Tag Archives: rant

The Difference Between Eating Paleo and “Being Paleo”

23 Mar

As the Paleo FX Ancestral Momentum – Theory to Practice Symposium (so glad they didn’t go with the long version of the event’s name) wound down last week, it felt like the Paleo blogging world and its faithful audience (hereafter “Paleosphere”) had worked itself up into a frenzy. Over what, I’m not quite sure. It may have just been the gathering of like-minded individuals with strong online presences. What left a lasting impression was the tone of the Paleosphere during the event, and it just so happened that the timely coalescence of Paleo personalities and its ensuing social media onslaught brought everything to a head for me.

You see, I’ve been following a Paleo way of eating for about 18 months now, and it’s had a profound impact on the way I view the world, how I feel, and (obviously) how I eat. I replaced most grains, dairy, legumes, refined sugars, and seed-derived oils with whole foods and many of my autoimmune symptoms went into remission. I can honestly say with conviction that I “eat Paleo”. However, I do not identify myself as “being Paleo”. I think there’s a distinction that needs to be made before we move on.

To me, “being Paleo” means that you are self-identifying with a group. It’s like calling yourself a musician or a video gamer (as opposed to simply writing music or playing video games). The problem with identification is that disidentification – the mentality of “us vs. them”, and a focus on what you are NOT – often emerges. Consider the in-group-out-group bias. This phenomenon can lead to aggression and prejudice, and some suggest that it leads to a lack of productivity, as identifiers take action while disidentifiers tend to just make a lot of talk. (And who is the “them” in this case? Just about everyone else – those pesky grain-eaters that make up the rest of the population, and those cursed Vegans that try and muck everything up!).

While the Paleosphere (thankfully) doesn’t focus too much on the “them” aspect of the diet, there’s definitely an overbearing “us” momentum that isn’t entirely healthy, either. I often see the Paleosphere as being on this slippery slope towards extremism.

As an ever-increasingly-large group of people that eat a similar diet and in many cases hold similar values, I think it’s important we don’t lose sight of the fact that extremists and ideologists often alienate themselves from the rest of society. How are we supposed to make an impact on the nutrition world if we work the Paleosphere up into a frenzied cult status? John George and Laird Wilcox, scholars of fringe movements, have identified the following characteristics of political extremists and ideological contrarians:

1. Absolute certainty they have the truth.
2. [The belief that] America is controlled to a greater or lesser extent by a conspiratorial group. In fact, they believe this evil group is very powerful and controls most nations.
3. Open hatred of opponents. Because these opponents (actually “enemies” in the extremists’ eyes) are seen as a part of or sympathizers with “The Conspiracy,” they deserve hatred and contempt.
4. Little faith in the democratic process. Mainly because most believe “The Conspiracy” has great influence in the U.S. government, and therefore extremists usually spurn compromise.
5. Willingness to deny basic civil liberties to certain fellow citizens, because enemies deserve no liberties.
6. Consistent indulgence in irresponsible accusations and character assassination.

Does that sound alarmingly familiar to you? Admittedly, the above characteristics have a major political slant, and the fact that big corporations have major influence on what ends up on our dinner plates may not lead to some of those characteristics (like the willingness to deny basic civil liberties part).

I can’t deny that a relatively extreme diet (side note: it’s sad that the Paleo diet is considered “extreme” in this age of processed/fast foods) will attract people that gravitate towards fringe thinking – as sociologist Daniel Bell put it, for those on the fringe, “the way you hold beliefs is more important than what you hold. If somebody’s been a rigid Communist, he becomes a rigid anti-Communist – the rigidity being constant.” How many ex-Vegans are in the Paleosphere? Lots. (As some would argue: not enough.) An extreme lifestyle will attract extremists, which simply isn’t preventable. My point is this: just because there are crazies in the Paleosphere, we don’t have to listen to them, and we need to keep ourselves in check to make sure we don’t become them. An easy way to prevent this is to continually challenge ourselves to question our dietary standards, and to avoid dogmatism.

