Evolution – /iːvəˈluːʃ(ə)n,ˈɛv-/ – the gradual development of something
Revolution – /rɛvəˈluːʃ(ə)n/ – involving or causing a dramatic change
The last 12 months have seen both an evolution of my thinking and a [personal] revolution in how I want to convey these thoughts. Prior to this year I was very attached to the Paleo label. I was, after all, ‘That Paleo Guy‘. But throughout the year that was 2014, my relationship with Paleo, and all it currently stands for, has become tenuous. As I said of Payleo™ in my retirement of the TPG blog, “it isn’t me, it’s you.”
The problem with ‘health’ in modern times (a problem which also affected my own health, as well as how I practiced in my own health-focused career), is that if you are interested in it at all, it generally gets sold to you in the form of industrially-produced foods with select ingredients or nutritional properties (“whole grains”, “fat-free”, “high-fibre”, “high protein”), or as a gym membership, a certain pair of shoes, or the latest monitoring device. And that is it. ‘Health’ then, is about not being acutely sick, eating whatever you like as long as it ticks a few nutritionalised boxes, and ensuring you get to the gym 3 days per week to burn calories. There’s no need to connect with your food or understand where it comes from. No need to reflect on the fact that you’ve spent you entire work day sitting down AND now all your exercise time doing the same. Sleep is a bank of time you can borrow from without ever really paying it back. Natural environments? For tree hugging fringe-dwellers. ‘Health’ is shallow and disconnected.
Over the last 15 years (predominantly) we’ve had the realisation, based on the work of a handful of researchers in the evolutionary biology space, that as humans we have our own distinct ecological niche. This realisation underpins the fact that, despite a myriad of promises from the food industry, we just don’t eat that much real food anymore; that we don’t really spend much time moving like upright bipedal animals anymore; that we have a deep and measurable connection to natural environments, and that darkness and light are biological necessities that cannot be dismissed at the flick of a switch.
Conveying all of the moving parts of human ecology to the general population and asking them to understand the many facets of their own evolutionary biology, and expecting them to make changes to how they live based on this, was always going to be a big ask. Not the least because people don’t much like change unless you can give them a good reason why they should. Enter a useful heuristic;
“You are largely unchanged from your ancestors of the Paleolithic era, and whilst these ancestors faced their own challenges of this time, the basic environmental inputs which their biology received and adapted to are largely the same ones you as a modern human require for optimal health: nutrient dense food, adequate sleep, sun exposure, healthy movement, socialisation… You are a hunter-gatherer at heart.”
Heuristics are simplified rules of thumb that make things simple and easy to implement. But their main advantage is that the user knows that they are not perfect, just expedient, and is therefore less fooled by their powers. They become dangerous when we forget that.
“Paleo” then was a nice simple heuristic – a shorthand if you like – for expediting the understanding of why that sugar-coated cereal with all its ticks, stars, and promises, is something you should perhaps best avoid. Or why the fat in eggs and avocados won’t likely kill you. Or why InstaTwitFace doesn’t count as socialisation. Or why 400km on a bicycle per week, bent into the shape of a question mark, and fueled by syrups, is probably not healthy movement (especially if you are already pulling 40 hours per week at work positioned and fueled in much the same manner).
Couched in these terms, many people had that ‘ah ha’ moment where the cogs suddenly clicked into place and they were able to exact some very big lifestyle changes, on many fronts, and make them stick in the long term. I know this as both one of those people whose cogs clicked into place, and as someone who has catalysed the similar clunking of cogs in my role as a nutritionist and exercise professional.
When I would tell people I followed a “Paleo-type diet framework”, what I was actually expressing was a shorthand heuristic of Whole9’s Nutrition in 60 Seconds;
I eat real food – fresh, natural food like meat, vegetables and fruit. I choose foods that are nutrient-dense, with lots of naturally occurring vitamins and minerals, over foods that have more calories but less nutrition. And food quality is important – I’m careful about where my meat, seafood and eggs come from, and buy organic local produce as often as possible.
