For at least 90% of human history, Homo sapiens lived in small nomadic groups that subsisted on hunter-gatherer diets comprised of wild-caught flora and fauna.
While many modern sources regard the hunter-gatherer lifestyle as utterly defunct, the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunter-Gatherer claims that “hunting and gathering was humanity’s first and most successful adaptation” (Cambridge 1999).
Notwithstanding its incredible efficacy, our Paleolithic ancestors forwent their lifestyle of foraging about 10,000 years ago when the advent of agriculture encouraged them to transition to one based primarily on husbandry and settlement. This “Neolithic Revolution” resulted in a transformation from mobile bands to sedentary societies and enabled large groups of people to coalesce and produce highly accessible food surpluses to support a rapidly increasing population.
Since its beginnings, the cultivation of grain has dominated the global production of food and has played a major role in the diet of most of the world’s population. It is interesting to note, however, that many health officials and historians alike have noticed a strong correlation between the introduction of grains in the human diet and the emergence of chronic diet related disease, which appear to be almost nonexistent in pre-agricultural times.
Bearing this correlation in mind, it is not surprising that recent years have seen increasing support (see: trending) among some scientific authorities for a diet mimicking that of our ancestors during the times when these diseases were rare. Many supporters of such a lifestyle argue that natural, unprocessed foods promote optimal expression of the human genome and have the ability to eradicate the chronic illnesses that run rampant in the modern age. Based on the dietary suggestions presented by these scientific radicals, there has been an influx of enthusiasts who admonish our contemporary grain-based diet in favor of reverting back to Paleolithic habits in an attempt to realign our genes with how they were originally evolved and adapted.
Proponents of mirroring a hunter-gatherer lifestyle abide by the cleverly named “Paleolithic (Paleo) Diet,” which recommends avoiding all modern processed foods that wouldn’t be found in Pre-Neolithic times, most of which are derived from grain products. This paper aims to assess how the Paleo Diet has been framed by authorities in dietetic literature, and in turn how and why the proposed diet has been adopted and represented by the public sector currently practicing the diet.
Understanding how fad diets are received, reinterpreted, and represented by their followers is important to discern trends in the adaptations of certain diets and understand what social phenomena have the ability to shape the way that people live and eat. My findings show that the Paleo diet has engendered noteworthy trends among its followers that represent social phenomena and ideals that are founded on deeper roots than simply the dietary suggestions that have been presented by the scientific community.
Data and Methods
In order to address how the scientific community has framed the Paleolithic Diet, I examined the literature of a multitude of different dietetic works that support and recommend the diet. For the purposes of this capstone paper, I classified anything that was published in a scientific journal or by a university press as a scientific source. I chose a selection of pieces from the inception of the diet (1975) all the way up to the present day (2013) in order to gain an understanding of how the guidelines and scientific evidence for the diet have changed with respect to time. I also scrutinized books that are considered to be “fad diet” books, which have proven to be some of the most influential texts in the modern Paleo movement, as a large portion of current Paleo advocates learned about the diet through these mainstream publications. I then narrowed the selection down to just two separate sources that I felt best represented the direction in which this paper was headed. The works that I selected are some of the most prominent among the Paleolithic community, and in collaboration they demonstrate the full scope of modern Paleo roots and the ideals upon which the diet has been founded.
To understand how the diet has been adopted and represented by the public sector, I investigated several blogs and forums that followers of the Paleo diet frequent. I took a sample from 8 separate blogging sites, which I believe ensures an accurate sample across all demographics. Each site that I came across seemed to cater to a certain niche; some sites appear to attract members who are battling disease and are dieting for health purposes, while others promote fitness tips as they pertain to a Paleolithic lifestyle. These striking differences among the different forums perfectly represent the broad spectrum of adherents to the diet on which this paper will take a stance.
I found it necessary to approach each website as unbiased as possible in order to collect an accurate sample of accounts and understand the different motives that people have for making such drastic lifestyle changes. I began perusing forums looking for the different reasons people had for eating like a caveman. Most of the websites addressed for this paper have specific folders within the forums for exactly these purposes. I took a sample of 80 separate posts from 8 different forums, each submitted by a different member, and coded them based on the users’ intentions of dieting. This data would go on to represent why the public has adopted the diet and accepted it as a normal and desirable lifestyle.
To understand how the Paleo diet has been represented, reinterpreted, and performed by its enthusiasts, I looked for posts that contained criteria that were along the lines of, but not limited to, the following:
1. Quality of life while dieting
2. Characteristics of living a Paleo lifestyle
3. Daily routines
4. Actions taken to avoid modernization
5. Stereotypes that have been placed on Paleo enthusiasts
6. Journal entries
7. Parenting tips
8. Supplemental information
9. Anything else not pertaining to specific dietary suggestions that could be found in dietetic literature (Relating to lifestyle, exercise, etc.)
