Mat Lalonde: Why Nutrient Density Matters, Paleo Fails, & What to Eat for Dinner

In today's show with Mat Lalonde, PhD, you’re going to learn what people do wrong when going Paleo, why nutrient density matters, and what you should eat for dinner:

Do you buy the caveman theory that our bodies have not evolved to eat wheat, grains, and sugar?

What about the vegetarian argument that we should never, ever eat meat?

Always take hysteria and dogmatism with a grain of salt.

Today we have a special throwback show with Mat Lalonde, PhD. You’re going to learn what people do wrong when going Paleo, why nutrient density matters, and what you should eat for dinner.

Mat Lalonde PhD is a lecturer at Harvard University who specializes in chemical biology, but also studies human metabolism, nutritional biochemistry, health, and athletic performance… just for fun.

He’s not afraid to go after gurus if their science is bogus. Uniquely, Mat has no dogs in the fight, no book to promote, nothing but the quest for great science. And Mat wants to get the best possible information to, well… people who eat food.

In today’s show, Mat and I cover:

  • Creating Mat’s nutrient density framework
  • How Mat earned the epic (and fitting) nickname, “The Kraken“
  • The most invalid arguments made by Paleo advocates
  • And tons more!


Abel: You are one of the most unreasonable men in Paleo. You’re not afraid to go up against anyone. What’s that about?

My training as a scientist forces me to question everything.

I actually don’t participate in social media much. But I do call out everyone in my seminars who is incorrectly using scientific data, or who is creating trials to prove their point rather than answer a question. If I disagree with you, I’ll call you out.

Abel: How did you get the nickname, “The Kraken?”

The Kraken comes from Robb Wolf. We are in an email exchange with a handful of people. We use it to send out papers, ask questions, et cetera. Sometimes I’m busy and get impatient when someone asks a question that’s been asked before or on something I’ve sent out tons of literature on already. That’s when I just slam them with literature… and it’s like the kraken demolishing a city.

Abel: What is the difference between good and bad science?

There are about ten steps to the scientific method—but good versus bad science is about how you set up your experiment in order to make sure you don’t let your own personal biases get in the way.

How you gather data, analyze the data, and the conclusions that you reach based on that data which will determine if you’re doing good or bad science. If you’re a scientist that’s not interesting in finding the right answer, but you’re interested in being “right,” you can manipulate the system at any one of those points to get the answer you’re looking for. And you can publish that.

In today's show with Mat Lalonde, PhD, you’re going to learn what people do wrong when going Paleo, why nutrient density matters, and what you should eat for dinner:

There are lots of ways to get really bad science published. Click To Tweet

These “scientists” have obvious bias. They are looking for something to support their vision, rather than looking for the truth and letting the data speak for itself.

I have a PhD in Organic Chemistry—nutrition is a hobby and I’m applying the principles of science to it. I have no dog in the fight, no book written, no benefit to me, so I don’t care who wins or loses. It’s pretty easy for me to see who’s biased and who’s not.

The world of nutrition probably has some of the worst research next to athletics.

In nutrition, we are really at a point where politics and money have more influence than science. Click To Tweet

The public is not being told the correct information. It’s difficult to find the correct information, but it’s easy to find literature to back your position.

Abel: When most people hear “a scientific study says,” they often take it as gospel. But when I was doing research at Dartmouth and for my book, I was shocked by how many ridiculous – and bogus – things you could say are “based on the data.”

There are many ways to interpret data. It’s up to us to let the public know of all the different options rather than “it’s just this” or the “secret to this is that.” That’s a false prophet.

Having said that, we have to cut the nutrition folks a break. You’re dealing with human beings who are multivariate who live in a complex environment, so some of these studies are very difficult to perform.

Here’s a trick: when you see a headline claiming, “This Causes That,” most of the time it’s probably the result of an observational study. But those studies are the easiest to manipulate.

