The Real Paleo Challenge Redux

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.

Michael Pollan says avoid processed foods unless you are talking about vegetable oils.

Paleoista says avoid processed foods unless you are talking about hydrolyzed fish protein powder.

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.

Laura Schoenfeld @ Ancestralize Me!

Beth Mazur @ Weight Maven

Melissa McEwan @ Hunt Gather Love

Robert Patterson @ Michael Rose’s 55

Chris Masterjohn @ The Daily Lipid

Doug Imig – The Urban Child Institute

Andrew Abrahams – Long Dream Farm

Michael Ostrolenk – The Transpartisan Center

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.

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From Paleo to Public Health: We have met the enemy and we are them

Believe it or not, when I started this blog post, I wasn’t even thinking about the current sturm und drang in the paleo community. If you follow the paleo world gossip, you already know about it; if you’re not, this cartoon from xkcd.com says it all:

So—speaking of drama—social change stories are often built around drama triangles—also called triangles of power. In these triangles, there are three roles: victim, perpetrator, and rescuer. These roles can morph and change over time and depending on who is telling the story or who the audience is. In addition, a person or entity can be in more than one role at a time. [Note: This doesn’t mean that anyone actually IS a victim, perpetrator, rescuer; this is a construct used to describe a social dynamic, not enforce one.]

From the works of Eric Berne and Stephen Karpman.

We can think about this model in regard to the current commotion in the paleo community, but–more to my point–also in regard to the work we may be able to do as a community should we decide to get our collective act together and worry about something larger than ourselves for a while. (Perhaps we’ll need social media group therapy, culminating in a giant Skype conference call, where everybody joins twitter feeds and sings Kumbaya?)

There is value in the power of story-telling; the drama is part of what makes us want to be involved in cause. We can typically identify with the victim or the rescuer, or both; the perpetrator gives us a bad guy in an undeniably black hat on which to focus our things-we-love-to-hate passion. Policymakers often prefer stories to logical arguments; many of us do. But stories can also create false simplicity and black and white reasoning. They can create artificial walls and boundaries. Most dangerously for the nutrition reform movement, these stories can create a lack of respect for those we are trying to help (“We know what is best for you”) and a lack of humility with regard to our own fallibility (“We have the “right” answers this time”).

As nutrition reformers—from paleo to public health—what story are we going to tell?

We must be sensitive in our choice of who we place in the “victim” role. The “victim” is the one that pulls at our heartstrings, that gives the story its emotional weight. I think the real victims in the nutrition reform story are our next generation, the children who are not yet born but who will bear the burdens of a broken food-health system as much of the American public gets caught in a cycle of being misled, misfed, misdiagnosed, and mistreated. These are children who will grow up in a nation where the dream of good health belongs to a fortunate few and slips from the grasp of everyone else despite all good intentions and efforts otherwise. And because these particular victims don’t exist (yet), it saves us from the awkward position of “rescuing” people who don’t consider themselves to be victims.

Some people who are suffering from obesity and poor health today (some of us even) may see themselves as victims and choose to use the sense of outrage at being put in that position to help change the system. But not everyone will choose that role, and I suggest we not take the stance that “poor fat sick people” out there need our help.

It isn’t as if we have a shortage of casualties from the past 30-40 years of USDA/HHS dietary guidance. How about the environment, small farmers, taxpayers, or maybe the scientific integrity of a whole generation of nutrition scientists? In 1978, Dr. Al Harper, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, warned that the Dietary Goals’ promise of better health for all with no risks, only benefits, had ” great potential for undermining both the science of nutrition and nutrition education” [1]. It would seem that to a large extent, he was right. As a nation, we’ve lost a lot in thirty years.

So who is to blame? Hmm. Good question.

Government?

Policymakers doing what policymakers do: making policy.

Well, it is hard to pin this all on a disembodied “government” because the government does what we allow it to do. As long as we the people allowed segregation, it continued. When we decided that segregation was no longer tolerable, laws were created to end it. Changing attitudes will change the institutions that in turn shape attitudes.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense to blame “the government,” when the general public has not developed a mature sense of healthy skepticism towards the government’s ability to protect us from ourselves. When the first Dietary Goals were released by the McGovern Committee in 1977 and the first Dietary Guidelines released by the USDA in 1980, the public could have refused to believe the low-fat-jello-pie-in-the-sky promises, but they didn’t—for reasons that may be more cultural than scientific in nature. I’m not convinced we would do so under similar circumstances today. Although we may now be more wary of the government’s ability to solve our problems, we tend to still hold out a childish hope that it will anyway. [Funny, to me anyway, story: It seems that a number of us who showed up for the paleo-libertarian dinner at AHS2012 were there less because of our libertarian ideals and more because we were happy to have someone else choosing our dinner destination and making reservations for us. Just a touch of irony there.]

