables.

If you want to achieve the greatest energy and vitality possible, you need to eat a maximally nutrient-dense diet.

I created a food plan that does just that and then tested it using research-quality analysis of the menus and recipes to confirm that the food plan delivers the vitamins and minerals that science has said our brain cells need. My book, “The Wahls Protocol: How I Beat Progressive MS Using Paleo Principles and Functional Medicine,” is a tremendous resource that provides specific guidance on how to create a maximally nutrient-dense diet.

In it, I describe in detail how to design a diet that provides the 31 vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and essential fats that your brain cells and mitochondria need to create full health and vitality. I had seven years of steady decline due to progressive multiple sclerosis and I spent four years in a tilt-recline wheelchair.

In 2002, after 20 years of a vegetarian diet that included lots of vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, I adopted a paleo diet and removed grain, legumes and dairy entirely from my diet. I continued to decline until 2007, when I created a structured paleo diet based upon my own research and paleo principles.

Within three months, my fatigue was gone. After six months, I could walk easily throughout the hospital without a cane, and at 12 months I was able to complete an 18-mile bicycle tour with my family. The following year, I did a trail ride in the Canadian Rockies with my family. And the next year, I began clinical trials, testing my interventions in others with progressive MS.

We have published the initial results, which show that others can successfully implement the same diet and lifestyle interventions that I used for my recovery, in the Journal for Alternative and Complementary Medicine.

The largest side effect we saw in the study was that those who were overweight lost weight and got back to a healthy body weight without being hungry. The Fatigue Severity Scale (FSS) Score, which goes from 7 to 1 (1 = no fatigue), dropped 2.38 points, from 5.7 to 3.32 in 12 months. This is the largest reduction in fatigue ever reported in the MS literature. By contrast, other interventions have had a much smaller effect sizes. Exercise interventions have been associated with only a 0.6 point FSS score reduction, and the medication studies are mixed — some studies show no benefit, while others show a reduction of 0.75 FSS score. We have more studies underway and continue to apply for grants to expand our research program.


Dr. Terry Wahls

By Dr. Terry Wahls

Dr. Terry Wahls is a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa where she teaches internal medicine residents and sees patients in a traumatic brain injury clinic and a therapeutic lifestyle clinic for those with complex chronic disease. In addition, she conducts clinical trials testing the efficacy of diet and lifestyle to treat chronic disease. She is also a patient with secondary progressive multiple sclerosis, which confined her to a tilt-recline wheelchair for four years. Dr. Wahls restored her health using diet and lifestyle interventions and now pedals her bike to work each day. She is the author of The Wahls Protocol: How I Beat Progressive MS Using Paleo Principles and Functional Medicine and the paperback, The Wahls Protocol: A Radical New Way to Treat All Chronic Autoimmune Conditions Using Paleo Principles, and teaches the public and medical community about the healing power of intensive nutrition.  
You can learn more about her work from her website: She is conducting clinical trials testing the effect of nutrition and lifestyle interventions on MS. She is also committed to teaching the public and medical community about the healing power of the Paleo diet and therapeutic lifestyle changes to restore health and vitality to our citizens. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter at @TerryWahls. You can learn more about her research at here.