Seriously. Paleo is stupid, quit talking about it. Quit “being Paleo,” whatever the hell that means anyway; quite making “Paleo brownies” and quit getting sucked into the ever-stranger world of Paleo. Am I supposed to be capitalizing that word, “Paleo?” What’s the standard convention? You know what, I don’t even care. Paleo is not worth the extra effort to utilize the Shift key (except at the beginning of a sentence…not much I can do there).
For the uninitiated, here’s a quick rundown of what it means to be paleo. “Being paleo” can refer to people or food, the former of which is one who eats the latter. It is a recent craze in diet wherein a person limits their diet to the items that would have been most likely (read: perceived to have been most likely; more on that later) consumed by our Paleolithic forbearers. The reasoning behind this limit is that, in the past, humans thrived and did not suffer from many of our modern illnesses like heart disease and diabetes. There are some critics that like to cite abysmal life expectancy rates from earlier time periods as evidence that being “paleo” might not have been all it was cracked up to be. However, the paleo faithful are quick to point out how infant mortality rates and the lack of intensive care for acute injuries skew those life expectancy rates from long ago – a rebuttal with which I agree. There is plenty of solid paleontology research that shows that if a person made it through their teenage years and didn’t get mauled by a tiger or otherwise suffer a nasty case of nature attack, they were likely going to lead a long and healthy life. And have sick abs.
The idea of shedding industrial food from our diets in order to achieve better health is a great idea. An amazing idea in fact. Quite frankly, I do not understand why or even how there is a debate in regards to the negative impact of modern industrial food on our health. Jamming tons of unrecognizable chemicals and poor quality nourishment down our maws is a two-fold, guarantee for poor health through “tons” and “unrecognizable chemicals and poor quality nourishment.” So, trying to reverse the damage that we’ve done to our food since the industrial revolution is good and is what paleo dieting hopes to achieve.
A great goal. However, past that is where paleo starts to suck. And by suck, I mean to suck people into its universe of fads, expensive labels and detrimental elitism. In fact, the paleo diet was labeled as ” founded more on privilege than on logic” by Ferris Jabrd in Scientific American. Jabrd, like me and several other “rogue” analysts, see some pretty serious fundamental flaws that prevent paleo from achieving in reality the lofty promises that it makes. Likely the most critically bad aspect of paleo is the idea of Grok. Jabrd does an excellent job of dismantling Grok, so I’ll just summarize briefly as the paleo crowd has an overly particular and unrealistic of who Grok is and what he ate. Basically, the idea of coming up with a “paleo diet” is absurd because there is no such singular diet:
Paleolithic diets around the world as much as their environments as can be plainly seen in the infographic above. However, paleo dieters seem to have a never ending list of ideas as to what rules apply to paleo. Obviously there are certain universalities, for example, despite all my research I still have yet to find an even pre-industrial, let alone Paleolithic society that had Froot Loops on the menu. But oh how the arguments over which nuts or beans or yoghurt or whateverthehell they’re debating that day get intense. In fact, let me share my favorite paleo story:
In February 2013, I was lucky enough to train with Vic Verdier on a MovNat retreat in Thailand for a week. It was awesome and I’ll be sure to put my review up soon, but for now, let’s focus on the food. Vic promised us three copious paleo meals a day and he wasn’t kidding, the food was great. I was intrigued since I had never given any serious effort to paleo yet I had heard good things. On morning two I believe, after I had finished a huge salad, about a dozen over-easy eggs and probably half my body weight in bacon, I figured I’d top it off with a bowl of fruit with yoghurt. And then it got real. When I returned to the table with my bowl, a pretty intense inquisition began over whether or not I was breaking a paleo rule of some sort. I mostly kept quiet and simply admitted to the fact that I had no idea what I was doing.
After a few days, I had learned quite a bit about paleo and I came to a conclusion: Who gives a shit.
All that effort and stress just to eat healthy? I feel like that is kind of defeating the purpose. It’s really difficult to counter the argument that there is no such thing as a specific “paleo diet” and selecting or even combining multiple paleo diets from generations gone by is a fool’s errand. First, we have to way to conclusively know everything about any ancient diet, we can only know bits and pieces. Second, to simply write off any dietary habits or measures between today and the Paleolithic era is also to simply write off the amazing capability of the human body to adapt. We are undoubtedly the most adaptable creature on the planet. Seriously, I think only the cockroaches could compare…though I have to wonder what that parallel draws…
Again, here is another argument that is nothing new to the paleo faithful: genetic changes in some Northern European people have allowed them to process dairy well into adulthood as opposed to losing it in young childhood like most of the rest of the world. I’m sure the pro-paleo community has plenty of evidence and arguments to deal with this silver bullet, but the take away is ultimately that things are more complicated than most would like to believe – is lactose intolerance not possibly the most well-studied subject in the science of human digestion and we only just know figured out the whole Northern European thing? We have a long way to go.
It would be too easy (and too typical) to assume the paleo argument to be complete at this point as the paleo community has one last and very important contribution. Usually at this point, paleo’s finishing move is to implore that people simply remove as much industrial food and other non-paleo items from the diet as possible and then slowly reintroduce the natural items and see how it impacts the individual body. Basically, ditch the HFCS and legumes, but bring the legumes back if you want – under the auspices of close examination of its effects, if any. This, again, is a good thing. Paleo does have good things, but it is still for chumps.
This last positive aspect, the analysis part, is great but “being paleo” in order to accomplish that analysis becomes a contradiction and sets up the modern paleo dieter for some serious heartache and chump status. One thing that can be agreed upon in regards to paleo is that it is a label. No matter how you define it or how nebulous it ultimately is, it is still a label. By “being paleo,” an individual has in turn labeled themselves and acquiesced to these labels. By having a label, an individual has an instruction manual which gives them the excuse to excise critical thinking – kind of an important detail if you are going to do any sort of serious analysis.
Furthermore, how is Grok supposed to analyze what he eats according to the final paleo guideline above if there are so many rules in contemporary paleo-dom? With cookbooks, websites, coaches and whatever else is out there, there will always be a sense of guilt and/or lack of satisfaction for the hardcore paleo folks as there will never be anything they can do to actually fully pull off paleo. Better yet, all of those cookbooks, websites, coaches and whatever else all cost money. It’s ironic that the very same people that would immediately agree that big box gyms are only interested in money and not health are individuals who simply do not think of paleo possibly following the same model. The combination of guilt and/or lack of satisfaction pairs really well with the business model as it creates a rabid customer base. Rabid. Seriously, I dare you to run into a CrossFit gym and shout “paleo sucks!” as loud as possible. You’d be better off throwing a chair.
At this point, I think my analysis of paleo has been pretty much 50/50. It has some pretty good points despite its built in mental baggage and I would even say that if I had to, gun to my head, pick a single diet that I had to follow the rest of my life, it would probably be paleo. However, it is poorly defined and ends up playing the role of ultimate excuse for people that aren’t ready to fully think about their diet because it goes way beyond guidelines and establishes hard rules – something it should not be allowed to do. This leads to the constant and intense (and annoying) debates frequently had by its adherents. My final verdict is that those who want to be this technically undefined thing, to be paleo, are way better off than the average American but it comes at a cost.
Why label yourself with the sheep? Especially when that label is going to bring you pedantic debates, mental stress, and an assured spot at the table of an industry business model focused on money. It would be unfair to offer all criticism and no solution, so stay tuned for how I think about food.