“The vegetarian agenda is very good at manipulating data, and they abuse observational studies like anyone I’ve ever seen.”

Abel: Everyone asks me about The China Study. What are your thoughts?

(The study concludes that eating a vegan diet with no processed foods or refined carbs can reverse or avoid certain diseases.)

It’s a moot point to pick it apart now because so many people already have, but the bottom line is that there are so many other things that could explain the effect of removing animal products from the diet.

The direct correlation between meat and cancer is not there. #science Click To Tweet

Increasing meat consumption does increase blood cholesterol, but in order to make the point the study had to insert cholesterol into the equation.

Here’s the thing—cholesterol is part of the immune system. When you have cancer (which is an infection) your cholesterol is going to go up to try and fight it. The conclusion that cholesterol consumption causes the cancer is not sound science.


Abel: Paleo people aren’t 100% correct either, right?

I have no problem with the argument that we are most likely to be adapted to the foods that were most commonly eaten over the time period that human developed. It’s a fair statement.

But to say that we are not adapted to a certain food because we didn’t eat it during that time period is a logical fallacy.

You cannot assume that humans aren’t adapted to consume neolithic foods. Click To Tweet

Richard Wrangham is a scientist who studies diet within the context of evolution. I asked him to pick a point of time in evolution, and at that point in time none of the species on the planet could eat a food they’ve never eaten before. What would happen? His answer: Well, they would die. They would starve to death.

That happened to our ancestors. If you believe in evolution, our primitive form ate mostly fruit, came to the ground and started scavenging on carcasses and eating bone marrow and brains and organ meats. Then they started eating and cooking muscle meats.

Nutrient density increases along the way—Fruit to tubers to meat. When we started cooking foods, we were able to extract more micro and macro nutrients—and look what happened to our guts and brains! Our guts got smaller and brains got bigger because we could extract more energy and nutrients from what we eat.

It drives me nuts that someone would pick a date, say 15,000 years ago or at the advent of agriculture, and say you can’t eat anything after that. There are some things that are okay.

For example, some dairy products are okay if you can tolerate dairy. Not everyone can.

Lactase in human beings is very unique. It’s a very simple adaptation—like our bodies said, “Okay, we are going to leave lactase on now… and some of us can digest milk products. But that’s not something to use to make a claim that humans adapt quickly, either…

Abel: What about starch?

Chris Masterjohn made the argument that we are designed to eat starch. But sweet potatoes, yams, tubers… even white potatoes are not the problem. It’s the proteins in the legumes and grains that are very immunogenic and very highly allergenic.

We don’t have really good tools to grade prolamins (globulins in legumes) to process the grains and legumes.

Abel: Along those lines of food we may or may not be adapted to, is there a hierarchy?

For dairy. you have either lactose or casein intolerance and that’s something you have to figure out on your own. it’s up to you to figure how much you want to include in your diet. It is nutritious food at the end of the day, so I think it’s good if you can eat it.

“I don’t use the caveman argument to justify a grain-free diet. Grains include allergen properties, and agriculture as currently practiced is unsustainable. If you cut out the grains, you’re cutting out junk.”

Grains and legumes are quite nutrient-poor. I’ve updated my talk so not to standardize them. But using those criteria, you can make a case against wheat.

If you’re taking quinoa which has a high nutrient density, you can have some of it, but don’t make it 70% of your diet.

Abel: What are you eating day today?

Protein at every meal: eggs, sausage, bacon at breakfast or for a quick meal just hard boiled eggs. Lunch is a piece of meat with a little bit of greens. Everything is cooked. You lose a little but you actually extract a lot more nutrients with gentle cooking. The raw food diet is not healthy, you can’t extract enough calories and micronutrients from eating just raw foods. I also add some kind of tuber for carbohydrates. Dinner is meat (steak) and tubers. I get about 50% calories from carbs, 30% from protein, and 20% from fat.

