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Paleo: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly… and the Misinformed

by Keith Norris
Home/Blog/Protect Your Mental Wellbeing During the COVID-19 Pandemic

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” – Aristotle

Mainstream writing about Paleo often falls prey to an all-too familiar misconception: that Paleo is yet another “diet plan”, with a specific set of rigid rules, and a vague promise of a flatter belly.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Paleo is a hell of a lot more than an Oz-like, paint-by-numbers diet plan.  It is an ever-expanding, grassroots movement.

Over the years I’ve come to realize just how common this misunderstanding is.  What people outside of (or new to) the Paleo movement often don’t realize is that Paleo doesn’t operate the way that every other “diet” in the marketplace does.  Probably because this “diet” wasn’t created; rather, it was discovered—or, in actuality, rediscovered.  In other words, there was no initial marketing agenda.  No celebrity endorsements or Facebook ad crawlers.  And if you’re going to market something—and make a few dimes in the process—you’d better make it palatable to the masses.  Paleo didn’t follow that path because, at it’s core, this is a movement rooted in the free flow exchange of credible, science-based information.

The Paleosphere is comprised of a highly intelligent community, and the trade currency is knowledge.  This is a community savvy to marketing tactics and one that values truth over glitz.  This is a community more than capable of weighing the pros and cons of individual food and lifestyle choices.  These lifestyle choices are  based on (1) each person’s own pre-existing condition, (2) their goals, (3) their exercise tendencies (or lack thereof) and, (4) their ever-evolving understanding of how food and environment interact with their own, unique physiological quirks and epigenetic tendencies.  At its essence, this is a dietary movement steeped in physiological and biochemical understanding as opposed to a diet of blind dos-and-don’ts.  This is a movement that intelligently pursues health and respects individual differences, not one unquestioningly obligated to the dictates of a guru, or a set of mysterious rules.

To take just one recent example of the Paleo misconception in action, we haveDani Shugart‘s T-Nation article, Paleo: The Good, Bad, and the Ugly.  Somewhat misinformed, but still one of the better “mainstream” Paleo pieces that I’ve come across.  Short on caveman hahas, with a little more meat and (ahem) potatoes.  I do think it’s a mostly  fair observation of the diet (as opposed to the movement) from someone decidedly outside of the movement.  But I wish that Dani would have reached out to someone (me, for instance) inside the Paleo community for some further explanation on the community.  Because where Dani fails in this article is in her presumption of understanding, fully, just what Paleo is about.  A December 12th Tweet of hers epitomizes the point I’m trying to make here:

“Saying you’re paleo + potatoes + rice is like saying you’re vegan + fish + chicken. Why not just let go of the label?”

Well, first off, those two examples are “Paleo” in my book, and secondly, the current understanding of the word “Paleo” is inclusive rather than exclusive.  If you want to speak the language of someone’s community, it’s imperative that you fully understand the terms involved as used by that community.  To do otherwise is shoddy journalism.  These issues could have been easily put to rest by someone inside the Paleo community.

I’ve discussed semantics before, and this piece is another example of this ongoing verbal jujitsu.  Whether it’s diet or strength and conditioning, the same “definition issues” remain.  I have precious little time for lame, semantic arguments best left to politicians and tenured academics.  I’ll just say this: those of us within the community have long ago moved well beyond the myopic, do-this-don’t-do-that definition of Paleo.  Long ago.  And I should note at this point that my intention here is not to pick on Dani.  I happen to think she’s a highly intelligent and valued asset to the health, wellness and performance community.

So yes, Paleo is more about knowledge and understanding than it is rules.  Wisdom trumps dogma.  As an example of this, just take a look at the wide array of topics and information provided in previous Paleo f(x)™ talks and panels.  Or better yet, come to a Paleo f(x)™ event!  If this were a movement about diet “dos-and-don’ts”, the first and last words would have been written 25 years ago with Konner, Shostak and Eaton’s Paleolithic Prescription.  This, however, is a dynamic movement concerned with education, evolution, and true understanding.  Oh, and we plan on completely changing the way the world thinks about food and nourishment while we’re at it.

I think the larger goal in the Paleo community is this: leveraging 21st century technology to achieve ancestral wellness.  We in the Paleo community operate by the truism that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”, but we also realize that biology and evolution are not just some static amalgam of non-malleable, rigid facts.  Context and specifics matter.  Goals matter, as do pre-existing conditions.  And yes, we in the Paleo community do expect you to think.  To steal a riff from the New Testament, we’re not going to fork-feed you flounder; we’re going to insist that you learn how to fish.

I’ll be so blunt as to put it this way: I don’t think the full scope of Paleo is for everyone, because I don’t believe that everyone is capable of operating with knowledge and reason as their sole platform.  Shifting sands make some folks uncomfortable; some have to operate under conditions of rules and rigid order.  In other words, some will never move beyond the dog paddle to the more complex strokes.  Fall in the drink and they’ll be able to save themselves alright, but they’ll never be a swimmer in the true sense of the term.  And that’s fine; I get that—and Paleo can accommodate.  I can package a version of this diet to anyone, making their lives much better in the process.

What the mainstream needs to realize is that the definition of “diet” has been forever changed by the Paleo movement.  Ideas whose time has come cannot be contained by yesterday’s mindset.

In health, fitness, and ancestral wellness –



Header Pic: Toshogu.  Licensed Under the Creative Commons.


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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 […]