Paleo seems to be all over the news lately. The Pete Evans baby book controversy has sparked a flurry of opinions and argument.. However, an article caught my eye recently from Jason Wilson in the Guardian that I found particularly interesting (in terms of how people perceive the lifestyle) and which certainly warrants a response.
Although Mr Wilson has a problem with Paleo recommendations concerning diet (which we will come to presently), his strongest criticism is reserved for the seemingly sexist underpinning to the lifestyle. This caught my eye as it is an argument that has popped up before and one that continues to rear its head intermittently. In conversation with someone recently from a well-known organisation, I was surprised to hear them remark that the Paleo lifestyle does not accord women the status they deserve – that it was too ‘male-focused’. The fact that they were talking to a woman (me) who was vocally championing Paleo and in the process of describing how it had changed her life was neither here nor there. Clearly I was either a) brainwashed by men and/or b) too stupid to realise the enormous sexism that existed within the scene. I was very amused by this encounter and laughed it off. I’m very much of the opinion that everyone is entitled to say what they think and the Paleo/Ancestral Health is not immune from criticism in any way. I like to read articles and listen to others when they vocalise a contrary opinion on Paleo. I just have my own opinion too and it’s great to be able to say what I think on my own blog (as they like to say what they think on theirs/in their columns etc.). So here goes…
The problem with ‘The Paleo Diet’
Mr Wilson acknowledges a ‘superficial plausibility’ to the idea that many aspects of modern life such as diet, stress and technology place a burden upon a species that has only relatively recently abandoned a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and whose biological make-up is at odds with this change.
‘The undeniable fact that Western affluence has produced many unintended consequences for public health – many modern processed foods are nutritionally valueless, and a lot of us don’t do as much exercise as we ought. It may also connect with the undeniable alienation many of us feel in a world where technology, fast food and urban living can sometimes seem like a self-imposed prison.’
Such thoughts seem perfectly sensible to me so I’m not sure why they are only ‘superficially plausible’. It is undeniable that since the emergence of the human genus, our ancestors have survived as hunter-gatherers. The transition to agriculture took place astonishingly recently on the timeline of our evolution, with the introduction of processed foods taking place even later (the last few seconds perhaps?). It is no wonder that some argue that we have not fully adapted to this radical change in our diet and the enormous consequences to our health that this transition has caused. Why does Mr Wilson think this is this only ‘superficially plausible’?
Although we may agree that modern lifestyles jar with our hunter-gatherer selves, Mr Wilson stresses that there was ‘no one, uniform diet‘ that Stone Age people ate. They were adaptable – just like us. Therefore because of this, the whole argument is ‘intellectually bankrupt’. He states:
‘The presumptions about what people in the old stone age ate are anthropologically naive: many experts argue we can’t make universal claims about that with any degree of certainty, and inconveniently, evidence keeps emerging that people then did help themselves to high-carb foods when they were available. That’s because they were versatile, opportunistic and adaptable, like us.’
Mr Wilson’s argument goes something like this: Paleo people make ‘certain, universal’ claims that there was only one type of diet ate in the Stone Age. Experts say this is not true as evidence suggests that Stone Age people ate carbohydrates if available and were therefore adaptable. Modern humans are likewise adaptable to eat a range of foods such as gluten and dairy. Therefore the Paleo diet is ‘anthropologically naïve’ and:
‘… premised on a false image of stasis and harmony projected from an entirely arbitrary point in the long history of human evolution.’
This straw man argument has so many holes in it and makes so many assumptions that it is hard to know where to begin. I’ll keep it short as the real focus of Mr Wilson’s polemic is yet to come.
1. Paleo does not believe with certainty that there was one uniform diet that all Stone Age people followed. It is widely acknowledged that traditional hunter-gatherer diets range from the Innuit (protein-based diet with little or no fruit and vegetables) to the Kitavans (around 70% carbohydrate-based diets). The modern Paleo diet takes the hunter-gatherer as a blueprint and simplifies food choices around the basics of meat, fish, fowl, eggs, vegetable, fats, nuts and fruits and eliminating grains, industrial seed oils, dairy and processed foods. Again, there is no one Paleo diet for everyone. People are encouraged to experiment and see what works for them.
