I occasionally get emails and tweets admonishing me for being hostile to paleo and low-carb, having moved on and having to take a glancing blow behind me. It’s not an unfamiliar experience– I received the same when I stopped being vegan.
The truth is that I’m not hostile to paleo, low-carb, or vegan. All three represent food subcultures that taught me a lot about food and how it affects my health. I am thankful for that. Unfortunately all have quasi-religious underpinnings that can be detrimental to health. They are also hostile to critics.
It has been very difficult for me as a skeptic since criticism is frequently deemed to be a personal attack and is ironically often answered with personal attacks. Furthermore, when I was embedded with it socially, it was almost if you spoke up, you were in danger of being socially ostracized. It is my own experience that no one is blacklisted even for the worst behavior...unless they are openly skeptical.
It has been hard to leave. I mean there were good things– I got involved with grass-fed livestock because of it and many of my best customers, friends, and mentors also have a similar story. I thought maybe things could go back to the way they were when I started, when it was far more casual on a dietary level and it was largely a movement of people passionate about things like sustainable food, anthropology, evolutionary biology, and figuring out what worked for them.
I have told my own health story what seems like a thousand times, but the thing is I got better without being very restrictive at all beyond a period of very low carbing that had a targeted purpose, which was to allow my stomach to heal. It was more about adding foods to my diet such as meat and seafood then subtracting them, as well as letting go of dietary dogmas that were damaging my health like the idea that the best way to treat stomach issues was with more fiber or that fat was bad. It was also about diversifying the sources of food and the foods I relied on. I was only about 80% paleo then. It was fun and interesting to be a part of. I never worried about some ice cream or beer.
In Sweden I was very healthy until towards the end of my stay, when I think I messed up my stomach with NSAIDs again. I took to the corners of the internet where I found fringe diets for messed up people like the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, VLC (very low carb), raw paleo, and the Failsafe diet. I learned from these, though I never adopted them fully. In some ways they were bad because they foster extreme nitpicking, including lots of combing through papers, finding out of context studies to make people paranoid about food. In other ways they were good, because they helped me realize that there were more targeted approaches to my issues rather than just thinking about what I did or did not probably “evolve to eat.”
When I moved to New York City from Sweden I had trouble adjusting. I met most of the people I hung out with through Paleo meetups. At the time I think the larger community was moving towards those fringe diets I had encountered becoming more what paleo was about. Paleo was adopting the food paranoia of the aforementioned fringe diets combined with the hubris of the idea that it was the optimal human diet our ancestors were supposedly so healthy on. It crossed the line from awareness to fear-mongering, with more and more leaders associated with it promoting the idea that even if you feel good, you are being quietly “damaged” by certain demonized foods. Much to my chagrin as someone who is very interested in evolution, I noticed the movement was minimizing the role evolution played. Around this time I was first called an “elitist” for pointing out a major figure in the movement rejected that evolution even existed.
At the same time it was increasingly hard for me to accept that this dietary philosophy was the optimal solution. My testimonial was true– I did feel better, but better than what? Things were up and down. Episodes of fatigue haunted me, as well as my stomach problems returning intermittently. My response was to turn to the internet, where I became increasingly convinced that certain “bad” foods I was eating occasionally like beer were the culprit. I had to be better at this diet, so I gave them up. I didn’t feel any better. I met a lot of people in real life who had glowing online testimonials, but who were obviously struggling as well. I felt disillusioned.
The composition of people who mattered was also changing from quasi-anarchist back to the land hippy types to more and more slick marketing people who seemed to have little interest in anything beyond selling products, wearing leopard print, and eating bacon. The first processed "paleo" “products” appeared on the market. But at that point I was in too deep. Almost all my friends were from paleo. I wanted to save it from its growing association with stock internet junk science that I had once seen pollute the vegan community.
Also the movement was getting an infusion from some new blood, some input from the Weston A. Price Crowd for example from Chris Masterjohn, and Paul Jaminet’s Perfect Health Diet made people suddenly less afraid of things like rice. Influced by them and NEEDING to make a change very much after my serious fainting episode, I started eating white rice regularly again, as well as more carbs in general. I felt a lot better, but still continued to have health problems, particularly with my energy levels.
The paleo community however was just getting worse. It started looking more like a front to sell crap and a bunch of low-quality content farms rather than a community centered around real food. I started speaking out about it and experienced large amounts of harassment and then when I complained about that I was basically told to shut up and that I was attacking people who had devoted their lives to saving people (sounded pretty familiar to me from veganism). Behind the scenes, many of the figures I had admired were not what they seemed. The discourse had gone toxic.
But I was really really fortunate offline. I moved to Chicago. I waffled about being paleo-ish for a time, trying to get back to that original spirit I had about it in the beginning. I told myself I’d just remain gluten-free and “mostly paleo.” I had learned about FODMAPs and adopted that procol with good results getting my stomach stable. But then I joined Crossfit and completely lacked the energy to do much of anything. I crashed again.
Luckily I went on a trip to Europe. I ate what I wanted and felt great. After that I was pretty much done with paleo, even as paleo-ish or 80% paleo like I was before, though I remain interested in learning from physical anthropology and evolutionary biology, that’s pretty far from what paleo is about these days anyway and when it is it’s a bowdlerized scientifically anemic version. I turned down a book deal, knowing I was not qualified to write a book yet and that paleo community-associated publishers were churning out consistently low-quality books with little critical editing. I was ready to try new things.
