The original title of my presentation for the Ancestral Health Symposium 2013 was:
But now I feel like it should be more like:
What’s going on in Paleoland? Well, you can see Melissa McEwan’s take on it here, or itsthewoo’s take on it here. My concerns about paleo are wrapped up in the presentation below, and going into AHS 2013 I was more than a little nervous about saying what it is I wanted to say. See, I don’t consider myself “paleo” (or “low carb” or “insert whatever diet therapy you think I adhere to here”); I consider myself a nutritionist, a public health professional, and work in progress. I do recognize the fact that a lot of people who do consider themselves “paleo” attend AHS–and I consider a lot of them my friends and colleagues. While I see promising things in the group of people who have chosen a paleo path, I also agree with a great deal of what both Melissa McEwan and itsthewoo have to say. (I admit to some sadness over the demise of Paleodrama. Other people binge-watch House of Cards. Me, after a long week of rhetorical theory and critical studies, I would grab a tumbler of sangria and binge-read Paleodrama. To each her own.) The presentation would, I hoped, put some of the “issues” that I see happening in Paleoland on the table, without throwing out the potential for paleo to grow into something more than itself. Well.
Without further ado, here’s the presentation as it was in August. Updates and commentary that did not appear in the original are in [brackets].
It is an honor to be here at AHS and I am delighted to be in such esteemed company. I hope that I can bring to our conversations this weekend a little something to offend everyone.
The primary misconception that I deal with in public health nutrition is that our current policy is the same thing as science. Conversely, a primary misconception regarding reforming this policy is the idea that “If only we could get the right information to the public and to policymakers, things would be different.” Having the evidence to support a movement’s agenda is important, but public perceptions and national policies are shaped as much by social, political, and cultural forces as by science.
As we have seen in other movements, cultural change drives policy change, which in turn drives cultural change. The current mainstream definition of what constitutes a “healthy” diet is an excellent example of this. At one point in the not-too-distant past, a low-fat, low-calorie, plant-based diet was considered a “fad” – just as the stereotypical paleo diet is today. But it was not science alone—or even primarily—that shifted the public’s perceptions.
In fact, the science supporting this dietary guidance has been and remains weak, but that didn’t stop it from becoming policy. George McGovern’s Senate Select Committee, a group of young white liberal men full of well-meaning social concern, wanted to create a plan to reduce chronic disease (a reasonable public health goal), as well as lengthen the lifespan of their committee. They did their work against a backdrop of post-World War 2 wealth, comfort, and suburban complacency that was rapidly crumbling in the face of social movements that would polarize the population: civil rights, women’s liberation, and anti-war protests. Television brought bombings, riots, assassinations, and Watergate, into middle class living rooms and shook middle class faith in government and social order. Middle class complacency was quickly turning into anxiety and cynicism.
Some of this anxiety took shape specifically around matters related to food and health. Ancel Keys taught the public his theories about heart disease–a “disease of success” brought on by too much animal fat. Rachel Carson raised awareness of environmental toxins. Ralph Nader and the Center for Science in the Public Interest raised the alarm about chemicals in our food supply put there by corporate greed—a force which also was accused of contributing to hunger in America. Many groups, from feminists to Beatles fans, picked up on these issues—along with ethical concerns about animal welfare—by turning towards vegetarian diets. McGovern’s committee—as they said back then—was hip to all of this.
This is clear in their choice of reference material for the Dietary Goals, which included—of all things—a cookbook called Diet for a Small Planet. As much vegetarian manifesto as a source for recipes, it proposed that a plant-based diet was the best way to feed the hungry, save the Earth, protect our health, and usher in the Age of Aquarius. [It still does.] This cookbook assured middle-class America that what was good for us was also good for the world. Its influence is felt throughout the 1977 Goals, which counseled Americans to reduce consumption of meat, eggs, butter, and full-fat dairy, and increase intake of grains, cereals and vegetables oils, recommendations that have changed very little in nearly 40 years.