2. A Paleo diet does not cut out carbohydrates. It is lower in carbohydrates than the standard western diet. Carbohydrates come from a wide range of vegetables and limited fruit. Some may choose to eat higher carbohydrates than others according to their health and fitness regime. For instance a 65 year old diabetic may eat fewer carbohydrates than a sporty 25 year old (or a sporty 65 year old for that matter).
3. It is true that various groups around the world have evolved in a relatively short amount of time to tolerate certain foods. Northern Europeans have evolved to tolerate dairy compared to African and Asian populations. However, there is a huge difference between tolerating certain foods and eating foods that have sustained us for the vast majority of our time on earth; foods which we have not only survived on but thrived upon. In the case of gluten in particular, the mounting evidence suggests that we have failed to adapt to this recent change in our diet and the full consequences are yet to be realised. It is widely recognised that when societies move away from their native diet and adopt non-traditional foods, they begin to suffer health problems. This can be seen in documentaries such as My Big Fat Diet.
We do not feed our dogs grains even though they may be able to ‘cope’ with them. Nor do we believe that cows should eat grains either. ‘Coping’ is not thriving. The practice of fattening up cattle with grains, both in the UK and the US is a concern and the importance of 100% pasture raised meat is something that the Paleo scene strives hard to raise awareness of.
For some thoughts about meat production, see my reviews of the BBC programme Should I Eat Meat here and here. Regarding pasture raised meat see my article Finding 100% pasture raised meat – a journey. See also my articles on the Savory Institute and the Oxford Real Farming Conference.
Additionally, if what Mr Wilson argues is true – if we are able to adapt to any food – then maybe we should not bother to cut out high- carbohydrate, processed, chemically-laden foods. We will eventually just adapt to tolerate them more successfully, so what’s the problem?
‘Understanding the diet of past human species closely related to our own will help us gain perspective on our evolutionary constraints and adaptability.’ Ainara Sistiaga, a Geoarchaeologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of La Laguna
‘Nobody tells a giraffe how to eat. But for the first time in history, humans don’t know what to eat. We no longer know what human food is.’ Jeff Leach
4. Adherents regard the Paleolithic era as ‘false image of stasis and harmony’. Who would suggest that human development within the Paleolithic period ranging from around 2.4/2.6 million years ago to around 10,000 years was static? Who would suggest it was harmonious? Really, these arguments are ridiculous. If we are talking about stasis in terms of diet, we do know that populations ate a hunter-gatherer diet with regional differences and seasonal availability. Diets also changed according to migratory patterns. But one thing is for certain, these diets had more in common with each other than with contemporary diets and when taken together, they form a suitable blueprint with which to emulate a hunter-gatherer diet (as much as it is possible to do) in modern times.
As for harmonious, we know that if Stone Age man or woman managed to avoid accidents, traumatic childbirth and being killed in a fight, they went on to live relatively long lives. Was it idyllic? Who would think that? We may be able to look at contemporary hunter gatherer societies to get a suggestion of what it may have been like but we absolutely cannot make assumptions that it was harmonious any more than we can assume Paleolithic people were in a constant state of stress and terror.
See this very interesting discussion on modern hunter-gatherers at How the Light Gets In philosophy festival 2014 (with Daniel Everett and Bruce Parry amongst the guests)
5. Paleo adherents project their argument ‘from an entirely arbitrary point in the long history of human evolution’. It is widely believed that the agricultural revolution which marked the end of the Paleolithic Era is one of the most defining – if not the defining – moments in our evolution. Whether or not one believes it was ‘…the worst mistake in the history of the human race’ as Professor Jared Diamond stated, we cannot fail to concede that what happened after the Paleolithic Era fundamentally changed humanity.
For further reading on the impact of the agricultural revolution and the move away from hunter-gathers to farmers, see the following:
The Other Side of Eden: Hunter-Gatherers, Farmers and the Shaping of the World by Hugh Brodie – a beautifully written book that explores the triumph of farming over the hunter-gatherer.
