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

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

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

1) It defines and proclaims widely shared cultural norms.

2) It creates dense social networks.

3) It gives everybody something to do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.