This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
I'm thrilled that Grub Street shut down its entire Chicago department so that instead of writing about Chicago’s vibrant food scene, they can publish garbage like this: The Rise of the Lady Paleos: How a Dubious Diet Aimed at Men Appeals to Women, Too.
What really struck me is how they linked to the New York Times article from 2010:
The Paleo diet has always been difficult to take very seriously. The program aims to mimic what our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate during the Paleolithic era and is most often associated with city-dwelling males who go around pretending they're cavemen. But the new shepherds of the Paleo diet aren't hypermasculine men who install meat lockers in their apartments and gnaw on turkey legs; they're friendly, perky women who wear polka dots and create Paleo-approved recipes for banana porridge. Including women has made the Paleo diet more popular than ever — even as the science it's supposedly based on looks more and more dubious.
Since that article first was published in 2010, it has been linked that way many many times in the context of suggesting paleo is a diet for faux-manly men, not women. Back in 2010, women were simply not allowed to eat such a meaty diet. We had to survive on cupcakes.
Oh, but right there on the top of the article is a picture, and in that picture guess who is there? Me. And I'm 100% sure I'm a woman. Maybe I'm just not "perky" looking enough?
Interestingly there were a large number of photos of me taken for the article. One of the nicer photographers, a woman, sent me hers. I can’t post them here for legal reasons (they still belong to the Times), but I look much like myself in them. The New York Times chose a picture where the lighting and angle seems designed unflatter everyone in the picture (a great illustration of how powerful this can be in this great video), and for me it makes me look somewhat less "perky" than I usually do to say the least. I felt like the editors who chose that particular picture had an agenda, which was to portray the paleo diet as conforming to outdated stereotypes about “cavemen.”
The NYtimes photo they chose, where half my face is in shadows vs. a much more flattering professional photo by Pro Creation of Bacon.
Despite my criticism of the paleo diet, to reduce these women– best-selling authors who run their own successful businesses, to being defined by stereotypically girlish personalities, food and clothing, is disgusting. “Meat lockers” (what some of these reporters call chest freezers) are for men...and porridge is for women? I have little interest in porridge, but I’ve had a so-called “meat locker” for several years now and I love it.
Notice they did not choose to interview women who do not fit stereotypes as easily, women who have had paleo books on the market for quite a long time. One of the co-authors of one of the FIRST paleo diet books was Marjorie Shostak, a prominent feminist anthropologist. It was published in 1989 when I was just toddling around. I sometimes wonder what influence she might have had if she were still around. Sadly she passed away in 1996. The Vegetarian Myth and Primal Body, Primal Mind (I’m not particularly fans of the accuracy of those books these days, but they had an influence on MANY people) were published in 2009. I guess since these women don’t fit girly GOOP-like diet empire guru stereotypes, it’s OK to overlook them.
Marjorie Shostak, who lived with !Kung hunter-gatherers
The 1989 book
The really stupid thing is that they chose authors that are actually moderate and flexible in their approach (esp compared to other authors) and then criticized the paleo diet for not reflecting the flexibility and variation of the past. They say they are excluding things like dairy and grains, while several of the authors consume dairy and in that very article they say one of them feeds her son grains (albeit sprouted, but still grains)! If this article gets anything right, it’s that a lot of them seem to call their junk food -free whole foods diets “paleo” just to call it that. I have to say, that while they didn't dig their own graves, they did hand the reporter a shovel. After the New York Times article and several other horribly biased articles, I learned how to figure out what reporters to avoid and what not to say to them. And most importantly, what editors hold their reporters to a higher standard. I learned that the number of these people was vanishingly small.
Recently I wrote an article about Malort, a bitter spirit, for NPR's The Salt and I was really impressed by how their editors encouraged me to write in a balanced and fair fashion. It also forced me to confront my own biases. Because of an article I had read before, I honestly thought when I started out that the people working for Jeppson's didn't really know how it connected to Sweden. Because the editor questioned this, I tracked down Peter Strom, who ended up completely changing my mind. I ended up re-writing a lot of the article.
But the thing is that "paleo" has grown increasingly scientifically and rationally vapid in the past few years. Most of these approaches aren't based on "dubious" science, a lot of them don't even bother for science. They are like Gwenyth Paltrow's GOOP inc. for people who like bacon.
There are issues with the paleo approach, but the author of this article is clearly not qualified to address them, instead resorting to Gawker-like sensationalist bullshit. I like how they cited Paleofantasy as being a book about debunking the diet, when not even half the book is about the paleo diet.
