Critical Notes on the Paleo Movement, part 1

This is the first of a series of critical notes on the Paleo movement.

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A major problem with the Paleo movement is that it blames poor health on agriculture. But the reason people are so fascinated with diets is that there is an epidemic of chronic disease which started not with agriculture but industrialization. The modern dieting trend i
s an industrial phenomenon; find me a traditional culture which produced such great volumes of books on dieting, or of the type that we have.

Paleo prescribes a solution (return to a Paleolithic diet) that, historically related, has nothing to do with the original problem (the displacement of neolithic food traditions with the industrial diet). Our cultural obsession with the Paleolithic owes more to other tendencies in our culture than anything related to the real and demonstrable causes of our current crisis.

This is not without consequences: if the Paleo movement locates the problem in the wrong place, and seeks solutions that, historically, have nothing to do with the problem, then Paleo will invariably prescribe things that actually do not address the problem.

Grains are an excellent example. They may be related to poor health even in the absence of industrial agriculture. But what if we stopped using pesticides to cultivate them? What if our cultivars were traditional, not the novel product of industrial yield scientists? What if the processes used to extend shelf life didn’t alter the nutrient composition of the grain? What if the process of baking had not been industrialized, streamlined, and scarcely resembling traditional bread-making–either in process or result? What if, in their processed form, grains were not so often accompanied by other dietary miscreants: sugar, soy, industrial seed oils, emulsifiers, etc.? What is our immune systems were not, from an evolutionary point of view and prior to the consumption of any grains whatsoever, disturbed by potentially excessive hygienic practices, copious food additives, overprescribed antibiotics, etc.?

So many of the problems potentially caused by wheat might actually be caused not by wheat itself–but by a third variable: the system under which wheat is manufactured and processed. If you look at the big picture, not just wheat–but the industrial system–you’ll find that this, without dispute from any of the experts, is the fundamental variable driving food-related disease.

The idea that wheat causes problems is controversial, and even if we took a favorable view of the data, such that we supported the wheat hypothesis (as it were), we still would not understand the mechanisms by which wheat causes problems.

What isn’t controversial is that the industrialization of food is the single-most indisputable factor at play in the historical increase in chronic disease–and that, in some cases, in some countries, this industrialization has had a much less pronounced negative effect–meaning that there are concrete, real, working alternatives to what we have in the United States.

So why pick out a single food bandit, a single scapegoated macronutrient or food source: whether wheat, nightshades, gluten, FODMAPs, high fructose corn syrup, animal protein, carbohydrates? (The list goes on practically forever.) The simple answer: because it’s profitable, because you can create gurus and careers out of it. In short, it is easy. But wrong.

What we should call the “nutrient witch hunt” is, in terms of what makes most people unhealthy today, untenable and factually incorrect.

The Paleo movement makes good points. Unfortunately, these good points are wrapped up in evolutionary window dressing. Most of the best solutions proposed by Paleo involve not going back to the Paleolithic, but in simply embracing traditional food cultures. The real strength of Paleo is not that it returns us to the Paleolithic, but that it returns us to something like traditional food.

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