The Paleo diet has a seductive narrative that makes it appealing, even irresistible. It goes like this: our distant ancestors ate a certain way. Genetically we haven't changed much since then. Therefore we should eat as they did. You throw in the Encyclicals from a few of the High Bishops of Paleo- "The Gary", Dr. Harris, Chris Kresser, Loren Cordain, Emily Dean, etc.- lending scientific gravitas- and you have yourself a myth. Perhaps you don't recognize them as Encyclicals because they are written on "blogs" instead of parchment. By myth, I do not mean "false", "fabrication". By myth, I mean a story you live by. A story or principles around which you organize meaning, a lens through which you see the world. I like the story physicist Michio Kaku tells about how as a child he used to imagine fish scientists (in the pond at that San Francisco Golden Gate Park Japanese Tea Garden) who were creating theories of the world based upon everything being submerged in water. Everybody has a myth. Everybody. Even the most "scientific" person. ESPECIALLY the most scientific person!
A lot of people on here are living the Paleo myth and that's fine, if it's working for you: namely, you are truly maintaining good health. The problem with myths is that they can fail you and you are so submerged in them (like the fish scientists) that you can't see beyond them. There is at least a comfort that comes from the certainty they provide.
Now I've got to tell you. I have been seduced by the Paleo narrative, but it's time to throw it off. I have fared dismally on the Paleo diet. Mind you, when I began this experiment I was not overweight. I have eaten healthy for a long, long time, so I did not come to this screwed up from a SAD diet. However, the negative results from this diet (for me, I must qualify) have been dramatic. Despite having come to this conclusion about two weeks ago, when I think about it, sometimes a voice whispers to me, "...what would your Paleolithic ancestors have done?"
EDIT BY PATRIK:
Excuse my barging in -- Thomas Seay makes great points above and I think his POV and voice need to be heard by the Paleo community. Let me add two things:
1) I have a minor quibble with his definition of Paleo Diet. My definition, the one I hope the Paleo community will adopt, is simply this:
The Paleo Diet is a meta-rule (a rule about rules) that only demands one thing; that we look at human nutrition through an evolutionary lens. End of story.
What Paleo Diet means day-to-day will be different as over time better data and research surface through anthropological, genetic and empirical evidence.
2) If you feel the same way, sign up at PaleolithicDiet.com. Working on something that will push this way of thinking.
Well, I'm glad most commenters got a lot out of Thomas's post. I have to say I'm just annoyed, and I'm not even someone who applies the "paleo" label to myself. I've seen this same phenomenon in the zero-carb community (such as it is): A way of eating works great for a bunch of people, but it fails a few, as is to be expected, even if the reasons aren't crystal clear at the time. Those few get a case of sour grapes, and begin to paint the success stories as being a bunch of "true believers" who have been sold a "narrative" or a myth (and yes, Thomas, you are very eloquent and do a lovely job lubricating the word "myth" so nobody can say you're accusing a Paleo approach of being intrinsically false or bad, but I don't buy it; I've seen this show before, and I know what's driving the plot).
Look, human metabolism varies. We are one of the most phenotypically diverse species on the planet. Looking through an evolutionary lens confirms that -- variation is one of the engines of evolutionary change, for heaven's sake. And as Chris Masterjohn says (paraphrasing here): anything that varies exhibits a distribution, and the within the tails of those distributions some strange things happen.
So the question of why Paleo eating failed you is interesting -- it's as interesting as the question of why some overweight women don't lose weight even on a strict zero-carb regimen (or apparently any other regimen). But for me, the question of whether there's a myth or a narrative that people cleave to is far less interesting; it doesn't ask anything meaty or real.
The folks who find that Paleo, or zero-carb (or hell, Weight Watchers) works for them are going to be excited about it. The people whom it fails are going to be disappointed. None of that should be taken as evidence that people have fallen prey to a myth. When an approach fails, it just means we have more to learn.
I was not seduced by the Paleo myth. I was seduced by the fact that eating Paleo finally corrected my high blood pressure issues. I don't care what it's called or why it works for me. I'm just glad it does.
At least two of the High Bishops you cite have made their paleo myth exclusionary: don't eat sugar, wheat and vegetable oil. That leaves virtually everything else in quantities to be determined by individual tolerance.
I agree with your general characterization of the myth/generalization process by which everyone leads their lives. However, the above myth is so incredibly soft that I find it hard to compare to a fish scientist. Is there anyone out there who genuinely needs sugar, gluten and vegetable oil to be healthy? That seems pretty unlikely, even absurd. People might like foods with those things, but excluding them leaves you with meat, vegetables, fruits and maybe dairy. I think you'd have a hard time finding an individual who couldn't be healthy eating from that selection.
More details on what happened in your case would be greatly appreciated - maybe you're that individual which falsifies the above paragraph!