This is not a “diet” – I eat as much as I need to maintain strength, energy, activity levels and a healthy body weight. I aim for well-balanced nutrition, so I eat both animals and a significant amount of plants. I’m not lacking carbohydrates – I just get them from vegetables and fruits instead of bread, cereal or pasta. And my meals are probably higher in fat than you’d imagine, but fat is a healthy source of energy when it comes from high-quality foods like avocado, coconut and grass-fed beef.
Eating like this is ideal for maintaining a healthy metabolism and reducing inflammation within the body. It’s good for body composition, energy levels, sleep quality, mental attitude and quality of life. It helps eliminate sugar cravings and reestablishes a healthy relationship with food. It also works to minimize your risk for a whole host of lifestyle diseases and conditions, like diabetes, heart attack, stroke and autoimmune.
But as Taleb rightly points out, heuristics are never perfect.
Take for example, the flight safety card in the seat back of most commercial airlines. This is generally a one-sided card with only a small number of simple pictorials outlining the most important scenarios you need to know about in the unlikely event of an emergency. This card expedites the understanding of 80-90% of the information you need to know to increase your survival chances. If the plane does a water landing, you need to do this… If the wing is on fire, don’t go out this exit…
Now one could argue that perhaps the scale of the people pictured on this card are not correct with size of the plane. Or that the card shows blue-eyed Caucasians when half the plane is made up of Chinese. Such issues with the safety card sound ridiculous when you are simply trying to prevent people dying in a plane crash. But so too do many of the criticisms leveled by those who interpret the Paleo heuristic far too literally (a heuristic that potentially has the effect of moving people away from the risk of dying from diabetes-related complications, for example).
For the most part, all the early adopters in this movement understood both the advantages of this heuristic (such as Mark Sisson with his ‘Grok’), and its limitations (anyone who has ever made the statement “Paleo is about approximating the appropriate biological signals, not replicating exactly a ‘caveman’ diet and lifestyle.”). Certainly there were some robust debates online, and at the likes of the Ancestral Health Society symposia, when the Paleo heuristic was getting stretched too far, was being taken too literally, or when modern health science trumped just-so caveman history.
Of course, against the backdrop of the academics and practitioners seeking a deeper understanding of it all, there were those who went ahead and took everything far too literally anyway. These individuals, whilst making up only a very small part of the community overall, became the big targets for both critics and media alike, all keen to find any supporting evidence for their claims that a soap-dodging, carnivorous cave-dweller is simply a ridiculous thing to become. There was also the section of the community, despite advice to the contrary, who insisted on ‘paleofying’ everything from brownies, to cupcakes, to cookies, to fudge, to bread, all leading to the inevitable memes…
Despite all this, 2014 started as a year where it felt like we were gaining a bit of traction with everything. The Paleo movement was broadening and showing signs of becoming more inclusive and more mature. It became the year when potatoes firmly became ‘Whole30-approved’, and where Chris Kresser said legumes were good to go.
I experienced a couple of my own wins in the battle for broader legitimacy, via social media, with ardent New Zealand critics of the Paleo diet making comments (following my heuristic speech above) that they could actually see the merit in such an approach. Plus the Ancestral Health Society of New Zealand was launched, which, like its American sister society, is a broad church of those wanting to look at all aspects of human health from our ecological niche. Since setting up the AHSNZ, we have been both surprised and humbled by the number of medical practitioners in particular who are attracted to the Society and its message.
But as 2014 progressed, it felt, to many of us, like the focus of the Paleo movement has shifted – particularly as it has crept into the mainstream consciousness. Paleo has become a prefix- to throw in front of anything and everything in order to ca$h in. I can go now through the main airports in New Zealand and buy ‘Paleo cereal’ bars. Or I can head down to the local mainstream supermarket and buy premixed Paleo breakfast cereals. I have been sent images of glossy magazine advertisements for Paleo pasta and decadent Paleo chocolate.
