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The Paleo Diet Creation Myth



“Paleo is not a religion”

- Robb “Holy Cats” Wolf

 

 

I was so glad to hear Robb say this in the intro to his Paleo Solution Seminar talk, but had to resist yelling out an ironic “Amen, Brother!” I have a hard time convincing people that Paleo is not a religion or based on some mythical way of eating. The concept of a “Paleo Diet Creation Myth” has saturated the media, and though we, the more vocal proponents, fight these stereotypes and logical fallacies, we really have no one to blame but ourselves. What I (and others) must call for now is a movement to propel Paleo beyond strictly anthropological explanations for food choices, and to instead incorporate biochemistry and physiology into the model.

 

Origin Story

How I like to imagine Paleo was created

Most of us are aware that our Paleolithic ancestors really did provide the inspiration for the modern Paleo lifestyle. But in reality we just don’t know enough about how they lived and what they ate without being able to interview them ourselves. At best, we have a group of hypotheses, that while today are sound, have the potential to be disproven at any moment. And that’s pretty poor criteria for changing the entire way you live your life.

 

All the counter points I’ve seen to the Paleo lifestyle seem to hinge on the logical fallacy that we eat what we eat because it’s what our ancestors ate. Look at white potatoes; the average Paleo person will say that potatoes are verboten because of what they’ve been told, but can’t point to a sound reason. Our Paleolithic ancestors likely did consume potatoes in small quantities because they would eat whatever they could get their hands on to survive. Modern man shouldn’t eat potatoes because of the high saponin content in the skin, high lectin load, and high insulin response. But if you tell someone that you don’t eat potatoes because cavemen didn’t, then you’re just adding fuel to the fire. The critics have fixated on this point because we laid it out there; Loren Cordain and Art DeVany’s work is heavily based in ancestral diet but the average person misconstrues their work in evolutionary biology with strict anthropology. The two fields are related, but you can’t use anthropology to make dietary recommendations. That work is exceedingly important in helping us understand where we came from and how civilization and some neolithic foods are killing us and it’s important to understand the distinction.

 

To me, we should be more interested in conducting scientific experiments to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt which foods are healthy to eat and which aren’t. So while it’s convenient to use “Grok”, “Caveman”, and “Paleo” to describe the movement, it’s important to qualify the approach with science-based intention. Some of the people who do this the best are Melissa and Dallas of Whole9 Life, who make no mention of “Paleo” or “cavemen” in their workshops at all. Also, Dr. Kurt Harris changed his blog name from PaNu (a portmanteau of Paleo and Nutrition) to the far more badass Archevore for similar reasons.

 

The critics of Paleo are easy to defeat if we just draw the conversation away from historical reenactment and focus it on hard science instead. Not that science is infallible or immune to data cherry picking, but it certainly creates a different set of rules in which to conduct ourselves.

 

So what do we call ourselves?

 

Well, I still plan to use the Paleo/caveman paradigm because I find it entertaining. But let me recommend an approach that I use myself whenever I talk about Paleo to non-Paleo folks:

  • Talk about what you eat first, before you talk about what you don’t
  • Use phrases and words like “whole food”, “unprocessed” and “fresh.” Sean Croxton over at Underground Wellness coined the term “Just Eat Real Food” and I’m a big fan of that
  • Remind people (and yourself) that this isn’t a diet, it’s a lifestyle that you maintain
  • Always think critically when it comes to articles, books, tv shows that you see. An investigative mind will always prevail.
  • Arm yourself with enough science to be able to discuss the topic intelligently. It’s ok if you don’t have a science background, there are plenty of us who try to make it straight-forward for everyone, but please don’t follow us blindly either.

 

Here are a few of my favorite posts on the subject:

http://robbwolf.com/2011/01/19/nutritional-relativism/

http://www.archevore.com/panu-weblog/2011/3/30/paleo-20-a-diet-manifesto.html

http://www.archevore.com/panu-weblog/2011/4/1/why-paleo-20.html

http://www.archevore.com/panu-weblog/2011/4/9/is-the-archevore-really-mellivora-capensis.html

Thanks to Dhruval Patel for unwittingly providing the title of this post

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  • Christine

    Better to say "tuber" than "potato". Tubers are found everywhere, but potatoes are native to the Americas and were domesticated in the Peruvian area and so would not have been eaten by early humans.

