Is Paleo Just Another Fad Diet, Or Something More?

Is Paleo Just Another Fad Diet, Or Something More?

An interview with the author of The Paleo Manifesto.
Ben Domenech
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John Durant is the author of The Paleo Manifesto: Ancient Wisdom for Lifelong Health. Durant studied evolutionary psychology at Harvard prior to founding Paleo NYC and Barefoot Runners NYC, the largest paleo and barefoot running groups in the world. He has been featured in The New York Times and on The Colbert Report and NPR. He blogs at HunterGatherer.com.

Benjamin Domenech: I have to ask you right off the bat, just from the devil’s advocate side of things: this is an interesting book and it’s not a diet book. But the general impression that I think a lot of people have when it comes to paleo is that this is just another fad diet for bored upper class white people. So, why is that not the case and why is the book sort of different than anything that you would normally categorize as being sort of related to diet and that kind of thing?

John Durant: Most people today assume their lives to be normal, but we live radically different lives than even a generation or two ago.  You know, not to mention the Paleolithic. How most people live and eat today isn’t in any way normal – it is a complete absurdity.  And you have to ask the question: is what we’re currently doing working?  We have record rates of obesity, and Type II diabetes, and depression, and all these different chronic health conditions, even though we live a long time.  And people are already confused by all the conflicting advice out there.  So, I think people are actually hungry for something that is sensible and isn’t going to change from one day to the next.

Domenech: You talk a lot in your book about how the differences between the kinds of stresses experienced in the past, and by people today.  The difference between sort of big life-threatening stress and long-term enduring chronic stress.  What brought you to connect those things to the paleo approach?

Durant: Well, Nassim Taleb writes a lot about the importance of variation, and variability, and brief momentary stresses can actually be a good thing.  And he was one influence in looking at how variability can be healthy, whether it’s eating frequency, or temperature variation, or sun exposure, or any number of different things.  And today our lives have become so comfortable, and so monotonous.  The temperature is pretty much the same whether you’re in your car, your home, or the office.  The treadmill is always flat.  Everybody sits down for three square meals a day, every day, at pretty much the same time.  And that monotony is unhealthy.

Domenech: Your book begins with a look back, historically, and you build the scientific case for why you believe what you believe on this front.  What do you think was the most surprising thread you came across in the course of that kind of investigation, diving deep into sort of the experiences of the past and some of the lessons that come from archeology and history?

Durant: You know, my favorite chapter in the book has nothing to do with the Paleolithic and nothing to do with diet.  It’s Chapter 4 which is called “Moses the Microbiologist”.  And it’s about how a lot of early religious traditions, particularly Judaism, emerged to help people deal with infectious disease which was rampant.  So you see three injunctions for Jewish priests or Jewish people to wash their hands in the first five books of the Bible.  I mean, hand washing is the simplest most effective form of hygiene ever discovered.  It’s Nobel-worthy advice.  And you start seeing injunctions for people to put their hands together and run clean water over them millennia ago.

John DurantI think we kind of take it for granted – our knowledge of hygiene and the germ theories of disease. We take it completely for granted.  But if you actually lived 2,000, 3,000, 5,000 years ago in an early city you didn’t know that germ existed, you had no idea that germs could spread so easily by the slightest physical contact, and you had no clue what was killing so many people.  It just looked like people were dropping dead.  And it looks like they were getting struck down by God.

Domenech: I did find that chapter particularly interesting, especially considering that kosher certification is still a model for private regulation, as opposed to top-down governmental regulation. Maybe we’ve gotten to a point where we no longer are forced to make the distinction between clean or unclean, healthy or unhealthy – or we haven’t even thought about it because of the variety of goods and foods that are available to us  in the global marketplace?

Durant: Different eras of human history have different health challenges and during the Paleolithic it was avoiding wild animals, and getting enough food, and things like that.  In the agricultural age it was avoiding germs and infectious disease, that was the dominant health challenge.  Today the health challenges are different.  The health challenges are motivating people to move more, avoiding a diet, heavily industrial diet that can make you overweight, and taking daily actions that will prevent these chronic health conditions.