2014 has become the year, in our corner of the South Pacific, where a celebrity chef appoints himself as the spokesperson for the Paleo movement, rehashes old arguments around carbohydrate restriction (via some puppetry from well-known low-carbers), takes a Paleo stage show on tour, launches a Paleo TV show, warns people about the sugars contained in carrots (when they are an ingredient in a ‘Paleo cake’ said chef is promoting), and launches very public and scathing attacks on virtually any health professional and/or organisation who doesn’t see his version of Paleo in the same light as he does.
The effect of all this?
- Extremely polarised views of anything associated with Paleo, with the feeling that you either have to be for or against a certain individual’s dietary ideologies.
- Page after page of hate-filled internet posts running in both direction.
- Blocking and counter-blocking in online propaganda posts.
- Paleo becoming associated with anti-vaccination and anti-fluoridation movements.
All against the backdrop of this being the dominant feature on nearly every website dedicated to Paleo recipes.
Don’t get me wrong – some of the messaging and criticisms leveled against various conservative organisations I certainly agree with. But what has become increasingly difficult has been the ability to retain any association with the Paleo label and use the developing evidence base to level such criticism and spark debate whilst maintaining a distance from all the blatant commercialism, threats, double standards, and all out Paleofied fuckery that has kicked off this year. I am not alone with these sentiments as more and more people, both publicly and privately, convey similar feelings of frustration to us, with some making exit plans to abandon the movement and any association with it. See here and here for but two public examples.
I have despaired this year as I watched a movement that was originally very critical of marketing and consumerism, which spoke out against the engineering of highly palatable aggregations of ingredients, which railed against the tactics of Big Food and their aims to get you to consume nutrient-poor food choices on the basis of one or two ‘superfood’ ingredients, and which preached making good health open and accessible for all, only to become a movement which now engineers, markets, and consumes highly palatable aggregations of ingredients (different ingredients; same effect), promotes expensive ‘superfood’ ingredients over readily accessible whole foods, and which promotes a very white privileged version of ‘Paleo’.
This year alone, I have had a couple of examples of mothers beside themselves at the difficulty and cost of sourcing and buying either the “ingredients” (various flours and sweeteners) or the free-range pastured organic meats that were necessary to be considered Paleo. One mother had become so led astray by the musings of our aforementioned celebrity chef, that she was afraid to shop in a regular supermarket. With a change in her financial circumstances she could no longer afford to source organically-raised free-range unicorn meat or to drink coconut pixie tears. She was quite upset at the thought of what damage she was doing to her kids by feeding them regular old lamb shoulder chops from Pak’n’Save.
If all that wasn’t enough to destroy the credibility of the Paleo movement, the terms “Paleo”, “low carb”, “very low carb”, “keto”, “fasting”, “gluten-free”, and “bullet-proof” have become so virtually indistinguishable from each other such that it has become impossible to convey the original intention of our Paleo heuristic without getting bogged down in endless arguments, sniping, and bitching around these other conflated terms. Or without inevitably being lumped in with other people’s out-of-date version of what Paleo means.
That was Paleo in 2014. In 2015, I’m out.
For myself, Anastasia, and many of our trusted friends and colleagues, “Paleo” as it is currently being clambered over, is not the Paleo we signed up to several years ago. It has morphed into something not representative of our position, understanding, knowledge, and values. After a year of the above deterioration, yet still thinking that perhaps this situation was salvageable, we are now of the belief that the battle is lost and any attempt to defend Paleo is a poisoned well. In line with this belief, we will be associating much less with the current Paleo movement as it stands, though we will continue to support those friends and colleagues who have chosen to keep flying that flag in a way that upholds the original intention and integrity of the movement.
After much evolution of thought, the personal revolution for us has been that if Paleo won’t change, then we have to. Alongside this, the realisation from us both, that we quite miss writing our thoughts, reviewing interesting papers, and putting a few re|evolutionary ideas out there. 2015 will see all that change.