    Nice essay.

    • http://www.thelazycaveman.com The Lazy Caveman

      Thanks for your comment Christine. I do see your point that our early ancestors who came from modern day Africa would not have had access to a potato that originated from Peru. But that's why a scientific argument against potatoes is far more convincing, because even though right now early ancestors would not have had access, the moment that human remains are found in Peru older than 10,000 years, the possibility of potato consumption is reopened.

      Also, not all tubers should be avoided, case in point yams and sweet potatoes.

  • http://theprimalhome.blogspot.com Kara

    Haha! I love your creation picture!

    You made some really good points about not just eating what cavemen ate but going with the science about whats good for us.

    • http://www.thelazycaveman.com The Lazy Caveman

      Thanks Kara, finally someone commented on the picture! I'm waiting for Robb to either get mad at me or throw his hands up laughing; I don't think he's seen it yet.

  • http://www.therealfoodmama.com Joanne

    Nice article!!! We totally follow the Primal/Paleo way, but as I explain it to my friends and family…I simply say we eat Real Food! And we play a lot!! :)

    • http://www.thelazycaveman.com The Lazy Caveman

      Thanks, Joanne! I like to explain that I eat a whole food, anti-inflammatory diet. Most people get intrigued enough to want to hear more.

  • http://www.kriskris.com/ Kris – Health Blog

    Good article and I agree with what you're saying.

    I think the evolutionary perspective is important, but it is not the alpha and omega of optimal nutrition. I think we need to combine evolutionary logic and the extensive modern science performed over the last decades.

    For this reason I try not to use the word "paleo" on my blog, even though I do follow a "mostly paleo" approach.

  • http://www.lifeaftercarbs.com Jim Anderson

    If science, logic and facts were all that matter, we would never have had the low-fat dogma being pushed at us for the last 40 years. Don't underestimate the power of emotion, mythology, vested interests, habits of mind, and prejudice. Sure, let's have more science, but a cozy mythology wouldn't hurt.

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  • http://www.elementalathlete.com Justin Doran

    Great article and I have faith that your creation picture will make its rounds; too funny. This topic is very interesting and I can't wait to see what we're calling all this in a year.

  • Budding Anthropologi

    "those fields are related"

    uh, excuse me but Physical Anthropology is homimin evolution. Evolutionary Biology seems to be the broader of the two in that it addresses more than humans.

    • http://www.thelazycaveman.com The Lazy Caveman

      I'm not sure I understand the point of your comment. The two fields are related; anthropology is a subset of evolutionary biology.

      My point is that it's not a good idea to use strict anthropology to make dietary recommendations without also taking into account the evolution of plant defense mechanisms that fall under Evolutionary Biology, and the effect that those compounds have on the body (which falls under biochemistry and physiology)

  • Claire

    My conversations with “Non- Paleos” are frustrating.
    Relative – “So. . . you’re on some kind of diet. Sounds so restrictive though! You can’t even have cheese? Or potatoes?!”
      Me : “Its a good thing for me. I feel so much better than I did. And hey, I can still eat all kinds of meat, veggies, seafood . . .” 
     ”Seafood? gross.”
    “Mostly just healthy, whole foods”
    “Huh. Ok..”
    ^sound familiar to anyone???

    • Anonymous

      I get that all the time, you’re not alone. Yesterday I got “so you don’t eat any carbs?” Um, no I eat plenty of carbs, from veggies, fruits and tubers. My advice is to gently help people understand, or just nerd out with your Paleo friends :)

      • Claire

        We should just emphasize success stories and steer clear of statements that ssound backwards to many people. eg. dairy is a poor source of calcium. Its true but in school we are convinced otherwise. and if you have some food allergies be sure to explain that up front

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