Your Personal Paleo Code: The 3-Step Plan to Lose Weight, Reverse Disease, and Stay Fit and Healthy for Life
by Chris Kresser
Little, Brown and Company, 2013
I would have preferred that Chris Kresser’s recently published first book not have the “P” word in its title. Though still unfamiliar to many, the term “Paleo” in connection with diet has been around, and has been controversial, for decades. “Eating Paleo” is defined differently amongst its adherents and is constantly debated. However, Paleo in the title will certainly promote book sales as this lifestyle continues to gain popularity. Kresser obviously considers his perspective to be firmly anchored in its tenets, but his opinions differ significantly by including foods a strict Paleo canon excludes.
In his book he outlines how to customize the “standard” Paleo diet for the individual, using its principles as a template, rather than as doctrine. I submit that the term “ancestral” would better describe his approach.
As an example, Kresser considers dairy products an appropriate, nutritious food for humans if well-tolerated by the individual. He points out that approximately one third of the global population has undergone a genetic mutation to produce lactase into adulthood. That dairy was not consumed by our Paleolithic ancestors is not reason to reject it. However, he generally does not recommend drinking milk due to its not being well-tolerated by most people. (His position on raw milk is clearly outlined in his series “Raw Milk Reality” on his web site.) “Pastured-animal, full-fat dairy products” come under the heading “Superfoods.” He also includes grains and legumes if well-tolerated, properly prepared, and in modest amounts that “should never displace more nutrient-dense foods like meat, fish, vegetables, nuts, seeds and fruits.”
I am pleased that “diet” is not in the title. Your Personal Paleo Code is so much more than what to eat, what to avoid, and the “why” for both categories. It is an all-encompassing handbook on how to transform your life towards optimal health using not only what is known from anthropological evidence of how ancient humans lived, but also what is known from modern scientific study. Kresser possesses the knowledge and analytical ability to discern the worthy from the meaningless in medical literature. He also has the knack of making complex concepts understandable to the layperson and inspires us towards positive change in our lives.
Your Personal Paleo Code is divided into three steps: Reset Your Diet, Rebuild Your Life, and Revive Your Health. Kresser developed this format to save his own life. His decade-long struggle with a debilitating, complex illness, led him to study Chinese medicine, ultimately becoming a certified practitioner. But it wasn’t until he happened upon Nourishing Traditions that he finally began to heal. Eating the recommended foods made him feel better immediately, and he soon discovered what foods worked for him and those that did not, even if properly prepared. Without knowing it at the time, he was formulating his own personal Paleo code.
After his recovery, Kresser began helping others suffering from chronic illness. As a clinician, he found that the method he used to treat his own condition proved to be useful in treating his patients, and I enjoyed reading some of their success stories. The fruit of his personal and professional experience is this book.
Step 1: “Reset Your Diet” is a thirty-day plan designed to discover hidden food sensitivities, improve digestion, burn fat, reduce inflammation, and regulate blood sugar along with promoting other health benefits. Foods are divided into three categories: Eat Liberally, Eat in Moderation, and Avoid Completely. I think Dr. Price would be pleased to find meats, organ meats, bone broth soups, fish, eggs, fermented foods, and traditional fats in the first category. Potentially problematic foods, including dairy, grains and legumes, are eliminated during this “reset” phase, as are non-nutritious and harmful foods such as those that are heavily processed, sweetened either naturally or artificially, and industrial seed and vegetable oils. Special conditions are addressed for those who have been diagnosed with certain conditions requiring further modifications. Step 1 contains a wealth of information about how to maximize nutrition and minimize toxins.
The discussion of gluten in Chapter 4 is concise yet thorough. It is the only substance for which Kresser advises a ninety (rather than thirty) day abstinence before “performing a gluten challenge,” a careful reintroduction to determine tolerance. Although he acknowledges that Dr. Price documented cultures that consumed gluten and maintained excellent health, Kresser cautions us nonetheless. Even if there are no apparent adverse effects, “considering the seriousness of the conditions that gluten sensitivity can cause, the fact that there is no need for gluten in the human diet, and the low nutrient density and bioavailability of gluten-containing grains,” he “still recommend(s) avoiding it. . .because of its potential to cause harm and our uncertain understanding of what shifts people from tolerance to intolerance.” This is sound and sensible advice.
Chris does not tell us to choose lean meats, although those two words do appear together more than a few times in his book. In Chapter 5 under the heading Saturated Fats, his list of main dietary sources includes “Fattier cuts of beef, lamb and pork,” with the verdict: eat liberally. Chapter 9, a favorite of mine, encourages us to “return to the practice of our ancestors and eat ‘nose to tail’.” There is a synergy of nutrients when “eating not only the lean muscle meat…but also the organs, skin, cartilage, bones and fattier cuts.”
Step 2: “Rebuild Your Life” begins with a method to reintroduce gray-area foods one at a time while keeping track of any negative reactions with a food diary. If you feel great after the thirty-day reset period and are not feeling deprived, there is no need to reintroduce these foods as they are not “mandatory” for good health.
Each of the remaining chapters in Step 2 has a quiz to determine your “score” in lifestyle aspects essential for health, such as sleep, play, social connection and stress management. Clues for rebuilding come from how our ancestors lived: they played outdoors in the sun, moved frequently, slept longer and in darkness, and lived communally, deeply connected to others. Good health requires much more than a proper diet.
For instance, Chapter 12 reveals the importance of movement: “Regular physical activity is one of the best predictors of long-term health and survival….Your fitness level … has been shown to be a better predictor of how and when you’ll die than age, body mass index, or even cardiovascular risk factors.” Warning us of the dangers of too much sitting, Kresser took his own advice and fashioned a stand-up desk with a treadmill beneath it and logged thousands of miles as he wrote his book. He cites a large study that found “those who sat for more than six hours a day had up to a forty percent greater risk of death over the next fifteen years than those who sat for less than three hours a day regardless of whether the participants exercised.” Fascinated by this information, I went to his website and became a “community member” to access chapter notes. I found ten references for this one page! If a reader wants them, there are guides, worksheets, action plans, a dozen bonus chapters, a forum, meal plans and recipes and more online.
Step 3: “Revive Your Health” examines macronutrient ratios with an emphasis on food quality and customization to individual circumstances. Well-being is possible by eating widely differing daily caloric percentages of protein, carbohydrates and fats. After all, hunter-gatherers “thrived on a variety of diets.” Kresser suggests we experiment with carbohydrate intake, noting that most of his patients do best between fifteen and thirty percent of total calories. His application of the Paleo diet is not inherently low-carb. Many factors influence optimal range including genetics, activity level, season and goals. Other topics often discussed in the Paleo community are found in Step 3, including intermittent fasting, eating on a budget, the “80/20 rule,” and getting the entire family on board and finding support for this new way of eating. The final personalization covers specific, often serious, health conditions one must take into account in order to achieve success.
I am happy to report there is no evidence of fat-phobia in the recipes in the book, and many have lard or “traditional fat of choice” on the ingredient list. His inclusion of “extra-light” olive oil in a vinaigrette might be a mistake, as otherwise this oil only appears in a discussion of fats and oils used for cooking and a chart of smoke points. I would like to have seen “unrefined” as a descriptor for sea salt.
When I first opened Your Personal Paleo Code, I was struck by the heading in the introduction: “This Book Can Save Your Life”—a powerful statement which, after reading the book, I don’t consider to be hyperbole. I believe it can. Although aimed at an audience searching for answers, you don’t have to be suffering to find value in its pages. Both of my thumbs are up for the gift of life this book might give many of its readers.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2014