I follow my own prescription, which is essentially meat, veggies, and tubers.

Abel: That sounds fairly low in fat.

I have NO bias with regard to high fat and low fat. That should be determined by genetics, epigenetics, and athleticism.

Some people don’t tolerate carbs, others don’t tolerate fat. Plus, if your level of athleticism is also going to determine your optimal carb level. Now, you may have mismatches in that—for example, a distance runner that can’t tolerate carbs.

These things should determine your optimal diet: What can you tolerate. What makes you feel good. What makes you look the best naked.

The high fat diet is a pet peeve of mine. It is very useful for people who have hyperglycemia. But the people for the “low-carb for everyone” is not a good idea. I have seen that ruin people. There’s some very good research showing that if you try to do glycogen-demanding sports on low-carb diet, your free-testosterone levels are going to plummet.

Studies are showing people doing high glycogen-demanding sports on low-carb have the testosterone levels of prepubescent girls.

The bottom line is that a keto diet is a tool. We have to know how to use it. Don’t be so close-minded.

(For another point of view on endurance training on a high-fat diet, see this podcast with Tawnee Prazak.)

Keto works well to get low body fat, but those athletes are wrecked after competition. If you’re looking at elite performance like bodybuilding, there’s always a health cost.

Many bodybuilders and athletes will carb-load, but that’s not a green light to eat whatever you want. Your body is craving the carbohydrates (an essential nutrient necessary for creating enzymes), but the food should still have some nutrient density.

In today's show with Mat Lalonde, PhD, you’re going to learn what people do wrong when going Paleo, why nutrient density matters, and what you should eat for dinner:

So, carb-load on sweet potatoes instead of donuts.

Abel: As a scientist and a researcher, how do you account for things science currently doesn’t understand or are yet to be discovered?

We certainly don’t always get things right. Our job is to investigate, to gather data, and someone will keep investigating and at some point there might be a shift and we’ll discover we’re completely wrong. In nutrition, it gets frustrating. In science, it just happens. It’s interesting—there’s more to study, it’s more complicated than we thought.

You cannot account for things you don’t know. When I give a talk and I don’t know the answer, I just say I don’t know. Even what I present to you right now could be wrong. It’s just my best interpretation of the data we have.

I am a scientist at heart. I’m just looking for answers. I don’t care if I’m right or wrong, but things are going to change in the details and mechanisms.

Something you might see shifting in the next ten years: our understanding of what causes autoimmunity.

For example: gliadin in wheat increases gut permeability, but infections can trigger autoimmune reactions and the gut microbiota also play a role. Which one is king? Do you require all of them to have a reaction? Really good research is coming out regarding the gut microbiota.

A pharmaceutical company recently studied the type of bacteria that’s an overgrowth in rats’ guts when they’re fed a junk diet and are obese. The company found a narrow spectrum antibiotic targeting that one organism, fed it to the rat, and cured it of obesity just by changing its microbiome.

This brings a totally new light on the term “obesity epidemic.”

Infectious organisms’ link to obesity is very interesting, and our understanding of that gets us to a place where we can begin asking interesting questions.

You give that pathogen access to the blood stream through the gut (leaky gut) which results in metabolic disorders, obesity, etc.

Gram negative bacterial lipopolysaccharide is toxic to the liver and can cause some liver problems. When it gets into blood stream, it increases HDL and LDL particles because the system is on the defense.

If someone has high cholesterol, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to have a heart attack; it could be the start of an infection.

There are saccharides in wheat and grains that favor the growth of these bacteria. Maybe it’s all about the intestinal overgrowth of certain bacteria. When in overgrowth, they can also force you to extract more calories from your food. It’s very interesting.

Right now I’m not studying in that field. I read the literature and try to understand it and bring the rigors of core science to it. Gut bacteria is outside the realm of nutrition. But stuff coming out of the public health sector, I’m not so thrilled about.


Abel: So, what’s your rant?