I guess I look at it the other way in that I believe that the burden of proof is on those who say we should not consider our evolution at all and eat Holocene food substitutes. There's so much room under the umbrella of "paleo" to totally muck it up though.
I think the greatest potential for problems occurs where carbohydrates are concerned. Paleo tends to be low-er carb simply because meat displaces carbage, but taking that to an extreme isn't ideal. I had to eat at diners on my recent vacation and I'd see people eating pancakes or waffles with tons of syrup, toast and hash browns for breakfast. I used to have meals like that as well and they made me feel terrible. Compared to that, my steak, eggs and hashbrowns is a low-carb meal, but I'm still getting about 50g of it.
I find it hard to believe that a person could replace grain with tubers, industrial seed oils with animal fat and remove fructose and actually feel worse. You'd have to go on some LC misadventure to actually encounter problems. A few simple replacements seems to be a better approach that pulling out everything and replacing it with a little meat and a lot of fat.
When I cut out fructose, I instantly felt better. Same thing happened when I cut out legumes. A lot of those who cut out wheat instantly feel better. Don't really need to suspend your disbelief when the results are instant and compelling. On the other hand, when people cut out carbs, at the very least they tend to feel really bad for a week or more. "No really, this is the best possible diet, but it's going to make you feel like hell for a while." Riiiight. If something is optimal and consistent with our design, I think the body will readily accept it. There shouldn't be a drawn out acclimation period. Eating crap for a long time doesn't change our design to the point that it takes weeks to be able to eat an optimal diet. I just don't buy it.
"The concept of a Paleolithic diet is flawed for a number of reasons. Most of the foods that we evolved eating are not actually available to us now, either in type or quantity.
And there never was any one diet eaten by the succession of species of hominins throughout our millions of years of evolution.
The idea that there has been evolution of our food sources, but little or no adaptive evolution at all by the organisms that consume them (us), is also not completely accurate.
That we are eating some things we are clearly inadequately adapted to seems certain, but the idea that the dietary bright line is narrow and exists at the 10,000 year mark is a cartoon view not supported by the science. I believe most of the dietary damage is due to industrial processing amplifying the effect of things that have always been around and were never good for us in the first place, even as I do believe wheat and other grains to the exclusion of animal products has been an issue for 10,000 years.
The idea that anything before 10,000 years ago is good for us, and anything that with a shorter history is bad for us is incoherent.
The “Paleolithic diet “ is a chimera, a myth.
No more real than a Griffin.
A beautiful thing that doesn’t really exist.
I coined the term “evolutionary metabolic milieu” or EM2, to signify that we cannot hope to duplicate the exact diet that was eaten, for all of these reasons. Instead, we can strive to use science and our reasoning to emulate the important elements of the evolutionary metabolic environment - the internal environment of our bodies."- Kurt Harris, "Paleo 2.0"
I've been seduced by results.
I turn 37 in two weeks. I'm back in the same size jeans I wore in high school, though I'm much stronger, faster, leaner and tougher than I've been in my entire life. In my early 20's I had a very physical job, and I was in pretty good shape - I could run circles around that guy now.
The myth is working for me.
I think calling Paleo a "narrative" discounts the fact that people really did eat differently than they do today. "The Gary" discusses at length case studies of modern human populations that changed their traditional food ways and the disastrous health problems that followed. This doesn't require us to project back 1,000,000 million years B.C. and to imagine what a caveman ate for lunch.
"As Hutton told it, his Eskimo patients fell into two categories: There were those who lived isolated from European settlements and ate a traditional Eskimo diet. "The Eskimo is a meat eater," he wrote, "the vegetable part of his diet is a meager one." Then there were those Eskimos living in Nain or near other European settlers who had taken to consuming a "settler's dietary," consisting primarily of "tea, bread, ship's biscuits, molasses, and salt fish or pork." Among the former, European diseases were uncommon or remarkably rare. "The most striking is cancer," noted Hutton on the basis of his eleven years in Labrador. "I have not seen or heard of a case of malignant growth in an Eskimo." He also observed no asthma and, like Schweitzer, no appendicitis, with the sole exception of a young Eskimo who had been "living on a 'settler dietary." Hutton observed that the Eskimos who had adopted the settler's diet tended to suffer more from scurvy, were "less robust," and endured "fatigue less easily, and their children are puny and feeble."
I for one, appreciate being disease free, "robust", and resistant to fatigue. Also, I'm in no hurry to bear puny and feeble children. If this means that I pass on bread, sugar, o6 oils, and other elements of the Great Food Experiment than so be it. Living on steak, bacon, coconut, green veggies, etc. isn't so bad either :)
No. I have not been seduced by the story of Paleo or the reasoning. My jury is still out about me eating this way. I am seeing how I do over the longer haul. I have been seduced previously to finding Paleo. I was seduced by Macrobiotics, Raw Veganism and all kinds of weight loss, healing and body building diets, so I am now very skeptical. I was convinced to give this a real try by the simple comparison of cultures living in the same place eating grain and not eating grain. Time and my experience alone will decide the usefulness of this way of eating for me.