In 1977 and in 1980, policymakers were applying the information that they had at the time to a well-intentioned goal of improving the health of all American; this is just the type of thing we expect from our policymakers. Did they seem to favor one side of the argument? Sure, but do we really think that—if we were in their position—we could work with complete objectivity? We couldn’t; there is no such thing. As we try to change public opinion and government policy, we will be working under the same constraints of humanness they were, with the only added advantage being that we can learn from the unintended consequences of these good intentions.

Industry?

Low-fat, whole grain, fiber-filled box of food: more nutrition information than actual nutrition.

Should we blame “the food industry”? We could.

Gary Taubes tells the story of one of the staff members of the McGovern Committee being approached by an industry analyst who tells him, “if you think people are going to start eating more broccoli and more kale and spinach because you’ve now put together dietary goals, you’re crazy. What you’ve said is people should eat less fat so the industry is going to jump on this and they’re going to create low fat products and they’re going to label them as heart healthy or whatever and they’re going to be able to carve out a portion of the market for their new products and everyone else is going to have to play catch-up and that’s what they’re going to do and the next thing you know you’re going to have shelf after shelf in the supermarket of junk foods that claim to be low fat and good for your heart.” As Gary Taubes points out, that’s exactly what happened. But is this the fault of industry?

Industry follows laws of supply and demand, using government recommendations as a marketing tool. Americans were happy to consume the products designed to lower our cholesterol and prevent heart disease then, because we thought doing so would contribute to good health. Now we, as a community hoping to expand our influence out to the rest of America, are happy to consume gluten-free snacks, grass-fed beef, and pemmican—for the exact same reason, because we think doing so will contribute to good health. We might have been sold a bill of goods by the food industry in the past 30 years, but by golly, we bought it.

Addressing the economic engines that make our food-health system go around is part of our challenge in shifting the paradigm. Working with the producers, especially the one at the bottom of the industrialized food chain, and the retailers, who must meet changing consumer demands—rather than lumping everyone together and clamping a big black hat on the whole thing—is a lot more likely to lead to success.

If there is a lesson to be learned here, maybe it is that we should be cautious about what health information we allow to be used on packaging and marketing, no matter what the nutrition paradigm. I don’t agree with Marion Nestle on much, but I agree with her that a box of food is no place for a tutorial on nutrition.

Science?

The only really bad scientists I know.

What about “bad science”? Isn’t that what got us into this mess?

I get the impression that a lot of us would like to blame “mainstream” nutrition—whomever or whatever that is—and the “bad science” it produces. I would offer some strong caution against this.

We want a different nutrition paradigm–specifically “our” paradigm, whatever that will be–to be “mainstream” one day, but it is a very tenuous position to say “they got it all wrong, but don’t worry, this timewe got it right.” All scientists are both trying to make a living and trying to improve the health of Americans. No scientist can control how his/her work is used (or misused) for public health policy. The scientists who have contributed to our current nutritional paradigm have been working–as all scientists do–within a framework shaped by personal experiences, cultural forces, financial pressures, political and career concerns, powerful individuals, and media soundbites.  The next generation of scientists will be no different. When scientists are asked to work on committees that create policy, they do, of course, bring to that work a more comprehensive understanding of their own area of study than of an area that offers a competing view.  The practices behind policy-making are responsible for making sure such views are balanced, not the scientists themselves.

In the early years of the Goals and Guidelines, a number of scientists did complain about the prematurity of those recommendations. I think most of us would like to think we’d be among those skeptics, but I’m not sure that we would. For the most part, people who then worked in the field of nutrition— dietitians, clinicians, young scientists—embraced these new dietary recommendations as progressive and much needed. Dr. Joanne Slavin told me the story of how the younger generation in her Department of Nutrition at the University of Minnesota thought Dr. Harper (see the quote above) was “behind the times” because he didn’t think it was such a great idea to tell everyone to reduce their fat intake. When we established policy to give an institutional framework to an ideal that was waiting for the science to catch up with it, we failed to prepare for the possibility that we might be wrong. If there is one lesson to learn from the past 30 years of interaction between nutrition science and public health policy, it is that we should prepare for that possibility.