So where do we start? How can we make sure that we promote this diet in the most open, pragmatic, unobtrusive, and inclusive way? Here are some quick suggestions:

1. Don’t tell people that you “are Paleo”. Hell, don’t even tell them that you eat “Paleo”, because the use of labels is in itself exclusionary. Just tell them what you eat, and maybe what you don’t eat. It doesn’t need to be more complicated than that. Look at the Weston A. Price dietary guidelines. It’s very similar to the modern interpretation of the Paleo diet, and they don’t tell you what to avoid, even once. Focus on the whole foods, not on yet-to-be-completely-proven-as-evil grains, legumes, etc.

2. Don’t use flawed ideas or gray areas to promote the diet, because it calls the Paleosphere’s credibility into question. Don’t worship bacon, which is likely not good for you, even if it is (was) somewhat fashionable to “baconize” stuff. It’s a useful ingredient in cooking, but it’s not our flagship food. Don’t celebrate “Paleo versions” of sweets like Paleo brownies because that’s not helping people overcome their underlying food issues and if anything it’s guiding them towards failure. The last thing we should do is to set people on shaky foundations. Personally, I’m all about Dr. Kurt Harris‘ incremental process, because it encourages folks to improve their health even when they’re not ready to dive into a full-blown Paleo eating orgy.

3. Avoid dogmatic thinking. Are potatoes evil? What about white rice? What about dairy? Aren’t we supposed to be eating low carb? Remember that human variance, health history, and gut flora are major factors in food tolerance, and macronutrient ratios are highly individualized. This diet is ever-changing (and it should be as scientific study helps enlighten our views on nutrition every day); be open to suggestion.

4. Try not to alienate others by flaunting an overbearing self-identification of “being Paleo.” You’re not a caveman, and you’re certainly not living like one, so why label yourself as one? If anything, I suggest embracing what we do have in common with our ancestors – the fact that we’re all on this planet. Go take a walk/hike. Watch a sunset. Spend a few days camping. That’s certainly closer to being a caveman than eating a pound of lean red meat straight out of a slow cooker after a hard day at the office and then blogging about it.

5. Bear in mind that everyone has their own burden. I’m pretty sure that most people simply cannot afford to eat fresh organic vegetables and grass-fed meats all the time. My family can’t afford it, despite the fact that a huge chunk of our income goes towards our groceries – nearly twice as much as before we switched our diet. Additionally, many people don’t have the resources to find out whether or not they have access to affordable grass-fed meats anyway – online resources are often outdated, and I’ll wager that many excellent farmers are out working and not updating their farm’s webpage and social networking fan pages. Many don’t have access to local, affordable health food markets. This is no reason to make people feel bad for having to make sacrifices to make ends meat meet; instead celebrate the steps that people are willing to take for their health that are within their means.

6. Avoid the fringe, and consider the power of prudence. What is the point of wearing t-shirts that say “Meat is awesome” or “Vegans suck”? Before shouting from the rooftops about how stuff like cold thermogenesis and eating butter straight out of the container is awesome, take a step back and think about how crazy that sounds to the average person. I’m not saying that any of those extreme elements are bad, but they might not be helping the Paleo movement along when that’s the stuff we get identified with. When it comes down to it, who better to police the Paleosphere than ourselves?

Lastly, please don’t take this as an insult to anyone that’s exhibited these behaviors. Dramatically improving your health through simple changes in diet is awesome, and exciting. I don’t fault you for telling people that “you’re Paleo”. My only purpose in writing this article is to help consider the fact that we need to do what we can to impact those that aren’t lucky enough to know much about sensible eating yet. As much as it may be fun to be part of a cool, elite club of Paleo dieters that share cool pictures and sayings amongst themselves, isn’t our energy better spent on refining the diet itself through scientific study and attracting people that haven’t been exposed to the diet yet?

A Beautiful Balance

10 Jan

“In medical school I had not received any significant instruction on the subject. I was not alone. Only approximately 6 percent of the graduating physicians in the United States have any training in nutrition. Medical students may take elective courses on the topic, but few actually do… the education of most physicians is disease-oriented with a heavy emphasis on pharmaceuticals — we learn about drugs and why and when to use them.” Robert Strand, M.D., Death by Prescription.

