Why Personalizing Your Diet and Lifestyle Is the Key to Success

We're all uniqueThis is a guest post from Chris Kresser of ChrisKresser.com and author of the new book Your Personal Paleo Code. Join me, Chris and numerous other presenters and Primal enthusiasts from around the world at the 5th annual PrimalCon Oxnard in 2014.

Every week it seems there?s a new bestselling diet book promising the ?secret? to losing weight, building muscle, or even curing chronic disease. Over the last few decades we?ve seen books that make a wide range of claims:

  • Fat is the enemy, and we should all eat a low-fat diet
  • Carbs make us fat and sick, and we should all eat a low-carb diet
  • Protein is the key to weight loss and health, and we should all eat a high-protein diet
  • We should all eat 40 percent of calories from carbohydrate, 30 percent from fat, and 30 percent from protein
  • Animal products are to blame, and we should all follow a vegetarian or vegan diet
  • Cooked food is the source of our ills, and we should all eat a raw food diet
  • We can eat whatever we want and still lose weight?as long as we don?t eat anything at all two days out of each week

It?s enough to make your head spin, isn?t it? And if you?re like most of my patients and readers, you?ve probably tried several of these approaches. Maybe some of them even helped?at least for a little while. But eventually you gained that extra weight back, or you developed some new symptoms, or perhaps you never experienced much improvement in the first place.

Why do we continue to see one diet after another make a splash on the bestseller lists, only to fade from the popular consciousness a few years later? Do these approaches really offer the ?secrets? to success they claim to? If so, why don?t they last?

One reason is that these dietary approaches aren?t consistent with what evolutionary biology has taught us about optimal human nutrition. Studies of the fossil record as well as contemporary hunter-gatherers following their traditional ways have revealed the following facts:

  • Human beings evolved on a diet of meat, fish, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, and starchy tubers.
  • Humans can tolerate (and even thrive on) a wide variety of macronutrient ratios.
  • Animal products made up a significant percentage of our ancestors? diet, and we know of no traditional hunter-gatherer cultures that followed a vegetarian or vegan diet.

This is, of course, why a Paleo diet makes so much sense. But I?ve come to understand that while Paleo is a great starting place, it?s just that?a starting place. This brings us to the second reason that most bestselling diets?including Paleo in some cases?fail in the long run: they aren?t personalized to meet your unique needs as an individual.

We share a lot in common as human beings, but we also have important differences. We have different genes, gene expression, lifestyles, activity levels, health status, and goals. Each of these factors will determine what is optimal for a given individual. What?s more, they can change over time, which means that what?s optimal for you now may not be in a year or a decade.

Let?s take a closer look at how each of these factors might affect individual differences in diet:

  • Constitution (genetics, physiology, biology). Modern studies have shown that some people have genes that predispose them to problems metabolizing glucose (sugar), while others have genes that make it more likely they will have problems burning fat. There is still much we don?t understand about the contribution of genetics to diet and the relationship between genes and environmental factors.
  • Season. During the summer, your body will naturally crave different foods than it does during the winter. It?s true that our ancestors had access to certain foods only at certain times of the year. If they lived in Northern Europe, they weren?t eating mangoes from Thailand in the winter.
  • Geography/climate. If you?ve been to the tropics, you probably found yourself craving lighter foods with higher water content, like fruits and vegetables, more than you did at home. Likewise, in cold climates, you probably gravitate toward eating more protein and fat-rich foods, like meat stews. There?s a reason for this.
  • Health status. Have you ever noticed that you crave different foods when you?re coming down with a cold or the flu? The body has different needs in different physiological states. Women often crave more carbohydrates during pregnancy because the developing fetus has a need for glucose, and women naturally become somewhat insulin resistant as a result. People with thyroid problems may suffer on very low-carb diets, because insulin is required for proper thyroid-hormone conversion. As people age and become less active, they often find that they need less food, or perhaps less of a particular macronutrient, than they did when they were younger.
  • Activity level. A construction worker doing manual labor for eight hours a day or a high-level athlete in training will have different dietary and macronutrient needs than someone who works at a desk. This should go without saying, but amazingly, it is often ignored in the discussion about macronutrients.
  • Goals. If you?re training for the next Mr. Olympia competition, you will very likely eat different foods than an obese person trying to lose weight.