Us?

To a large extent, the cultural forces that shaped our thinking about nutrition (and which in turn helped carry the scientific, policy, and industrial forces forward) were an extension of the culture wars of the 60s and 70s: suits vs. hippies. The suits (maybe the “lab coats”?) were the stodgy pinhead scientists, fiddling away in their labs, waiting to get the science “right,” while the country went to hell in a hamburger. The “hippies” of the McGovern committee—along with popular figures like Frances Moore Lappé, author of the wildly popular vegetarian cookbook, Diet for a Small Planet –saw changing the diet of Americans as a moral imperative that eclipsed concerns over the weak associations with diet and disease outcomes. This gave the low-fat diet an Age of Aquarius glow that offered a shiny new hope for ending chronic disease, and we swallowed it hook, line, and sinker.

Labeled the “barefoot boys of nutrition,” the creators of our first national dietary recommendations were a team of young, energetic, long-haired (for DC anyway)—and not coincidentally, white, well-educated, upper/middle class and male—idealists hoping to convince Americans to eat a more “natural” diet, a vision of the lead writer for the group, Nick Mottern, who remains a staunch advocate of minimally-processed foods (and who has never, by the way, been a vegetarian) [2,3]. With the exception of the food from animals vs. food from plants orientation (and I think we have more women in places of influence), how different is the paleo community from these origins?

In other words, in the immortal words of Pogo: We have met the enemy and he is us. “Us” is (upper) middle class, well-educated, young white people with an idealistic plan to change the world for the better. Now of course I don’t mean you or me personally. We can all find ways to excuse ourselves from this stereotype (I for one can claim that I’m not young—but otherwise, the description pretty much fits me exactly). But there is a lesson here to be learned: in creating an “enemy” to fight in the nutrition revolution, we had better choose very carefully. Let’s choose an “enemy” we actually want to eliminate permanently (i.e. not us).

I suggest that we not make a person, a group, an entity, or an institution either scapegoats or the enemy. Then who or what is to blame? What do we want to get rid of entirely?

Well, how about poorly-designed policy? Maybe one-size-fits-all guidelines (assuming we can agree that this concept should be eliminated)? Maybe a food-health system that lacks transparency, public involvement, and checks and balances? Maybe we could get rid of the framework that excludes the concept of food culture from any discussions about food policy?

If we can do that, it opens up the last piece of the triangle–the “rescuers”–to anyone who cares about the health of Americans: policymakers, health professionals, the public, food producers and manufacturers, scientists (even the nutrition epidemiologists whose science many of us love to hate), or, umm, maybe even each other.   If we can see a place for all of these groups, and all of us already in the “alternative nutrition” community, in shifting the future of America away from policies that have created little hope for the health of our next generation, we may begin to see them as allies (or at least future allies), rather than enemies. As such, we can enlist their help rather than trying to blame them or defeat them.

Right now I’m thinking we may need to try this out in our own little paleo/low-carb/WAPF/etc. communities first.

1. Harper AE. Dietary goals-a skeptical view. Am J Clin Nutr. 1978 Feb;31(2):310-21.

2. Broad, WJ. Jump in Funding Feeds Research on Nutrition. Science, New Series, Vol 204. No. 4397 (June 8, 1979). Pp. 1060-1061 + 1063-1064.

3. Mottern, N. Correspondence.

The REAL Paleo Challenge: How NOT to be Just Another Elitist Fad for Skinny White People Wearing Goofy Shoes

The blogsphere is beginning to rattle with commentary on the recent Ancestral Health Symposium 2012 events. Some folks who don’t necessarily “look the paleo part” have voiced concern about feeling excluded or marginalized as the conversation/social activities/celebrity parade seemed dominated by:

  • white people
  • young people
  • thin/athletic/fit people
  • men
  • well-educated, upper-middle class socioeconomic status people
  • people wearing goofy-looking shoes

You can read my take on why that might be the case here: AHS 2012 and the BIG BUTT: Lessons in Nutritional Literacy.

I understand that an NPR reporter was at the event, interviewing some of the movers and shakers. There was some concern that the reporter seemed to think that the paleo movement is a bit of an elitist fad. I understand this perspective, and on many levels, I agree.

