Cheating on Paleo and Why It’s a No-No

So yesterday, I talked about what paleo is. I mentioned that cheating is highly frowned upon, but I didn’t really expand. Most diet enthusiasts will tell you to go by an 80-20 rule. 80% foods allowed by your diet of choice and 20% cheat food. Paleo doesn’t roll that way.

Now it’s totally possible that you will see some benefits of the paleo way of eating on this 80-20 plan, but to really see that quality of life-changing difference, you need to commit all the way. Here’s why.

According to the Mayo Clinic, Celiac disease is defined as follows: an immune response in the small intestine triggered by gluten, which is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Over time, the villi (little finger-like protrusions) are beaten down by gluten causing decreased nutrient absorption (1). An epidemiological investigation headed by Rewers, et al 2005 (2), stated that celiac disease affects 1 in 105 to 1 in 1750 people in the United States. This is already a high incidence of disease. Add gluten sensitivity/allergy into the mix and the numbers are more like 40% of the population. (I averaged source estimates together to get this number. An exact number is hard to determine because many people claim to be sensitive who are not, and many more go untested and, therefore, undetected.)


Someone who has celiac disease or a severe gluten sensitivity cannot have a single bite of a gluten-containing food without repercussions. These include stomach pain, bloating, diarrhea, joint pain, and bone pain. Those with true celiac must endure much worse. This is why true paleo diets eliminate all gluten all the time. As soon as damage is done to the intestinal villi, a cascade of problems follows (3). The picture above from Wikipedia shows damaged villi.

So what foods contain gluten? Wheat, barley, and rye. What foods are made with those grains? A lot. What eats those grains? Livestock. Where does dairy come from? Livestock. This is why dairy should be eliminated and all meat consumed should be labeled “gluten-free” and/or “grass-fed.” Where are gluten free grains raised? The same places that raise gluten-containing grains. So yes, this is difficult. But the benefits are worth it.


Before you make excuses about “gluten-free” oats or rice, let’s talk about why paleo just won’t bend. All grains. ALL GRAINS contain what has been dubbed “antinutrients” (4). They are as follows:

1. Phytic acid: a phosphorous pool for the seed, but a mineral binder, making all of the healthy minerals in grains (calcium, zinc, magnesium, etc) unavailable for digestion. This antinutrient is also found in nut shells, but since we remove those before eating, nuts and most seeds are ok (5).

2. Lectins: They are the armor of the grain and of the legume. They deter other animals from eating the grains because they are actually capable of perforating the lining of the small intestine. They also have been shown to bind to leptin receptors (6). Leptin is the hormone secreted to signal to the brain that we are full. Lectins can cause a build up of leptin, but with no “I’m full” signal to the brain (7)(8). See the problem?

3. Enzyme Inhibitors: These protect the grain from sprouting until optimal conditions arise. These guys are why if you do decide to ignore me and eat grains, at least soak them in water overnight first. The wetness gets the enzyme inhibitors to lay off a bit, and allows the grain to sprout so that you can extract some (not much) nutrition from them (6).

4. Gluten: Everybody know this beastie.

Soaking, sprouting, and fermenting can help with reducing all antinutrient content, with the exception of phytic acid. These processes actually make minerals even less bioavailable (9).

A good way to avoid gluten from other food sources is to consume only grass-fed meats and alternative dairy from nut sources like almond or coconut. If you’re really invested, watch out for carageenan which is a nasty preservative used in some alternative dairy products (10).


1. van der Windt DA, Jellema P, Mulder CJ, Kneepkens CM, van der Horst HE (2010). “Diagnostic testing for celiac disease among patients with abdominal symptoms: a systematic review”. JAMA 303 (17): 1738–46.doi:10.1001/jama.2010.549PMID 20442390.

2. Rewers M (April 2005). “Epidemiology of celiac disease: what are the prevalence, incidence, and progression of celiac disease?”Gastroenterology 128(4 Suppl 1): S47–51. doi:10.1053/j.gastro.2005.02.030.PMID 15825126.

3.  Di Sabatino A, Corazza GR (April 2009). “Coeliac disease”. Lancet 373 (9673): 1480–93.doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(09)60254-3PMID 19394538

4. Oxford Dictionary of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Oxford University Press, 2006. ISBN 0-19-852917-1.

5. Cheryan, Munir; Rackis, Joseph (1980). “Phytic acid interactions in food systems”. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr 13 (4): 297–335. doi:10.1080/10408398009527293.PMID 7002470.

6.  Gilani GS, Cockell KA, Sepehr E (2005). “Effects of antinutritional factors on protein digestibility and amino acid availability in foods”. J AOAC Int 88 (3): 967–87.PMID 16001874.

7. British Journal of Nutrition (2000), 83: 207-217 Cambridge University Press

8. Miyake K, Tanaka T, McNeil PL (2007). “Lectin-Based Food Poisoning: A New Mechanism of Protein Toxicity”. In Steinhardt, Richard. PLoS ONE 2 (1): e687. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000687.PMC 1933252PMID 17668065

9.  Hotz C, Gibson RS (April 2007). “Traditional food-processing and preparation practices to enhance the bioavailability of micronutrients in plant-based diets”J. Nutr. 137 (4): 1097–100. PMID 17374686

10. Tobacman JK (2001) Review of harmful gastrointestinal effects of carrageenan in animal experiments.Environ Health Perspect 109(10):983-984.


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