McGovern’s committee wanted to return America to a more “natural” way of eating—and what could be wrong with that? This “back to nature” stance earned the Committee the nickname “the barefoot boys of nutrition.” This “back to nature” idea not only recalled the “physical culture movement” that had long been a part of American life, it resonated with Puritan ethics that suggested that self-discipline and a little suffering—which Americans were going to need for such a radical change in diet—were a mark of moral goodness. Barefoot and back to nature, fresh air, sunshine and a little suffering—does any of this sound familiar?
Those initial Dietary Goals did not embed themselves in American culture based on the strength of their science—to say the least. They grabbed the attention of the media and the middle class because they played on the existential anxieties that cultural turmoil creates. They substantiated a notion that by changing their diets, Americans could control some of the frightening things in the world—hunger, pollution, disease. We could demonstrate just how much we cared about these issues, and we could do it from the comfort and safety of our own dinner table. We are still trying to do that even now.
Our current calls for reform in the areas of food, nutrition, and health reflect the same set of complex social problems, the same inescapable environmental problems, the same threats to our food supply that the creators of the 1977 Goals faced—only compounded by time, technological advances, and a distinct turn for the worse in the country’s (and the world’s) health.
The paleo community emerged as a protest against dietary guidance that seems to many to be scientifically shoddy, shallow, limited, and ineffective. The attention to calorie balance as the only way to maintain health seems to be especially—and unnecessarily—restrictive and unhelpful. But “paleo” in its stereotyped form takes a shape that is little different from the one to which it stands in opposition.
Both of approaches to nutrition are stuck in the past in two primary aspects:
Both suggest a linear and mechanistic approach to the food-health relationship. “Eat this/don’t eat that and all will be well.”
Second, and more subtly, both approaches reflect the cultural values and social power of those doing the reforming, but may not reflect the realities of the most vulnerable in our population, the ones who might benefit most genuine changes to the system.
People have been burnt once already by a “nutrition revolution” – they are confused, skeptical, and wary. They don’t want to get fooled again. Right now, paleo is not offering much that is truly revolutionary in terms of a new way to approach to food and health. Unless and until we are ready to give up some of the same concepts that we criticize the mainstream approach for using–it’s really just “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
We can’t generate the outrage we need to change the public’s world view, because we have not decided what our own priorities are: Do we care only about our own food and health, or do we care about everyone’s food and health?
With regard to food, current nutrition policies are a barrier to the growth of local food systems.
Farmers have difficulty expanding the market for locally-produced animal products because of dietary guidance that limits saturated fat and cholesterol intake. Meanwhile the paleo community is in upheaval for days—weeks, months?—debating the worthiness of butter from cows that are only 90% and not 100% grass-fed. How can we support long-term sustainable growth in local systems when our own standards are incoherent and possibly unreasonable?
We want our meat, eggs, and butter to come from happy, healthy cows and chickens. But what attention are we willing to spare for the health and happiness of farm workers—or the workers up and down the food supply chain?
With regard to health, nutrition is a civil rights issue.
We don’t want our wellness determined by an arbitrary marker like LDL, but are we willing to go to bat for someone else whose wellness is determined by an arbitrary marker like BMI?
The paleo community spends its energy debating how various sugars and starches may or may not be paleo. This is fascinating, but will it help people with diabetes who are never offered an alternative to a low-fat diet—despite the science that demonstrates the benefits of a carbohydrate-reduction in treating this disease?
The current nutrition paradigm use moldy datasets normed on white female healthcare professionals born during the first half of the last century to inform the dietary health of dark-skinned young males all over America. But is suggesting they return to their caveman roots any more appropriate?
These are huge issues—wicked problems—and we can’t fix them by replacing the old rules with some new ones. In order to be a leading force in the kind of social movement that might create authentic change in the system, paleo is going to have to move beyond the limited perspective that perpetuates many of the mistakes of the current nutrition paradigm.
I propose that we consider the idea of ancestral health—as distinct from “paleo”–as a way of framing food and nutrition reform to address both the cultural and the scientific limitations of previous approaches.