I took the sample of different forum posts that fit these categories from the eight different websites and coded according to how the user discussed his or her lifestyle.
In order to gain a full understanding of the population that is discussing and practicing the diet, it was necessary to examine each individual user’s demographic information from both sets of data if made available through the website. While not every user had a detailed profile, 73% of users in this study had listed their age, location, and gender in their respective profiles. In some cases, their profiles also displayed how long they had been members of their respective sites, and how often they posted to the forums. This information would be used to determine how active each user is within the Paleo community and how long they have associated with the diet. It would also allow me to get a general understanding of what kinds of people have chosen to abide by a Paleolithic diet, and would hopefully give some insight into what kinds of trends exist among the Paleo population.
One potential problem with this method is that blogs and forums were nonexistent before the dawn of the Internet, which happens to coincide with the beginnings of the Paleo movement.
My research uncovered some general trends among followers in the present day, therefore this paper will assume that the motives and representations by the public sector have remained generally stagnant since the inception of the diet. To fill the void of missing historical documentation on living Paleo, I have included various historical accounts from early pioneers whose motives and sentiments reflect those of modern day Paleo supporters. Though they were uninfluenced by Paleolithic literature, my analysis has made it clear that many of the same societal phenomena that sparked the Paleo movement also led them to live similar lifestyles.
A low-carbohydrate diet can be traced back to 1863, when William Banting in his Letter on Corpulence spoke of his battle against obesity and his admonishment of a diet consisting of grains and starches.
After trying every conventional slimming treatment, Banting was still obese and extremely discouraged (Banting 16). He sought an experienced physician named Dr. William Harvey, who advised Banting to give up “bread, butter, milk, sugar, beer, and potatoes” (Banting 17).
Harvey had recently returned from a symposium in Paris where he had learned of a newly discovered disease, now known as Diabetes, which was believed to affect the way that the liver processed different foods. Harvey was intrigued by the new theory and began devising plans to eradicate the malady and provide treatment with a proper diet.
Within a few days on Harvey’s diet, Banting was already reaping rewards. He was able to sleep solidly through the night, something that he was unable to do just a week prior. On the low-starch diet consisting of meat, green vegetables, and fruit, Banting was able to lose almost a pound a week for an entire year, dropping 46 pounds and 12 inches from his waist by the end of his trial (Banting 10). Once partially deaf, Banting was able to hear again and many of his other bodily ailments were mitigated. It was so wildly successful that in the late 19th century, dieting itself became known as “Banting” (Taubes x).
Around the same time that Banting and Harvey were conducting their dieting experiment, Sylvester Graham became equally suspicious of the problems that the industrialized food system was creating and believed that “the increasingly common use of food additives and bleached white flour” were immoral and destroying the health of society (Yager 4). Graham supported the “old-fashioned and natural way of life,” and had a deep appreciation for the connection between social issues and diet (Yager 4).
By the turn of the century, plumpness, once seen as a sign of wealth and prosperity, was beginning to be perceived in a completely different light. With the USDA’s introduction of the food pyramid, Banting’s work became virtually ignored and Graham’s distrust of an industrialized food system encouraging enriched white flour and corn products was disregarded. The pyramid recommended 6-11 daily servings of grain, 300 grams of total carbohydrates, and a diet low in fat to promote “optimal” health. By 1975, the USDA’s recommendations had not cured obesity and diabetes was becoming an increasingly worrisome and widespread health condition, along with many other degenerative diet related illnesses, including heart disease and many forms of preventable cancer.
While there exist many confounding variables that contribute to the prevalence of obesity in modern society, it has been generally agreed upon that “obesity is a health crisis that urgently needs to be addressed” (Saguy 11). Abigail Saguy elucidates the different lenses that one can examine obesity through and acknowledges that these frames are simply different approaches that people have taken to organize their experiences and guide their thoughts and opinions. The different ways that one can scrutinize the reason behind why widespread obesity exists will ultimately lead to different proposed solutions to alleviate the problem. “Each lens leads to a different interpretation” of how obesity should be handled, rendering it incredibly difficult to put a finger on the correct way to address such a burdening situation.
Similarly, it can be said that fad diets in the 20th and 21st centuries are nothing but multiple frames and dimensions to approaching the right way to eat. Each diet claims that, using its own interpretation of the laws of nutrition, it holds the golden ticket to slimming and offers a one-fits-all cure for obesity. While most of these claims are founded on scientific veracities, it is impossible to agree that all fad diets are perfect and will lead to successful weight loss, simply because of the mismatch between lifestyles and the inconsistencies among the recommendations. This is to say, it would be difficult to agree that both High-Carb and Low-Carb diets are preaching the 100% truth—obviously both cannot be right. The Paleo diet is not exempt, though the literature would lead one to believe otherwise.