Within a basic ?template? of Paleo or Primal foods, all of the factors above will influence what specific ways each person should tweak their approach in order to achieve the best results. I?d like to share two case studies from my clinical practice to show you how this works.

The first case was a patient I?ll call Samantha. She was 42, and came to see me after she was diagnosed with Metabolic Syndrome. She was 40 pounds overweight and had several markers of poor metabolic function, including insulin resistance, abdominal obesity, high triglycerides and low HDL, and high blood sugar. Her doctor had prescribed a cocktail of medications, which Samantha was advised she?d have to take for the rest of her life. Samantha came to see me for a second opinion.

I put her on a low-carb (15 percent of calories), high protein (25 percent of calories) Paleo diet to promote fat loss, stabilize her blood sugar and normalize her metabolic and cardiovascular function. I also suggested that she eat all of her meals between 11am and 7pm each day. This strategy, called ?intermittent fasting?, has been shown to improve metabolic function and accelerate weight loss in some patients. I also counseled her to reduce her sedentary time, add high-intensity interval and strength training to her exercise routine, sleep for at least eight hours a night, consume fermentable fibers and probiotic foods to improve her gut health, and practice regular stress management. Within three months Samantha had lost 36 pounds, and her metabolic and lipid markers were back in a normal range.

The second case was a patient I?ll call Marissa. She was 43 and came to see me complaining of persistent fatigue. She was a mother of two young children (the youngest was two years old), and she worked full-time outside of the house. Prior to having children she was energetic, enthusiastic, and an early riser?she woke up looking forward to the day. By the time her youngest was two, she could barely get out of bed in the morning and felt exhausted throughout the day. She also had cold hands and feet, hair loss, constipation, and severe brain fog. After running some tests, I determined that Marissa was suffering from Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome and hypothyroidism.

Marissa had been following a very low-carb diet (less than 10 percent of calories from carbohydrate) prior to coming to see me. She started this after her first child was born to lose the weight she gained during pregnancy. This did help with weight loss, but I?ve found that most patients with hypothyroidism and Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome don?t do well with very low-carb diets. If I had suggested the same approach for Marissa that I used with Samantha?a low-carb diet with intermittent fasting?she almost certainly would have continued to get worse. Instead, I recommended a moderate carbohydrate intake (approximately 20?25 percent of calories from carbohydrate) primarily from fruit and starchy plants like sweet potatoes, plantains, taro, and yuca. I suggested that she eat every two to three hours, and start the day with a high-protein (e.g. 40?50 grams) breakfast. Both of these strategies help to stabilize blood sugar and adrenals. I also suggested that she stop or cut back on her intense CrossFit workouts, and instead favor lower-intensity activity like walking, cycling, swimming and yoga. Finally, I made several recommendations for sleep and stress management, and I prescribed supplements for her adrenals and thyroid. Because Marissa?s condition was so advanced, it took about six weeks for her to notice significant changes, and about six months to fully recover and feel like herself again.

These two cases illustrate the importance of a personalized approach to a Paleo diet and lifestyle. They aren?t unique; in fact, I use a similar approach with every single patient that walks through my door. My experience?both personally, and as a clinician?has taught me that personalizing your Paleo/Primal program to meet your unique needs is the single most important factor in determining your long-term success.

While this does require a little bit more time and effort up front, it pays off in spades. You won?t feel confused anymore by the conflicting advice you read on the internet. You won?t have to rely on strangers on forums or even experts to tell you what you should eat. Instead, you?ll know exactly what works for you based on your own experience. Even better, you?ll be able to change your approach on the fly as your circumstances and needs change.

For more information on how to personalize a Paleo diet to meet your specific needs, check out my new book Your Personal Paleo Code.

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48 thoughts on “Why Personalizing Your Diet and Lifestyle Is the Key to Success”

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    1. How can you call this a great article if you haven’t read it?! 🙂

  1. Yes, 100 times yes. Both low carb and intermittent fasting are not good for absolutely everyone.

  2. I’ve always found that a one-size-fits-all diet never works for me. It’s important to know your body and make diet adjustments as time goes on.