In terms of science, anthropology and evolutionary biology have shown us that diet is idiosyncratic and variable within and between populations, but not chaotic; there are certain nutritional requirements, but there are many ways to meet them.
Research into the human microbiome has shown us that we are not alone; and that the health of the microbial communities within and around us is a critical aspect of our own health.
Epigenetics, genomics, and other aspects of systems biology have begun to reveal the complexity of interactions between our genetic material and our environment, with food being a primary, but by no means the only, environmental exposure.
All of these concepts can and should be part of the ancestral health framework.
But as I said at the beginning, science is not enough. There are three critical components that turn a protest into a movement.
1) Development of widely-shared cultural norms, the violation of which is perceived as injustice. In order to develop those norms, we’re going to have to do some GROWING UP.
2) Development of a repertoire of actions that demonstrate that conditions can be altered. In order to create the sense of agency and change that we want, we are going to have to start DIGGING IN.
3) Development of a dense social networks that can work collectively against a common target. In order to create these alliances, we are going to have to begin REACHING OUT.
Growing up for paleo—as for many things—will to need to start with a little makeover. Like all good makeovers, this doesn’t mean abandoning the paleo identity completely, but it means looking—and moving—beyond it. There are precedents for this from other nutrition reform arenas.
For many people, hearing the term “vegan” bring a knee-jerk—and negative—reaction; but the term “vegetarian” does not. People who promote a vegan diet know this and can frequently be found using the term “vegetarian” instead. So that’s a marketing strategy, and a fairly wise one.
Now, take the phrase “Atkins diet” which can also elicit a negative, knee-jerk reaction. But scientists who study such diets have learned to use the phrase “reduced-carbohydrate” not only for PR purposes, but because the phrase “Atkins diet” does not encompass the different approaches to carbohydrate reduction that scientists are interested in.
How about paleo? It also elicits a negative, knee-jerk reaction from many and calls up stereotypes of privileged white males eating big hunks of meat on a stick—even though, as Hamilton Stapell showed us, those stereotypes may be somewhat inaccurate. As such, the term “paleo” limits what we can expect to accomplish as a framing device for conversations about food, health, and lifestyle. From this point forward I will use the term “paleo” to refer to the stereotyped and limited perspective and “ancestral health” to refer to an expanded and comprehensive approach to food-health reform.
By shifting the shared norms of our community towards an ancestral health framework—rather than being limited to paleo—we can move beyond the outdated concepts that we share with the current approach to nutrition and the problems that they create. We can—if we choose to—use an ancestral health framework to challenge those assumptions in a truly radical way.
[What follows is what I call the Top Ten Reasons Paleo Pisses Me Off, but my hubby, ever the diplomat, said not to say that.]
[Reason 10:] So let’s just get this out there: The first assumption we need to challenge is the one that equates body size with health, which is interesting since according to Dr. Stapell, both of these are primary reasons to become part of the paleo community.
Mainstream approaches indicate that overweight and obese Americans need to eat less and move more to achieve a healthy weight according to an arbitrary cut-off on a simplistic measuring tool.
The paleo approach suggests that maybe strong is the new skinny. Or maybe “strong” is just another superficial way of assessing another’s worth.
The problem is that attention to body size rather than health and functionality can lead to a moralizing and pathologizing perspective that doesn’t reflect reality. Not only can this approach foster disordered eating behaviors and judgment calls about food, character, and lifestyle choices, it tells us little about overall health. We have no way of knowing, looking at these two women (Brittany on the left and Jennifer on the right—no headless women here), who eats what kind of food, who is healthy now, or who is going to live a long and functional life.
Our challenge is to use the ancestral health framework to recognize that a multiplicity of body shapes can be healthy and functional, and to acknowledge that much of body shape and size is determined genetically and can be influenced by factors other than diet and exercise. De-emphasizing body shape/size brings our focus to health, and especially for women, inter-generational health.
Women can—and do—have bellies, butts, and bingo flaps. Sisters who rock the paleo hardbody look—more power to you. Sisters who are more the Venus of Willendorf type—more power to you too. We can all meet at the pool and compare muscles & bra sizes & bingo flaps—and just get over ourselves and any fear of somebody tweeting about our butts.
