Pendulum Swings

Jess and I went to dinner on Friday with one of her friends – the beauty editor at a major women’s magazine – and her friend’s husband.

Somehow, the Paleo diet came up in conversation, which led Jess’ friend to exclaim how ‘hot’ Paleo is right now – several editors at the magazine had recently started following the diet.

And, indeed, she’s right. Paleo is blowing up. Earlier on Friday, I had lunch with two authors of new bestselling Paleo diet books, as well as the author of an upcoming (likely to also be a bestseller, I suspect) Paleo book, on camera for a Nightline piece about the Paleo life that should air in the next couple of weeks.

Seven years ago, when I started preaching the idea of eating and exercising in an evolution-inspired way, Paleo wasn’t big at all. In fact, it wasn’t just below the radar, it ran directly counter to mainstream nutrition advice: fat was the enemy, carbs the solution, end of story.

But now, it seems, the tide is turning. Dr. Walter Willett, for example, the Harvard Med School and Harvard School of Public Health nutrition guru, previously published books supporting the less fat, more carbs theory. Yet in an LA Times piece last month, he 180’s to say “fat is not the problem. If Americans could eliminate sugary beverages, potatoes, white bread, pasta, white rice and sugary snacks, we would wipe out almost all the problems we have with weight and diabetes and other metabolic diseases.”

I say: not so fast.

In his excellent In Defense of Food, journalist Michael Pollan coins the term ‘nutritionism’, for the common misconception that food is essentially a delivery system for specific nutrients, rather than something valuable as a whole. In the nutritionism approach, to which we collectively seem to subscribe here in the US, we pick out a few nutrients as good (omega 3’s), others as evil (trans-fats), and then build dietary recommendations – and food products – based on those nutrients.

Problem is, even simple foods are far more complex than we boil them down to be. Sure, there are the much-discussed macronutrients (fat, carbohydrates, and protein). And then there are the micronutrients we know about (vitamins, minerals). And then there are other micronutrients, which it seems we clearly don’t.

Pollan cites, for example, the problems with baby formula: children fed formula thrive far less than children fed breast milk. For the past five decades, major corporations have spent millions upon millions of dollars trying to figure out why, to better understand the nutritional breakdown of real breast milk, to isolate those missing micronutrients causing formula to fall short. Yet despite those efforts, the milk versus formula gap remains. Despite our best science, we still have no idea how to define – much less replicate – some of the crucial, health-promoting stuff in milk, much less in every other food that naturally exists.

Which is why I’m so concerned that the early mainstream embrace of Paleo thinking seems equally driven by such nutritionism.

First, that approach makes it too easy for the pendulum to over-swing in the new direction. The anti-carb lynch-mob mentality, for example, has led many people to conflate Paleo with Atkins. Yet the two approaches diverge substantially, especially when it comes to the Paleo diet’s focus on eating lots of fruits and vegetables, which I suspect drives many of the excellent health benefits that research on the diet has begun to highlight.

Similarly, I worry the nutritionism approach will also fail to exclude some of the most problematic foods. Recent research on Paleo eating, for example, has begun to show that the diet is hugely impactful in halting the progression of terrible autoimmune diseases like Parkinson’s and MS. A lot of that, I believe, stems from the reduced inflammatory load and substantially less gut-irritating (and therefore gut-permeability-causing) aspects of the diet, because excluding grains and legumes also excludes anti-nutrients like phytates and lectins. Yet most of the coverage I’ve seen of Paleo eating glosses over that point entirely. I’m sure it’s only a short matter of time until we see new and improved ‘Paleo friendly’ Snackwell cookies: now made with agave nectar and omega-3’s! They’ll taste like cardboard, and they’ll sell like wildfire, but they won’t pack any of the benefits of real Paleo food.

And, finally, I worry that the sudden popularization of Paleo eating will make the approach too much a ‘diet’ (something you do in a faddish way to lose some weight) and less an ongoing shift in lifestyle. The beauty of eating Paleo – or even just eating largely Paleo (for, perhaps, 80% of your meals) – is that it’s not overly restrictive, it’s not socially awkward, and it’s something that you can do indefinitely. More to the point, it’s something you need to do indefinitely, if you’d like to have a long and healthy and disease-free life. Much like, say, brushing your teeth, which you need to do for at least as long as you’d like to still have teeth.

Frankly, I hate the name Paleo diet. It’s a branding nightmare. It suggests crazy people who want to do weird re-enactments in loin cloths. It sounds like austere deprivation, and literally chest-banging machismo.

Instead, I think the Paleo crowd will fare better, will have a higher likelihood of getting the actually important ideas across to people in a real and sustainable way as the trend continues to grow, if we can boil it down in ways like John Durant does:

“Despite everything you’ve been taught,” he explains, “you are a wild animal. And you will be healthier when you start acting like one. Replicate the most beneficial aspects of living in the wild. Eat the foods humans have been eating for millions of years, move in the ways we are adapted to move, get some sun.”

I don’t think that sounds too crazy. But then again, I’ve long since drank the Kool-Aid. Or, rather, whatever equivalent beverage it was that cultish cavemen drank.

January 16, 2011