More problems with “paleo”…please fix them

The purpose of this post is to provide some reflections from sociological theory and historical studies of physical activity behavior on the current “paleo” and “natural health” movements in US fitness culture.

The current natural fitness trend in US fitness culture has several diverse sources that have converged within the past few years, and that continue to more clearly define their mutual interest in natural health and fitness.

The recent Ancestral Health Symposium in Los Angeles, CA, appeared to be heavily focused on diet, with dietary researchers and “paleo diet” advocates filling the ranks of the presenters. Only a few presenters were focused on movement, and only one on archaeological records of human ancestors. No presenters covered the social or cultural evolution of the human animal, a strange lacuna.

According to posts on a paleo forum, there were many debates and even heated exchanges between presenters with differing opinions about the paleo diet and the “optimal” human diet.

This led me to this post.

Why would advocates within a new movement argue amongst one another regarding dietary information that is at best speculative? Why were journalists and internet marketers presenting on par with world-class research scientists who have spent careers determining their opinions regarding matters-paleolithic? What was happening here?

What immediately came to mind was simple chimp group behavior. The males (of the 43 listed presenters, 8 were women) searching for dominance in the group make loud vocalizations, swing sticks. Some might even make themselves appear larger (more dominant) than they really are, through crafty methods of deceit.

In the human group, the group sees this behavior, and figures there must be a leader in their midst. They gather around to listen, and then begin to voice their support for one or another of the speakers.

The modern “natural health” movement has many historical precursors. In this country, a major outbreak of “natural health” resembling today’s methods existed in the Battle Creek Sanitarium of John Harvey Kellogg. Even more striking are the similarities between the writings of J. William Lloyd (see Llyod’s “The Natural Man,” which details a barefooted, sandal-making, “paleo” practitioner of the highest order).

Paleo, as a modern “natural health” movement, follows traditional Western atomistic behavior in school-of-thought formation. That is, the school itself is singular and closed. This allows for the formation of an expert-base within the school – a defined hierarchy based on self-ascribed rules around appropriate criteria and credentials for leadership. More importantly, it bases its legitimacy upon modern criteria of legitimacy – especially upon “scientific research.”

These criteria, oddly enough are not based on any sort of paleolithic reasoning. Rather, the paleo movement’s approach is prescriptive, a modern-scientific-medical approach to health and diet. Rather than presenting any sort of alternative method that might actually align with how our paleolithic ancestors would have determined what foods suited their individual physiology or not, the paleo movement uses mountains of scientific data to create prescriptions for certain types of foods and their appropriate amounts (and methods of preparation).

These in comparison to a more “evolutionary,” adaptable, and open framework. Such a framework would be wary of sweeping generalizations, as these can lead to complacency and inattention – deadly traits in a paleolithic environment.

Rather than pre- (or pro-) scriptions, our paleolithic ancestors relied upon tradition – both in the sense of an oral and cultural tradition, as well as in the sense of a traditional framework of thinking-behavior. The oral and cultural traditions supported synthetic flow between the human, tribe, and environment, through structures such as songlines and shamanic or other tribal rituals, which described the individual’s place within the tribe, and the tribe’s place within the habitat. Those traditions also provided guidance for behavior (both social and environmental), embedded in ritual, based on the tribe’s historical experience within itself and within its habitat.

The traditional framework involved an open view toward the environment, both internal and external, that promoted critical thinking, exploration, experimentation, and story-telling. If the birds congregate in that area, what does that mean? When they do it in this type of weather, how has the meaning shifted? The landscape and other animals tell a story, which the hunter-gatherer(s) re-tells to the tribe when he or she returns. The stories are compared and a map is made, and so it goes.

Diet is whatever is available within the habitat and agreeable to human consumption (and/or harvesting). Experimentation is constant and ongoing. Is this food edible? What happens when we cook it? What about in combination with another food? Sensitivity – both individual and tribal – are key. What happened to so-and-so when they ate the food? How does it make me feel to eat it? Does it give me the strength of a lion, or make my head dizzy, or take me to the Spirit world? Foods have deep meaning, far beyond their usefulness in providing “longevity.”

Action-based (no navel-gazing here) sensitivity and awareness are the hallmarks of this sort of framework. It leads ever-deeper into sensation and understanding.

And, as I’ve written about and said in public (gasp!) before – “paleolithic” diets conceptually are bioregion-specific. The Inuit eat a diet of seal and other meats, supplemented with locally-available grasses and tubers. The Masai herd cattle and live off of their blood and meat, supplemented with grasses and tubers. The Bedouin similarly survive on the meat of their herds and wild-caught meats, along with grains, tubers, and fruit.

To me, the modern paleo outlook pales and eventually disappears in comparison to this sort of understanding.

Paleo extremists call for the elimination of grains and even fruits – of carbohydrate across the board – which is neither “paleo” nor sound nutritionally. But they don’t call for procuring your foods locally, from organic/natural farms, when those foods are in season. And that’s disturbing.

Focusing on historico- and scientifico-reductionist-explanations of diet (the Western ADHD/OCD method of inquiry – precisely how many calories do I need per day of which macronutrients), puts the blinders on the eyes of “paleo” followers, who miss their participation in a larger chain of petroleum-based production and consumption cycles – the creation, planting, harvesting, processing, and shipment of their “paleo bars” as one simple example.

As a general principle, the “paleolithic lifestyle” has a lot going for it. This post isn’t an attack on modern “paleo” or “natural health” practitioners or advocates. It’s a call for deeper honesty and a more complete activism.

For more thoughts on this, see several other authors’ takes on the question:

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12 thoughts on “More problems with “paleo”…please fix them

  1. Perspective! A nice one Josh!

    What % of the “paleo diet” is of the “paleo” lifestyle? How much do we ‘fight’ the “paleo” brain in the decision making process of what we eat? Obviously the whole paleo diet thing gets people pointed in potentially better directions, but you make very strong points that it’s not the entire picture, nor the final or only destination.

    As you said, we need learn to be self-responsible on some level and experiment for ourselves, becoming aware of the effects of certain foods on our ‘state’. Learning to observe and think; and this goes deep into other issues regarding certain aspects of our educational system too, as to what is NOT being taught.

    Keep it coming!

    • That’s right Aaron! “Awareness,” “sensitivity,” these things get lost in a tradition of robotic testing protocols…

  2. Excellent post. These are exactly the kinds of things which make me uncomfortable with “paleo”. It is often presented as such a limited and manufactured type of thing, a one size fits all, without any thought given to the context or wider implications.

  3. Exactly! Where is the paleo-housekeeping movement? And paleo-economics? Yeah, paleo-budgeting?
    How about paleo-counseling? Paleo-sleeping?
    Back in the 1890′s there was the “no fire touches these lips” raw foods movement.
    We are now inventing tools, some of them conceptual, for limiting our choices. The drive toward productivity has led us culturally to figuring out ways to limit our options. In a world of abundance we sometimes find ourselves pretending there is a crisis in order to spur creativity in design and efficiency.
    In fact, if you don’t agree that there is a paleo-crisis happening right now, then…well…Long live Sparta!

    • You’re right about that!
      I was thinking about that today, in fact. Being “at the top of the food chain” in a very real sense, has given us plenty of time to make up things we MUST do – buy stuff, make stuff, sell stuff, lift stuff, put other stuff down, etc.
      Mostly out of boredom, I think…
      That’s a motivator for some…boredom…

  4. I call for a “renaming” of paleo. How about regionally, seasonally appropriate whole ancestral foods and activity. It could catch on, couldn’t it?

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