During the emergence of Judaism the importance of daily actions was huge.  You know, in the Jewish tradition it wasn’t always about belief or attitude.  Taking daily actions was extremely important.  When you realize that many of those daily actions were hygienic actions that helped people avoid germs, you’re like oh, all right, so they had many of these rules where they had to wash their hands multiple times a day, just like we do today.  And so in some sense today we have to find ways to motivate ourselves and take the daily actions required to be healthy human beings.

Domenech: You offer generalized advice on what to eat and how to eat it. It’s not a diet book and you’re upfront about that. Do you think there’s too much emphasis on being strict? Do you ever feel like you cheat? What’s the right attitude, or is that just something that’s up to the individual?

Durant: I think it’s up to the individual. Some people need to be strict otherwise the routines completely fall apart and they put back on 50 or 60 pounds. And I know people that if they just have a little bit of gluten it causes all sorts of digestive problems. So, it’s going to vary from person to person. I can be a little bit more relaxed and I know what my boundaries are. It’s like with alcohol. You kind of get a sense for how many drinks you can have before it’s going to cause you a wicked hangover the next day. And then there are some people that need to avoid alcohol entirely very strictly, even though that’s hard.  So I gave general guidelines because I didn’t want it to be one size fits all.

Domenech: What’s a reasonable way to stay as strict as you need to be given that it’s just so much easier for folks to buy stuff that’s packed with extra sugar, even if it’s just sweet potato fries or something like that? How do you make sure the paleo approach doesn’t get too expensive fast, particularly for families, people who are trying to raise children on a diet along these lines?

Durant: I think the best way to do it is to take a period of time, it could be three weeks, it could be a month, it could be a couple of months, and be very strict about it.  Find a set of rules that you want to follow and be very strict about it, and then evaluate what type of results you get.  And then over time you can relax a little bit, add in new and different foods and just see how you feel.  And you can be the judge of whether to incorporate certain foods. I find that I do fine on some full fat dairy, so I eat it sometimes.  But I know that if I eat too much of it my complexion gets worse.

Paleo ManifestoAs for the question of cost: first of all there are enormous costs to being obese, or diabetic, or being sick frequently, or not being able to enjoy the last 15 or 20 years of your life because your knee doesn’t work and you have other aches and pains.  So, you’ve got to take that into account.  The other thing is that with any comprehensive approach to food, just as in politics, it becomes a status competition to be who can be the most pure.  Right?  “I am more paleo than thou”. And it happens in the vegan community. Once a lot of vegetarians started eating fish well then the true believers needed a new word, so they’d all be softies.

Domenech: Like The Simpsons’ episode where the guy says, “I don’t eat anything that casts a shadow.”

Durant: Exactly! Yes, that seems to happen in any group.  You get your purists and there are folks saying out there how if every meal isn’t grass fed beef, then you’re going to get kidney stones. You know, silliness like that.

So, what I recommend is: eat on a budget. When I have a little bit of extra money to spend on food, I spend it on higher quality animal products.  I think the health differences and the ethical differences are more important with animal foods than it is with romaine lettuce. For a lot of vegetables I don’t buy organic and I focus a little bit extra on animal foods.  I have a freezer chest that cost about about $150.  It works beautifully and it allows me to buy meat in bulk, or when I went hunting and shot a deer I could fit it in there.  If I do a cow share, or a pig share, those are all ways to economize and get really healthy food.  And really, if you are a regular hunter or you have easy access to hunting, that can be an extremely economical way to get some of the healthiest food out there. Venison is fantastic.  You can get a lot of it just with a couple of shots.  So, I encourage people to hunt, to fish.

Domenech: There was a recent piece by Matthew Scully in National Review where made the moral case for vegetarianism and vegan approaches. Why do you think that it may not be right to say that his view represents a more ethical approach given where we are in the food chain? Why is that view misguided?