The sad thing is that Grub Street had a host of great reporters on restaurants, booze, and that sort of thing that they cut very recently in my home city of Chicago as well as other cities. They should have stuck to writing about bacon burgers and local pubs.
If you've been reading this blog long enough, you'll know I have a rather dim view of reporters. Besides a tiny number I count as friends, I've had some bad experiences where I spent a lot of time working with them, only to see the final story had major errors. Getting cut out entirely is better than that.
So I often just ignore them. The stuff I do with food is my hobby and I don't typically see any benefit to dealing with them. But one kept emailing me about my meatshare Chicago group and so I did call him and later provided him with pictures and names of other people he could talk to about the subject. It seemed like he was on a tight deadline so I was surprised how quickly the article went up.
It's not bad, but I was disappointed to see that the paleo diet was described as a fad diet:
Kent Cowgill, a 40-year-old software engineer, falls into the latter category. Two years ago, Cowgill began experimenting with the fad diet known as the paleo diet or caveman diet, which is meant to mimic the diet of stone age hunter-gatherers by emphasizing grass-fed pasture raised meats, vegetables, fruit and excluding grains and processed foods. It was through the website paleohacks.com that Cowgill and became acquainted with McEwen.
As annoyed as I get with the whole "paleo movement" and I myself have settled into a way of eating that doesn't have all that much to do with the original concept, when I did discover it I was so sick. To name a few, I was on anticholinergics, proton pump inhibitors, steroids, antihistimines, leukotriene receptor antagonists, and constantly on antibiotics. I didn't think I could ever travel internationally. I worried I would never find love because I was so sickly. I missed out on things. I can't forget that terrible place I was in and that learning about the "paleo diet" allowed me to make the kind of dietary changes that allow me to live a relatively normal life, though I certainly had to discover many other things before I totally got off medications.
I told the reporter I was disappointed to hear it called a fad since it's not just for weight loss and I feel "fad" is a pejorative. The reporter said that he thought it was a fad because "t reverting to that kind of a diet in a world where we have access to foods beyond that, is what I would call a fad." OK, so I guess veganism and vegetarianism are also "fads?" Either way, it doesn't matter, it's just poor form to call someone's food choices a "fad" while writing an article about something else, unless you intend to make them look trivial.
But I've noticed that in America at least, your food choices, if you choose to eat differently, are always somehow insulting to people. Ask for something gluten-free unless you have a gold-sticker framed certificate that says "Real Life Celiac" and you are a bad person who just follows the latest fads and have "first world problems." Never mind that non-celiac gluten sensitivity is a real (and possibly deadly) thing. You are fascist and should be ashamed of yourself (I love Ruhlman, but I don't think anyone's dietary preferences should be such a big deal). Meanwhile in Sweden, when I worked in food there, no one gave a fuck if you didn't want meat or gluten or cheese or whatever. We cooked from scratch, so it was not a big deal, not a source of frustration or judgment. Some of it comes from ignorance of confusing allergies with sensitivities and intolerances. Yes, real sensitivities and intolerances can wax and wane with health status, age, and a host of other factors. For example, when I was much more sickly, I could not tolerate much dairy, but now that my gut is healthier and I'm overall in a much better state, I tolerate quite a lot. However, the commenters on Ruhlman's blog post seem very angry that other people might not be eating things for what they perceive is the "wrong" reason. There is something very Puritan about these kind of attitudes.
That said, I've never expected a restaurant to not use a certain ingredient and I understand some menu items simply cannot be adjusted. Also, when I had to eat a more strict diet, I would bring things like my own gluten-free soy sauce to restaurants and ask permission to use that (I was never denied). Some people do act entitled about their diets, which makes people even more unsympathetic to say the least. Like someone I know couldn't roast a goat at his wedding because his vegan aunt was so offended by the idea, even though there were several good vegan items on the menu. That's a whole different issue, but overall when someone tells me they can't eat something, I don't even bother asking why. It's none of my business and it's usually not a big deal to accommodate.
What do you think?
There is no question that it's possible for some to lose weight on the diet food sold in the grocery store and touted in Women's magazine's like Self. Most women don't lose weight, but we all know at least one slim woman who eats an austere diet of whole grain cereals and low-fat yogurt, punctuated by coffee. Most of these women seem a little grumpy to me. Grub Street profiled one of them: Mika Brzezinki, host of Morning Joe. What does she eat? Not much, mostly things like Kind Bars (full of sugar), coffee, egg whites, and sad green salads without anything but greens. She is going to host a show called Cook Your Heart Out, which will feature "heart healthy" recipes. Let's bet on how disgusting and devoid of goodness these recipes will be?
