Words || Jack Cameron Stanton
In a recent article published by The Guardian, writer Jason Wilson denounces Pete Evans’ paleo diet by saying, “Paleo isn’t a fad, it’s a cult that selectively denies the modern world”.
While Wilson’s judgement is too harsh, in my opinion, he does make a very good point. Why has modernity suddenly been seized by an ideology that prides itself on regression?
For the unaware, the philosophical spine of paleo is that humanity’s diet reached optimum nutritional value during the Palaeolithic period. It dictates that we must refrain from eating anything unavailable or evaded by Palaeolithic man, such as grains, legumes, dairy, processed oils, and refined sugar.
Let’s ignore the fact that the era in question sprawled across many centuries and cannot be compartmentalised into strict dietary guidelines. And let’s also ignore evidence like archaeological research which proves legumes and grains were consumed during the Paleo era. What’s more important is that by doing so – dismissing reality, that is – we are being consistent with the trend. By perpetuating ignorance, paleo enthusiasts can construct a fabricated sense of legion.
A sad reality, however, is that obesity has become the suicidal pandemic of our times. Even worse, obesity has boomed in the last forty years, and shows no signs of deceleration.
So if ‘fad diets’ do deter obesity are they really that damaging? And is paleo really a fad diet or a sustainable lifestyle?
I spoke with Frank Marino, Professor of Exercise Physiology at Charles Sturt University, about whether paleo has a verifiable scientific core, or if it’s merely another ideological fever plaguing our vain society.
The merits of paleo, according to Professor Marino, are a truism we already know. “What paleo does is removes all the processed carbohydrates from a diet and replaces them with natural food that includes a higher fat content.” So when you substitute sugar, two things happen: your body stops storing fat; and you eat less, reducing your overall calorie intake.
“When you enter Woolies, you should only shop in the fruit and vegetables, meat counter, and dairy shelves. The rest of the shop will kill you very slowly.”
In other words, “If you adhere to paleo to reduce the amount of processed food in your diet, then it’s a good thing. But as a cure-all, a panacea, it’s a recipe for disaster”. I imagine it’s logical to tailor our diets according to biological predisposition rather than the philosophies of celebrity chefs like Pete Evans.
Evans’ newest publication, Bubba Yum Yum Yum: The Paleo Way, originally due for Australian release in April this year, was abandoned by publishing house Pan Macmillan in response to condemnation by leading medical professionals. Even zealous sycophants must wince at this media defeat. The recipe most under fire is the controversial bone broth, prescribed for infants instead of baby formula. When discovered that the broth holds ten times the recommended Vitamin A levels, and is therefore potentially lethal, Pan Macmillan didn’t want a bar of it.
With naïve (and maybe predictable) bigotry, Evans announced that his cookbook would be self- published digitally, ignoring professional warning. It’s not the first time somebody defined themselves as a ‘warrior’ for their cause and charged right ahead, disregarding the voices crying out otherwise. His bigheadedness fits the Upton Sinclair Theory: “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon him not understanding it”.
So I suppose the trouble is that people revere the words of Pete Evans, almost religiously. But does that qualify as a cult?
In his book, The Paleo Answer, Loren Cordain identifies the problems with eating beans and legumes. He uses anecdotes, vague physiological deductions, and surface value anthropology to conclude that legumes can cause inflammation and cramps in the gut. Therefore, a total and swift departure from legumes is our only recourse, right?
“If birds can’t digest seeds and legumes, then what chance do humans have? That’s the reasoning. And it’s flawed, on so many levels. The obvious flaw is: we’re not birds!”
Professor Marino added some startling statistics that may force you to reconsider your current eating habits.
“The Inuit’s staple diet for thousands of years was seal fat. And the Pima Indians ate dried bison meat covered in fat as a preservative. They were the most handsome people on the planet, until the white man arrived. So we have to ask ourselves – after millions of years of evolution, we did very well. But in the last forty years, we’ve done poorly.”
We know late onset diabetes emerged as a significant health problem around the 1900s. Studies show that in the 1700s a person’s average sugar consumption in the United Kingdom was four kilograms per year. By the 1960s, the figure had
jumped to around fifty kilograms in the U.S.A. Today, we consume about seventy-five kilograms and the prevalence of diabetes is roughly seven in every one hundred people.
“It’s not quite clear if obesity causes diabetes, or if people predisposed to diabetes get fat, as the body’s way of staving off the disease.”
Most people don’t realise it, but at any given time your blood sugar level is five grams. Yet you might drink a 600ml bottle of Coke and inject an additional sixty grams into your bloodstream. That means your body fights to breakdown sixty-five grams of sugar. But it’s built to do that, so it channels excess to your liver, stores it as fat, and tells you everything is fine.
But really, it isn’t.
Like the legumes argument, paleo’s rationale for not eating dairy is archaic and naïve. Cordain’s assumption that dairy can cause cancer is a leap of faith, at best. Professor Marino comments: “The only people who should exclude dairy are those with biological aversion – those missing enzymes and god-knows-what-else – preventing growth of correct bacteria to digest lactose”.
In a growing climate of nutritional indifference and factual fallacies, how can we be sure we are securing our body’s needs? With so many theories and counterarguments, it appears a titanic endeavour to figure out what to do. And the frustrating answer is: it depends on you.
Any diet promoting exclusion of a food group should be treated with scepticism. Even the endearing Food Pyramid, taught in primary school and once inscribed on every cereal box, is faulty, having developed from years of economic and political intrigue rather than honest nutrition. This is just one example of something presented to me as an empirical fact, something I’m supposed to immediately acknowledge and accept, only to be destroyed by later research. The pyramid was a complete failure, since adhering to it in fact made us sick.
I’m not disputing that our society needs to change. That’s obvious. But, we do not need to exclude foods so bashfully. What we really need to do is grasp the physiology of our food, not its history.