I was on an airplane late last summer while returning from a weekend jaunt of head-clearing and writing. On the second leg of my flight, I was seated next to a woman who turned out to be a liaison for a pharmaceutical company returning from a business trip. The primary purpose of her trip was to push her company’s new diabetes drug. She explained to me that the new drug she was pushing was groundbreaking because it was an inhibitor of a particular protein which extended the half-life of another drug which aided beta cell health in diabetics (beta cells are the place insulin is made).

She explained all of this using the language of he education: biochemistry and pharmacy. She also had an air of infallibility.

After she finished describing this drug, I only had one question for her: “What is the function of the protein that your new drug inhibits and what effect does that have downstream?” She looked at me with a puzzled and sheepish look and confirmed what I had been thinking all along. She had no idea.

Prior to this, we had spent close to an hour arguing about what she “knew” as a medical professional and where I was far astray regarding topics where I disagreed with the medical establishment’s conventional wisdom- which were many. But this was a turning point in our conversation because it was the opening for her to see what I had been trying to get her to understand during our conversation up to this point. She knew the biochemical mechanisms and pathways of the biological systems she studied. She knew that if you introduced this drug, the result would be the alteration of a particular pathway in a specific manner. However, what I was trying to get her to see was what I’d learned reading about and experimenting with various approaches, and eventually beating obesity, was that there is a common thread running through obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, cancers, and other modern illnesses and diseases.

Though our medical professionals are better equipped and more knowledgeable about the human body than at any other time in history, their main accomplishment has only been to keep a sick populace alive longer in its chronic state of illness. They have become masters of the microbiology while ignoring the “macrobiology”- I think the fact that that “macrobiology” isn’t a recognized word is indicative of how we’ve approached overall health. The point is that even though people are living longer, they are becoming sick and debilitated much earlier leading to a greatly reduced quality of life.

The reason for this is complex but at the base level I think it can be explained by the fact that our bodies are out of balance. We have strayed from our original stasis. Stasis is a Greek word that represents balance and equilibrium. There is a baseline of health and wellness that allows us to enjoy a high quality of life virtually devoid of the chronic physical pain and ailments, that have become commonplace in modern societies, well into old age- a beautiful stasis.

The common occurrence of ailments before the onset of middle age is a new phenomenon. On every level of nature there is a balance that holds each system together until an outside force upsets that balance and a period of disruption occurs until a balance is restored. It’s the way nature adapts. It’s the way we survive.

From a biological perspective, human beings in modern society are in a period of biological disruption. The rapid onset of obesity and other modern diseases are harbingers of the fact that we’re out of balance. The changes that are happening in our bodies are too rapid for natural adaptive mechanisms to take over and adapt to survive, so we end up sicker and weaker.

Even if we don’t get caught up in the speculative nature of looking too far into the past, just looking at present-day traditional cultures- those that eat and live closer to the way humans have traditionally-who are as a whole are almost always healthier and free of the modern illnesses and diseases than those of us in more modern societies. I’m not suggesting we fully adopt hunter-gatherer lifestyles.

Technology and modern society has provided us with many creature comforts that many of us don’t want to leave- nor should we. Science and technology progress have given us medicines and treatments for viral and bacterial ills that, in the past, would have killed many of us. Our lifestyles are different and many of us have permanently changed our biology in some ways where some things that have been innocuous in the past are now harmful.

Having said that, I do believe that scientific and clinical success has brought upon us an era of arrogance in the medical community where the main measurement of success is longevity with less and less focus being on quality of life. Myself and many others who eat an evolutionarily appropriate diet have taken control of our health because we perceive that the modern medical establishment has failed us. In response, we’ve taken control of our health and wellness and stopped outsourcing our overall well-being.

Our bodies aren’t like taxes you drop off at Jackson- Hewitt or the family car that we drop off at the mechanic. After battling obesity for most of my life with the health problems that usually accompany that, I began to research biology, microbiology, dietary literature, epidemiological studies and other sources trying to educate myself to better health. I discovered a lot- particularly about obesity and other modern diseases- about how diet is the main factor driving modern ailments and what foods and lifestyle choices are the most egregious offenders.

I don’t know everything, or anything close to it, but what I have learned is that we should be more proactive and educated when it comes to our health and not leaving it in the hands of the medical field, no matter how auspicious those certificates on their walls are

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