From Paleo to Paradigm-Shift: Building a Nutrition Reform Network

Brief recap: What can we do to transform this paleo-led, Ancestral Health Society-supported community into the public health, human rights revolution it could be?

According to Doug Imig at the University of Memphis, a protest becomes a movement when:

1) It defines and proclaims widely shared cultural norms.

2) It creates dense social networks.

3) It gives everybody something to do.

The first part of this process can seem daunting. What “shared cultural norms” do we have with other movements and organizations? I’ve spent the past couple of years trying to find common ground, including a semester in Washington, DC where I met people from many different organizations interested in policy, food, and nutrition reform. I’ve also quizzed lots of folks within the nutrition science establishment about basic principles with which we can all (mostly) agree. What I’ve found has led me to propose the following “shared cultural norms”:

  • Open, transparent and sustainable food-health systems will benefit all Americans.
  • There is no single dietary approach that will result in good health for everyone.
  • Nutrition messages are constructed and have embedded values and points of view.

[For an expanded discussion of these principles, see The REAL Paleo Challenge.]

“Shared cultural norms” become shared goals, and with shared goals, we can move together in one direction. Leading—and following—with humility and generosity will go a long way towards the next step: creating a large, dense social network of people willing to work together toward these common goals.

So let’s first take a look at the humility and generosity thing:

For paleo leaders, this begins at home. If you don’t write your own blog posts or research all your own material, be up front about the fact. Give credit to those who do the work for you. Believe it or not, there are people out there—your readers—who think that you do ALL of that work. Letting them know you don’t—and giving a name and a face to the people who help you out—takes you off a pedestal and lifts up the folks in the background. Don’t worry; there’s room enough for everyone. If inspiring people to get fit and healthy is your thing, inspire them to look at the bigger picture too. Insist on scientific integrity from yourself and others. Everybody makes mistakes, overstates the facts, fails to fact-check a source thoroughly or read the original materials carefully and critically; sometime new evidence or a new perspective changes our minds. Be humble in your claims about what food/nutrition can do and avoid nutritional scare tactics and absolutism. No one has all the answers.

For paleo followers, refuse to be captured and captivated by labels, leaders, controversy, and coolness. If thinking for yourself is what brought you to the paleo community in the first place, don’t check your brain at the door when you start listening to the folks you consider to be the experts. Don’t let the folks that you admire slide just because you agree with them or because you’re on the same side of the issue. If getting fit and healthy by following one of those inspiring leaders is what brought you, take it upon yourself to challenge them—and yourself—to look beyond personal health to the health of your community. Allow your paleo heroes to be human; no one has all the answers.

A sense of strength and unity within the paleo community will allow us to turn our sights and energies outward, rather than inward. I’m pleased to say that I think this has already begun. There has been a lot of reaching out to the other “alternative” nutrition communities, and I think we can give a great deal of credit to the folks at Ancestral Health Society for creating a space for this to happen. AHS and the paleo community is where the other alternative nutrition communities, Weston A Price Foundation and the low-carb folks, seem to intersect. At AHS2012, primalebrities Robb Wolf and Mark Sisson signed on as WAPF members and low-carb leaders Richard Feinman, Andreas Eenfeldt and Jimmy Moore were welcomed as respected members of the paleo community.

Robb Wolf and Mark Sisson truly leading the way to a paradigm-shifting network of nutrition reform. Photo courtesy of Ancestralize Me’s Laura Schoenfeld.

We can strengthen these connections by getting to know each other better, attending each other’s conferences, sharing information across groups and blogs, and by remembering that we are all working towards the same goals, even if our particular dietary approaches differ. We can all continue to support and promote AHS even if we don’t match the paleo template exactly. WAPF has a strong grassroots community; there is likely to be a chapter near you where you will find kindred spirits. I hope I don’t have to sell anyone on promoting Peter Attia’s and Gary Taubes’ NuSI once it is launched. For that matter, publicize the work of Healthy Nation Coalition (this would be my own agenda of course) and join us in trying to figure out ways to make this a long-term, self-sustaining social movement for everyone.

Cohesiveness within the movement will allow us to expand our diplomacy to other food and nutrition reform arenas. Remember, we don’t have to agree with everything another community may say or do, but if we have some common ground, we should build on it. Here are a few examples of organizations with which we may share common values (I’m sure you all can think of more):

Common ground? Probably, unless you think Twinkies are paleo.

Paleo leaders, you can open your doors a bit more. Find out what you can do to reach across nutrition reform community boundaries. It will broaden your audience base and the reach of your nutrition message, as well as help create a network of like-minded groups. Put as much effort into finding common ground with those whose general perspective you are not sure you quite align with as you do into ripping up the science you don’t agree with. Although there is no reason not to call out poorly-designed and -reported science when it shows up, be humane, humble and transparent when you do. Frequently it is underlying policies and paradigms at fault (perpetuated by media coverage), not the science or the scientists per se. Paleo leaders, not only can you get a low-carb or WAPF leader to do a guest post or interview, you could invite a vegan to help you find common ground within your two communities. See what those folks in the permaculture groups are up to and publicize it. There is some ridiculously awesome stuff going on that just happens to be, by default, mighty paleo-like. We should be supporting projects like The Food Web because, although not everyone is going to want to raise chickens, if we are going to talk sustainability, animal welfare, and support for small farmers—and I hope we are—the folks in the permaculture community are where the rubber meets the road.

Abe Connally and family explain permaculture at work. Result? A sustainable—and paleo—food system. Click on the picture to find out more.