Durant: Nature isn’t a Disney movie.  It’s not Bambi.  And a skilled human hunter is the least painful way for a deer to die.  Period.  Consider the alternatives for deer. If there is overpopulation then lots of little Bambi’s starve to death slowly over a period of weeks out in the woods.  They die of disease, or being torn apart by wild animal, or they slowly bleed to death on the side of the road after being hit by a car. Again: a skilled human hunter is hands down the least painful way for a deer to die.

I think that vegans and vegetarians did offer something true, and it took me a while to agree with them on this because I wasn’t really open to the idea.  I think we can do better than the factory farm system and how we treat animals.  For me it’s not really motivated by empathy. It’s like I say in my book: if you put a wounded animal right in front of me I’d feel its pain.  But look, I eat meat, and I love plenty of it, and I don’t lose a single minute of sleep over it at night.  That’s just how I tick.  For me it’s more of an issue of honor.  You know, in battle it’s a respected adversary merits a quick and painless death. We are eating them for sustenance, so I think the least that we can give them is a quick and painless death. And you know, there are a lot of people who have been working with the factory farm system to increasingly make sure that happens.  But you know, a decent life and a swift death was and is good for a human, right? I hope to have a decent life and swift death!

And then the other thing is, forget animal rights or animal ethics for a moment.  We are breeding in a lot of these factory farm conditions, we are breeding antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria that are going to come back and haunt us.  I mean, it is as predictable as the moon’s orbit. You keep overusing antibiotics in these cattle and the result will probably eventually be diseases that jump to humans and that our antibiotics do not work against. And so, I think one argument for changing conditions on these farms – a little bit more space, a little bit better hygiene – is purely selfish.  Completely selfish.  Let’s change some of these conditions for us and for human welfare, and a nice side effect will be it improves conditions for animals too.

Domenech: Your father, Clark Durant, is an intellectual and academic with some strong libertarian credentials. Why do you think that paleo as an approach has so many libertarian fans and is there something about it that speaks to individual liberty?

Durant: Well, the first piece is that the existing food movement that sprang up around organic food was largely driven by, particularly in the early years, the vegetarian world and the plant-based diet world, with a good bit of progressive ideology.  And so that is alienating to a lot of people who might want to be healthier, who do care about where their food comes from.  We saw the same thing happen in the environmental movement.  You’ve got scores of hunters who care deeply about conservation and practice it in their own lives, and but due to differences in culture hunters have largely been excluded from the environmental movement.

I think there was a latent demand for an alternative approach to healthy eating and healthy living that wasn’t, that didn’t require you to buy in to all this other ideology.  Because basically until paleo, until this general evolutionary approach came along, the only options were, you can be a sort of like a hippie vegan progressive, or you can eat tons of McDonalds and become obese and proudly tout that you don’t care where your food comes from, or you can go on some fad diet.  And those aren’t actually very good options for a lot of people.

So, first I just think there was latent demand for it.  And then there there’s definitely something to the fact that paleo doesn’t look down on eating meat and that definitely appeals to a slightly more masculine group of folks.  The latest surveys have shown that paleo is actually split about 50/50 between men and women, but that’s far more men relative to all other dietary movements, which tend to be 70, 80% women. So, people will say it’s all macho, all these men are into it.  It’s actually about 50/50, but it just feels a little bit more masculine relative to everything else.

Domenech: I have to ask: what is your favorite paleo dish?  What do you actually go to and eat when you’re sitting down and hankering for a good meal?

Durant: Oh, I could never release a cookbook, because if people actually saw what my day-to-day meals are, no one would buy it.  It’s paleo bachelor food. Sometimes I’ll make some ground beef, grass fed ground beef with mustard, some pickles, and a little side salad. That’s a typical meal for me – not my favorite meal, but a paleo bachelor meal, one that’ll do just fine.

Photo of Indian Hunter by John Quincy Adams Ward
Ben Domenech is the publisher of The Federalist. Sign up for a free trial of his daily newsletter, The Transom.
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