Against the Grain by Richard Manning – I cannot recommend this book enough; a wonderful examination on the impact of agriculture on the development of the human race.
The problem with the Paleo ‘Ideology’
Leaving diet aside we move on to the meat (excuse the pun) of Mr Wilson’s argument. The discussion about nutrition and evolution is used merely as a way to get at the heart of what he sees as the real problem with Paleo – social hierarchies and in particular sexism.
Why ‘pick’ the Paleolithic Era as a model on which to base a lifestyle? According to Mr Wilson it has nothing to do with food and more to do with the ‘desire to justify or reimpose certain social hierarchies, especially those concerning gender.’ He adds that advocates are ‘dedicated to a selective denial of modernity, which in some cases is accompanied by anti-feminist attitudes’.
This is perplexing. I have to begin by saying that I can only speak as I find. Perhaps there are hordes of Paleo people out there – I am assuming both the men and women are culprits here – who seek to impose social hierarchies and gender stereotypes but I have yet to read or hear about them, let alone to meet them.
I travelled to Paleo f(x) 2014 in Austin, Texas – read all about it here – and so I guess that of all places, this would be where I would find a true representation of Paleo people and find out what they were really like. I was one of only 2 people from the UK at the event (the other was a speaker) and I stayed for quite a few days and travelled alone. I was the proverbial ‘outsider’ from across the pond, so I was able to get a clear insight into the scene and its adherents. What did I find?
I went to the social events in the evenings as well as the talks from 8.30am to 5pm each day. I joined a meet-up group and we shared lunches. I met men, women, young people, older people, singles, couples expecting their first baby and families who travelled together. I met Paleo celebrities and total beginners. I met doctors and patients. People went out of their way to be kind, knowing that I had travelled all the way from the UK. We exchanged stories about how we found Paleo and the benefits it had given us. I met people who had experienced illness and had come through the other side. I met people who were planning to ditch jobs and change their careers because the lifestyle had such a profound effect on them. I can honestly say that I did not meet anyone – anyone – who wanted to ‘impose social hierarchies and gender stereotypes’. The women that I met were strong (many both mentally and physically) and positive. Why would they – and I include me here too – be so dedicated to a lifestyle that in any way advocated a restrictive definition of gender, for both men and women? Are we all deluded or stupid? Too busy thinking about kittens and chocolate to see what was in front of us?
There was no doubt that people were enthusiastic and committed. Were they evangelical? Yes, maybe they were and are – myself included. I will talk about Paleo to anyone that shows an interest. Otherwise I keep quiet in social situations unless asked. Then I am happy to talk about it to my heart’s content. Is it an ideology? Yes, maybe it is in that it spreads outwards from food choices to affect the way we think about many other areas of our lives. I would say that vegetarianism and veganism are ideologies and I respect people’s right to choose those just as much as I respect their right to choose Paleo. Is it a harmful ideology? Well, each is entitled to their opinion on that. I could think of worse.
Ideology or not, the ironic thing about all this is that as a woman, I have redefined what I think is desirable in terms of visual appearance. This has happened subtly over the course of the last few years since adopting Paleo. Women are bombarded in magazines by pictures of uber-thin models and celebrities to aspire to. Throughout my life I have been no more immune to this than the next woman. Alternatively we have constant reminders that the nation is getting fatter with pictures of obese people on every other news item. These two extremes are the norm for visual references of women in our society. Finding Paleo has meant that for the first time in my life I have placed strength (and its consequence, health) above all else. Strength comes in all shapes and sizes (tall and lean to short and stocky) but there is no mistaking it when you see it. Paleo f(x) was the first time I had seen so many strong men and women (both mentally and physically) in one place and it was fantastic.
There were just as many well-known women Paleo women as men. Some of the biggest figures in Paleo are women – Nora Gedgaudas, Dr Terry Wahls, Michelle Norris, Sarah Fragoso, Michelle Tam, Melissa Joulwan, Melissa Hartwig … the list goes on and on. These women are strong and knowledgeable. They create businesses, give lectures, practise medicine, write best-selling books, manage illness and hold successful careers, often while raising families. Is Mr Wilson really saying that they have had the wool pulled over their eyes, or that they are implicitly advocating gender stereotyping in which women are solely regarded as ‘gatherers’ or delicate creatures that rely completely on their strong ‘hunter’ men?