As a “fad,” the paleo movement is a bunch of highly enthusiastic people with a lot of disposable income and time who are deeply committed to a particular way of being fit and healthy. It has its leaders, it controversies, its “passwords” (can you say “coconut oil” or “adrenal burnout”?), and its stereotypical paleo dude or dudette. As a fad, it would be destined to go the way of all of other diet and health fads—including Ornish and Atkins, Pritikin and Scarsdale, extending all the way back to the “Physical Culture” movement of the earlier part of this century (Hamilton Stapell spoke about this at AHS2012).

The original paleo chick – no high heels on this lady

Is it elitist? Well, there are some ways that it is possible that the paleo movement may marginalize the very folks who might benefit most from its efforts. Maybe an African-American guy still sensitive to the fact that his grandfather was consider “primitive” might not want to get his full cavemen on. Maybe a Mexican-American woman who remembers her abuela telling her stories about being too poor to have shoes doesn’t really want to go back to being barefoot just yet. Maybe an older, heavier person simply feels intimidated by all the young healthy fit people swarming to the front of the food line.

But the paleo movement does not have to be an elitist fad unless insists on limiting itself to its current form, and I believe the people at the Ancestral Health Society  are working hard to make sure that doesn’t happen. This is why I really love these folks. I don’t mean the paleo leaders like Mark Sisson or Robb Wolf, although I’m sure they’re good people; I’ve just only met them briefly. I mean those somewhat geeky-looking-in-an-adorable-sort-of-way folks in the brown T-shirts who hung in the background and made it all happen for us last week. Notice that they don’t call themselves the Paleo Health Society, right? I love them because they ask good questions, they question themselves, they think long-term, and they’ve created a community that allows these conversations to take place.

So, what do we do to transform this paleo-led, AHS-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.

Each of these deserves its own blog post, so let’s look at the first—and most important—item: widely shared cultural norms. This is where the “elitist fad” part of paleo falls short, but not really. Because in all my encounters with paleo folks and people from AHS, I find norms and values that the culture as a whole can embrace. Here’s the weird thing, I’ve spend the past couple of years also talking to mainstream scientists, from one end of the diet spectrum to another, including Joanne Slavin, a down-to-earth, warm, wonderful lady who was on the most recent Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee and Henry Blackburn, who is a delightful gentleman and a protégé of Ancel Keys. Guess what? We all have some values in common.

Here are some concepts that I think may unite us all, from vegan to primal, from slow food to open government, from “mainstream” scientist to “fringe scientists” like Gary Taubes (yes, one of my UNC instructors referred to GT as a “fringe scientist,” although another found his views “very convincing”—go figure):

We must create an open, transparent, and sustainable food-health system.

The RD that inspired me to take an internship at the American Dietetic Association for a semester, Mary Pat Raimondi, said: “We need a food system to match our health system.” And whatever shape either of those systems may take, she is absolutely right. Conversations about food must encompass health; conversations about health must encompass food.

Right now our food-health system is closed. Directives come from the top down, public participation is limited to commentary. The people who are most affected by our nutrition policies are the farthest removed from their creation. We need to change that.

Right now our food-health system lacks transparency. USDA and HHS create nutrition policy behind doors that only seem to be transparent. Healthy Nation Coalition spent a year filing Freedom of Information Acts in order to get the USDA to reveal the name of a previously-anonymous “Independent Scientific Panel” whose task, at least as it was recognized in the Acknowledgments of the Dietary Guidelines, was to peer-review “the recommendations of the document to ensure they were based on a preponderance of scientific evidence.” You can read more about this here, but the reality is that this panel appears to not be a number of the things it is said to be. This is not their fault (i.e. the members of the panel), but an artifact of a system that has no checks and balances, no system of evaluation, and answers to no outside standards of process or product. This must change.

Our food-health system must be sustainable. And Pete Ballerstedt would say, yes, Adele, but what do you mean by “sustainable”? And to that I say—I mean it all:

Environmental sustainability – Nobody wants dead zones in the Gulf or hog lagoons poisoning the air. But environmental sustainability can’t be approached from the perspective of just one nutritional paradigm, because a food-health system must also have:

Cultural sustainability – We are not all going to become vegans or paleo eaters. Our food-health system must support a diversity of dietary approaches in ways that meet other criteria of sustainability.

Economic sustainability – Our food-health system must recognize the realities of both producers and consumers and address the economic engines that make our food-health system go around.