[Reason 9:] Growing up also means moving beyond the idea that food and nutrition are the same thing.
Typical nutrition guidance discusses food as if all food choices are based only on nutrition.
Yeah, we tend to do the exact same thing.
The Problem: People are concerned about a lot of other things besides nutrition. Usually cost, convenience, and taste come first–
–followed by a host of other considerations, only one of which is nutrition.
An ancestral approach to food can embrace all of the factors that impact our food choices because it can look at food in its cultural—as well as biological—context. It can highlight the role of environmental stressors in overall health–including economic and time pressures that also impact food choices. Acknowledgement of food communities allows us to explore the role food beliefs and preferences play in food choices; these too are part of an anthropological and evolutionary perspective on food-health relationships.
[Reason 8:] We need to move past the idea that food is medicine.
Mainstream nutrition has promised that a low-saturated fat ,low-cholesterol, low-calorie, low-sodium, whole grain diet will prevent chronic illnesses like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
Us: Same promise, different food.
Now, I’m not going to say that the paleo paradigm doesn’t have some better biochemistry behind it; in many [but not all] respects, it does. The problem is that food is still not medicine.
A nutritionally-appropriate diet should be the foundation of good health, but it doesn’t guarantee it. Both groups are making promises they can’t keep & this leads to skepticism, cynicism, and disillusionment. Most importantly, this framework take a complex social construct and a biological necessity—food—and reduces it to a mechanistic and simplistic intervention–medicine.
Medicine is for sick people and food is for everyone. We may use food as part of a therapy to “heal” a particular condition at a particular point in time, but that is not the same thing as a public health paradigm. We put casts on broken legs, but we don’t recommend that everyone wear casts in order to prevent legs from breaking.
An ancestral health approach offers an opportunity to move away from the view of the human condition as one of potential “illness” to be “avoided” to one of wellness to be maintained. By focusing first and foremost on essential nutrition—and the many appropriate ways that it can be acquired–the emphasis is on having health, not preventing chronic disease. The recognition of the complexities of what we know and don’t know about the relationships between food and health brings into the public health forum other important aspects of lifestyle—sleep, stress, play, activity—that can contribute to health and well being.
[Reason 7:] There is no small irony in the fact that both plant-based and paleo ideology emphasize a return to “a more natural way of eating.” How does that happen? Because the notion of “a more natural way of eating” is not something that is easy to define. [More generally, the emphasis on a more “natural” way of doing things is a rhetorical device that implies “goodness” and fails to evaluate the issue at hand on its own terms.]
Mainstream nutrition suggests that returning to a “more natural” diet means eating a lot foods that our ancestors DIDN’T eat—either in the near or distant past—like vegetable oils, and avoiding a lot of foods they DID eat, like butter, eggs, meat, and lard.
Paleo suggests that returning to a “more natural” diet means NOT eating a lot of foods that our ancestors DID eat—at least in the not too distant past—like bread, legumes, and dairy, [and eating a lot of foods they DIDN’T eat i.e. coconut milk, unless your ancestors were Thai].
The problem is that “natural” is term useful for marketing, but not much else. It isn’t a scientific concept, or even one that makes a lot of sense culturally. We don’t really have a lot of solid information about what was “natural” for our distant ancestors—and the gene/environment interactions that may have occurred since then may make that information less relevant than how our more-recent ancestors lived, ate, and worked.
Here’s our challenge: Ancestral health principles got their start by focusing on paleolithic times—and that perspective is a valuable one—but we don’t have to be limited to that. An ancestral health framework can also allow us to look to the near-past for clues about our health now, should we choose to. Here’s the beauty of this approach: It’s already been sanctioned by mainstream nutrition, and by two of the leaders in nutrition reform, Michael Pollan and Gary Taubes.