  3. Ok, now I want his book too AND to go to his 90 minute visit to Portland on the 28th of January.
    I think maybe my sisters should go to the one in Tacoma – Kathleen are you listening? He, he, he.

  4. I think this is great! I have an array of reproductive issues as well as chronic fatigue and poor circulation, but without healthcare I’ve been unsuccessful as to diagnosing what’s wrong with me. I turned to the primal blueprint in November and so far I’ve lost about 15 pounds, but still kinda feel like crap a lot. Not to mention I’m well proportioned everywhere but my stupid gut. Seriously, its like I’m destined to lose everywhere but there. I’ve been low carbing, so I’m curious as to if I increase them, will it improve my condition and weightloss?

    1. I’ve been veering toward this for a while. I have reproductive issues, too, constant cold feet, and can sleep like a cat — constant naps! I have healthcare and have seen three doctors and nobody has an answer. I was going lower and lower carb because it seemed like that was everybody’s solution to everything, but i also felt like crap and had no energy, and we aren’t talking “oh, you have the low-carb flu” stuff. Some Internet-browsing got me thinking about REALLY upping my carbs, especially where reproductive issues are concernrd, so I tried it and almost overnight I felt better. My sleep started improving, and then I was able to push myself through workouts with more focus nd energy, and ten my sleep staeted to improve. I ended up gaining a few pounds, but in my case, I probably needed it. Who knows, maybe once my homones alance out, it will come off agin or redistribute or something. Either way, getting to eat apples and sweet potatoes just makes me smile!

  5. Love this. Can’t wait to read the book. It’s so good to see the whole philosophy behind the paleo diet evolve into something that’s different for every person.

  6. I think the ideas outlined in this article are excellent, although I would like to come out in defence of Eat Stop Eat, which is criticised in a subtle manner by the author, although it is a perfectly good weight-loss program, backed by solid science.

    1. Just want to be clear that I’m not necessarily criticizing any of the approaches I mentioned early in the article. I’m merely pointing out that they don’t work for everyone.

      Also, there’s more to health than fat loss and I don’t think a diet that alternating periods of fasting and eating crappy food is good choice if health is the goal. I haven’t read Eat Stop Eat so I’m not addressing that book in particular, but there are other books that have made this suggestion.

      1. Chris, I think I love you. I am an exhausted mother of 3 boys under the age of 5, have been trying to follow a VLC diet for the better part of two years and have not been able to keep up. Your article almost made me cry when I read the part about Marissa. I am going to buy two books for the new year: your new one and Paul Jaminet’s Perfect Health Diet. Thank you.

  7. I’ve got Chris’ book on my “buy next” list. I’m female, 57, and have found that I do need a bit more starch along with my fat and protein (and SLEEP!). I always hear “sweet potatoes, plantains, taro, and yucca”, but am having a hard time finding information on how to prepare taro and yucca, or even where to find them. Any hints? I love sweet potatoes, and plantain made into chips (but not other preparations of plantain). And does he mean yuca as in cassava / manioc / tapioca or truly yucca?

    1. I have prepared yucca “fries” by peeling them, slicing them into sticks about 1/2 inch thick, and then pan frying them in macademia oil, avocado oil, or coconut oil. A mixture of macademia and coconut tasted best when some friends brought them to our gym. It was IMPOSSIBLE to stop eating them, so consider that a warning.

  8. Big fan of what Chris Kresser does. Look forward to reading his book. Mark your filling up my book list very quickly lately!

  9. Great stuff Chris. After being Primal about 3 years, I’ve recently started tweaking things around. Found I was so reved up and full of tremendous energy (even at night), that I decided to start adding in more starch and carbs. Lo and behold, sleep was much better and dry eyes went away. Tweak away…

  10. This was what I needed to hear today!!! Great article and very validating:)

  11. Totally agree. Another important aspect of this is the idea of autonomy regarding what we eat. If we feel we are truly in charge and tweaking to suit ourselves we are much more likely to stick to a healthy way of eating than if we try to stick rigidly to a particular diet prescribed by someone else.