One of the most interesting talks for me at Paleo f(x) 2014 was the panel on masculinity called Cultivating the Well Adjusted Male (including Mr Wilson’s Paleo Public Enemy No.1, John Durant) You can read my notes here. This was a fascinating debate and one that I thought a lot about afterwards. I have been thinking about it again in the context of Mr Wilson’s article. It is widely acknowledged that men face increasing rates of suicide (the suicide rate in men in their forties and fifties has risen 40% in ten years), unemployment, mental illnesses and criminality. There is debate about their role within society and within the family, about their academic performance and issues of identity, about the lack of role models for young boys.
For further information regarding men and depression see Depression and suicide in men and The silent epidemic of male suicide. See also this article: Why do so many men like my friend take their own lives?
For an interesting take on this issue see Our attitude to violence against men is out of date
The panel focused on the need for men to be given the space to be themselves but stressed that there is no one definition of masculinity. It was a hugely interesting discussion (please read the short notes) and one that highlighted the fact that men – as much as women – need the space and encouragement to just be themselves, in all of their different ways. Acknowledging a need for competition or an enjoyment of hunting seems perfectly harmless in the great scheme of things and is certainly not anti-women. Why should a man be suppressed from exhibiting these traits if he so chooses? Why shouldn’t men and women be free to express their identity in the way they choose? Mr Wilson’s concern over gender stereotypes misses the greater issue of freedom of choice and the importance of mutual respect, of working together, of finding one’s strengths. The freedom to ‘be a man’ (however that is interpreted) does not automatically imply that women are reduced to powerless gender stereotypes. There should be freedom for both sexes in choosing the roles they wish – hunter, gatherer, housewife, career woman, stay at home dad. What is important is mutual respect and support for the decisions we make, for the roles that we willingly choose, and for the people that we are. If we lose this, we run into problems.
The most outrageous claim by Mr Wilson is perhaps his assertion that Paleo:
‘…expresses a belief that the bones and guts obtained by the hunter can not only supplant the products of modern medicine, but can effectively substitute for mother’s milk.’
This really is so outlandish that it is off the scale. Anyone who has the slightest knowledge of the Paleo/Ancestral Health scene, knows that there is much talk about the possible advantages of breast-feeding from the aspect of the baby’s gut health and in particular the development of a healthy microbiome. As I said, I am not getting into the whole baby feeding, Pete Evans argument but needless to say this is a gross misrepresentation of Paleo and one that shows wildly imaginative speculation.
For more information on the effect of breastfeeding and the baby’s microbiome see:
How delivery mode and feeding can shape the bacterial community in the infant gut
Infant gut microbiota influenced by caesarean section and breastfeeding practices may affect health in later life
Likewise, the idea that Paleo seeks to supplant modern medicine is both simplistic and erroneous. If Mr Wilson means that the ideal would be a world in which people are healthier, stronger, live longer and do not fall prey to diseases such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and dementia, relying less on drugs and medical intervention and more on prevention through diet and lifestyle then yes, the Paleo/Ancestral Health scene does desire that. If he means that Paleo adherents believe that modern medicine can be done away with – that’s right, there’s no need for any of it – and that we should all go back to how it was 20,000 years ago, dying from wounds and traumatic childbirth, well that really is stretching things.
As I said at the beginning of this article, I approve wholeheartedly of Mr Wilson’s right to his opinion. It’s great to hear what people think of Paleo and I can only speak how I have found things. However, in view of all of this, the most upsetting thing is the real persecution, hatred and violence towards women and men around the world which stands in stark contrast to this imaginary sexism that Mr Wilson has pulled out of thin air from the remnants of the Pete Evans controversy. There is enough of this to keep the most avid feminists and people like Mr Wilson busy for the next 100 years. Perhaps he would do better to focus on that and leave Paleo – a scene which he clearly knows nothing about – well alone.