Loren Cordain, one of the most prominent writers in the Paleolithic community, bases his argument for following a primal diet on the fact that “living organisms thrive best in the milieu and on the diet to which they were evolutionary adapted,” which he proclaims to be a “fundamental axiom of biology” (Cordain 2005). Much of Cordain’s research is based on the notion that humans evolved to “consume only natural and unprocessed food,” and that much of our genetic code has remained the same since the time when humans foraged for their food.
His steadfast assertion that we should not consume grain products and stick simply to lean meats, vegetables, fruit, and nuts provides a commanding argument to his audience that there is no diet that could possibly promote better health and longevity.
Cordain’s argument for a hunter-gatherer diet is an extension of the original “Stone Age Diet,” first introduced to the scientific community in 1975 by gastroenterologist Walter Voetglin. In his efforts to treat Crohn’s Disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and other gastric ailments, Voetglin found that a diet low in carbohydrates was most successful in reducing or eliminating symptoms. Of course, Voetglin wasn’t the father of the low-carbohydrate diet, but he was one of the first to coin the notion of eating like our ancestors. It was in his first piece promoting a stone age diet that Voetglin raised public awareness for the disconnect between the modern human diet and the way that we originally adapted to eat in nature. Voetglin reminds his readers that “wild animals do not require instruction or frequent bulletins from the Department of Agriculture to guide them in their food choice” (Voetglin 12). Voetglin takes a strong stance against the modern recommendations coming from governmental sources and pushes us to question why we have accepted sub-optimal norms and have become complacent with a lifestyle that nurtures poor health.
Both Voetglin and Cordain break apart the Standard American Diet to its finest constituents, the nutrients or lack thereof that modern humans are consuming given our current food system, and compare this to what they believe to be an optimal diet. They both agree, like Graham, that the industrialized food system has stripped our food of its essential nutrients and has made it near impossible to consume a wholesome diet. Zinc, Omega-3 fats, iron, and other essential vitamins that are deficient in the many American diets, including vegetarianism, are said to be found in large quantities with a Paleolithic diet (Cordain 29).
Michael Pollan also highlights the complications that the industrialized food system has created in his bookIn Defense of Food. Pollan brings up the example of an English doctor named Denis Burkitt, who believed “the only way we’re going to reduce disease is to go backwards to the diet and lifestyle of our ancestors” (Pollan 142).
It is through this example that Pollan explores the lack of connection that modern society has with our food. For most of history, humans spent the majority of their time “gathering and preparing food,” which was “an occupation at the very heart of life.” Today, food has become “fast, cheap, and easy,” and the lack of time put towards choosing the right foods is reflected in the health of our society (Pollan 145). Pollan simplifies the choices that we may need to make at supermarket when we would otherwise be distracted by the inundation of “fake food” that fill the shelves, when he recommends that the best foods are simply the ones that have been untouched and unprocessed by human hands.
Framing of Paleo Literature
It was not surprising to find that Paleolithic literature is rather scientific in its prose. Like most other nutritional scholars, Cordain and Voetglin defend what they believe to be superior to other diets by using methodical claims and a technical analysis of how humans were designed to eat. Both authors use human genetics as a means to explore how we should model our diets in the current day. Cordain and Voetglin break nutrition apart into subcategories that are somewhat esoteric to only those with a background in nutrition. Macronutrients, fatty acid profiles, acid-base balances, and glycemic loads are frequently discussed and rarely defined by the two authors, alluding to the fact that one must be somewhat educated in order to understand and agree with the assertions that they make.
Voetglin’s The Stone Age Diet focuses exclusively on diet and nutrition. While he gives a brief history on Hunter-Gatherers and their modes of eating, he never highlights the major differences between modern living and Paleolithic living outside the realm of food and diet. Cordain touches upon how modernization has led to sedentary lifestyles among current populations, however the majority of his focus remains on dietary recommendations and his suggestions of foods to include and avoid in his idea of what constitutes a healthy and wholesome diet.
Unlike Voetglin, Cordain acknowledges that “our Paleolithic ancestors exerted themselves daily to secure their food and water” to ensure they had the rudimentary components to sustain life (Cordain et. al. SR-8). Cordain uses evolution again to recognize that “we are genetically adapted to an extremely physically active lifestyle,” and that a “sedentary existence predisposes us to obesity, hypertension, diabetes,” and many other avoidable chronic illnesses that are also present among those with poor diets. Together, an optimal diet of lean meats and vegetables along with a sufficient amount of exercise can “reduce the incidence of degenerative cardiovascular disease” and result in peak physical fitness. While these recommendations may seem intuitive to the educated nutritionist, the Paleo diet, and in particular Cordain’s prescriptions for optimal health, contains some of the rare fad diet literature that stresses the importance of both diet and exercise in conjunction with one another.
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Banting, William. Letter on Corpulence. 3rd ed. London: Harrison, 59, Pall Mall,
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