  12. I couldn’t agree more, how there are simply tons of ways to not notice the downsides of dieting, etc. Nice post!

  13. I’m sure grateful for the daily apple Mark. I geeked out on Death By Food Pyramid read over a weekend. I know it had some extras for ordering before the 31st but I don’t how to access them, the book did’nt come with a coupon or anything. I’d sure appreciate a little help with that . Thanks again for the site, keeps me updated and motivated.

  14. I am amazed how far Paleo has come from the earliest “Me Tarzan, me eat meat” days. Too bad the movement is still perceived as that. I hope that all these new books will change the perception.

  15. I’ve always been curious and the personal paleo code. Almost bought it too to check it out once. Anyway I love his articles on his website.

  16. Thanks for posting this resource. I just purchased the Kindle edition and will start on It right away. Great timing for me because over the holidays I had cookies and muffins with all legal, Paleo ingredients and had the same reaction as I had in the days when I ate wheat! I’ve been grain free for two years but I’m still experiencing a few digestion issues and can’t seem to lose any weight unless I go very low in carbs (25 g or less). I’m 52 and I want something I can sustain and maybe lose the last 10-20 pounds!

  17. I’ve been following the primal blueprint for almost 4 years now (4 years in April) and although I had a ton of weightloss/fatloss starting out, I am now back to my original weight when I started.

    In fact, weight gain is even easier and I really have to concentrate on how much I eat.
    My metabolism sloooooowed down tremendously going primal and any kind of fat/carb combo packs on the pounds like nothing else. I’ve been on a low fat/high sugar SAD my entire life and eventually became insulin resistant thus leading in a bit of weight gain and horrible health problems.
    Now I am back to being somewhat chubby but I’m strong as an ox and have 0 health problems.

    I guess I’ll take the slightly chubby but healthy over stick thin and sick any day…it just doesn’t make me 100% happy.

  18. Interesting stuff and timely. I’ve been conducting a little experiment on myself (and blogging about it) to reintroduce dairy products (after reading Kresser/MDA articles) and after a few days, I’ve just stopped wanting to eat it. No adverse symptoms, just lack of desire. Maybe dairy is not part of my template!

  19. I love how many versions of “right” there is. Food is not a religion and not black and white.

  20. >> Human beings evolved on a diet of meat, fish, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, and starchy tubers.

    I’d like to see this statement quantified.

    I.e. over what periods of time did any of the ingredient constituted a part of our diet. and consequently, how important are they?

    E.g. comparing fruits and meat or fish and starchy tubers, were they equally important esp. in the later stages when our genome stabilized?

    1. You should definitely read the book. Chris talks about various hunter-gatherer groups, past and present, and shows just how varied the macronutrient ration can be, all without modern disease!

  21. My copy is in the mail and I am so excited to read it! A great way to start the new year.

  22. I really appreciate this post. While I am completely paleo, I find that Chris’s statement that paleo is just a start is absolutely correct, particularly if you struggle with chronic conditions. So this reflects what I have myself found to be true through personal experience. I also appreciate how Chris acknowledges that “people are different” without oversimplifying the matter. That statement — “everyone is different” — can sound like a cliche and leave one feeling even more lost and confused, as if you’re your own island of dietary needs. It can be isolating. But the way Chris qualifies it makes sense and allows one to understand that, while personalizing your diet is important within certain parameters (i.e. no grains, seed oils, etc.), there is also a community out there from which to draw information and support, and a sense of hope.

  23. Excellent article, a must read for people who are dogmatic about one specific approach to health and fitness. One factor that is not always considered (especially relative to exercise programs) is age (I’m one month older than Mark … but he has better abs and thicker hair than I do LOL). Although I do not eat pizza, pasta, oatmeal, bread, sweets etc. I do incorporate sweet potatoes and a little bit of brown rice and quinoa in my diet as well as a tad of nuts and soaked flax seeds. I eat them with a big helping of veggies, usually one egg each meal, a little bit of fruit followed later on by green tea and whey protein. I don’t eat meat due to ethical reasons and nothing will ever make me change my mind about that, but believe that eating some meat is probably good for your health, it’s part of our DNA, just not something I choose to do. I do NOT judge others who do. I also do IF, most days shooting for 16 hour off, 8 hours on, but don’t beat myself up if it expands to 10 hours. I pump iron three days a week, it’s something I love and done CORRECTLY gives you strong muscles, joints, tendons, core and can be done in a cardio mode, much better for you than distance training. I’m pretty ripped for my age and hope to keep on keeping on for as long as I can.

