The problem with paleo

Jason Wilson has a fascinating post up at The Guardian discussing some of the problems with the paleo “lifestyle” which is currently very en vogue:

The assumptions underpinning paleo have a superficial plausibility. While technology and culture have changed, it’s argued, our bodies have pretty well stayed the same. We evolved to be hunter-gatherers, and contemporary life, with its carbs and computers, is a mismatch with our biological make-up.

It’s shame, then, that the entire enterprise is to my way of thinking intellectually bankrupt.

I don’t judge people on the food they choose to eat, whether it fits today’s definition of “healthy” or not – it’s an individual choice laden with so much social pressure and judgement that it’s safer to leave people to decide what’s best for them.

(Statement of the obvious: when people are endangering their children’s lives with toxic broth or lack of food, I’m judgey as anyone; and secondly this doesn’t mean ignoring issues around access, resources and inequality which mean a lot of people have far less “free choice” than I do.)

So I don’t have a problem with people choosing to eat paleo. What does concern me is when anyone starts making grandiose statements about what’s “natural” or “proper” behaviour for human beings, as though humans are as monolithic and unvaried as your average one-episode Star Trek species. As Jason Wilson notes, this kind of thinking raises some big red flags around reinforcing a very socially-conservative view on gender:

[Paleo author John] Durant constructs an image of the “natural” that is entirely ideological. The real appeal of hunter-gatherer life is what he imagines to be its strict partition of gender roles, where “Men were hunters, women were gatherers” and where “women rewarded great hunters” with sex. Paleo eating is here connected with an image of society which reproduces itself largely through masculine competition.

It’s also – like many of the food “movements” of the past few decades – a lifestyle which really requires you to already be pretty well off in terms of money, knowledge, time, and access to the “proper” kinds of food. There’s an innate paradox in preaching a return to our “natural” ways of living while enjoying many of the fruits of modern “civilisation” – and of course, no one promoting the paleo lifestyle is talking too loudly about the 33-54 year life expectancy our ancestors enjoyed.

All this is really just a set-up for my favourite paleo punchline, the anecdote which undercuts everything about paleo philosophy. At paleo site RobbWolf.com, Amy Kubal addresses a terrible dilemma of the meat-loving life: the increased risk of cancer from eating delicious char-grilled BBQ. Kubal’s second suggestion for mitigating your risk?

Nuke it!  Pre-cook your meat in the microwave for 1-2 minutes before putting it on the grill.  Microwaving releases some of the compounds that contribute to HCA formation.  Additionally, starting the cooking process reduces the grilling time.

That’s right. Microwave your meats … exactly the same way our ancestors did.

What do you reckon?

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