In his landmark 1985 article, Sick Individuals and Sick Populations, epidemiologist Geoffrey Rose called for “The restoration of biological normality by the removal of” among other things “recently-acquired dietary deviations.” Gary Taubes indicates that Weston A. Price’s work about the health impacts of introducing new foods into native diets as the “most influential” thing he read in researching Good Calories, Bad Calories. Michael Pollan suggestion that we eat the way our great-grandparents ate has become a rallying cry for many people interested in food reform.
[The pie chart above] is a pretty reasonable picture of an “ancestral diet” from 1955 America: we got about half of our calories from plant-based starches and sugars—only 10% of those as fruits and vegetables—and about half from mostly animal-based proteins and fats. I’m not saying this is a perfect diet, but it does seem to be the one we were eating before the rapid rise in obesity and diabetes.
An ancestral framework can help us analyze the differences between how this food environment may be similar to or different from our current one, without having to invoke a past that didn’t exist, as the plant-based folks must in light of this information—or a past that is so distant that it’s hard to say what we really know about it [as the paleo folks must]. On the other hand, the 1955 –style 50/50 diet looks remarkably familiar. It’s not that hard. Or is it?
[Reason 6:] Well, we make it hard by invoking food rules that don’t always make a lot of sense. Everyone’s current favorite, on all sides of the nutrition issue, is: Avoid processed foods.
Problem: Food rules means splitting hairs, drawing lines in the sand, and creating arbitrary divisions—and they usually end up making the food rule makers look silly at best and hypocritical at worst. Food rules are the easiest things to dismiss, discount, or disprove. We’re already enmeshed in a set of arbitrary, unreasonable, and incoherent standards [called the Dietary Guidelines for Americans]; no one is interested in a new and different one.
Skip the food rules. What we need are guiding principles from an ancestral health perspective that can apply to individuals, industry, and policymaking processes. For instance, if we frame concerns around the “recently acquired dietary deviations” I just mentioned, we have a guiding principle—upon which Geoffrey Rose, Gary Taubes and Michael Pollan all agree—for looking at the current scientific literature and for conducting future investigations. We might go back a few generations or many generations; either way we can remain true to our generational perspective of health without limiting ourselves to a particular set of food rules.
[Reason 5:] The politics of responsibility are a no-win situation for the public.
Mainstream nutrition assures folks that, if the low-fat, low-calorie diet isn’t working for you, you’re not doing it right. Paleo people assure newbies that if the high-fat, no-calorie-counting paleo diet isn’t working for you, you’re not doing it right.
And when that logic doesn’t fly, both groups blame the “obesogenic” environment.
Problem: Both approaches assume that “If only that poor sick, fat person had the “right” food or the “right” information or the “right” environment, they’d stop being so fat and sick.” These approaches call for policy reforms that will force industry to make “the healthy choice the easy choice” for people apparently deemed too irresponsible or stupid to make the healthy choice otherwise. But industry is responsible to the public, not for the public. That’s the job of public health.
Challenge: An ancestral health approach recognizes that poor health may be as much an outcome of environmental impacts and generational health—especially prenatal health–as food choices and activity. This shifts the focus away from the politics of responsibility and puts the attention on food industry and policy reform where it belongs, not on a product—which the consumer may or may not choose—but on the processes over which consumers have little control: federal approval of food additives, food and farm workers rights, food safety and food waste, environmental impacts of our current agricultural practices, and many other food-related practices, program, and polices that have been ignored in favor of telling people what to eat and do and blaming them when it doesn’t work.
[Reason 4:] This one is a real “I’m rubber, you’re glue” thing. We complain about all those mainstream nutrition articles making sweeping generalizations about how animal fats will kill you—then we turn around and make sweeping generalizations about how vegetable oils will kill you. The vast majority of these claims—on both sides of the table–are unproven and even untested; in many cases they are untestable. [The science for both claims is primarily observational; other science may be experimental, but based on animal models and cell cultures. The few randomized, controlled dietary trials that exist are just that, highly controlled. The populations may or may not be generalizable to larger populations; the methods may or may not translate to the “real world.”]