The term nutrient density from a scientific perspective is “density divided by volume.” But there’s three problems I can think of with that definition:

  • Which nutrients? Nutrients are present in different quantities. Calcium will always be present in thousands of milligrams. If you add up the nutrients, there will be an overabundance of calcium and that’s not fair. Others are measured in micrograms.
  • Volume? Something like bread has a ton of volume that’s air. It’s difficult to use volume unless you blend or liquify. Just use mass instead.
  • Essential nutrients: Because there is no accepted definition, people have gotten really liberal with how we calculate scores. Putting saturated fat in the denominator? It doesn’t belong there. I’d change that.

Here’s how I’d calculate nutrient density: The sum of essential nutrients divided by mass, but for each essential nutrient each is divided by its RDA.

This does the job of eliminating units and brings everything within similar magnitude. The current standardization doesn’t work.

It is clear that the vegetarian community is incredibly biased. We need to have this discussion. I’m going to try to see if I can publish something in nutrition journals, but that will be tough because many of those journals have top vegetarian people on their editorial boards.


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Mat’s not on social media much these days. He’s into health as a hobby. But he does the nutritional portion of the training lectures for Optimizing Nutrition. You can find him there.


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What did you think of this interview? Comment below to share your thoughts.

10 thoughts on “Mat Lalonde: Why Nutrient Density Matters, Paleo Fails, & What to Eat for Dinner

  1. This was an interesting interview. Curious why you don’t address the larger picture of eating meat such as the undeniably destructive impact to the planet and also that someone has to kill these animals you guys are eating every single day. You seem like such a nice guy, Able, and compassionate, too, and also care about the environment so I wonder why you have been conspicuously silent on this all the while promoting meat eating. Have you seen the documentary “Cowspiracy”? I’d love to hear your thoughts on these issues.
    Thank you for your time and consideration.

    • 50% of the earth’s land is now dedicated to farming according to a National Geographic article. Man’s farming (monocrops) with petrochemicals is unsustainable. Growing grains and corn with petrochemical fertilizers is very inefficient way to create nutrition. What if we return the earth to what it grows naturally: grass? Then let the animals roam again and eat the grass. Over 60 million buffalo roamed the Great Plains in the mid 1800’s…not to mention other ruminants. This sounds like plenty of food for us to harvest if we just let the earth do what it once did naturally.

  2. Susan I would suggest you check out some of the information about the “type” of meat recommended on the various Paleo diets. The most important part of this is GRASS FEED and or pastured . This is just about as far away from factory crap protein most of society consume as you can get. There true science behind the benefits of grass feed or pastured are absolute mind blowing. These include: omega oils possibly rivaling seafoods, a truly sustainable source of food for the planet that when you take away grain subsidies will be our best bet to feed us the future, endangered species that cannot survive without hooved animals trampling fields, income to smaller farmers rather than industrial farmers, less disease. Susan I am just a newbie in all this but the future could just be that Cows are our savours in all this. I would also like to ad that many Grass feed farmers kill the cows in a much more humane way than factories, this also lends to a nice product and happier thoughts. And again to reiterate an important point, grain production is TRULY unsustainable from oil used, soil and nutrients lost, water wasted and the lsit goes on.

    • Don, you’re right – there is a massive difference between factory farmed animals (which is atrocious) and those raised on their natural diet on pasture. That’s just one of the reasons it’s always best to go for the highest quality meat you can find and afford!