Political and scientific sustainability – Our food-health system must become a policy dialogue and a scientific dialogue. Think of how civil rights evolved: an equal rights law was passed, then overturned, a Jim Crow law was passed, then overturned, an equal right law was passed, then upheld, etc. etc. This dialogue reflected changing social norms and resistance to those changes. But we have no way to have a similar sort dialogue in our food-health system.

What would the world look like if, in 1980, an imaginary Department of Technology was given oversight of the development of all knowledge and production associated with technology? Production of food and knowledge about food (i.e. nutrition) became centralized within the USDA/HHS in 1977-1980 and there have been no policy levers built into the system to continue the conversation, as it were, since then. The Dietary Guidelines have remained virtually unchanged since 1977; our underlying assumptions about nutrition science have remained virtually unchanged since 1977. That’s like being stuck in the age of microwaves the size of Volkswagens, mainframe computers with punchcards, and “Pong.” We need a way for our food-health system to reflect changing social and scientific norms.

One of the primary shifts in understanding that has taken hold since 1977 is that:

There is no one-size-fits-all diet that works for everyone.

In 1979, Dr. William Weil Jr at the Department of Human Development at Michigan State University, voiced concern about “the frequent use of cross-national and cross-ethnic inferences” [Weil WB Jr. National dietary goals. Are they justified at this time? Am J Dis Child. 1979 Apr;133(4):368-70.]  He went on to day that we cannot assume that “because ‘a’ and ‘b’ are correlated in one population group that they will also be correlated in another group” yet our one-size-fits-all dietary recommendations make just that assumption.

There were more scientific articles generated from the Nurses’ Health Study–composed of 97% white women–in 2009 alone, than in the entire 10+ year history of the Black Women’s Health Study. Those large epidemiological studies done with a mostly white dataset are what drive our policy making, even though evidence also points to fact that we should not be making the assumptions to which Dr. Weil referred. A landmark study published in 2010 shows that African-Americans who consumed a “healthier” diet according to Dietary Guidelines standards actually gained more weight over time than African-Americans who ate a “less healthy” diet [Zamora D, Gordon-Larsen P, Jacobs DR Jr, Popkin BM. Diet quality and weight gain among black and white young adults: the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) Study (1985-2005). American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2010 Oct;92(4):784-93].

.

DQI stands for Diet Quality Index. Blacks with a higher DQI had more weight gain over time than blacks with a lower DQI. From Zamora et al.

Even with a more homogenous population, this issue applies. Remember all those discussions about “safe starches” you heard at AHS2012?

This concept also captures the emerging knowledge of how genetic variability affects nutrition needs and health, i.e. individualized nutrition, a very useful buzzword. I have lots to say about n of 1 nutrition coming up soon. But, most of all, not trying to cram everyone into the same nutritional paradigm captures reality of our own lives and choices about food. Which brings me to:

Food is not just about nutrition, and nutrition is not just about science.*

When we all begin to question our own assumptions about food and nutrition, we will be better able to reach across communities, create common ground, and be humble about our way forward.

We need to understand and help others understand that all nutrition messages are constructed and contain embedded values and points of view.

We need to learn to ask and teach others to ask: Who made the message and why? Who may benefit or be harmed? How might people interpret this message differently?

We need to think and help others to think about income and funding models, industry, and the framing of dietary problems by scientist, bloggers, and the media (and I don’t just mean “the other guys”—apply these critical thinking skills to your own nutrition/food community).

Nothing about our food and nutrition thinking was born in a vacuum. Food is a part of our cultural and social fabric. It allows us to belong; it allows us to define ourselves. Even as we strive to find better science and to shift our current diet-nutrition paradigm, we must approach this with the understanding that there is no truly objective science. How science gets used, especially in the policy arena moves us even farther from that non-existent ideal. Even as we strive to improve public health, we must understand that we don’t always know what “health” and “healthy food” means to the people we think we are trying to serve.

If these points sound remarkably like the mission statement for Healthy Nation Coalition, my non-profit, then you’ve been paying attention. But it is not my plan for HNC to “lead” any nutrition reform movement as much as it is for us to get behind everyone else and shove them in the same direction. There is very much a herding kittens aspect to this (as Jorge of VidaPaleo.com pointed out), but as a former high school teacher and mother of three, this is not new territory to me.