  24. I’m an exact combination of the women Chris described. I have my youngest child is 11 months old, I work full time, and I have debilitating fatigue to the point it is interfering with all aspects of my life. I have hair loss, joint pain, GERD/gastritis (diagnosed by endoscopy),Type 2 Diabetes, abdominal obesity. I am also 40-50 pounds overweight. My thyroid has been checked twice over the past year due to the constant fatigue, hair loss, joint pain etc. Both times the results have been normal.

    Now I’m more confused about what exactly to be doing. Low carb/IF will help with blood sugars and weight loss. But by the sounds of this, if I do have adrenal fatigue, low carb/IF will make things worse.

    I only wish I had the time to focus on myself…between the demands of my family and the demands of my job (that require me to be available around the clock), it’s hard to even consider meditation, yoga, food prep etc. Being off for the holidays no w has been the only opportunity I’ve had to focus a bit on myself (and read this blog!)

  25. Timely article and just downloaded the book. I am wanting to (now after 16kg weight loss) maintain my weight and eat as well as I can and yes ‘modified Paleo’ sits well with me. We can all agree sugar is bad, processed food is bad and probably most/ all grains are bad, eating more veges (esp. green ones) is good, full fat dairys instead of low fats, and eggs. I working on a lowish carb diet <100gms but will work on 100-150 when I work out (3 x 30 min per week). Sadly I have developed an egg allergy so am using intermittent fasting to skip breakfast. Working well for now but I do plan to add some white rice every so often and even some quinoa to mix it up. I am working on the keep it real approach! and it is an evolving process as I evolve.

  26. I got as far as “Animal products made up a significant percentage of our ancestors’ diet, and we know of no traditional hunter-gatherer cultures that followed a vegetarian or vegan diet” and HAD to laugh.

    Let’s face it, how many HUNTERS do YOU know that are vegetarians?

    I’m certainly no vegetarian. I guess the author was simply writing too quick for his brain (and certainly didn’t get anyone to check it for him).

    Seriously, now I’m going to continue reading. I just had to point that out because I thought it was so funny.

  27. Nice article Chris, thank you.

    I’ve just purchased the Kindle “Your Personal PALEO Diet” (that being the UK/International version of the US “Your Personal PALEO Code”). 🙂

  28. This is well-timed. Not because of New Year’s but because last night I said “If I read one more Friday success story and compare it to the continued march of my host of autoimmune and who-knows-what muscle-skeletal issues, well, I will not be sending in a success story.” It’s sort of depressing after eating clean for a long time. Then adding lifting heavy things and meditation.

    I was very happy eating a lot of soy until that didn’t fit low carb or the supposed needs of my dying thyroid. I just blew out my knee, my voice is trashed, and I have a constant headache. I have eliminated foods (please don’t start), reduced my stress, and taken every shred of advice including just accepting my path.

    I was happiest when I was a bit of a freak show, eating soy and salads, having a couple glasses of wine, and running. My IT bands don’t support running but it’s worth remembering the best I’ve ever felt and considering making those highly-personalized choices again within the context of so much that I have learned.

    And I am really trying to not forget the whole picture here at MDA: Sleep, nature, less screen time, sunshine. The reason I come back every day is that there is a certain “look inside and stop the madness” quality to this site, that is so different and so welcome.

    Namaste my friends. Happy new year. May we each find our own path.

  29. I have adrenal fatigue, and have been following a very low carb (50-75 grams daily) diet with 6 hours of intermittent fasting between meals. I have felt like this has been making me worse. I’ll try to eat a moderate amount of carbs and eat every 3 hours as suggested. Looking forward to reading Chris’s book.

