Posts Tagged ‘paleo diet’
Every diet is an aspiration to an ideal. Consequently, every diet is easy to criticize. Vegans aspire to avoid harming animals, but critics note that plant crops require the mass extermination of innumerable wild critters. Weight Watchers aspires to reduce body mass index with a calories-in/calories-out approach, but critics note that not all calories are equal. The macrobiotic diet aspires to balance the yin with the yang; critics note that they have absolutely no earthly idea what this might mean.
If every diet is open to criticism, the paleo diet—also called the “caveman diet”—is in a league of its own. The dietary practices of the Paleolithic period centered on hunted-and-gathered meat, seafood, fruits, nuts, seeds, and vegetables. It excluded grains, legumes, dairy, and refined sugar. Paleo advocates argue that cavemen thrived on these foods, growing tall and avoiding the lifestyle diseases that plague “the moderns,” as some paleos prefer to call the rest of us. But critics deem the quest to replicate the pre-agrarian diet not only delusional—primarily because equivalent foods no longer exist—but also ignorant of human evolution. Recently, as a sort of nail in the coffin of the diet’s besieged reputation, a much-anticipated book on raising paleo babies was pulled at the last minute for lack of scientific evidence.
I’ve been critical of the paleo diet in the past, primarily because of its heavy reliance on meat consumption. But recently I wondered: What would happen if I examined the diet differently? That is, what if I examined its aspirations rather than its failure to achieve an ideal? What if I watched the diet at work in the hands of a master, a true believer, a genuine beneficiary of what’s too easy to dismiss as a fad?
To explore these questions I shelved my presuppositions and went to central Maine to visit Arthur Haines. Haines is an ethno-botanist and paleo advocate who runs the Delta Institute of Natural History, a program that organizes workshops on “neoaboriginal lifeways.” In an attempt to reach “everyone seeking an alternative to the current paradigm of living,” he instructs students on how eat an aboriginal diet, focusing on trapping, foraging, and hunting skills, as well as wild medicinal cures and the finer points of ancestral child rearing. For what it’s worth, Haines, who has developed a loyal YouTube following, is as sturdy as an ox, healthy as a horse, and has a gentle, understated presence.
But there’s nothing gentle or understated about what he eats for lunch. On the occasion of my visit, it’s a heap of pre-agrarian grub. Haines piles his plate with wild rice he recently harvested, gravy made from reduced bone broth, and venison shot and processed last autumn (before being canned for preservation). He leans over the table and eats with urgency. He scoops out seconds while his partner, Nicole Leavitt, and their 18-month-old daughter, Samara, work more deliberately through their first servings. Samara eats exactly what her parents eat—she always has (her parents chewed her meat for her before she teethed). Just as I was wondering to myself how Arthur and Nicole made it through Maine winters, in relative isolation, without so much as a warming drop of alcohol, Nicole plunked down a bottle of homemade mead on the table. Mead is a fermented honey drink that tastes something like Riesling. It was thus with a stomach full of wild rice and a head buzzing with mead that I finally saw what I came to see: Haines in action.
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The paleo diet—loosely understood as eating how we imagine humans ate before the advent of agriculture—is wildly popular. It has tapped into something, although I’m not sure what.
Whatever it is, however, it involves our creeping discontent with technological modernity, our desire to strip life down to its caveman essence (granted, in some ways but not others), and a vague notion that humans are behaving in unacceptably artificial ways.
We are, in other words, out of touch. We need to be more natural. Somehow or other, though, natural, at least for a bearded and barefoot cohort, has come to mean not only riding bikes with no gears and running without shoes, but also eating what you can forage and/or hunt. It has been on more than one occasion that I’ve seen listed on the menu of high-end restaurants the name of the establishment’s “forager.” Portlandia lives.
And so does bad science. A critical assumption driving the paleocraze is that humans have, in their everyday activity, exceeded their evolutionary capacity. We are, it is said, acting in ways that we haven’t evolved to accommodate. Our increasing rates of Celiac disease, for example, are supposedly due to the fact that we “weren’t meant” to eat wheat. Same with lactose intolerance and milk. “We weren’t meant,” in fact, is the defining phrase of this weird little fad. (By the way, I recently asked a gastroenterologist why rates of Celiac’s were on the rise and he said, “They’re not. It’s just a lot easier to test for.”)
This assumption of genetic lag, however, is not borne out by the evidence. Researchers are, as recently summarized by the Chronicle of Higher Education, looking into ancient DNA. In so doing, they are “revolutionizing our ideas about the speed at which our evolution has occurred, and this knowledge, in turn, has made us question the idea that we are stuck with ancient genes, and ancient bodies, in a modern environment. We can use this ancient DNA to show that we are not shackled by it.” Humans, in other words, are “meant” to do what we do. Our genes are right behind our actions. Here’s the article.
Granted, this research is probably not going to stop dingbats writing in Glamour from declaring that “the way so many of us are living now goes against our nature. Biologically, we modern Homo sapiens are a lot like our cave woman ancestors: We’re animals. Primates, in fact. And we have many primal needs that get ignored. That’s why the prescription for good health may be as simple as asking, What would a cave woman do?”
We’re it only so simple. Humans evolve with our environment—that’s what’s natural. Instead of thinking about how we were meant to eat, as if we were frozen in time or detached from the world around us, wouldn’t it make more sense to ask how we want to be? This distinction seems important. It frees us from the anxiety of feeling out of sync with a non-existent golden age of harmonious environmental interaction while challenging us to think how we might use our rapidly evolved frontal lobe to eat in a way that incorporates something the paleofantasy excludes: compassion.
Tomorrow: the bloodlust of a chef