Grub Street blog is a favorite of foodies, so the comments were not favorable.
Typical of such dieters, like Mimi Roth, Mika has plenty of hate for delicious food, as well as for people who don't fit her standards of thinness. According to the Village Voice:
She supports a tax on all red meat, and often makes comments about overweight people on Morning Joe: "All I want you to pay a little more so I don't have to pay for your big butts, okay?"
Yuck. Me? I'm working in a cafe, just had pastured pork belly with yuzu marmalade. You don't have to be miserable and eat horse chow to have a good relationship with food. Mika's probably a bit malnourished and you don't have to do that to have a healthy heart.
In the dim light, the red walls glowed the pictures of various delicious animals. Brown paper tablecloths were stained with tiny conspicuous spots of grease. We had waited a long time to be here, and we were rewarded with course after course of succulent meats with vegetables whose sole purposes were to soak up the salty fatty drippings that tasted of rich flavors- savory black pepper, piney rosemary, lemon, and garlic. Of course the meats were delicious, but what the meat did to the vegetables was even more impressive. Ramps wilted in brothy sauce melted in my mouth. Asparagus fried in lard had been morphed into a pork rind-like delicacy that crunched pleasantly as it dissolved into fat. The waitress asked if we wanted dessert- we ordered another plate of ham.
The rich flavors of that night haunted me for days, until I bought some asparagus and fried it in lard with my friend's home-cured pancetta, garlic, black pepper, and a splash of lime juice since I had run out of lemons. It was incredible and I can't wait to make it again.
It is in these moments that I'm glad I didn't chose the paleo diet's rival- the low fat diets of Ornish and his ilk. With both high-fat and low-fat diets getting similar results in studies, I don't see any reason to give up my fatty treats in favor of bowls of barley and steamed carrots. My stomach is flat and free of pains it suffered with I ate loads of gluten and sugar every day, avoiding fat like the plague.
Sometimes I miss things like the cinnamon rolls in Sweden or the buttery biscuits from my native land, but on a low-fat diet I would have had to give up these....AND bacon/pancetta/lardo/fatty steaks/lamb shank. Yeah right. Life is too short for eating rabbit food. Maybe I'm just too much of a foodie, but how can a diet that purports to improve the quality of your life exclude the best foods in the entire world?
Occasionally I will hear from someone who does badly on a paleo diet or whose health improved when they gave up meat. It's very interesting to me. I guess I' shouldn't really surprised then by Matt Stone's latest post which is a rant about how paleo kills your sex drive (WTF?????* Lierre's assertion that paleolithic is a diet for a smaller population is about economics, as obviously grains allows us to feed more people) and also a letter from a woman who experienced horrible digestive and other problems on paleo. It's so bizarre because paleo cured the exact same problems for me.
But then again, I've rarely been 100% paleo. I have this fantasy that if I were I would suddenly become super woman or something, but the errant bowl of grits with butter never has made me feel terrible enough to make me stop having cheat meals. I know people who are 100% and honestly they seem no healthier than people who eat butter or an occasional beer.
But I also see a pattern in people who don't do well on paleo. I'm not blaming people...it's hard to do a paradigm shift and admittedly my first foray into low carb wasn't so successful either. I think it started working only when I stopped thinking low-carb and started thinking about food quality. Some Purdue chicken beasts and steamed broccoli isn't quality in my opinion. Grass-fed beef, oysters, seaweed, purple yams, blueberries, kale...these sort of things form a nutrient-dense nucleus for my diet. When I'm really craving grits or bacon lentils, I personally don't sweat it. Gluten, vegetable oil, and sugar free + high nutrient density seems to solve most of my own problems, the rest was just tweaking. So my own experiences can't refute Matt's assertions.
But I just don't buy that low carb is dangerous. Plenty of arctic peoples ate low carb their entire lives and reproduced and didn't keel over and die! I think people should work on removing the worst offenders like sugar from their diet and simply do what works for them.
*In Robb Wolf's podcasts he talks about many women in his gym getting pregnant while doing paleo, but he has also had some questions from people who lost their period...I would be curious to know the nutrition intake numbers of people who that happens to.