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Mainstream Criticisms and Misinterpretations of Paleo

Dealing with mounting criticisms and misinterpretations of Paleo is actually a good problem.  Though sometimes irritating, it means that the Paleo movement is a solid bogie on the public radar and viable enough to garner the (mostly feigned) wrath of those looking to exploit a rising tiger with a supposed weak underbelly.

All fine and good, I say.  With a “product” as solid as Paleo, I’ll baseline volley with anyone looking to cast doubt or negativity upon it.  The scientific and empirical evidence supporting the Paleo lifestyle is overwhelming.  Give me enough time and an audience that will listen, and I have no doubt I’ll have a convert.

But hard work remains.  If we want to positively affect the course of human kind, we’ve got to be vigilant with communication inside the community and with evangelizing to outsiders. To be effective ambassadors of the lifestyle, we’ll need to continually raise the bar on our quality and methods of education and influence.  Also, we’ll need to hone the all-important skill of stay-with-it-ness.  And patience.

National Geographic’s recent article, The Evolution of Diet, is a good case-in-point.  Although well-written and beautifully laid-out, it misrepresents Paleo and therefore misses the critical mark.  The piece’s author, Ann Gibbons, perpetuates a common misunderstanding of the Paleo movement, falling into the oft-recited “recreationist” refrain that Paleo is all about literally re-creating and replicating the past.

Her assessment omits the key concept of leveraging modern technology to achieve ancestral wellness, where Paleo uses an evolutionary lens to build a solid template for health. This template can then be used to overcome nutritional and lifestyle pitfalls—an environmental mismatch— inherent in the modern world.

Yes, we are aware that there is not a single “paleo diet”.  And yes, we know we don’t have access to the exact same meats, fauna, fruits, tubers and seeds as our Paleolithic brethren.  And we realize that humanity is never static, but well… continually evolving.  Thanks to recent genetic alterations, some of us remain lactose tolerant into adulthood, while others can digest starch more effectively.  Paleo does accommodate those who choose to exploit those innate abilities.

But it also gives options for those not so genetically lucky.  Under the Paleo “big tent” there is room to maneuver, learn, and experiment, which is a tough, new paradigm for those locked into the dos-and-don’ts diets of the past.  Paleo is much more than a diet, and that has been a difficult concept for the mainstream to grasp.

Another shortfall of Gibbons’ article is that it puts too much emphasis on the study of current hunter-gatherer tribes.  To be sure, the study of modern hunter-gatherers offers insight into the ways of a relatively healthy subset of humans.  But are these cultures optimally healthy?  Remember that over time these people have been marginalized to land tracts with fewer and fewer resources.  Here are important questions: Where would these cultures migrate if their travels were unimpeded by modern civilization?  Would they seek richer hunting and fishing grounds?  Would they change their diet and lifestyle?  The answer is an obvious yes.  And why is that?  Because it’s human nature tooptimize.  We begin at survival, yes—but then we continually strive toward optimization.

This is not to say that we, as societies and cultures, always make the correct choices in the reach for optimization.  The search is littered with miscues and pitfalls.  But it is to say that the human animal strives for optimization, and that the well-informed human animal is ever cognizant of finding the sweet spot between not enough and too much.

So where does this put the longtime Paleo devote?  And what should a newcomer to the movement expect from the Paleo movement?

Those in the Paleo movement will continue to leverage modern technology to achieve ancestral wellness.  And that will look different in each person’s case, depending upon that person’s circumstances.

For someone living on the margins—whether on the dry savanna or within an urban food desert—that may mean mere survival.  For a wealthy, high-rise apartment dweller that that may mean the opportunity to optimize with the aid of certain modern conveniences (smartphone apps), and in spite of others (hyper-caloric, nutrient-sparse, modern processed foods).

In both groups, education is paramount.  People in both situations can use the evolutionary lens to make the best choices given their circumstances.  It is the proper use of that lens that Paleo f(x)™, and the Paleo movement, endeavor to teach.

Swimmer picture licensed under the Creative Commons.

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Keith Norris

Keith Norris

Keith is one of those few lucky souls who has been able to completely transition out of corporate America and dive headlong into his passion for bettering lives by teaching the art and science of physical culture.  He not only “walks the walk” on a day-to-day basis, but his economic well-being hinges on his precepts […]