  30. Thank you thank you Chris,
    Finally someone in the primal community talking about how some people need more starchy carbohydrates. I have followed a moderate carbohydrate diet for years (excluding gluten, dairy and corn) high protein (1.5g per pound of BW) and low fat. I do eat rice and quinoa. All this talk about grain free and higher fat and I started to feel like I was maybe missing out on something. So I tried switching out starchy carbohydrates with veggies with my protein every three hours and adding in some healthy fats. The first few days were fine, the next weeks were horrible. I lost my appetite, my metabolism went through the floor, and became ‘skinny fat” My periods started coming every 26 days as opposed to 32. I didn’t look better, but I weighed less, I would need naps all day long. I maintain a lean physique (around 15% BF) all year round, I am a female, I train roughly 5 times a week and am pretty active with my job. I need rice and I am proud of it. I feel better now that I am eating it again, and I am getting my body back.

  31. Mark, I wish I could be one of your patients at your clinic, but, even if I did have the resources, I wouldn’t be able to travel. I have adrenal fatigue and hypothyroidism. For the last five years I’ve been mostly bed/couch-ridden. I’ve done everything I possible can diet & lifestyle that I know to do. Researched plenty & am going to a ARNP who has me on PL Adaptogen R3, which I haven’t seen any results in six months and the last two months on DHEA 5 mg, since it was low. I’m not getting anywhere. I too, have tried very low carbs and felt even worse than with higher carbs. After three days I went back to moderate carbs and immediately felt better. Not that I ever feel good, as I’m wiped out all the time.
    I haven’t been on my 90mg of ArmourThyroid for over 4 yrs., since dx with AF. By adding selenium, finally my thyroid has improved, not quite optimal yet. Don’t think it will until I heal my adrenals some.
    I eat as clean as possible, grass-fed usually and organic, for most things. No sugar or coffee. I’m gluten-free “just in case.” I Eat every 2-3 hrs. Take 2-3 naps a day, not because I want to but, because I have no choice.
    I need help desperately. I use to be fit until a GP gave me Cortef because my thyroid panel showed a high normal level of rT3 (reverse T3.) I was asymptomatic, fit, woke up with energy and looked forward to the day, boy I wish I could do that again! I cooked everything from scratch, swam and walked daily, ran my household & had a social life. NONE of which I can do or have now. Cortef made me have high anxiety and super high blood pressure after being on it for 3 months. Then I was so sick I was bedridden. I’d love to get my life back, be healthy and fit and be the wife and housewife I use to be and be able to enjoy our two young grandchildren!!! Tried over ten docs and they have not only, not helped, some have worsened me over the years. No one left around our area to try.
    What resources do you have that might be good for me to read/hear? I’m at my wit’s end. I’m sure I need a good adrenal supplement but, there are so many from which to choose. I can’t use licorice root because of my blood pressure. Do you have any resources for me to learn more from to be able to help myself since it seems no one else knows much about this topic, much less what to do for it?

    Thank you for myself and on behalf of others that may be in my situation, as well.

  32. That’s interesting, especially the thing about thyroid function and carbs. My thyroid gland is not fully working anymore and I would go nuts without a decent slice of bread (nice home fermented sourdough is the best) at least once per day or without rice-based meals about twice a week. Carrots seem to agree with my body as well. I eat every two to four hours at least a little bit to keep my sugar levels constant. I also noticed I get sick quicker if I train too hard – two or three times a week seems to be okay, but going four times on a regular bases is just too much in many cases and I feel completely drained.
    I still experience low blood pressure/cold hands and feet, fatigue, drowsiness – and often a very nasty dizziness during training, as if my blood pressure drops when my heart rate goes up. Any ideas on that? I asked a doctor, and they told me to do sports to get my blood moving, and otherwise dismissed the problem. Should I maybe try to put more fruit juice back into my diet? I got a feeling my problems got worse after I cut back on it to reduce my sugar intake.

    Also, would you differentiate between “normal” thyroid issues and autoimmune ones when it comes to food? There has been some hype about the so-called “autoimmune protocol”, but I don’t know how real the effects are.