So, yes, I have an agenda. Everyone has an agenda. I’ll spell mine out for you:

Somewhere out there in America, today, there is a young African-American girl being born into a country where many—if not most—of the forces in her world will propel her towards a future where she will gain weight, get sick, have both of her legs amputated, get dialysis three times a week, be unemployed and unemployable, on disability and welfare, and—this is what gets me out of bed in the morning and drags my weary ass to one more round of getting punched in the face by those very forces arrayed against her—she will, somewhere underneath it all, blame herself for her situation. I’m an old white lady, in a position of relative power and knowledge. I don’t know this young lady, and she doesn’t know me. She doesn’t owe me anything because she’s not asking for my help. But it is my job in this life to begin—at the very least—to shift those forces so that she has a better opportunity to choose a different life if she wants to. That’s all I care about. I don’t care who gets credit or who gets the cushy book deal.  I just want it to happen.  I would want the world to do the same for my children if they had not had the privilege of birthright that they do. That child is my child as sure as the three that live here and drive me crazy are. All I ask of the paleo community is that she be your child too. And if, as a community, you decide to adopt this child, well then, don’t worry about becoming an elitist fad made up of goofy-shoe wearing white people destined to fade into obscurity. Instead, you all will change the world.

Next Up: What makes a movement? (and I mean a social change one, not the bowel-y kind)

*Much of what follows borrows liberally from the work of Charlotte Biltekoff at UC-Davis, a wonderfully warm and intelligent woman who has been working on and thinking about this issue for—believe it or not—longer than Gary Taubes. She has a book coming out next summer which, IMHO, will be the social/cultural partner to Good Calories, Bad Calories.

AHS 2012 and the BIG BUTT: Lessons in Nutritional Literacy

An anonymous butt of a close friend who gave me permission to use her rump to make a point.

The comments are starting to come in:  Ancestral Health Symposium 2012 was fun BUT (and it’s a really BIG BUT), the conversation/social activities/celebrity parade seemed dominated by:

  • white people
  • young people
  • thin/athletic/fit people
  • men
  • well-educated, upper-middle class socioeconomic status people
  • people wearing goofy-looking shoes

Some folks who did not fit into these categories very well are expressing that they felt excluded and marginalized. All I can say is, well, yup. It shouldn’t really surprise us, but it should give us an opportunity to look closely at why this is the case.

Buckle your seat belt—ask for an extension if you need one—it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

Right now, “looking the paleo part” is important in the paleo community. Think: gorgeous Laura Schoenfeld  or any of the adorable white guys at AHS 2012—so ubiquitous and uniformly handsome as to be practically interchangeable (with my apologies to them all, as the individuals I did meet were charming and intelligent—yes, Dan Pardi, Colin Champ, and Ben Greenfield, I mean you). It is easier for you to become a valued member of a community if you look the part. Why? Because health, especially dietary health, is—for us middle class white people—a stand-in for character.*

“Looking the part” demonstrates to the world that you are, indeed, a “responsible good eater.” If you are overweight, if you have obvious health deficits, if you are not white, if you are old—you stray from the community’s ideal of a “responsible good eater”—no matter what your diet actually is. Not “looking the part” tars you, however subtly, with the brush of “unhealthy other.”

How did the concept of “unhealthy other” come to be?  The mainstreaming of nutrition science and the middle class’s current obsession with it emerged at the same time. The 60’s and 70’s brought us race riots, civil rights and equal rights marches, economic instability, political turmoil, sex, drugs, rock and roll, and really long lines for gas. It seemed for a while that the stature of the white middle class that was so securely ensconced in the Leave it to Beaver suburbs in the 50s was being flooded with “others,” on the verge of disappearing altogether into the muddy waters of social change.

Meat, veggies, tubers, maybe some dairy. Could this be retro-neo-primal eating?

Thus, when the Dietary Goals for Americans emerged at the end of the 70’s, the middle class seized this opportunity to create a place for itself in opposition to “the unhealthy other”—we know them in our heart of hearts as “icky fat people.” And who are these icky fat people?

Mostly they are women, mostly they are black, and mostly they are poor. For women, the non-Hispanic black population has the highest prevalence of overweight (78 percent) and obesity (50.8 percent) of any subpopulation in America.