  3. Mat Lalonde is a really good scientist and is doing anything to remain unbiased. I have a couple of personal observations. First, I was thinking at the evolutionary template. Using logic, it’s also not impossible that if you feed any beings with its non species appropriate food there would be a mass extinction. Here’s my take on this: it’s been observed some gradual evolution which involves macroevolutionary paths (mammals) and punctuated evolution (relatively quick, some millions of years of stasis and extinction). When you have an high selective pressure driven by environmental changes, either you get extinct or adapt. If the pressure suppose a change unbearable for your genetic material to happen quickly, you die, otherwise you adapt, as happened to chimps that become humans. They had the genetic chance to change, to smaller the gut and bear an increase in meat intake. OTOH dinos didn’t have the chance to adapt. We didn’t have a sufficient pressure to adapt, nor time (granivorous started their path 200 millions of years ago) and most likely nor the chance (enzymes to break prolamines, how can we thrive on low nutrient high carb density foods, we should change gut, mythocondria etc..complex adaptations probably too far from our genetic and epigenetics chance), like panda bear that has not adapted to his new diet despite 7 millions of years of time. The evolutionary explanation comes from the evidence that grains make us sick, not all the other way around. We’ve seen a drop in human health from the advent of agriculture that never went away, we just worsened, not adapted. Hunter gatherers who started to eat our food had an explosion of disease like us, some studies shows that when they are put back to their diet they come back to health, and 22 studies showed an improvement for us after adopting a paleo diet. Thus, it’s not about the romantic evolutionary story alone, but putting together all the pieces of the puzzle, studies, evidence etc. we have a powerful point of view. Grains are allergenic and immunogenic because we are not granivorous, the fact that we are not adapted to them is the explanation, not a standing point alone, casein are prolamine as well and there are other compounds in dairy that may trigger leaky gut, probably because calves need a leaky gut to absorb hormones etc, it may be possible that it could affect us as well, given the harm observed from caseins.

  4. We can survive on grains because of technology, we can reproduce with them,but what if we had to rely on them raw, probably we would get extinct, nature is nature, you may or may not survive, you don’t have to survive, many species came in and went away, adaptation is not mandatory.
    Grains make us stay alive and reproduce, but they make us sick. They are not proper in many ways (gluten, ATIs, promoting dysbiosis etc…).

  5. The last thought about dairy: I have no problem with the statement:”if it’s a new food it doesn’t mean that it is harmful”. Ok, and the single statement:”no other adult animal drink another species’ milk” alone is not powerful. However, this single statement is only used by some bogus blogger, the fact is that the idea that cow milk contains specific compounds for veals is good to formulate the hypothesis:”could it be harmful for us in some way?”. It’s a starting point to investigate, and indeed there are some compounds that may be harmful. But tolerance is not black and white as seen for grains. You can say “I’m fine with grains” and get a cancer at 50 years…low level inflammation is not always apparent, many times symptoms are subtle. How can we know if caseins (that strongly cross react with gluten and being prolamines may promote leaky gut) are doing subtle damage on us?
    Since dairy are low glycemic but insulinogenic, can they lead to insulin resistance? While it’s logically true that a novel food may not be bad, it’s also most likely true that we don’t need it unless we have to choose between eat it or starve…thus, it makes sense to me that these foods are guilty until opposite proof than innocent. Since we are ignorant in many ways the evolutionary template is a powerful tool to say: if you don’t need don’t eat it.
    Am I wrong?

  6. In one interview a while back Lalonde talked about selective pressure that drives adaptation to new source of food. Only few populations had enough pressure to have a mutation to keep on the lactase enzyme, the rest (65% of the world) is still don’t able to meyabolyze lactose. Leave aside caseins that are much more problematic than lactose. It seems that as species overall we are not achieved such complete adaptation to make us thrive on dairy, though some of them honestly are still far better than consuming grains. We didn’t have enough pressure, the genetic chance to have complex multiple changes to make us able to thrive on them or maybe both? Who knows? And then what does it mean “I tolerate?” Probably a certain resistance
    That doesn’t mean thriving…I was fine with grains until I got rid of them and discovered a new planet of well being, strenght and mindfulness unknown before.
    Paleonthologists have already shown us how strong were our ancestors, and if you go on youtube you can see a bushmen outrunning a well fit western guy. We have a slow and nasty decline from our 40s.

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