Trend Piece Tuesday: The Paleo Diet

Heard of the Paleo Diet yet? It’s a diet that’s been around, well, forever, technically, but is gaining a larger following in recent years. From Wikipedia’s page on the Paleolithic Diet:

The modern dietary regimen known as the Paleolithic diet (abbreviated paleo diet or paleodiet) […] is a nutritional plan based on the presumed ancient diet of wild plants and animals that various human species habitually consumed during the Paleolithic—a period of about 2.5 million years duration that ended around 10,000 years ago with the development of agriculture. In common usage, such terms as the “Paleolithic diet” also refer to the actual ancestral human diet. Centered on commonly available modern foods, the “contemporary” Paleolithic diet consists mainly of meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, roots, and nuts; and excludes grains, legumes, dairy products, salt, refined sugar, and processed oils.

That’s the real gist of it; you eat what can be hunted or picked, excluding anything that requires processing in order to safely ingest it.

This eating trend is alive in well here in my neck of the woods. While I only know one person who is officially on the Paleo diet, many people I know tend toward a similar way of eating that consists primarily of whole foods, while avoiding foods that are overly-processed. We do this because it’s healthier, and feels more natural to eat things that are minimally or unprocessed. More and more people I know are cutting dairy and all refined sugar out of their diets and spending the money saved on more vegetables, CSA boxes, and high-quality, organic produce. It’s produced a trend of posting pictures of everything everyone cooks on Facebook, which is both fun and a little annoyingly self-righteous. Contrary to most popular diets, though, the reasoning behind the Paleo diet isn’t necessarily weight loss so much as achieving optimal health in the most natural-seeming way possible.

The New York Times has caught on to the Paleo “lifestyle” and interviewed a group of 20-something New Yorkers who are avid Paleo dieters– or, as they like to call themselves, “cavemen.”

Like many New York bachelors, John Durant tries to keep his apartment presentable — just in case he should ever bring home a future Mrs. Durant. He shares the fifth-floor walk-up with three of his buddies, but the place is tidy and he never forgets to water the plants.

The one thing that Mr. Durant worries might spook a female guest is his most recent purchase: a three-foot-tall refrigerated meat locker that sits in a corner of his living room. That is where he keeps his organ meat and deer ribs.

Mr. Durant, 26, who works in online advertising, is part of a small New York subculture whose members seek good health through a selective return to the habits of their Paleolithic ancestors.

Or as he and some of his friends describe themselves, they are cavemen.

The caveman lifestyle, in Mr. Durant’s interpretation, involves eating large quantities of meat and then fasting between meals to approximate the lean times that his distant ancestors faced between hunts. Vegetables and fruit are fine, but he avoids foods like bread that were unavailable before the invention of agriculture. Mr. Durant believes the human body evolved for a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and his goal is to wean himself off what he sees as many millenniums of bad habits.

Interestingly, the Paleo diet is immediately described as something masculine and manly, or at least, not womanly. A woman might be afraid to see a large freezer in the apartment of a potential mate (whose last name the writer assumes she will be taking upon marriage). “Ahh! Meat frightening!”

These urban cavemen also choose exercise routines focused on sprinting and jumping, to replicate how a prehistoric person might have fled from a mastodon.

In a city crowded with vegetarian restaurants and yoga studios, the cavemen defy other people’s ideas of healthy living. There is an indisputable macho component to the lifestyle.

“I didn’t want to do some faddish diet that my sister would do,” Mr. Durant said.

No, because in the store of diets, where you wake up one day and think, Gee, I think I’d like to go on a diet today, which one should I pick? faddish diets are for girls.

Only, if we may consult the Almighty Wikipedia,

Belief in fad diets by adherents is often irrational. Many individuals who adhere to fad diets will not consider recommendations made by nutritionists and dietitians.

There are three categories of food fads. Some food fads incorporate a combination of categories:

1. The virtue of a particular food or food group is exaggerated and purported to cure specific diseases, and is therefore incorporated as a primary constituent of an individual’s diet.
2. Foods are eliminated from an individual’s diet because they are viewed as harmful.
3. An emphasis is placed on eating certain foods to express a particular lifestyle.

Extreme faddist diets often lack the energy, suitable protein, fat-soluble vitamins, and some minerals that are essential for growing children. Parents forcing children to adhere to fad diets to the point of severe nutritional disorders is considered a form of child abuse.

Programs often considered fad diets:
Cabbage soup diet
Grapefruit diet
Fit for life
Fruitarianism
Israeli Army diet
Macrobiotic diet
Nutrisystem
Paleolithic diet
South Beach Diet
Gerson therapy

The Paleo diet is easily described by each of those categories. But, to be fair, so are really reasonable, medically-recommended dietary changes, like moderate exercise and a low-fat diet.