For paleo followers: Reach across boundaries yourself—we have much to learn from each other and more similarity that we want to think we do. Next time you attend a paleo event and you see a person who doesn’t “look the paleo part,” go up to them and introduce yourself. Tell your story and listen to his/hers.  It actually might be more informative than standing in line to ask Mark Sisson if he thinks shirataki noodles are “primal.” Volunteer with AHS; join WAPF; check out Healthy Nation Coalition. We’re not cool or hip and frankly, our mission is more to get behind everybody else and push than get out front and lead, but we do good work.

And paleo followers, you can do something the paleo leaders can’t do (and isn’t that fun to know?). You can take this message out into your professional or academic world and treat it as a serious subject for closer examination in fields like: American studies, education, sociology, human development, maternal and child health, communication, ecology, political science, economics, psychology, health policy, etc. Doing this legitimizes the paradigm shift that is already underway. If you are concerned about sounding like a nutcase (because many outside of alternative nutrition communities have only been exposed to our default “healthy diet” definition), refer to the “shared cultural norms” above–they travel well. If we begin to look at the past 30 years of national nutrition policy as the cultural phenomenon that it is, we can begin to entertain the notion that perhaps it is time to move on.

Scientific measurements of skull sizes use to “prove” racial superiority? Science is shaped by culture; nutrition science is no different.

Consider Prohibition or the civil rights movement. Both were cultural events or paradigms where science was invoked to either defend or to undermine specific cultural norms. Our science has not magically become more “objective” since then; it is only in retrospect that we can see how cultural forces shaped the prevailing paradigms. Paleo followers can have that conversation in any arena that may be applicable, and use our dietary guidelines as an example.

Changing attitudes will change the institutions that shape those attitudes. But the biggest roadblock to shifting the paradigm remains.

A paradigm shift in—in science and in culture—must preserve, not trash, much of what has come before and recognize the advances made by those who have preceded us, even if (and maybe in this case, especially if) they are on the other side of the paradigm shift. Honestly, we have a really hard time with this, and I think this remains our primary challenge.

Next up: A place for everyone—including nutrition epidemiologists?

5 thoughts on “From Paleo to Paradigm-Shift: Building a Nutrition Reform Network

  1. I’ve been watching this unfold for a couple years now, the entire thing has been fascinating to watch in the sense of an interest in how humans take, shape, and mold ideas and transmit them using them to unite, divide, and isolate people. Trivial things that divide people to the flawed thinking that unites people, it is all a very educational lesson in both human nature and how culture and cults develop. Sometimes I think that in order to prevent good things or good ideas from devolving into a heap, we need to better understand why they happen in the first place and we need to become familiar and comfortable with our own nature. And more important be willing to admit our nature.

    What has happened in the primal/paleo culture, its devolution into different divisions, reminds me of the nature of religious groups that branch and split into a million different denominations each with their own rituals and voodoo every time a few of its members disagree whom leave and start their own “correct idea” and eventually go to war with each other. I think different ideas are a good thing but when I we can’t at least share a common goal or a common goal divides, it typically ends in disaster.

    I’m not suggesting a monolithic institution or thinking. Rather I think the driving force behind any movement with a goal should clearly define what it is seeking to answer rather than seeking to provide. I believe we should ask the question that most people want answered in this case: How should we then eat? That in my opinion cuts straight to the heart, that is what people want to know.

    If we define a movement by asking a question rather than providing an answer I think it encourages a united front and prevents fragmentation among members, it gives people opportunity to explore, it gives people a cause rather than a list of demands.

    That in my opinion has been the thorn in the paleo/primal paradigm, it’s trying to give an answer to the wrong question and the wrong question is being asked.

    I have never been a regular blogger but I have started writing my thoughts on these issues and just recently I was writing about this trying to bring together the central issues I’ve been witnessing these past few years. I just came across your blog and read some of your views on the social dynamics aspect of the entire situation and it is refreshing to see you and the group of people on your blog acknowledging these “hidden” forces at play.

    1. I’ve been watching it unfold for about 13 years now and it is truly fascinating as you’ve said. Being very near–but not actually in–the swirling vortices of competing nutrition paradigms, I’ve seen some pretty crazy stuff from all sides. If people cared about the world of nutrition like they care about the world of the Kardashians, I’d have a best-seller on my hands.
      Your question–“how then should we eat?” is an interesting one. In one sense there is a single answer (we must eat the foods that provide essential nutrients that we can only get from dietary sources). In other ways, the answers are infinite because the goal, perhaps most generally stated as “individual health,” is a varied as each individual and, in addition, how to achieve that goal for any given individual shifts over time.
      I have lots more to say about n=1 nutrition, as I see that as a way forward from the current us vs them way of thinking about diet and nutrition. I’ll be interested to hear what you think. Thanks for joining the conversation.

  2. I know there will be lots of fascinating discussion on this post, but I just want to mention a resource, if any of you haven’t found it yet – The Latest in Paleo podcast by Angelo Coppola. He’s very enthusiastic about primal life, but I notice he works hard to find common ground with all sorts of other schools of thought, and frequently urges listeners to be open-minded. So there are some leaders in the paleo community who are thinking about the different paradigms and encouraging investigation and experimentation.

    1. Thanks for the resource! I am “challenged” when it comes to keeping up with the blogosphere and podcasts (hard to break out of my PubMed spelunking), but I love learning about the conversations that go on without me. My friend Andrea says I need a “media consultant.” I’ll definitely look him up.

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