Problem is, we don’t know what we think we know about the relationships between diet and health. Plus, there’s a really good chance we will never know what we think we need to know about the relationships between diet and health.
Science and medicine as they have been practiced in America for the past half a century (or more) have relied on a mechanistic approach to these relationships that is now rapidly giving way to more complex thinking. The mechanistic approach has served the industries of research, medicine, food and pharmaceuticals–because what is simplified can be controlled–but it hasn’t served the health of humans.
Ancestral health principles can help us think about science differently. Nutrition science as it is practiced now is backwards looking—especially nutrition epidemiology which relies upon ancient datasets gleaned from populations which are hardly representative of our current world. It ignores the complex relationships between ourselves, our environment, and our heredity that science has more recently uncovered. Despite its name, ancestral health represents a forward-looking framework. As an approach to public health, it can herald a shift to a more holistic, yet evidence-based focus that recognizes individual, community, environment, and generational impacts on health. Consider the ancestral health community’s active encouragement of n of 1 experimentation. It is a perspective that can go beyond Joe Paleo fiddling with his macronutrient ratios to a place of leveraging new biomedical technology, new ways of modeling complex relationships, and a new focus on patient-centered outcomes to create a revolution in how we approach the science of diet and health. This is not anti-science, but an embrace of science in all its complexity. Such an approach brings us to our biggest philosophical challenge:
[Reason 3:] Can we acknowledge that one diet will not be right for everybody?
Right now, mainstream nutrition asserts that everyone will benefit from eating a low-fat, low-calorie diet.
At the same time, the paleo community asserts that everyone will benefit from eating a paleo diet.
The problem with a top-down, unilateral imposition of one-size-fits-all dietary recommendations is the same as it was in 1977: Who asked you to come up with a diet for me that might or might not help prevent a condition that I may or may not be concerned about? Remember that a skeptical public doesn’t want to get fooled again. New arrivals to our country, who aren’t yet aware of the abysmal failure of our current nutrition system, are being greeted with admonitions to give up traditional foods like eggs and meat—but then paleo doesn’t have a much different message to offer, except that instead they should give up traditional foods like bread and beans.
Ancestral health principles embrace the notion of change. Ancestral health acknowledges complexity. It only makes sense that an ancestral health approach to public health would recognize diverse paths to acquiring appropriate nutrition, with a focus on foods high in nutrient value, and frame dietary information in terms of the diversity of individual, cultural, environmental, and generational contexts. But will it?
[Reason 2:] Many of the assumptions I’ve mentioned are deeply embedded in our thinking, and reflect the concerns, values, and social power of the mostly white, well-educated, well-paid, predominantly female thirty-somethings that make up the paleo community. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—information from other datasets have shown that white, well-educated women are also the ones that most closely adhere to the Dietary Guidelines food pattern, so the presence of this demographic in paleo may reflect an overall concern not only for weight and appearance, but for family and health. This is a good thing. This particular demographic also has a long history of being the backbone of successful social reform movements—from child labor to drunk driving laws.
But ladies—and gentlemen—we are going to have to do more than vote with our forks or food dollars.
Both paleo and plant-based reform efforts seem to believe that your financial support of the food you’d like to see other people eating is the best way to change the food-health system. You can just munch your way to a better world without ever having to encounter anyone who doesn’t appreciate the change you’re creating for them.
For paleo eaters, increased demand may increase production, making some foods more affordable for some people. It may support some farmers—as long as they keep up with and adhere to all of the “appropriate” [and possibly contradictory, unrealistic, and/or absurd] paleo food rules—but it isn’t necessarily going to change the status quo for the most vulnerable in our population, the ones most subject to the effects of dietary policy as it stands now. Me buying my eggs locally doesn’t help the low-income mothers who would like to spend their federal assistance farmers market vouchers on local eggs too, which they are not allowed to do. Face it, in the “vote with your food dollar” approach, some folks have a lot more votes than others. Changing your diet is not enough to change the world. We are going to have to put down our forks and dig in.