What makes most fad diets fail are the strict, unnatural regimens. The Atkins diet eliminated, or at least sharply reduced, a huge number of counter-intuitive food from what was to be considered healthy. Some people may rejoice at the thought that eating pounds of bacon and saying no to broccoli can help you lose weight, but everyone I know whose been on it lasted about a month, and craved bread so bad they were going crazy. There’s also the “negative calorie soup” diet, in which you eat nothing but soup made from vegetables that are supposedly so low in calories, that you burn more calories eating it than the vegetable itself contains (which isn’t actually true). That diet is intended for short-term weight-loss goals, but according to the above site, is rarely finished to completion due to the lack of variety in flavors, and poor physical health due to the lack of nutrients.

What makes the Paleo diet (and even the South Beach Diet, to some extent) different from these others are two things. One, our ancestors actually used to live on this diet. Two, eliminated are foods that are already known to be bad for you, and as you still have meat, fruits, and most vegetables, the dieter is less likely to “cheat” due to lack of variety. But the thing is, any pattern of eating is a “diet.” Changing the way one eats with the goal of weight loss isn’t the first, second, or even third entry in Merriam Webster.

But no, the Paleo diet isn’t a “diet,” because diets are for girls. The Paleo is a lifestyle. In fact,

Mr. Le Corre, 38, who once made soap for a living, promotes what he calls “mouvement naturel” at exercise retreats in West Virginia and elsewhere. His workouts include scooting around the underbrush on all fours, leaping between boulders, playing catch with stones, and other activities at which he believes early man excelled. These are the “primal, essential skills that I believe everyone should have,” he said in an interview.
[…]
Instead of eating three square meals a day, many of New York’s cavemen fast intermittently, up to 36 hours at a stretch. Fasting is a topic of banter at the Union Square West apartment where Matthew Sanocki and his brother, Andrew, live and run design-related e-commerce Web sites.

How very tough of them. Durant’s Paleo group does have one female member, though. Her name is Melissa McEwan. She gets about two sentences’ worth of coverage.

Besides my annoyance with the framing of diet as prohibitively “manly,” I’m not convinced that women aren’t into the diet as much as men. And since, as Jill so aptly describes the authors of these trend pieces in a recent post on Feministe,

Clearly, most of their contributors are just writing about their own friends in small-ish New York media circles that revolve around the Upper West Side, the Village and Brownstone Brooklyn, where chicken coops and pet choices are breaking news,

I guess makes me qualified to say that I think that lots of hipster-ish, late-twenties and early-thirties folks in the city with design and media jobs, and also psychology students and nomadic landscapers, as well as bored bank employees, and disgruntled liquor store clerks, and scores of other people who like to stay on top of how to be cooler than everyone else, are taking the “green” trend to its next, natural level and changing their diets and exercise habits.

Fascinating.

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4 Responses to Trend Piece Tuesday: The Paleo Diet

  1. Pingback: Trend Piece Tuesday | ethecofem | Paleo Diet | if you do the paleo diet you need supplementing

  2. catullus says:

    I myself am keen on the Nero Wolfe diet. Advantages: eating for pleasure, validation of the principle that longevity is over-rated, you get to use words like ‘pfui’ while eating. Disadvantage: you may need a custom-made chair to sit it, cops may interreupt your lunch.

  3. Happy says:

    Broccoli and other fiberous veggies are hgihly encouraged on the Atkins diet. It might not be the gist of your article but if you are going to talk about “diets’ you might want to accurately represent them.

    • catullus says:

      Good point. Few people apprise themselves of what diet plans advise. Inthe case of Atkins, advocates as well as detractors are equally suspect. An acquaintance who styles himself a ‘carnivore activist’ made a lot of a study done by the Atkins Institute that showed people lost slightly more weight on it than they did on the South Beach and Zone Diets (and even more than they did on the Ornish Diet). His larger purposes are to rationalize his dependence on Dinty Moore and to claim that vegetarians have an outsized influence on attitudes toward fat in the diet. So he claims the study shows that all-meat diets are superior to vegetarian diets. He continues to maintain this even after I pointed out that Atkins is hardly an all-meat diet and that neither the Zone or South Beach Diets are vegetarian diets (he didn’t know about the comparison to the Ornish Diet, which is vegetarian).

      Fad diets are about making a larger point that has nothing to do with the putative objectives of the diet. They’re an attempt to make consumption into a whole greater than the sum of its parts. We should admit this and solve real dilemmas.

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