  • At age 8, 48% of African-American girls (compared to 15% of white girls) have begun sexual development. Females that go through puberty earlier have a higher prevalence of being overweight, and in fact, these two factors seem to be related.
  • Adolescence is a critical period for the development of overweight/obesity, and it is also when major racial/ethnic differences in overweight/obesity become apparent.
  • Overweight/obesity at adolescence strongly tracks into adulthood.
  • Obese female adolescents become adults who on average earn lower wages and are at increased risk of living in poverty.**

Black women are twice as likely as white women to develop diabetes, heart disease, and many other chronic “lifestyle-related illnesses.” “Lifestyle-related illnesses” are considered to be ones that you bring upon yourself because of your lifestyle choices, or, in the newer world of nutrition policy groupthink, are inflicted upon you because of the obesogenic environment. (A recent NEMJ article discusses how, although policymakers see obesity as a socioecological issue, fat people see it as their own damn fault, viewpoints that are not mutually exclusive nor entirely invalid, but both are built on a faulty science base that I don’t need to preach to the choir about.)

Either way, we—the white middle-class “responsible good eaters”—can place ourselves in a position of distributing, shall we say, the noblesse oblige of nutrition and health. For the middle class, nutrition and health are a way of visibly demonstrating to the world that we care. [Note:  This isn’t to say that white people are bad for caring or that the people they care about are “victims” of ignorance or genetics or social institutions.  This is simply a way to a examine a particular social dynamic that may be at play. I have seen one group of white folks after another–from veg*n to paleo– wringing their hands over the issue of obesity in underserved populations. They all mean well. But they talk about these populations from such a distance that I don’t even recognize my friends and neighbors from here in Durham, NC. ]

This lady cares.

Middle class, educated, fit white person:

“I care about my health so I eat right and exercise right. Not only do I eat right, but I make sure my family eats right too, so that my family can be healthy and not be a burden on the health care system or society. By eating right, I also demonstrate how much I care about my world, as my way of eating right is also what is right for the environment, the economy, small farmers, and poor, fat, dark-skinned people. Lucky for me, as the world seems to be well-supplied with poor, fat, dark-skinned people, I can enter a health care/fitness/nutrition/public health/natural-paleo-farmfresh-local-food real or virtual career and be assured of many more years of professional activity and income because, well, to be honest, those poor, fat, dark-skinned people simply don’t have the knowledge or wherewithal to really care about their health, so I’m here to help them eat right and get healthy [and stop being so poor and fat and dark-skinned].”

To me, one of the most interesting and ironic things about our current “alternative” foods movement is that this type of sentiment can be applied equally well to the veg*n groups as to the paleo groups. The biggest differences? The veg*ns tend to be white ladies with organic salads and the paleos tend to be white guys with grass-fed steak. Both kinds of foods and both kinds of whiteness are equally unavailable, and perhaps somewhat undesirable, to “the unhealthy other” population. To add insult to irony, many of us in both the veg*n and paleo world were once, at least in our own minds, “the unhealthy other.” But we figured it out, got our act together, applied our intestinal fortitude and good moral character and became—visibly, for all the world to see—reformed “responsible good eaters” of the fine upstanding variety.

What are the implications of this notion of “the unhealthy other” and the middle class white folks who care so much about helping them?

“The unhealthy other” is what allows us to believe, when we see an icky fat person, “if only that person would/could eat like I do, they wouldn’t be fat.” Which means we are inclined to either:

1) Stuff “the unhealthy other” full of the nutrition knowledge that we love and cherish and if it doesn’t work for them, obviously they are just not doing it right and it’s their own damn fault

or

2) Work to make “the healthy choice” (whatever that means) “the easy choice” (whatever that means) for “the unhealthy other” and once we succeed, if they are still unhealthy, they don’t deserve our compassion and humanity because, after all, it’s their own damn fault

Hate to break it to you all, these are the exact same methods the current mainstream nutrition paradigm uses, and if  we limit ourselves to this way of thinking, we can expect the exact same results.  In other words, the paleo movement—as Hamilton Stapell alluded to in his AHS 2012—is destined to become just another elitist fad.

Can we change that?  Yes.  How?  Yeah, I got a few suggestions.

Stay tuned for:  Paleo:  Just Another Elitist Fad for Skinny White People Wearing Goofy Shoes–or NOT?

*Much of what follows borrows liberally from the work of Charlotte Biltekoff at UC-Davis, a wonderfully warm and intelligent woman who has been working on and thinking about this issue for—believe it or not—longer than Gary Taubes. She has a book coming out next summer which, IMHO, will be the social/cultural partner to Good Calories, Bad Calories.

**This comes straight from a lecture in my Nutrition of Children and Mothers class, fall 2009, by Dr. Penny Gordon-Larsen.