One of the things any successful social change effort has is a story, where the victims of injustice can be rescued from evil by the heroes. A successful social change effort also has a way for everyone—from individuals to the government—to be a hero. This takes the form of a repertoire of actions for changing conditions. These concrete actions give a sense of agency and urgency to the cause; they say to the world: come join us, we are being the change we want to see.
Being a hero and acting from a place of our own food-health values, however, does not mean going out into the world and trying to impose those values on someone who hasn’t asked for our help. Instead, it means sharing the privilege of health we have in a useful way [and this is a privilege based much more on social class than diet], so that others may have the food and the health that they want—just as we wish to have the food and health that we want. How can we do that?
For example: An ancestral health framework recognizes the importance of protein as essential to a nutritionally-adequate diet. But protein is also the single most expensive food source to provide to the less fortunate. Because it is so expensive, it also means that protein is the food source most lacking in diets of those who are in most need.
The state of Illinois has established a program to encourage hunters and anglers to donate deer and Asian carp—which is an invasive species in the Great Lakes–for processing into healthy, ready-to-serve meals. I don’t know what their standards for that are, but if you work to build a similar program in your area—or maybe you’ll head up a protein food drive for a local shelter–you get to help set the standards, remembering that the goal is not necessarily following all the “right” food rules, but feeding the hungry essential nutrition.
[A number of states have programs–with various names, but often called “Hunters for the Hungry”–that bring hunters, processors, state inspectors, and hunger relief organizations together to help supply sources of all-important high-quality protein to those in need.]
Community level programs can ripple outward and upward – and if they are organized with an ancestral framework in mind, those ideas ripple outward and upward as well.
Farm to Family initiatives bring food from local farmers to local, low-income families at prices they can afford—an effort that supports local farmers as well as community members at risk for hunger and poor nutrition. These initiatives typically focus on fresh produce, but some include meat and eggs—and wouldn’t the world be a better place if even more of them did? College students with mad social networking skills can mobilize volunteers and connect resources to get the program off the ground. Local public health agencies and faith-based organizations can raise awareness so that families at highest risk can be reached—and so their wants and needs can be heard and honored. Individuals and families can donate time and money, while businesses can facilitate logistics with donations of materials or space. Feedback from the community can support policy change at local, state, and federal levels.
The ancestral health community has the sort of talent to pull an effort like this off, but it involves not just getting out of the house, but getting out of our comfort zones.
[Reason 1:] The lack of diversity that often comes with being part of a community of like-minded people presents both an epistemic challenge and a logistical one. It can lead not only to closed minds, but to closed doors. Being able to act from a place of ancestral health principles—rather than paleo rules—can make it easier to reach out to others–the final thing needed to build a social movement.
Confirmation bias has been a pervasive aspect of mainstream nutrition, and in opposition to it, paleo culture often seems to have adopted a similarly insular stance. It can be reinforced by influence and funding, but most often it is simply a way of not being challenged in our own beliefs.
In mainstream nutrition, the USDA and HHS write the Dietary Guidelines. They also finance the research and the experts that they later choose for their “evidence-based analysis” of these guidelines, so it’s no surprise that both the research and the experts support the status quo.
Paleo leaders also have a vested financial interest in being paleo leaders—books, speaking engagements, products, and other various funding streams—just as paleo followers have an interest in remaining comfortable in their chosen ideology. We support our leaders; they tell us what we want to hear.
This problem, also known as epistemic closure, echo chambers, or a circle jerk, is that these positive feedback loops end up welcoming only people that think exactly like the people already in the group. Sadly, the smarter you are, the better you are at confirming your own beliefs about things—and we have a lot of wicked smart people in the paleo community. Unfortunately, circle jerks quickly turn into cluster, let’s call them “efforts” – where the circle of closed thinking causes the very problems that the circle of closed thinking is unable to address exactly because of its closed nature. Which is sort of where we are now—both in mainstream nutrition and in paleo.
Much of mainstream nutrition has built-in alliances with academia, industry, advocacy groups, and policymakers. In order to make our voices heard, we will need to establish connections with other communities who will work with us on common issues. The general rule in building networks of alliances is that there are no permanent friends and no permanent enemies; everyone is a future ally. You work together on issues and projects as long as your goals align.