A very interesting and provocative post that piqued my interest because I have been wondering the same thing recently. After a year of eating tablespoons of butter, coconut oil and any animal fat I could lay my greasy little hands on, I went to an acupuncturist for bloating and he told me my liver and gallbladder were suffering a bit. Didn't tell him how much fat I was eating, nor that I was still assiduously avoiding carbs, but I think that must have something to do with it. I've upped the carbs and sugar cravings have gone through the roof- worry if I eat a lot of carb and fat together I'll gain weight. Has following the paleo plan, as recommended by many of the movement's forerunners, failed me? Maybe. But anyway. Let's keep on topic.
I realized that the 'paleo diet' has become this very neat thing with a lot of recommended foods that couldn't have possibly existed years ago. People drink pints of cream and cans of coconut milk, eat farmed animals, modern fruits, yadda yadda. I understand that the emphasis is not on eating foods that were available in the paleolithic age, but rather imitating the paleolithic metabolism. Fine. Its most useful points are deconstructing the food pyramid and conventional diet advice, recommending that people steer clear of crap like white flour, sugar and vegetable oils, and concentrate on eating 'real food'. But it seems that people are awfully seletive and that is how the 'myth' of paleo has been so carefully created. It's like "no! grains are full of phytic acid!!!".... "ooh, but those almonds/sesame seeds look mighty tasty, I'll down them'- despite the fact they are probably more full of phytic acid. Or the drinking loads of coconut milk despite the fact that the ability to blend a coconut into that state must be a relatively modern thing. Etc. Etc.
Weston A Price in the same in many regards. Price found that a very wide variety of diets led to good health, and that white flour was generally deleterious to health. But even in his 'tooth saving' diet for kids, he fed them brown wheat rolls. Now the movement seems to have carved out its own diet plan which is a hodgepodge of the good doctor's advice, sort of randomly picking up bits that he recommended. It goes from the general- cod liver oil and lots of fermentation- to the specific because people seem to need specific to keep them on the right track diet-wise.
Paleo is the same. People need specific recommendations. If they're used to waking up to donuts, lunching on linguine and dining on doughballs and pizza, they want to read a book that says 'please eat two eggs with 2 tbsp of coconut oil for breakfast...." etc. Some people have learnt to be less dogmatic about it. They play with it. There seems to be a backlash against the low carb thing happening at the moment, which I enjoy seeing, and it's definitely interesting to watch Dr Kurt Harris and Stephan Guyenet weigh in on it...
Basically, I agree that a 'myth' has been created in that very specific (and sometimes not always justified) foods have been recommended and have become 'synonymous' with the paleo diet. They might not work for everyone and they are certainly not 'paleo' in the sense that they were around in the paleolithic era. But then neither is anything in our modern world. I read threads that discuss the 'non-paleo' aspects of peoples' lives with amusement. Their addictions to machines, their lack of sunlight. The fact you have a job! And live in a house! And use scissors and whisks and plates and string!.... is all not paleo. I hate the fact that some people believe that 'paleo' represents this neatly defined lifestyle that they must adhere to, despite the fact that 99.9% of their lives do not, and cannot, come into line with how people lived 10,000 years ago. As some people have said, the most damage to our diet (and lifestyles) seems to have happened in the last 100 years or so, although the agricultural revolution seems to have had a noticeable effect on skull sizes and dental cavities.
Mythology is paleo. ;)
Actually, I disagree with the assertion that the first principle of paleo is "eat like your paleolithic ancestors".
I can certainly see the seductiveness of that oversimplification, but that wasn't how I understood paleo when I was first exposed to it thirteen years ago, and that's not what I've read in the works of Cordain, Wolf or Harris.
Eating like our paleo ancestors isn't even remotely possible. Not in practice--the foods they are aren't around any more--and not even in theory! We're talking about vast numbers of individuals living in every region of the planet over a span of two million years. If it existed, I guarantee you, somebody ate it. I've never heard anyone suggest that the paleo diet is about eating like that.
Rather, every description of paleo I've ever come across is about avoiding specific foods, typically foods that have become common since the neolithic revolution, and appear to be responsible for some common health problems that are much less common among hunter-gatherers. Exactly which foods fit that description are hotly debated and subject to constant scrutiny. And that's exactly as it should be.
I would say that the first principle of paleo is "Use technology wisely." The same brain that figures out how to make a job easier can also figure out when to.