Online, I started hanging out with the “bad kids”- the ex paleos, which is its own little movement at this point. It was probably started by Matt Stone who has been variously mocked all over the paleo community despite probably being able to make a good entry into the vapid testimonial wars the various gurus engage in. From Danny Roddy I started exploring Ray Peat’s work, though I don’t completely embrace it 100%, it gave me the courage to eat the ice cream I once enjoyed with impunity, as well as things like orange juice, which pretty much banished the fatigue episodes. I also realized via Amber of Go Kaleo that I needed to just stop trying to have a diet and “Eat the Food,” that all these years I’d been trapped in an unconscious haze of chronic undernutrition calorically. I never meant to eat too little, but so much of appetite is unconscious.
My appetite was frequently suppressed to the point of nonexistence, which was compounded by fear of eating certain foods like grains, so having to make a huge effort to eat a meal. Some people I’ve met seem to be able to get out of it while maintaining a particular diet, particularly if they monitor themselves very carefully, but I wasn’t able to and I think it’s the same for many people. Maybe our hunger signals can be broken both ways, not just in the overeating direction our culture is more worried about. In the end I realized I was doing this out of fear, because of food paranoia, not because it was the best way for me to fuel myself.
Since then a lot of my intolerances have gone away. It could have just been improving my metabolism through ending the chronic undereating or the probiotic supplementation I decided to pursue more aggressively. I stopped taking all supplements except for the Pearls IC, which I make sure to take every single day, and bromelain. I drink milk (despite being genetically lactose intolerant) and eat things like rye, broccoli, cauliflower, and other foods that used to tie my stomach in knots. I think the difference is I am aware that most intolerances are dose-dependent and potentially modifiable (barring a serious autoimmune disorder like celiac), not a limitation of evolution.
I think taking some of the approaches paleo has borrowed from or skimmed off (FODMAPs for digestive issues, very low carb temporarily for heartburn, ketogenic for certain neurological issues, awareness of gluten intolerance and sensitivity) and applying them in a targeted manner would be much more effective without the baggage. A lot of times I see people doing a strict paleo challenge who really could benefit from an elimination diet. Yes, some of the approaches have a re-trial phase after the challenge, but considering what we know about gut bacteria and digestion that is not the best approach. When you don't eat a food, your body will sometimes downregulate enzymes used to digest it and your gut bacterial population will shift. Vegans sometimes have issues re-introducing meat because the production of certain protein-digested enzymes is downregulated. Does that mean meat is bad? No, it means it needs to be reintroduced gradually and carefully.
I also can't deny that there were family members and friends who adopted paleo because of me, as well certain people I met through paleo that I grew close with who I saw really struggle with health issues, caught in the same trap I was. Some of them are doing better now, some of them aren't. I feel just as bad about a few of them as I feel about a friend from my past who I introduced to veganism and who now has terrible health problems and won't even consider there might be something beyond veganism that would help. These people are my anti-testimonials, especially since so many of them post online about their success on the paleo diet while I see them crashing.
Offline, my social life changed as well. I met people who really loved food, all kinds of food, and I’m grateful for them every day. I don’t have a diet anymore. I largely eat what I want, but thankfully what I want is largely from-scratch food made with local plants, pastured animal products, and wild seafood. In some ways my diet is more "paleolithic" in spirit than ever, considering its anti-fragile diversity of plants and animals, including many wild foods.
So I’ll continue to write here about evolutionary nutrition. And point out resources from the paleo community if I feel they are useful and good, as well as continuing skeptic writing about certain paleo topics. But I do not consider myself a paleo dieter, writer, or anything like that. My choice to distance myself is because I do not like the way the community treats skeptics or people who do not do well while paleo. In these ways it is nearly identical to the vegan community it frequently derides. It is sad, but not at all surprising, to see some gurus and bloggers finally come out as feeling not so great. The community’s response seems to usually be to increase fat in the diet or restrict it further. Or to embrace diagnoses that are unknown to the scientific literature (parasites a normal doctor can’t detect but a special “practitioner” can, adrenal fatigue which is usually self diagnosed or diagnosed questionably*) to explain things that are often simply undernutrition. Leave and you simply “didn’t do the diet right,” a convenient way to dismiss problems. It's too bad to see it go this way, but seems to be the way many internet diet communities end up.
When people ask me about paleo these days, I recommend they explore it, but also explore a lot of other food books with a skeptical mind. And to explore less sexy solutions like FODMAPs. And ultimately to consider not adopting a "diet" at all, but a greater awareness and a better relationship with the food system. Like ex-low-carber Darya Pino, I emphasize unprocessed foods from healthy food systems. The farmer's market, the pasture, the woodlands are my solace.
And yeah, I'm enjoying some chilaquiles made with local corn tortillas and a good beer while writing this, and no, my biomarkers haven't changed in the past year except my HDL is a lot higher. And I'm loving food rather than fearing it.
*I was tested for adrenal insufficiency by an endocrinologist when I fainted, which is advised if you suspect adrenal issues
Edit: I honestly can't believe that people are commenting that I'm actually still paleo but with some cheats. C'mon people. I'm eating sandwiches. I bake BREAD with GLUTEN in it. I drink liquid sugar. And other people are commenting that meat is the best food ever and why would anyone eat grains which are inferior. I never understood that argument. Just because a food is more nutritious doesn't mean it should be the only food you eat. Most foraging peoples get their calories from a bland not very nutritious source and fill int he blanks with a variety of plants and animals.