This may make for strange bedfellows at times, but if we want to be more than a passing fad, we are going to have to reach out of our comfort zone and connect with other communities with whom we may not feel an immediate kinship but with whom we share some core values.
For example, the Health at Every Size community. This community has a strong presence in academic circles that look at feminist and diversity issues. While an alliance based on paleo thinking might not make sense, the ancestral health framework would have much in common with these Health at Every Size principles.
The Invest in Healthy Food Project being promoted by the Union of Concerned Scientists uses MyPlate as its nutrition reference point. Icky, right? But a closer look shows a focus on policy change that is fully compatible with ancestral health principles. Specifically citing the need for changes to commodity crop policies and crop insurance that would benefit the local farmers that we support.
Other communities with whom we are likely to have some common objectives are: other alternative food movements–yes, including vegans; sustainable agriculture and permaculture communities; government accountability groups; and hunger groups. We don’t have to agree on everything, just our shared goals. We can learn from them and they can learn from us.
We can reach out to foundations, the media, professional organizations, and faith-based communities. And it doesn’t have to be on a national level. We can find influential allies in these groups in our own local communities.
And in fact, that’s where I would urge us to start. As a community, we exist both nowhere and everywhere—which can make us feel more at home at places like AHS than we do in our own towns. But, to quote Rick Ingrasci, if you want to create a new culture—throw a better party. One of the wonderful traditional things we do as humans is celebrate and build community with food—but it’s hard to celebrate if you are busy agonizing, analyzing, and criticizing your—or your neighbor’s—food. We have the opportunity to NOT be those nutrition reform people.
I’m going to end with a story about last year’s Food Day in Durham, NC. This is sponsored by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which operates from a plants-are-better, saturated-fat-kills perspective. At an organizational meeting last year, a room full of young white women—and one white male—were busy wringing their hands over the lack of diversity at last year’s Food Day events. Now Durham is a very diverse little city. In Durham, we talk more about race than NASCAR fans talk about racing. But Food Day tends to be an almost all-white event involving mostly college kids from Duke rather than people from the community. Why oh why is that? these ladies (and one gentleman) wanted to know. I suggested that maybe it’s because no Food Day events serve meat—and there are lots of local meat, egg, and cheese producers that we could support by promoting their foods. These women looked at me as if I had just created a loud, legume-based bodily emission—and the topic was never mentioned again.
Well, we can throw a better party. We can appeal to a wider, more diverse, and inclusive community. It will mean growing up, digging in, and reaching out. But there are plenty of people out there who are hungry for a sense of identity, for connection, and for change. Ancestral health as a social movement can serve that purpose, as well as serve our communities—and we can serve it with a side of bacon.
The “thank you” slide is my shout-out to those who have helped me think about the issues I’ve raised.
Postscript: At some point during the AHS 2013 weekend, I pulled Aaron Blaisdell aside and asked him what the deal was with paleo and AHS. Here’s his response as I remember it (and I hope he will correct me if I misrepresent him). He said something to effect of: AHS is about bringing an evolutionary perspective to health, including but not limited to matters relating to diet and nutrition. Darwin’s evolutionary perspective has been an incredibly powerful tool in other areas of biology for understanding why things are the way they are and for formulating hypotheses and testing them out, but it is often neglected when it comes to health particularly in matters of food and diet. AHS is about promoting that perspective, not about promoting a particular diet. [See Aaron’s comments below for an expansion on this. Note to self: Drink that glass of wine after you ask Aaron Blaisell questions like that.]
I heaved a big sigh of relief. “Paleo” I can do without–just as I can do without all of those other conveniently-labeled approaches to diet and health with massive cognitive bias blind spots: vegan, vegetarian, low-carb, low-fat, “eating the food,” whatever, whatever (although I’m happy for the people who find that being part of those communities gets them on a path to health that works for them). So I guess this is my massive cognitive bias blind spot. I still love those AHS folks.